The Leftovers has consistently presented a mesmerizing, albeit often unsubtle, meditation on the stories - whether divine dogma passed down over centuries or intimate innocuous half-truths lighting dark days - people tell themselves to make life a little bit easier to live. The Sudden Departure - a supernatural event occurring on October 14, 2011 in which two percent of the world’s population just (poof) disappeared - was a message. It was a sign from God or the universe or some higher power, and it had to mean something. 150 million people do not disappear for no reason. In the absence of a definitive explanation, it was up to the survivors, those spared or saved, the so-called leftovers to ascribe meaning. And isn’t that all organized religion is? Finding purpose and meaning in a chaotic inexplicable existence. Concocting “a nicer story” for why bad things happen or good things do not.
In the aftermath of the Departure, some including Doctor Laurie Garvey, joined the cultish Guilty Remnant, a silent collective of chain-smoking, painstaking reminders of all that had been lost. Others, like cursed Nora Durst, needed no such reminder. Her entire family had departed, but the void left in their stead was ever-present. Reverend Matt Jamison plastered the town buildings with the misdeeds of the departed. He refused to believe this was the Rapture, since many a sinner and imperfect person were taken. And Chief Kevin Garvey tried to hold it all together.
The penultimate episode ended much as the third and final season of the series began, with a family atop a pitched roof waiting for the end of the world. Following his third near death experience, Kevin Garvey, Jr. ascended a ladder to sit at the right hand of his father. Apparently saved, quite possibly doomed, the father inquired of his son (and effectively the series of its creators): “Now what?” For a show so determined to explore life’s most unanswerable questions and deny its characters of closure in the process, the series drew to a close with an unanticipated sense of resolution.
According to some biblical originalists, the Rapture will come in two stages. The first will be a secret rapture or carrying away of the saved to heaven. (Hmph, sounds familiar.) The second phase occurs after seven years of tribulation when Jesus will return to Earth in triumph and glory. The seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure - and its forecasted Apocalypse - looms large over the world of the series’ final season. Miracle, Texas was again flooded with pilgrims desperate to be pardoned. Kevin Garvey, Sr. ventured to Australia to stop the biblical doomsday deluge. Believers and nonbelievers braced themselves for the supposed Second Coming. An event made no less unsettling by the expectation of its impending arrival. An event coming, one way or another, despite preparations and protestations, for each of us.
By the conclusion of episode six (“Certified”), it appeared as if the four main characters were suddenly hurtling towards their own final act. Mere days away from the anniversary, Matt, Laurie, Kevin and Nora find themselves in Australia - a country so far in the future that the Sudden Departure occurred on October 15 - with all signs (and this being a show heavy with religious symbolism, there are many) pointing toward them actualizing their suicidal ideations. However, theirs are not the passive resignations of giving up. In a world punctuated by loss and grief and pain, they are seizing control of the narrative, writing their own endings, inventing nicer stories.
Reverend Matt Jamison’s childhood leukemia has returned and he is refusing medical care. The nosebleeds, increasing in frequency, are still less alarming than the intensity with which his faith has been shaken. Ever the devout apostle, he follows Kevin - this heroic figure onto whom he projected an entire savior narrative - to Australia. Whatever fate befalls them on the anniversary, he is certain Kevin will play an integral part. Thwarted by lion sex boat revelers and an unmerciful God impersonator, forsaken and orphaned for the second time, he abandons his mystical mission and instead finally connects with the here and now. He remains with his younger sister, Nora, shepherding through the LADR process. She is so relieved, almost joyful, when Matt declines Laurie’s offer of a ride by seconding that, “It’s important to be with family.” He brings Nora some peace while dodging his own.
