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The Leftovers - Review: "The most powerful series of the year"

Does anyone remember LOST, Damon Lindelof’s previous show? It spent six seasons piling mystery upon mystery involving a bunch of people stranded on an island after their plane crashed. The island was magical, had polar bears and a smoke monster and a hatch with a Scottish guy typing numbers every 108 minutes to prevent a worldwide catastrophe caused by electromagnetism. As the mysteries grew in number, the desire from fans for their questions to be answered grew too. Only the series finale did little to resolve those queries, with a large portion of the viewership outraged at being misled for 121 episodes, criticising the drama for teasing things it never answered.

Personally, I reject that criticism. Of course, it would have been nice to learn every little secret, but the core of the show was not the mystery. It was the characters, the relationships between those characters, and what each of their actions in any given episode said about them as a character.

If The Leftovers had anywhere near the viewership of LOST - or even enough people watching it to warrant it being called a viewership - it may well come under similar scrutiny, even though Lindelof has categorically said on numerous occasions that the Departure will not be explained. “The Book of Nora” stuck to that promise, despite delving deeper into what happened to those on October 14th. Doing so was not a copout or a culmination of 28 episodes of misleading people. It was, plainly, the next - and final - chapter in a story not about science fiction but about life itself.

There’s a tweet I saw a few weeks ago that has stuck with me. To paraphrase it, one individual queried if they should bother continuing with the show depending on whether it would have a definitive end. One reply simply noted that since we have no way of knowing what happens after we die, that The Leftovers probably wouldn’t provide any meaning in that regard.

On occasion, news stories pop up with someone claiming they died for a minute or two before being revived, only to recount their experience for the world to learn. Whether or not you believe those stories is, of course, down to you - but there’s no knowing for sure until we actually die, at which point it becomes a little late.

Which is why I’m so glad that “The Book of Nora”, The Leftovers’ series finale, doesn’t really end so much as it does stop.

Certainly, it isn’t without a sense of finality. Kevin revealed that Matt, once again suffering from cancer after surviving it as a boy, wasn’t healed by God/David Burton and died, with over 400 people coming to his service. Laurie chose not to commit suicide and pose it as an accident, returning to Jarden and to John. Michael’s running the church. Kevin Senior is living well into his 90s (*), Jill married and had a daughter, Penelope, while Tom’s failed marriage hasn’t prevented him from “land[ing] on his feet.” And the reunion between Nora and Kevin provided a far more positive note than the dour, heartbreaking, almost horrific ending to “G’Day Melbourne”.

(*) Nora jokes about it, but it would be fitting if Senior was immortal just like Junior.

The finale is immensely smart, and perhaps misleading, in hinting at Junior falling down a similar path to his father and having lost a chunk of his memory. Instead, he simply decided to try and ignore his mistakes and start over. So he pretended that he and Nora met just once and that none of the bad times nor good - adopting Lily, moving in together in Jarden, his brutal outburst in the hotel - happened.

But as much as we’d all love to erase our mistakes, or to start particular relationships or journeys in our lives over again, the world doesn’t work like that. There is no reset button, no way to retroactively adjust what has happened. We must instead move on and repair the problems as best we can, however we can.

For Kevin, that meant desperately, hopelessly seeking out Nora. For her, it meant going through the machine into the world of the Departed and seeing her children for another - and final - time.

That The Leftovers flat-out refused to explain what exactly happened to those 14 million people is neither a surprise nor a problem. What was surprising, and simultaneously wonderful, was its portrayal of where they went. You might say their world, in which 98% of the population vanished, is a version of the afterlife. Or you might just believe it to be one side of a world inexplicably split in half. Neither is right, neither is wrong.

However it’s seen, though, is remarkable, and speaks to how the show’s depiction of grief and suffering distracted from thinking about the mythology and the logic, keeping the focus on the titular individuals dealing with the loss of the 2%. Through 28 beautiful, often poetic episodes, we’ve come to know and love these characters and appreciated their suffering in a way that prevents us thinking of those they lost and what they might be going through. This show - and the past two seasons, in particular - have dealt some truly heartbreaking moments, but Nora’s account of her time in the other place may well make the rest appear insignificant. Her description of how long it took to see a family to whom she was a ghost is absurdly melancholic, especially given the ugliness of her breakdown upon losing them.

