Welcome to our weekly recap of the third and final season of the Leftovers. If we began the season with the Book of Kevin, we ended with the Book of Nora, making clear that, even though the series presented itself as a grand metaphysical mystery, it also was, at its heart, a love story. Do Kevin and Nora end up together? Do we find out what caused the Sudden Departure? Do we figure out what the hell was up with that National Geographic magazine? As HBO wisely warned us in its description of the episode “Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.”
Note: the recap includes towards the end a quote from a preliminary conversation I had about the finale with Reza Aslan, a consulting producer of the show and a religious scholar that helped with many of the religious themes of the series. I will post a long interview with him on my blog on Wednesday. On Thursday I will post another interview with Damon Lindelof, which if you are reading this, I don’t think I need to introduce to you. Stay tuned.
If you need to catch up before reading about the finale, you can also read my recaps for The Book of Kevin (Ep 1), Don’t Be Ridiculous (Ep 2), Crazy Whitefella Thinking (Ep 3), “G’Day Melbourne,” (Ep. 4), “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” (Ep. 5), “Certified” (Ep. 6), and “The most powerful man in the world (and his identical twin brother” (Ep. 7). From now on, read at your own peril…
Opening Credits: Let The Mystery Be
The episode opens with Iris DeMent’s “Let The Mystery Be”, which was the opening credits’ song for all of season 2. The fact that this is the song chosen for the season and series finale, makes quite clear from the get-go that, if you were expecting the show to answer some of its main mysteries, you are going to be disappointed. Life is a mystery, and so are some of the events in the show. Deal with it…
My Name is Nora Durst
The episode opens with Nora talking to a camera stating her name, the date, and acknowledging that she is going through the LADR machine sound of mind, and of her own free will. We saw in the fourth episode of the season, “G’Day Melbourne,” that Nora had found the LADR scientists who claimed to have a machine that allowed people to be reunited with those who had departed. What that “reunion” meant is not clear even to the scientists:
“All we know for certain is that we are sending people to the same destination people went 7 years ago, the odds that this destination has a sustainable environment with a breathable atmosphere and ample food supply are very, very low, so it is more likely that there are 140 million corpses floating out there in space, somewhere.”
LADR scientist to Nora in “G’Day Melbourne”
In that episode, Nora is rejected by the scientists, who do not think she is ready to go through with it, but with the help of Laurie and Matt (see episode 6 “Certified”), she finds them again and forces them to let her do it. The same scientist who was skeptical before is still skeptical and keeps pointing out to Nora, while she is recording the video, that she may not really mean what she is saying (“I don’t believe you”). The scene reveals the internal tension within Nora. She is lost in this world and thinks that the only way to fill the hole in her heart is to be reunited with her kids, even if this means death, but there may be part of her who is not completely sure, that there may be some unfinished business that she is leaving behind…
Mad Libs Obituary
Before going through the machine, Nora and Matt say their goodbyes. In a moment of closure, they both do a Mad Libs Obituary which, in many ways, reflects Nora’s cynicism about religious conventions and rituals. To her, death is a big nothing, and so was life without her kids, so there is no need to get all emotional, or spiritual, there is nothing to celebrate, nothing to acknowledge, there is literally nothing… Even at this point, though, it is not clear if Nora is doing this because she believes in it (even with all the scientific explanations), or because she believes in nothing and, therefore, she has nothing to lose.
The scene also includes a very moving final moment for Matt, who humbled after his encounter with God, is facing lots of uncertainty moving forward. Matt tells Nora about his fear, not only of dying of cancer, and not being able to be with Mary and seeing his son grow up, but also afraid of living. As I said last week, the big question in The Leftovers is not what to do when the world is ending, but what to do when it doesn’t, and this is the crossroad in which Matt finds himself. As he tells Nora:
“How can I stand in a room full of people and pretend that I have the answers, when I have no idea what the fuck I am talking about?”
As episode 5, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” , made clear, God may exist, but it is not the God he thought, or one he could understand.
