HBO’s series The Leftovers was inspired by Tom Perrotta’s novel by the same name. Damon Lindelof (from the show Lost) was tapped to write and produce this expanded tale.
The premise of the show is that, on October 14th there was a rapture-like event where roughly 2% of the world’s population instantly vanished with no warning signs. The event is referred to as the Departure, and those who disappeared are not thought of as dead but rather “departed.”
The show examines the lives of those not departed, and how to make sense of the world after such an inexplicable catastrophe. Reactions congregate around different extremes. Some grow very nihilistic. Others get religious. Still others suppress the emotions and try to keep moving forward with some semblance of normalcy. A handful of cults form after the Departure, most notably among them is a group known as the Guilty Remnant.
The Guilty Remnant is a cultish movement that exists to be a reminder to everyone of what happened. They dress only in pure white clothing. They never speak out loud, but rather communicate by writing on note pads. To them words are a waste of breath and just a denial that the world ended. All members smoke cigarettes incessantly and do not fear death, because to them nothing can be more painful than a meaningless existence. They shed all signs of individuality and are determined to destroy the concepts of family, community, connection with the divine, and ultimately civilization itself. The Guilty Remnant has no problem recruiting new members as they prey on so many who are emotionally shattered after mysteriously losing their loved ones. Many are looking for answers or a way to cope, and the GR is always there.
In the show, smoking cigarettes is a motif for dealing with the hopeless chaos. Nearly every character smokes as they each wrestle with how to make sense of the Departure.
Archetypal and mythological imagery shapes this entire series. Every episode and every character seems to pull from some ancient story whether from Norse or Greek mythology, Egyptian lore, Japanese legends, or Bible prophecies. Even if you’ve never studied those histories or sagas, you will still be able to enjoy the show. But if you are familiar with those ancient narratives, then you will be able to appreciate the sheer genius of this series.
I’ll give a brief synopsis of each of the three seasons and conclude with why I believe The Leftovers is one of the greatest shows of all time.
One of the main characters is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). He is the police chief of Mapleton, NY. That position was formerly held by his father who suffered a psychotic break after the Departure. Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) leaves Kevin to join the Guilty Remnant after the 14th. The GR (and its leader Patti Levin) are the primary antagonists against Kevin. They are a perpetual thorn in his side, not just because of his personal feelings about his wife joining the cult, but because of the constant trouble they cause around town.
Nora Durst is a central character throughout the show. She is a rare figure because, whereas most people only lost one person they knew in the Departure, Nora lost her entire family—her husband and two young kids. Her controlling grief and determined resentment guide her throughout the show. After her loss, she gets a job with the DSD (Department of Sudden Departure) interviewing potential beneficiaries for their departure benefits payout. She better than anyone can sniff out the truly bereaved from the charlatans.
Nora’s brother Matt Jaminson is the town preacher who was left behind and whose wife was paralyzed in a car wreck during the chaos of the Departure. Matt is conflicted because he is certain that God was behind the Departure but doesn’t understand why he was left behind. He is resolute to sound the alarm and help people repent in the hopes that God will come back again to reclaim the residual faithful.
Kevin’s father (Kevin Sr.) escapes the mental institution and gives him a copy of the May 1972 issue of National Geographic. He searched high and low in order to give this to Kevin. He believes that it is pivotal to not just understand what has happened, but will happen in the days to come. The two sit in a diner and he insists “we’re in the game now” as he slides the magazine across the table to Kevin. He explains that this is an invitation to help save the world as he squabbles and argues with the invisible voices badgering him.
Kevin refuses because he doesn’t want to believe his father’s nonsense. He doesn’t want any part of his crazy theories. And even though he turned his father down, Kevin begins to feel his own psychosis set in. He worries that he’s heading down the same road toward a breakdown and he’ll end up just like his old man.
At night, Kevin begins sleepwalking. He continues waking up in strange places with no memory of how he got there. Only later does he realize that he’s been driving around town with an imaginary friend shooting wild, stray dogs. This is the embodiment of his subconscious views toward the GR terrorizing his town, devouring the weak and helpless.
His psychosis intensifies and he awakes, startled to find that while he slept the night before he had kidnapped Patti Levin and was holding her hostage in a remote cabin in the woods. Without her pad, she resorts to talking. In fact, she’s chiding and taunting Kevin. She knows he screwed up big and is rubbing it in. The confrontation ends in a struggle. Patti wants Kevin to kill her, but he refuses. So Patti grabs a large piece of broken glass and plunges it into her jugular.
This is not the last we see of Patti though. She returns as a spirit-guide to torment Kevin, further driving him toward a psychotic break. Before her death, Patti was an external foe against Kevin and the peace he was trying to keep in town. Now she is his constant, internal enemy.
The season ends with entire neighborhoods on fire as the GR pulls a horrible stunt to remind the town of their neglected grief. Kevin returns from the woods and rescues his ex wife Laurie and daughter Jill from a GR house.