Doctor Laurie Murphy has always been the voice (sometimes silent) of reason for the group. Painfully self-aware, she is even good natured about her time spent with the Guilty Remnant, taking the blame for her and Kevin’s divorce: “Yeah, well I joined a cult, you know, just one of the things they made you do.” The Laurie-centric episode “Certified” jumps between Laurie helping Nora find “what she is looking for” and “being a part” of whatever is happening with the Kevins, John and Michael out on Grace’s ranch. Nora is never more childlike than in these stakeout scenes when her immature know-it-allness is jokingly juxtaposed with Laurie’s confident self-possession. These two rarely share scenes and it is a pleasure to watch Kevin’s exes spar in a hotwired VW bus. Nora lands the first punch, but “you should see the other guy.” Kevin and Nora and even John desperately look to Laurie to stop them; to tell them what to do; to tell them they have gone too far. But she can’t this time. She has quit trying to “jam up” the far-fetched plots of so-called “lunatics.” She is there to see it through: Kevin revisiting the land of the dead (although she does not stay to bear witness); John getting his message of love to Evie; Grace finally figuring out what happened to her children’s shoes. By the end of the episode, Laurie appears to have made the decision that she can no longer be the metaphorical usher squeezing the air out of a beach ball at a baseball game, preventing “fucking chaos” on the field. On a commercial boat the day of or following the anniversary of the Departure, she takes a phone call from her son and daughter. Jill has some inane question about a television show she was obsessed with as a child. Laurie has the answer, as she always does. The exchange ends with Laurie failing to mention that she has joined their father in Australia and maybe just bid him a final farewell. Once more, Laurie withdraws into silence. The audience understands this scuba excursion as something much more ominous than a diving enthusiast exploring an underwater ecosystem. Nora previously described scuba diving as the perfect way to discreetly kill oneself. An errant air bubble, or any number of mistakes, could be dismissed as a “senseless tragedy” and “fully explained” - a nicer story than turning the valve the wrong way on purpose. For a moment we think maybe this call from Jill and Tommy will stop her. Maybe the ribbing siblings have unwittingly persuaded her, just as the engraving on her now useless cigarette lighter implored, to not forget about them. Maybe they can pull her back to the surface as she did when abandoning her first suicide attempt years earlier, joining the GR instead. Laurie sits on the edge of the boat placing the mask over her eyes. She takes a couple deep breaths off the oxygen tank and lets herself fall back into the water, unburdening herself and freeing her remnants from guilt. The camera lingers but Laurie does not resurface, they supposition being she sleeps with the fishes.
At the insistence of his father, John Murphy and Grace (and with Laurie’s reluctant blessing and solemn goodbye), Chief Kevin Garvey agrees to be drowned for the third time. By temporarily leaving this world and traveling to that of “International Assassin,” he is to learn a song from a deceased Aboriginal leader named Christopher Sunday. The song, as performed by Kevin Sr., would then end the coming apocalyptic flood. John and Grace also have messages for Kevin to relay to their deceased children, as John poses, “why wouldn’t [they] be there?” If Nora is the scapegoat, then Kevin is the sacrificial lamb, finding the meaning of life by potentially giving up his own for the common good.
And Fraud Investigator Nora Durst was prepared to beg Doctors Bekker and Eden to let her pass through in the LADR not knowing or even caring what is on the other side. The final episode opens with Nora “Matt”-libbing (her brother’s patented mad-lib formula) her obituary. Just another false fabrication - a nicer story than being incinerated on the path to enlightenment. She swears Matt to secrecy. She binds Laurie to doctor-patient confidentiality. No one is to know, except of course the next person to use the device, since Nora records the requisite release indemnifying the doctors of any liability. The liability is hers and Kevin’s. His accusatory assertion - the wrong thing to say at the time, but no less true - that she should go be with her children provides the push she needs. She is scared and maybe ashamed, but resolute in her decision. She wants “fucking closure” - both an end to her constant grief and to this recurrent argument with Kevin. At this point, if Nora does not “depart,” they will both spend the rest of their days (however numbered they may be) wondering if she wished she had. For Nora, there will always be a part of her that disappeared with Douglas, Erin and Jeremy to this other place.