The Bravest Girl On Earth
After Matt and Nora say goodbye, the scientists come to pick her up to take her to the event chamber. The big question here is if Nora does go through with it. The scene is intentionally vague since before the editing cuts the scene, Nora starts to yell something. Is she just screaming, or is she beginning to say “stop”? I think the scene is clearly ambiguous, and however you interpret it, it will change your view and understanding of what comes next. I’ll get back to this moment towards the end of my recap, but let me just say that those answers may not be the ones that are important for our understanding of the episode or the show in general…
Does the Name Kevin Mean Anything to You?
In the next scene, we encounter Old Nora, the one we saw in the epilogue of the first episode of the season. Nora is riding a bike, and bringing white pigeons to a nun in a church in what seems to be Australia as Billie Holiday’s “The Man I Love” plays in the background.
Someday he’ll come along
The man I love
And he’ll be big and strong
The man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay
A couple of things here. I think the way the episode is shot, with this beautiful, isolated Australian landscape, saturated colors, and a vague sense of location with very few references to the external world is intentionally trying to offer a sense of vagueness about where we are. Is Nora in the LADR world? Did she not go through with it and stayed in Australia? The second thing is the repeated use of Billie Holiday’s songs throughout the episode, which seems to point out at the tragic parallels between the two regarding their love lives.
As we saw in the first episode, the nun pays Nora for the pigeons and asks Nora if she knows a man named Kevin. Someone with that name showed up the day before with a picture asking for her. That provokes anxiety and panic in Nora, who bikes back to her home to try to pack and leave town. Here we see an important parallel between Kevin and Nora. In the last episode, “The most powerful man in the world (and his identical twin brother”, we saw Kevin defining himself as a coward, as someone who kept running away from his family and everyone who loved him in order not to deal with his own emotions and feelings. His ultimate place of hiding was this “other place” that felt more real than our world, and in order to solve that tension, he had to decide between the two Kevins (Cop Kevin and Messiah Kevin), and the two worlds (our world or “the other place). In episode 7, Kevin was able to write his own Book of Kevin his own narrative about who he wants to be and how to live in the world. Nora is in a very similar situation. Since the Sudden Departure and the disappearance of her family she is trapped between a world she does not understand (ours), and a world that she has no access to (where her family and the rest of the departed have gone). In this episode, Nora has to make a decision about what Nora she wants to be, and what world she wants to live in. At this point in the episode though, either she went through the LADR machine and we are in the LADR world, or she didn’t, but whatever the location, she is still not happy, and she is still running away. The Book of Nora has yet to be written.
My Name is Kevin Garvey, I Don’t Know If You Remember Me
Before she can run away, someone knocks on the door, and there he is, old Kevin at her doorstep, telling her that he was randomly traveling around Australia and saw her on a bike. There is something different about this Kevin though since he seems not to remember most of their past life together (falling in love, moving to Jarden, their tragic break-up in Melbourne). He tells her that, even though they did not know each other really well, he always had a crush on her, and that he always regretted not asking her out. There is a dance that same night, and he was wondering if she would like to go with him. What’s going on here? Forget about where we are for a second (LADR place, Australia), why can’t Kevin remember her?
An interesting aspect of their interaction is that Nora keeps being obsessed with the issue of truth. She knows that he is lying since the nun told her that Kevin was going around with a picture of her asking everyone if they had seen her, and where he could find her. To most characters in the show, what matters is meaning, trying to make sense of what had happened in the Sudden Departure and its aftermath. Nora is not interested in that, she sees the world through the binary lens of truth/lies. She deals with facts, not with meaning. And as we will see, facts are not the material for happiness, we need a story around them, we need meaning.
After Kevin leaves, she sits down and smokes a cigarette, a basic coping mechanism we have seen in the show used by many characters. After that, she gets on her bike and goes to a phone booth in the middle of nowhere and calls… wait for it…
Did You Tell Kevin?