Part two of this story takes place in Jarden, TX. Jarden is nicknamed “Miracle,” TX or the “Jarden of Eden” and is the only location across the globe that experienced zero departures. So it becomes an international tourist destination where all the locals re-enact the same routines from the day of the Departure, to superstitiously ward off whatever it was that came and took the others.
Nora and Kevin, who developed a budding romance in season 1, began living together. On a whim, they decide to leave the drama of Mapleton and relocate to Jarden. The town is guarded by a security fence and there’s a long waiting list for those wanting to move in or visit. Only because of Nora’s sizable lump sum she received in departure benefits are they able to buy a house with cash, site unseen from an auction. The house is utterly dilapidated, but Nora sees it as an opportunity for a new start. They keep up appearances that everything is okay, but it is clear that Nora and Kevin are fragmenting. Both are running from their turmoil and pretending not to notice.
Kevin has to confront the ghost of Patti Levin. She has attached herself to Kevin, tormenting his consciousness. He tries ignoring her but her verbal attacks are too much. Eventually Kevin admits to Nora that he sees Patti’s ghost everywhere, she can’t handle the reminder of their former life in Mapleton so she packs her bags and leaves him.
Utterly devastated, Kevin reaches out to his neighbor’s religious adolescent son Michael (whose little sister stages her own departure in order to join the GR). Michael in turn brings Kevin to meet with his outcast grandfather named Virgil. As in many heroic myths, the journey to fight the shadow leads to death and resurrection. In Kevin’s case, he wants to be rid of Patti’s haunting torture, so he’s ready to go to battle on her turf. In order for Kevin to become whole, he must journey down into his own psyche and wrestle the darkness within. So Kevin drinks a cup of poison, dies, and is buried by Michael behind Virgil’s trailer.
Kevin goes into the underworld, emerging naked in a hotel bathtub which is meant to represent the subconscious part of his psyche. He’s offered a variety of wardrobes allowing him to select what kind of character he wants to be in his quest to vanquish his tormentor. Consciously doing this allows Kevin to bridge the gap between his ego and real self.
He first chooses to dress as an international assassin where he meets Patti, but not as he usually knows her. Here Patti is incarnated as the little girl version of herself roughly 7 or 8 years old. For the first time Kevin sees Patti’s innocence and humanity. What he mistakes as the little girl’s father, he soon finds out is Patti’s cheating, abusive husband in the real world. Kevin strangles and kills him as a way to come to terms with his personal guilt over his own marital infidelity.
While in the hotel room, a blurry signal comes through the television where Kevin is able to communicate with his father. High on a drug called “God’s tongue” his father gives instruction to take the young Patti to what is called the “orphan’s well” and push her in. Legend has it that travelers far and wide would sojourn to the well and cast in whatever object they want to be unburdened of.
She agrees to go along with Kevin and when they come upon the well, she sits up on the ledge and waits for her fate. Kevin hesitates. She tries to help him by shaming herself with all the mean, hateful names that her husband used to call her. It’s too difficult for Kevin to hear and pleads with her to stop. He admits not wanting to do it because he now sees Patti in a different light. He feels sorry for her, but he knows the only way to be rid of her is to push her in. So he does.
Kevin, overcome with guilt climbs down into the well to see if the little girl is still alive, but he finds adult Patti, broken and bloody but still alive. She shares a personal story about being too afraid to leave her husband even though he deserved it. In essence, she was too scared to battle with her own shadow. Kevin finishes her off out of mercy by drowning Patti in the shallow water.
The earth quakes as Kevin is climbing out of the well and climbs out of the underworld. He emerges from his fresh grave, transformed. But the battle isn’t done. With the chaos going on in Jarden because of an attack from a revived GR, Kevin is shot in the chest and sent back once more to the underworld. Only this time, instead of dressing as an assassin, he chooses to be himself, and dresses in his Mapleton police uniform. And the way home is for Kevin, rugged and manly, is to step up and be willing to look foolish in front of strangers by singing karaoke.
At first he thinks it’s a joke and refuses to do it. But thoughts of wanting to return home fill his head. He grabs the microphone, steps into the spotlight and begins singing Simon & Garfunkel’s classic Homeward Bound. Kevin gets choked up as images of Nora, his daughter Jill and son Tommy flash in his mind. His voice trembles singing the lines
“Every day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines
And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger’s face I see
Reminds me that I long to be
I wish I was
Home where my thought’s escapin’
Home where my music’s playin’
Home where my love lies waitin’
Silently for me”
He’s resurrected again back to Jarden. The town is in a chaotic blaze because of the Guilty Remnant, but for the first time we see Kevin of sound mind, having all of himself.
The final part of this story takes place 3 years after the events in Season 2. Kevin is presented as calm, and self-assured. He is the current police chief of Jarden, riding horseback around town like a seasoned warrior.
