The Leftovers is a show about trying to go home. It might be Kevin out in the Cairo woods, knowing he must return to Mapleton and face up to the consequences of Patti’s death. Or Tommy escorting Christine and the baby across the country, in search of room at the inn for anyone who’ll take them. Or Jill returning to Laurie, in the new house she built for her post-Kevin life. Or even Nora, who every day must return to the house she lived in with her husband and two children, and knows every step, every corner, ever patch of wall or spot on the kitchen counter is a traumatic reminder of where she used to live.
This season has slowly, inexorably built toward some form of judgement on the home, the town, the world Kevin and his extended family are trying to live in. Can Mapleton still exist? Or is there no family, as Patti told him earlier in the season? In the rubble of the Sudden Departure, what have we got left to go home to?
No wonder it all begins with Nina Simone’s version of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas‘, with its appeals to not be left alone, to not be forgotten, even though – as always on The Leftovers – who is leaving and who is left behind is never entirely clear.
So Kevin calls up Matt for help with Patti’s burial and his confession, and acknowledges that he can’t escape this. Laurie and Jill are smoking together at the compound, while the rest of the GR set off to commence their season-long planned act of confrontation. And Tommy, knowing that Wayne isn’t coming to help, and Christine has left him with the baby, embodies everything all these disparate characters have come to realise: what they followed and created after the Sudden Departure is futile. It’s a band-aid. The job, the cult, the life you’ve chosen will not save you.
In this, the GR are right. Until these characters stop the denial of life, there is no life for them. And now, they get it. They’re all at the point of giving up, of quitting, of leaving their lives behind. Again.
(Incidentally, one of the things Lindelof talked about from his approach to the character stories on Lost in the early seasons was to ask the question: if this character faced a decision for the second time, a decision they had previously fucked up, would they make the same mistake? In short: do we learn or are we fated to Sisyphus our way to annihilation?)
The crescendo to the GR’s stunt – placing lifelike recreations of the departed individuals in the locations where they departed from – is as archly portentous as the show has been all season. This is the big one, this is the thing that will lay out their entire mission statement once and for all. And it works, to a point. Seeing themselves as living reminders of what happened, they have committed to reminding everyone about who was lost in the most extreme measure possible. Effectively, it’s functions as exposure therapy, without any of the safeguards and beneficence that should normally apply.
Nora’s scene encountering her ‘family’ at the kitchen table exemplifies this sudden and unexpected retraumatising of the Mapleton civilians, but we later see shootings, looting, and a pyre at the GR compound where parents are symbolically cremating their ‘son’. Nora’s point of view of her kitchen table with the mannequins is a perfectly dark, Crewdson-like distortion of family domesticity. This, the GR are saying, is what you’ve done to your lives. This is the horror you live with and pretend is normal.
It’s difficult to know whether the GR underestimated exactly what was concealed behind the facade of normality that everyone has tried to cling on to for three years, or if this is exactly the reaction they hoped for. It’s possible, given Patti’s rage and the nihilistic anarchy the group espouse. It’s possible that the GR believed that this is the reaction the world should have had three years ago and only now are they able to let it out.
Who knows what will happen in a few weeks time when the lockdown restrictions are revisited here in Melbourne? Or six months, or a year, or several down the track. Just what scars is all of this going to leave and how may it manifest in our futures?
But let’s come around to the optimism, because as bleak as The Leftovers can be, this is its nadir.
Matt arrives to help Kevin. He closes Patti’s eyes, counsels Kevin over his involvement in her death, and performs the burial rites before they leave. It’s hard work doing good, Matt knows, but he brought shovels in his trunk. He provides a reading for Kevin from the Book of Job, even though Kevin says he doesn’t believe, but still he falters on a line:
‘I have kept to his way without turning aside,
I not departed from the commands of his lips…
But…he does whatever he pleases.
He carries out his decree against me.
And many such plans he has in store.‘
Kevin is still here. He did not depart. And though it’s going to be shit, and hard, and traumatic, there is a way home if he follows it.
Kevin’s trip home with Matt isn’t without incident. Firstly he dreams he is being committed to his father’s institution, left with a copy of the National Geographic issue he’s tried to reject, and shares a scene with his father where Patti appears and begins to talk to Kevin from beyond the grave. While Perfect Strangers plays on the TV. ‘I buried you,’ he tells her. ‘Not deep enough’, she responds, before yelling at him to ‘wake the fuck up.’
So yes, it’s a dream. But how much of it is his reality? How much is this evidence of where Kevin goes when he blacks out? And how much seeps into his everyday life? (Tune in next season on How Flimsy is Kevin’s Grasp on Reality?) It doesn’t necessarily matter right now, except to unsettle us.
