HBO’s The Leftovers Attempts to Learn from the Failures of Lost

Can Damon Lindelof regain his show's focus and find a satisfying end to the series?

The following preview was written having seen seven of eight episodes from the final season of The Leftovers. It tries not to be too spoiler heavy, but obviously there are some key details revealed. Read at your own risk.

In the sixth episode of The Leftovers’ third and final season, there’s a scene between protagonist Kevin Garvey Jr.’s (Justin Theroux) ex-wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), his current romantic partner. Since we left off on season two, Laurie has become involved with Kevin’s neighbor, John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), and the two now run Isaac Rayney’s (Darius McCrary) handprint psychic scam. Laurie uses her psychiatric training to feed John answers when customers come in asking to speak to their dead relatives. But when someone asks to speak to someone who has “departed,” that’s a bridge they won’t cross.

Laurie explains this to Nora, who lost her own husband and two children in the sudden departure. “We tried it and it doesn’t work,” Laurie says. “We had to stop after the third time John was attacked. Death is easy. People just want finality and an end to their grief. But with departures, there is no end, and if we indicated otherwise, just by saying we could communicate to those individuals, it made their loved ones very, very angry. Because they didn’t want closure.”

Throughout this speech, Laurie is out of focus, with the camera zoomed in on Nora’s face. After a long pause, Nora responds: “I want fucking closure.”

And such is the final season of The Leftovers, a series that is wrestling with its own demons just like its characters. The premise of the show has remained resolute since day one: On October 14, 2011, 2% of the world’s population, roughly 140 million people, disappeared without warning or explanation. But the show would not be about what happened to those who left. It’s about those who are left behind.

Of course, that’s a big mystery to just leave alone, and you have to be game for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s disinterest in that mystery to embark on The Leftovers. While yes, it is very interesting to speculate about what happened to the departed, maybe it is more interesting to speculate about how it would affect everyone that didn’t vanish. It’s an event that would upend lives on both an individual and global scale. Nora loses her entire family, Laurie loses a baby from inside her, Perfect Strangers actor Mark Linn-Baker loses his other three series regulars from that ’80s sitcom (don’t ask). But beyond how the people are affected on a personal level, there is now a world where basic rules do not apply. If people can suddenly disappear, what else is possible? Does this confirm the existence of god, aliens, an afterlife, or other dimensions? And if anything is now possible, there is also the reality that, perhaps, nothing really matters.

And so The Leftovers has commenced on a bumpy ride through a couple seasons. We’ve seen all sorts of reactions to the world that the characters face, from bizarre cigarette-smoking cults and a guy that likes shooting dogs to religious fanaticism and people literally losing their minds. It’s always hard to judge any of the characters actions because it’s hard to say there is a right or a wrong way to cope with the fabric of reality being called into question. As a series, though, The Leftovers is faced with a burning question that, until its penultimate episode, it doesn’t seem to know the answer to: Where is this series headed, and is it going to be worth the journey?

This is something that showrunner Lindelof has dealt with before in his previous smash Lost. The parallels between the two programs are many: They both deal with mysteries and the supernatural while remaining devoted more to the humanity of their characters than to the greater plot. In short, it’s a juggling act, and one that pissed off a fair amount of people when Lost concluded. On that show, Lindelof admitted to digging himself into a corner where no satisfying conclusion was possible, and he seems devoted to not making that same mistake with The Leftovers.

That’s what made the second season of the HBO series so satisfying. By moving his core characters out out of their home in Mapleton, New York, and resetting the show in Jarden, Texas, Lindelof shed some of the first season’s unnecessary weight and abandoned plot lines that weren’t working. Rather than let the show drag itself down, there was this sense that not every mystery needed an answer or a reason. There didn’t need to be a purpose for everything. In a universe where people can suddenly disappear, you don’t need to explain every strange occurrence or give purpose to each idiosyncratic character. The central idea of The Leftovers could very well be that everything is, well, meaningless.

But season three doesn’t follow this thread. Over the course of the season’s first seven episodes, we find Lindelof doing exactly what we didn’t need him to. He’s trying to rectify the plot lines, bring conclusions to each of the characters, and give meaning to the journey of Kevin Garvey Jr. Some characters, like religious zealot Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), Laurie, and even Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn), are essentially given whole episodes to round out features that didn’t need rounding. Others, like both of Kevin Jr.’s kids and Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbott are virtually gone from the show. Often, Lindelof seems lost at determining where the actual heart of this series is. With Lost, he had years to build a relationship between his audience and the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. But going into season three of The Leftovers, there has only been 20 episodes of the show. That’s less than the first season of Lost. We’ve barely had time to care about anyone much outside of Theroux’s tortured, possible messiah, Kevin Jr., and Coon’s deeply empathetic Nora. And with a third season that spends more time away from this pair than with them, all of the focus gained in the second season quickly evaporates.

It’s not possible for The Leftovers to falter on the same scale that Lost did. People just aren’t that invested. Rather, the show is coming full circle, proving to be the same series it has always been. That doesn’t make for a bad final run of episodes, just a flawed one. The season is still packed with powerful moments, playful nods, and, by episode seven, a possible purpose. There’s a sense by the end that maybe Lindelof realizes that Kevin and Nora are the aspect of the show that feels most alive — a pair of deeply hurt, deeply disturbed individuals who can put their pain behind them and move forward because they are stronger together than they are apart. In a world where nothing matters and everything is in question, the only thing to hold onto is the fact that they’re in it together. That sounds like closure to me.


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