His entire family has been reunited and brought back into the fold along with his ex wife Laurie who began a relationship with their next door neighbor John. They are celebrating Kevin’s birthday and place a paper crown on his head. He smiles, truly happy. The diadem remains on his head as though symbolizing a crucified and resurrected Christ-figure.
Matt the preacher, John, and his son Michael have all been secretly in conversation with Kevin’s father. Having twice been killed, and twice come back from the underworld, they begin to see him in a divine light. Kevin is aggravated at the insinuation. Matt clarifies that he doesn’t believe Kevin to be the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but notes that the new beard is a nice look. They all look at Kevin as though he is some kind of end-time messiah figure.
Despite his protestations, Matt firmly believes that Kevin has been anointed by God for a special purpose. So he composes a new gospel about the life of Kevin. This gospel becomes a huge wedge between Kevin and Nora, driving them apart.
Nora receives a call from a secret organization who claims that they have built a machine that can send her to where the departed went. She is then asked if she’d like to see her children again. The overwhelming emotions and unresolved grief is too much for her. She agrees to fly to Australia with a sum of cash as payment. She tells her work that she’s investigating a fraud scheme so that they’ll pay for her trip, but she’s really hoping that the machine is real.
Kevin asks if he can tag along with Nora as a way to salvage their crumbling relationship. She agrees. It is in an Australian hotel where things come to a head with a big blow up argument between them, and Kevin walks out on Nora. His psychosis is returning. Kevin is almost immediately scooped up by his father who feels like divine providence has brought them together.
For the last seven years Kevin’s dad has been traveling around trying to find the secrets that will save the world. He believes that on the 7th anniversary of the Departure, rains will begin to fall and a great flood will begin to cover the earth. He believes all of life will be destroyed unless he can learn the words and movements to an ancient Aboriginal tribal dance.
All the main characters are in Australia where they send Kevin back to the underworld with 3 tasks. None of the tasks work out as they imagine. They are trusting in a false hope. There is no secret tribal dance. There is no impending flood. They are still trying to make sense of the Departure believing the anniversary will reveal the significance, but they’re all wrong. There is no grand reason. It simply happened.
While in the underworld Kevin once more must vanquish his foe. Only this time, the battle is solely with himself. There are twin versions of himself in the underworld, representing two personas that Kevin wishes he could pursue. He’s able to switch back and forth between the two characters by looking into a mirror.
In this underworld, the GR has advanced beyond the smoking and the notepads to become a global phenomena who is now a major player in geo-politics. They are wanting to elect one of the Kevin personas as President of the United States and launch a nuclear attack that will wipe out every living organism on the planet. The one obstacle is that the launch key was surgically implanted in the chest of one of the Kevins.
In order to end the torment of the underworld and his desire to escape reality, Kevin must come to terms with the tragedy of his life. He must face his own cowardice. He must acknowledge that he ruined things with Nora because of his own brokenness. All he truly wanted was to love her, but he felt too unworthy of her, so he sabotaged their relationship.
The only way to finally kill the fear and fragmentation was to take a scalpel and literally reach into his own heart to find the key.
Meanwhile, Nora tells her brother Matt what her plan is and asks that he be with her in the final moments before stepping into the machine to pass through to the other side. She’s done with this life. Her pain and grief are too much. There is no more normal. She misses her family and is ready to see them again, or die trying.
The final episode is a masterpiece. I mean, nearly perfect. The epic show Game of Thrones (arguably one of the greatest meta-narratives ever produced) massively disappointed its fans with an unsatisfactory ending. This was not the case in The Leftovers finale.
Watching the show live, I thought there is no feasible way to wrap up such a crazy storyline. I underestimated the writers. They blew me away.
I’ll withhold one spoiler in this post so that anyone reading this will be able to enjoy the ending if they decide to watch the show. The only detail I’ll share from the final episode is that we find an older, slightly gray-haired Kevin knocking on the door of a shack in rural Australia, and a reclusive slightly gray-haired Nora answers the door. He introduces himself and asks if she remembers meeting him back in Mapleton.
I love this show for so many reasons. It is brilliantly written and the actors’ performances were phenomenal. The musical score for each episode was carefully selected, flawlessly executed, and enhanced the experience of every episode. Aside from maybe Game of Thrones, I’ve never watched a show filled with more surprises and twists that are so beautifully weaved together in the end. But again, unlike GoT, this show had a perfect ending.
Even though no such event like the sudden Departure has ever taken place in our reality, this show illustrates the fragility of humanity in dealing with loss and trauma. Regrettably, those are bitter herbs we must all taste, and The Leftovers gives its viewers a chance to place themselves within the lives of these characters to test their own hearts. We’re offered an opportunity to heal the fractures in our relationships and deal with our insecurities ahead of time, so that when someone we love actually *departs* from us, we know better how to bear it. More than that, it shows us a way to move forward.
This show is rated TV-MA for all the normal reasons, so sensitive viewers beware. But this show rests easily in my top 3 favorite shows of all time, and quite possibly might be one of the best ever made.