One of the surprises of the episode is what happens next. Nora calls Laurie and asks her if she told Kevin where she was. Wait, Laurie is alive? Didn’t she commit suicide in episode 5 “Certified”? I surely, among many other people, thought so. The whole episode pointed towards that conclusion, including the opening song “1-800 Suicide” by Gravediggaz. The way I see this scene, and here I venture to be too literal in a finale that it is purposefully ambiguous, is that Laurie did not commit suicide in that episode and that what she did was a form of symbolic suicide, scuba diving was a way to symbolically end her past life and begin a new one. As we will see, she seems to go back to Jarden and continue her life with John. This would mean that Nora is also in our world and did not go through with the LADR machine (more on that later). Please feel free to offer alternative interpretations although, as I said above, and I think it is worth repeating again, those answers may not be the ones that are important for our understanding of the episode or the show in general…
Both, Laurie and Nora are the most nihilistic characters in the show. The Sudden Departure shattered Laurie’s rational understanding of the world, and she embraced the nihilistic theology of the Guilty Remnant. Nora could not comprehend the reason behind the disappearance of her family, and she also embraced a nihilistic worldview in which the only thing that matters are facts, the truth, and she wields that around like a hammer that shatters the narratives and stories that everyone else is trying to create to cope and make sense of what happened.
After talking to Laurie, Nora goes back home as Billie Holiday’s “Back In Your Own Backyard” plays in the background. At home, she closes all windows and latches all doors. She is isolated, and she wants to stay that way. It is a symbolic way of expressing that she doesn’t want anything or anyone getting through to her. She decides to take a bath and even then she closes the door, which then becomes stack, trapping her inside. She tries to open it and has to finally break through physically in order to get out. She literally has to force herself out of her isolation so she can go to the dance with Kevin.
We leave home expecting to find a blue bird,
Hoping ev’ry cloud will be silver lined.
But we all return as we live wo learn,
That we left our happiness behind.[…]
Oh you can go to the East go to the West,
But someday you’ll come weary at heart back where you started from,
You’ll find your happiness lies, right under your eyes,
Back In Your Own Backyard.
Are You Gonna Keep This Up?
Nora decides to go to the dance, which is actually a wedding as Robin Trower’s “I Am Out To Get You” plays in the background. Here, again, we see this ethereal, almost out of place setting, a wedding in the middle of nowhere, out of context, out of place, which I think is still trying to keep the ambiguity of place and time in the finale which, ultimately, I don’t think is what really matters. The song, as usual, really conveys the feelings and emotions of the scene, with a Kevin who is there to “create a disturbance in your mind / from another place in time.” Perfect song.
I’m out to get you,Create a disturbance in your mind
I’ve been sent to select you,
From another place in time
It’s gonna be something new,
And you better not hesitate
For the first time in your life,
You can celebrate
Close your eyes, count to ten
Make a wish and we’ll be there
Turn around, and maybe then
Your whole life can start again
So the world keeps on turning,
Through the years that lie ahead
From it’s pages we’re learning.
By it’s wisdom we are led
It’s gonna be something good,
And you should understand
So it was, and so it is,
Since time began
Close your eyes, count to ten
Make a wish, and we’ll be there
Turn around, and maybe then
Your whole life can start again
As the wedding unfolds, she is still not convinced of Kevin’s intentions or why he is pretending not to remember their past together. From her own point of view is all a lie, she cannot see why Kevin would make up a story like that. What is he trying to do? Kevin tells her that he is still the chief of police in Mappleton, that Jill is happily married and with children, while Tom just got divorced, that his father is still alive (Nora responds “you are both immortal”). Kevin tells her that he had a heart attack and has a peacemaker now, a reference to the Fisher Protocol procedure we saw in episode 7, which meant the end of his shaman/messiah abilities, and transformed him into a normal, mortal man. Kevin asks her why she was not there for Matt’s funeral (“we say our goodbyes in person”), and Nora asks him if he ever married again. Kevin tells her that he didn’t, that he was holding a candle for her. Lindelof may always create these complex, sophisticated metaphysical magic boxes of a show, but he is a romantic at heart.
Love, Sin, and Scapegoats
During the speeches of the bride and groom at the wedding, the themes of love, sin, atonement, and redemption, central to the show in general, and to the story of Nora in particular, become obvious. The bride asks the guests to write love messages that white pigeons will deliver all over the world. This is obviously ironic, since we know that those are Nora’s pigeons, and they will fly directly to her home, where she will dump those messages in a bucket and rent them again to the nun to do the same meaningless ritual at another wedding. But as the nun says later to Nora, this is a nice story, a story that is meaningful to people, even if it is not true, something that Nora cannot accept, since she can only accept the truth.
