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Taking a leap of faith with The Leftovers

Contributed by
Apr 13, 2019

Two percent of the world’s population disappeared on October 14, 2011. That's the plot of The Leftovers. So where did they go? The cause of the Sudden Departure was never the point of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s meditation on faith and grief, nor was the destination of those who seemingly vanished from existence. Nevertheless, the series finale does go some way to answer the latter. One character’s experience could either reveal a number of answers or simply lead you further down the rabbit hole. There is no definitive proof and yet, you might still believe — much like faith itself.  

Detailed spoilers for The Leftovers follow.

Carrie Coon, The Leftovers

Credit: HBO 

Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) experienced a devastating loss on the day of Sudden Departure; the kitchen table that had erupted in arguments and whining was silenced when her husband and two young children disappeared in front of her eyes. Nora didn’t join the cult-like Guilty Remnant — who traded talking and their clothes for silence, smoking, and all-white attire. Instead, she got a job with the Department of Sudden Departure, investigating claims made by the families of those who were no longer around. Part of this involved an extensive questionnaire about the departed, which asked questions as varied as alcoholic beverage intake, aerosol usage, whether the person was born in a hospital or if they had ever attempted suicide.

Other questions are less quantifiable, including Question 121, which Nora notes 100% of participants answer "yes" to (including the three times she took the questionnaire). It asks, “Do you believe the departed is in a better place?” At the end of the first season episode “Guest,” a respondent finally answers “no” through teary resignation. This “better place” is a universal concept when discussing the afterlife and is a commonly used phrase when someone dies; contemplating the opposite or even nothingness can compound grief further. Of course, not everyone believes there is a specific place where people go when they die, but in the case of The Leftovers, people are dealing with a notion far more abstract than death. Learning to live without a loved one is one aspect, while another is contemplating why they were left behind. If this was the rapture, does this mean they are not worthy? 

In "Guest," Nora hugs Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) releasing the grief she has held onto with an animalistic wail of anguish that will leave you wondering just how Carrie Coon does it and why she didn't win an Emmy for this performance. Prior to this, Nora has been hiring sex workers to shoot her in the chest (while wearing a bulletproof vest) just to reignite the pain she thinks she should be feeling.

The Leftovers

Credit: HBO

Throughout its three seasons, The Leftovers offers a leap of faith for both the characters and viewers. How much are we meant to believe Holy Wayne’s talents when he is also shown to be a manipulator of David Koresh proportions? His vision of his own demise comes true and there is a definitive change in Nora post-healing hug. Considering he is a fugitive from the law, predicting his death doesn't seem to be too much of a stretch — while for Nora, it could be a mind over matter scenario. Maybe all she needed was a guttural sob and permission to move on from a complete stranger. Holy Wayne provides a cathartic service, but there could also be nothing mystical about it.

The answers are not ironclad and the proof is left to interpretation, which could be the TL;DR summation of The Leftovers. Protagonist Kevin Garvey’s (Justin Theroux) visions also fall under this notion of blind trust. Is he having a mental health crisis or is he really communing with the dead?

This goes a step further in the second season when Kevin “dies” and takes a trip to the other side. Here, he wakes up naked, sliding out of the bathtub as if he is being reborn. A choice of clothing options presents themselves in the closet of this seemingly random hotel room; there are garments representing different roles including priestly attire, his sheriff’s uniform, and the white garb associated with the Guilty Remnant.

The Leftovers

Credit: HBO 

When he first visits this afterlife hotel he chooses a simple black suit, white shirt, and black tie, becoming the “International Assassin” of the episode title. In the Season 2 finale, “I Live Here Now,” he “dies” again, instead opting for the classic Sheriff Garvey look in an attempt to wrestle back control. Did Kevin really venture to another plane of existence? In both cases, he has experienced trauma to his body that can kill — poison and a gunshot wound — and he lives to tell the tale, which gives him a messiah-like quality.

The audience travels with Kevin on this adventure to what is seemingly another dimension. Whether it is heaven, hell or some kind of purgatory is unspecified, but it is not where the 2% — approximately 140 million people — who departed three years previous, ended up. Instead, it is Nora who ventures to the location of the departed in the third and final season. Or does she?

When Kevin performs “Homeward Bound” as part of his deal to get back to his family, we not only see his snot and tear-stained face as he sings the Simon & Garfunkel lyrics, but the scene is also intercut with images from previous episodes. When Nora tells Kevin where she has been, the camera never strays from her face as she recounts this trip to a version of Earth, in which the departed now live. The effect this has is it gives less validation to Nora’s story; it feels more like a delusion without the images to back it up.

It doesn’t matter whether her story is true because rather than taking this as a cue to leave, Kevin instead tells her he believes her. He refuses to be pushed away by her tale, instead taking a leap of faith on the woman he loves. The Leftovers is about grief and loss, but ultimately it is a love story. We put our faith in many outside factors including organized religion, but it is the bonds between specific people that are the driving force.

Carrie Coon has refused to say whether Nora's story is fabricated, as she wants the audience to make up their mind without any external influence. However, in a recent interview, Justin Theroux said he believes Nora is spinning this yarn — he notes the lack of corroborating flashbacks — as a way to push Kevin away, but Kevin refuses to play this game. By saying he believes her, he is making a commitment to Nora and this relationship.

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Credit: HBO 

Holy Wayne, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) and Kevin Garvey are all treated as messiah-type figures by those “following” them. Patti and Holy Wayne court this attention, while Kevin shuns the Jesus analogy that is thrust upon him — despite, as Matt (Christopher Eccleston) points out, the beard he grows. There are plenty of self-help books out there covering the topic of grief, but there is no one set strategy; some people want to forget, others want to live in their acute pain. It is why groups like the Guilty Remnant flourish in The Leftovers, and it is why Kevin is uneasy with being written about as if he is the next Jesus. Key art for the final season further adds to Kevin’s “powers” giving him angel wings, maybe from the wall he punched in the Season 1 promo poster.  

Justin Theroux

Credit: Getty 

Fear of a second departure is unsurprising, so when Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) disappears along with her two best friends in Season 2, this is a natural conclusion. It is not what actually happened. Instead, it is all part of a Guilty Remnant masterplan to remind people of this cataclysmic event. Evie lived (and then died when the building she was in had a bomb dropped on it). Her death is a tangible thing that occurred, unlike Nora’s experience. Erika (Regina King) explains to Nora when she asks her “How are you not going crazy, after Evie?” She got to bury Evie, she got to have some semblance of closure. 

The Leftovers

Credit: HBO 

In returning to Question 121, “Do you believe the departed is in a better place?” the series finale has Nora giving a definitive answer. Nora describes her family, who she hasn't seen since that fateful October day, looking happy. She calls them “the lucky ones," because in “a world full of orphans, they still had each other.” Maybe the place isn't "better," but answering yes to this particular question had been the right one for Nora. Be it fantasy or a delusion, Nora believes her own story. She entered the device to take her to the departed, and she might not have gone anywhere except in her own mind, but she still saw her family.

Kevin wasn’t the next Jesus, and no one ever figured out just why the Sudden Departure occurred. However, Nora's brother Matt accurately describes his sister as “the bravest girl on Earth.” Uncertainty weaves its way through the three seasons of The Leftovers, including the ambiguous ending, but faith wins out. There are no answers other than an unwavering belief in each other. As Kevin holds Nora’s hand and they both smile at each other through teary eyes, hope wins out. The leap was not only taken, but it also paid off.   

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