So much of The Leftovers is centred on Nora. Yes, Kevin is technically the main character, but within the larger context of the series, he is primarily anchored by a prostitute disappearing during sex with him. He didn’t lose anyone close to him, despite it being apparent why he ended up with a tendency to favour suicide over living. A lot of characters lost someone; Nora, though, lost everyone (or, as she put it, everyone lost her), and her connections to most characters mean she is irreplaceable. Combine that with the series often pivoting on her despair and she becomes the most important of an ensemble featuring a plethora of fascinating individuals. It’s no surprise, then, that the series finale was all about her.

Yet, in a way, how we viewed the finale through her eyes is as much about her as it is all of us, and how we live. It’s a reminder that second chances do exist, and that it’s never too late, and that what you want can be attained even if you think it can’t be.

But one particular scene also highlights something even more important: that, as much as we want to, we don’t deserve to bear the sins of others as a way to cleanse others. Because although Nora, in saving the literal scapegoat wearing the beads of sin, tries to be the metaphorical scapegoat for all those at the wedding, the onus is not on her. Nor, indeed, is it for the helpless goat, whom she saves in one of the more beautiful and moving uses of Max Richter’s “November”.

It’s telling that she declines the beads upon arrival and that Kevin, like the rest of the wedding party, attempts to unburden himself. Trying to place his sins on the goat and start anew is the final step in his effort to reinvent a life with her, an attempt that ultimately falls short. As Eddie suggests, a mistake is fucking up but a sin is doing something you know to be wrong. Losing Nora is absolutely the biggest mistake Kevin made in years, and he knows it, but the way he left her was truly sinful. Even if he truly believed his words at the time, even if she considers him to have been right, there’s no denying he’s aware of how awful what he said was. So his beads represent all that went wrong in their relationship - and even though she may not quite appreciate the meaning of it as the rest of the party do, she recognises his regret. Those beads are less Kevin repenting to God than they are him repenting to her.

Really, given all the pair have been through in the past two seasons, there was little way the series could end other than a 15-minute long sequence involving just the two of them, admitting how they came to be in this situation and essentially confessing their love for one another. The loose trickery over Kevin’s mental state became largely insignificant; the focus instead became why it took this long to see each other again. It was tremendous and powerful and devastating in the way that The Leftovers always is, only this time allowing the sun to break through on a perpetually stormy in tone series.

“If only life was just about love,” Eddie remarks. “But it’s about temptation. It’s about failure. It’s about weakness.”

In its depiction of life, The Leftovers has shown itself to be about all of those things and more, in ways more stunning than possibly imaginable. All of its oddities and its utterly bonkers storylines disguise its true nature. Between the afterlife hotels and a dick scanner and sex boats and God being eaten by a lion is a tale punctuated not by plot but by emotion. Strip away the shell and underneath, close to the surface, is a human story. It may not be one that any and every viewer can relate to in its entirety, but there is value for all - no matter your history, no matter what you’ve lost or what you’ve gained.

That is the true genius of The Leftovers. That is the legacy it will leave. It is as though Lindelof took the reaction to LOST’s finale and made a series so grounded in spirituality that criticisms of its reluctance to solve the overarching mystery become not only irrelevant but indicative of missing the point. Much like LOST, I didn’t care about the explanation because everything less tangible mattered far more. The crux of our lives is our emotion. It is in the way we process grief, anger, happiness, sorrow, despair, regret that we are able to move forward. The events that bring about those feelings are secondary - and why should this show be any different to that?

The Leftovers may well end 2017 as the best show of the year, and the series as a whole is without doubt one of the absolute best pieces of scripted entertainment of the decade. But, more importantly, it is the most powerful, moving, and the most human series of the year.

And for all that shows shouldn’t run past their sell-by date, it’s a damn shame that we have just witnessed the end of something so spectacular.

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