The wedding also has a nice purification ritual. All of the guests (except Nora, who rejects them!) are wearing beads, representing their sins. They are supposed to wear them and, at the end of the wedding, following the biblical ritual of the scapegoat, they will be put around the neck of a goat, which will be released into the wildness, taken the sins of the community with it, and purifying it. This is, indeed, a biblical ritual that can be found, among other places in Leviticus, and a nice reminder by the show of the etymology of the term scapegoat:
20“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.Leviticus 20
This scene also offers a nice throwback comment when Nora asks Kevin if he has ever seen a goat being sacrificed, something that we saw in season 2, to which Kevin responds “No, that would be weird.” Indeed…
Would you Dance With Me?
And then, they dance at the tune of Ottis Redding “I Have Dreams.” It is heartbreaking since you can see the tension between the two characters. You feel how much they want to be together, and how much they have overcome to be reunited again, but you also see how Nora is not ready yet. Nora asks him again how did he find her, and when he tells her the same story about being a coincidence, she calls him on the lie and runs away. Nora is mistaking truth for meaning, and unless she can understand the difference between the two, she will not be able to be with Kevin or be happy.
Nora and Myth of Sisyphus
When Nora returns home, the pigeons are not there. They are trained to do one thing, and one thing only: not to deliver those messages of love all over the world, but to simply go back home. Furiously, she goes to see the nun in the middle of the night (who may just have had sex with a sexy biker!) to question her about this. While this may look silly, I think the point of the scene is to show how furious she is when confronted with the possibility that those pigeons may have, indeed, wander around the world to deliver those messages. She cannot stand that possibility, the notion that the narrative created around the pigeons can be true. That would destroy her tragic but fact-based worldview, and if would shatter her isolated life.
Billie Holiday’s “Me, Myself, and I” plays in the background.
While pitch black, she tries to return home but trips and falls on her bike, provoking a critical moment for her character. After she trips, she hears the goat that had been released into the wildness to free all of the guests from their sins. The goat is stuck on a fence on a steep hill, with the beads stuck on the barbwire. Nora decides to help the goat by climbing the hill, a hill so steep that she rolls down once. The scene is an obvious reference to the myth of Sisyphus, and it also seems to echo Camus’ interpretation of the myth in his book of the same title:
What Nora is carrying up the hill, is not a physical boulder, but the weight of all of her sins, and imperfections, her self-righteousness, her pain, and she knows that she should let those go, but she can’t. That’s the absurdity of human existence in general, and of Nora’s character in particular. We are all carrying a meaningless burden in a meaningless universe, and we still decide to do it…
After reaching the goat, Nora takes off the beads from the goat, and hangs them around her neck, symbolically transferring all of the sins of the community onto her. She frees the goat, and takes it home with her. The symbolic nature of the scene is quite obvious: in order for Nora to atone for her sins and being able to move on, she needs to go through a process of acceptance, of letting go, and that is what she does here.
Every Year I would Come Back Looking For You
The next day, Kevin goes back to see her, but this time, he is not pretending not to remember anymore, and he tells her why he did so. He wanted to start all over, he wanted to erase their painful past together in order to be able to start with a clean slate. He thought that if he just pretended, she would go along with it, it would indicate to her that he wants to move on, forgive and forget, so they can be together again. For Kevin, to accept that she would simply leave him and all the ones she loved behind was almost unforgivable, a betrayal, and therefore a “lie” was better than the truth. The scene is very moving, with Kevin relating how he has gone year after year to Australia during his vacation to look for her.
Here we see again the importance of narratives, of stories in order to create meaningful, purpose driven lives. Kevin was trying to rewrite their history together by offering a new narrative, a new story that would allow Nora to join it, to be part of it. If their past story together was not possible, Kevin is offering to write a new one together. Kevin is trying for Nora to live in his narrative, in his book, but if this is going to work, Nora has to write hers first.
Do You Want Some Tea?