And then he meets Holy Wayne, dying in a toilet cubicle at a roadstop diner, shortly before the FBI arrive and interrogate Kevin over Wayne’s final moments. He doesn’t tell them that the moment was the apotheosis of The Leftovers‘ dallying with the line between magic and realty. He doesn’t tell them that Wayne asks of Kevin to give him the solace he had given everyone else. He doesn’t tell them that Wayne knew he was a grifter but also thought he maybe just maybe was helping people too. And he definitely doesn’t tell them that Kevin gave Wayne the kind of magical healing and comfort in his moment of dying that would certainly query just how normal the pathway is for Kevin from here on.
It’s this kind of mysticism in The Leftovers that I love, where it can nudge you so gently, so imperceptibly away from your reality that you don’t realise, until the moment comes and you find yourself believing. And then with a jolt and a shudder, we’re back in a messed up, dying world, but still charged with the magic that moment possessed. It’s a feeling the show creates over and over again in so many different ways, in this season and the two to come.
Around all this though, Kevin finally comes forward with his grief. He confesses his infidelity, and how he holds himself responsible for the breakdown of his family, and that maybe this flaw, this one banal, boring, oh-so disappointing mistake of a married man is what caused everything. That the Departure happened in the middle of having sex with someone he didn’t know, in the middle of betraying them all, is the reason why he thinks it was all to do with him. ‘It’s not your fault’, Matt says, speaking of the Departure, and perhaps that’s all we need sometimes. For someone to tell us that the things that go wrong, despite happening to us, do not come from us.
Mapleton is on fire and literally and figuratively dying when they return. he sees Meg, and she tells him why this happened. And now Kevin knows the path he needs to take. He heads straight for the compound and rescues Laurie, and she tells him that Jill is still inside the burning house. And he finds her, not in some heroic act of the man rushing in at the last moment to save the day – the day is lost, the town is gone, there’s nothing to save – but just the act of a father wanting to be with his daughter. This is home, this is where we come back to. Not the house, not the town, not the socially -constructed artifice of what a family should look like and represent, but the family we make for ourselves. That’s what he has been hanging on to, trying to find all season, and now he knows where it is.
Nora tries to leave, giving us a letter she writes (but never delivers) to Kevin, talking of her cowardice that she couldn’t move on from her family, couldn’t get close to someone lest it somehow change and usurp her emotions. And it’s not really a goodbye to Kevin, as she says, but a goodbye to someone who is still here, a goodbye by proxy.
‘Sometimes when we were together, I remembered who I used to be before everything changed, but I was pretending. Pretending as if I hadn’t lost everything. I want to believe it can all go back to the way it was, I want to believe I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization, I want to believe it’s still possible to get close to someone. But it’s easier not to…
Now I know there’s no going back, no fixing it. I’m beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair. I can’t go on the way I’m living, but I don’t have the power to die. But I have to move towards something. Anything. I’m not sure where I’m going, just away. Away from all this. I think about a place where nobody will know what happened to me, but then I worry I’ll forget them, but I don’t want to ever forget them, I can’t. They were my family.’
It’s as these words are spoken, over images of the broken ruin of Mapleton, that we realise we’ve been hearing these words all season. Maybe not in this order, or with this much detail or volume, or clarity. But these are the words the characters have been trying to say.
In some ways, it’s a mission statement for the direction the show takes from here (a direction without source material, as this is the end of the novel, not just the season), but the statement is also challenged by what happens after.
Tommy finds Laurie. Kevin and Jill walk home, with the dog Kevin took in, now coming to him gently instead of barking or biting or fleeing at gunshots. And Nora discovers Christine and Wayne’s baby on Kevin’s doorstep, just as Kevin and Jill arrive. And it looks like a family.
To underscore this, the camera returns to Nora’s point-of-view, hovering over her shoulder where now, instead of looking at the fascimile of her departed family, she looks at Kevin and Jill, while holding the baby.
‘Look what I found,’ she says, and it’s all just so much. Not just the family that was taken from her, or the family Kevin lost, or the comfort and safety Jill wanted. Or Laurie’s pregnancy, Kevin’s ex-wife, had before the Departure, or the uncertain prophecy Wayne bestowed on the baby as the one that would heal everyone. It’s too many things, all broken and mistaken and true and not true and yet all there together at once.
For no symbolic reason, other than I couldn’t find a good place to put it but I also didn’t want to ignore it, I thought I’d finish this season on the exchange Tommy has early in this episode with a random pastor.
‘You just go around asking people if they need help?’
‘Anyone ever say yes?’
‘All the time.’