We have left Laurie, Nora and Kevin to apparently drown. Presumably, the Bass Strait, Grace’s pond and liquid-laden LADR sphere standing in for baptismal waters welcoming them to eternal peace. Concurrently, the rest of the world was facing a similar fate with the imminent downpour and subsequent flood, another sort of baptism. But in the end, the Apocalypse never came. The nuclear explosion was relatively self-contained. The rain stopped; the skies cleared; the monumental ark sat unfinished in Grace’s front yard. Kevin Sr. did not need to perform the rain song. October 14 (or 15th) came and went; a day not unlike any other. The Apocalypse shown to the audience in season one never went off in act three. It was the inverse of Chekhov’s gun, an echo of the final season’s opening prologue wherein members of a 19th century Christian sect known as the Millerites dwindle after a preacher sets several successive (incorrect) dates for the Rapture. When nothing happened on October 22, 1844, William Miller’s predicted Judgment Day was hence known as the Great Disappointment. On October 14, 2018, just as in 1844, the world is spared. And so, too, are Kevin and Laurie and Nora and, for some time at least, Matt. The prophetic revelation was not to be. Now they have to live. How nice. How disappointing.
The series finale, entitled “The Book of Nora,” flashes forward about fifteen years. The time jump is disorienting. Over the course of the episode, the mystery reveals itself along with the still unknown fate of these characters who were last seen working through their own personal crises. Nora and Kevin and Laurie and John and Kevin Sr. are alive and well (enough). Matt did eventually succumb to his illness. By then, he had reconciled with Mary and his son and his funeral was well attended. Nora was missed. In this future, an amnesiac Kevin Garvey shows up at Nora’s door. He is noticeably older, his hair graying. But this Kevin seems lighter, unencumbered, traveling without the baggage of their shared history. The last time this Kevin saw Nora was at a high school dance in Mapleton, New York. According to his nice story, he is vacationing in this remote part of Australia on his dad’s recommendation. He just happened to see Nora riding her bike through town and found out where she lived. He had a crush on her back in Mapleton and always regretted not asking her out. He could not forgive making that mistake again. He invites her to a dance that night in an attempt to woo her one last time or maybe for the first time. The scene of future Nora battening down the hatches, locking all the windows and doors as a safeguard against future Kevin’s harmless stalking is a wink and nod to doomsday preparations long since necessary.
But Nora does not accept this nice version of events. It is not the truth. It is not real. And, to her, anything else is a waste of breath, like the nun praying for the safe return of her doves. So she leaves Kevin and his fictions on the dancefloor. The next morning, Nora’s love-spreading doves, which are trained to do one thing (come home) are nowhere to be found, but Kevin does return. This time, his memory regained (in actuality, he was pretending to start over with a clean slate), he is angry and emotional and brutally honest. As it turns out, this is not some alternate Kevin in some alternate universe where he and Nora did not love and lose each other all those years ago. This is the same Kevin, and every year since their knockdown dragout fight in the hotel room (where they literally watched their relationship go up in flames), he has been using his two weeks accrued vacation to travel halfway around the world in search of her. This is the same Kevin and predictably he came back. He always does. This is the story Nora longs to hear, devastating as it may be. He never lost faith. And now, at long last, he found her, right where he left her.
Where has she been all this time? Nora, too, has a story of a journey to recount. She tells Kevin she passed through all those years ago. She woke up “on the exact spot where [she] disappeared from,” but a different world. In this reality, instead of two percent of the world’s population disappearing, ninety-eight percent had. This world was almost exclusively occupied by cursed Nora Durst-types - people who had “lost” their entire families. She finally made it back to her family in New York. Her husband, daughter and son (the Wu-Tang tattoo covered Erin and Jeremy) had made a new life with a single departed woman, living in the same house Nora once occupied alone. They looked happy. They had moved on. In this place, they were the lucky ones: “In a world of orphans, they had each other.” Nora sees that she does not belong here. She departs Mapleton and seeks out Dr. Van Eeghan - the creator of the device and its first test subject. She commissions another to transport her back. All of this takes a long time. Travel in this place is more complicated than traveling to it. There are airplanes, but few pilots to fly them. Eventually, according to the story, Nora passes back through returning to this reality. In this retelling, Nora is the messiah recounting her miraculous resurrection to Kevin, the captivated disciple. In arguably the most unbelievable aspect of the story, she kept this secret because she was not sure Kevin would believe it. He, of course, does. For Kevin, just seeing Nora again is believing. It might be too late for the fresh start Kevin desperately envisioned for him and Nora. His message of love transported by the doves - “I know you’re out there” or perhaps “this pigeon loves you” - is more likely being munched by a peckish goat than being read by an eskimo in a far off place. But this long-awaited reunion, with laughter and tears traded over tea, is a much nicer story.