And here is where it all comes to an end, and where we need to decide if we are going to believe the story Nora is going to tell Kevin. I am not going to choose sides here since I do not think that the point of the episode or the series in general is as simple as that. This is a show about stories, about the narratives we tell each other in order to make sense of who we are, and of the world around us (religion being one of them), and this is the story that Nora tells Kevin. She tells him that she did go through the machine and woke up in the LADR world, a mirror image of ours, with the 2% of the population that disappeared from ours. After talking to the first person she met, she realized that the consequences of the Sudden Departure in this other world were, indeed, worse than in ours since, according to Nora:
“Over here, we lost some of them. But over there, they lost all of us.” Nora
After much hardship (with 2% of the population they don’t have enough pilots to fly planes), she is able to make it back to Mapleton and, from a distance she can see her kids. They are older now (7 years have passed since the departure, and even more time since she was able to find them in this LADR world), and her husband has found a new wife. They looked happy. And that is when she realizes that she is just a ghost there, that she does not belong there. That’s the tragic life of Nora, there is no place for her in our world or in this LADR world. So she finds the scientist who invented the machine (he also used it to go to this LADR world) and convinces him to create a new machine so she can go back. He does, Nora comes back, and stayed away from everyone she knew and loved since she thought it was too late for her to make amends. When Kevin asks her why she did not look for him and tell him the story, she says that he would not believe her, and that’s when Kevin says, of course, I believe you. And then the pigeons come back, and Nora and Kevin are finally together.
Now, a lot of you may be asking if this story is true: Did she really go through the LADR machine only to come back? After three seasons wanting to be with her kids, she sees them and decides to turn around and not talk to them? All of those are legitimate questions, but I also think that they are missing the point. If she went through the LADR machine or not, what the scene is telling us is that she finally has a story to tell and someone to tell it. She has finally written the Book of Nora and, after Kevin’s acceptance of it, they are both ready to write their common story. If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is what Reza Aslan, consulting producer and religious advisor on the show told me about the finale:
“the entire series has been about what’s real and what is not (Kevin’s sleepwalking adventures, Patty, the hotel, Nora’s journey) and the stories we tell in order to make sense of our experiences as humans (which is in many ways the definition of religion). And like religion, it is the story, far more than the reality, that matters – and it is up to the individual to decide to accept the story or not. What matters is how the story gives us identity and meaning. When Kevin meets Nora, he tells her a story that she says is not true but which seems to have given Kevin enormous comfort and clarity. She in turn tells him a story that he accepts as true because he sees it gives her identity. Isn’t that what faith is all about?”
Let The Mystery Be
And I think this is what the show is really about. It is not about the Sudden Departure, or “the other place,” or that National Geographic magazine that kept popping up all over the series (there was a reference to Cairo in the Mad Libs scene!). It is about our need for meaning in what seems like a meaningless universe, about our need for connection, and narratives, that give us a sense of purpose.
This recap is already long enough, and I will post my interviews discussing the finale with Reza Aslan on Wednesday, and Damon Lindelof on Thursday. I’ll just end by saying that I will miss watching a show that was not only engaging, but that it made me think and reflect about important questions, about the nature of existence, and the universe. The answers were never supposed to come from the show, or from Lindelof, but from us. The Leftovers was just a great vehicle to ask those questions, letting us come up with our own answers, and prodding us to write our own narratives in order to make sense of the world around us. So thanks Damon Lindelof and the rest of the writers in the show for creating such a beautiful piece of storytelling. I will miss thinking and writing about the show every Sunday. And that’s a wrap!
Final note for those still not satisfied with the answers in the finale: I am sure there will be many people who will not be satisfied (“happy”) with the answers provided in the finale, but if what you were looking were for answers to the mystery of the Sudden Departure, you can also argue that Lindelof gave them to you. In the episode “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” Matt does talk to God, and God tells him that he was, indeed, responsible for the Sudden Departure, and that he did it “because I could.” In this episode, you can also argue that Nora does find the departed thanks to the LADR machine, but decides to come back. Those were answers given to us in the various narratives of the show. If what you were looking for were those type of answers, you have to do like Matt and Kevin and decide if those stories were true, or you can be like Nora and operate in a binary true/lie worldview… you’ll have to choose.