Review: 'The Leftovers' wraps an all-time classic season with 'I Live Here Now'
A review of tonight's season finale of "The Leftovers" coming up just as soon as I spin the karaoke wheel...
"Family is everything." -Meg
"I don't understand what's happening." -John
"Me neither." -Kevin
"God, I hope this is not the last episode of this show." -My notes as the opening credits played
I had another long conversation with Damon Lindelof about the finale, and as a bookend to the one we had before the season. Lindelof was understandably not interested in explaining many aspects of the finale, or the season, preferring to, like Iris DeMent, just let the mystery be. I suggested that certain developments in these final episodes — say, Kevin's ability to survive a near point-blank gunshot wound and not bleed out during that time he was lying on the floor of the animal quarantine; or, before that, his ability to survive not only drinking Virgil's poison (or whatever it was), but being buried underground for eight hours — meant that the series was definitively coming down on the side of magic for so many of the things that happened this year, even as the disappearance of the girls was revealed to have a more earthbound explanation. Lindelof declined to defend the potential non-magicality of these moments point by point, but insisted that the writing staff spent a long time figuring out ways that each of them could have taken place without otherworldly intervention, which would preserve the ambiguity about the supernatural the show has employed almost from the start.
And I have to trust that this is true, because this season of "The Leftovers" — as great and special as the best years of the classic HBO dramas of the early '00s — has done nothing but consistently earned the trust of me and most everyone else who kept watching after the viewer exodus between seasons.
But I don't care if Lindelof could trot out Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sanjay Gupta, a forensic psychologist, and the guys from "MythBusters" to prove that any or all of the things that happened to Kevin, and Mary, and everyone else on the show over the last few weeks, could really happen in our world as well as the one on "The Leftovers."
I know the magic is real. Not because there can't possibly be another explanation for Kevin beating death twice — and ending up in the same vividly-etched hotel Hell both times — but because watching these episodes, I can't think of a better word to describe what this show has accomplished. You have to believe this is magic. Nothing can stand in its way.
The magic was there not only in Kevin once again making like Nora Durst's radio repairman Jesus and rising from death wiser and more powerful than before, not only in Mary waking up and confirming Matt's innocence, not only in that thunderclap of a final scene where Kevin again wandered through a Guilty Remnant-created hellscape to find his family at home, but all throughout "I Live Here Now," and season 2 as a whole. Again and again this year, "The Leftovers" chose tasks that should be impossible — relocating the action 1700 miles away while still feeling like the show was itself, turning its main character's trip into the afterlife into a paranoid '70s spy thriller, turning Liv Tyler into the scariest actor on television, converting avowed non-believers like Andy Greenwald and Mo Ryan — and it kept pulling them off.
We can argue about how many miracles have actually taken place in Miracle, but the show that was set there has become a bountiful source of them.
It could have been a big mistake, for instance, to abandon the POV structure, which had made the storytelling so much more effective this season than it was a year ago, and tell the finale from the perspectives of nearly every major character at different times. But "I Live Here Now" didn't suffer in the slightest for the lack of a tight focus. If anything, bouncing from character to character and plot to plot after the 9 previous hours spotlighted only one or two people at a time only revealed the ways that this season's stories have been more interconnected than they seemed at times when we were only focusing on Matt, or Meg, or Erika and Nora, for the entire hour. Though a lot of characters in this hour say that they don't understand what's happening, shifting from individual perspectives to a more global view (even if each scene/moment still has the same intimacy of the POV episodes) makes the storytelling far more linear and comprehensible for us than it's been at any point this year, without taking away an iota of its power.
Meg's plan brought all of the season's stragglers to Jarden, and then brought the majority of the cast together on and around the bridge into town. (Even Kevin is nearby bleeding while all the trailer shenanigans are going on; Laurie and Jill are basically the only characters at even slight remove.) That the trailer is filled only with missing girls rather than plastic explosives doesn't feel like a cheat: it's just a larger-scale version of her tossing the dummy grenade into the school bus in "Ten Thirteen." Meg doesn't mind hurting people (RIP, random cyclist from last week), but she seems to take greater pleasure in simply scaring them, whether she believes in any of the GR's doctrine or just enjoys using them as a tool to unleash her anger on the world.
And the lack of a bomb going off made the bridge sequence no less harrowing, nor any less of a summation of the season to date. The images that Lindelof and Tom Perrotta gave Mimi Leder to film were stunning and painful: the hearing-impaired mother sprinting towards the child who won't speak, while her violent husband is for once the man taking the beating, or Evie's stony silence being indistinguishable from her absent seizures, or, later, Nora collapsing on top of Lily to keep her from being trampled (and then being rescued by Tommy, whose job is still to protect Holy Wayne's baby). When Evie writes "YOU UNDERSTAND" on the pad to show her mother, she is, like Michael at the church, finally putting out into the open all the dark secrets that the Murphy family has refused to discuss or acknowledge for so long. The Sudden Departure never touched Jarden, but that doesn't mean the town isn't as in denial about tragedies as the world that starts on the other side of that rickety bridge. Given the violent, unspoken dysfunction at the heart of her family, you can understand why Evie might have found the idea of being a living reminder so appealing.
Structurally, the episode's a mirror of the season 1 finale, down to Kevin finding himself in a town that's turned into a nightmare vision of itself — and very much like the fiery Jarden we glimpsed in "International Assassin" — because of a Guilty Remnant stunt. But as Jill Garvey noted back in episode 4 this season, "Wherever you go, there you are." Meg is on some level right to want to show the world that Jarden isn't any more special than anywhere else, even if her methods are abominable. Kevin and Nora brought the kids here because they thought the place could magically solve all their problems, when in fact it was every bit the Band-Aid as those orange stickers certifying each individual Miracle home as safe. Kevin was still going crazy, both still had their doubts about the relationship as anything more than a life preserver, and the promise of a more honest and open Garvey family didn't even last to the end of the episode in which it was first made.
And yet the place, and Meg's plot, ironically turn the fragile plan into a reality, albeit only after Kevin "dies" twice.
The Kevin we see walking back to his house near the start of the episode, covered in the dirt Michael buried him in, is far more serene and confident than he's been at any point in the series; maybe not Jesus on Easter Sunday, but someone finally at peace with himself and what he has to do. But getting shot by John Murphy and sent back to the hotel(*) makes him realize there are still parts of himself and his life that he has to accept.
(*) When John shot him, I was briefly amused at the thought that the show had put him, and the audience, through everything in "International Assassin," only to kill him for real a couple of weeks later. And then when he emerged from the bathtub a second time, I for a moment wondered if that was a card the show shouldn't have played twice. And then Kevin realized where he was and screamed out an exasperated "MOTHERFUCKER!," and I laughed and went with it, since he was as in disbelief at finding himself there again, and so soon after the last time, as I was.
Justin Theroux isn't much of a singer (Liv Tyler — unsurprisingly, given her genes — does much better when asked to sing Jarden's theme song), but he doesn't need to be, because his acting performance overpowers his musical one. And the choice of Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" as his karaoke song (it actually was used only after the production couldn't get approval for "Like a Prayer") was serendipity, with the lyrics so perfectly matching Kevin's situation: not just his desperate need to come back to life and get home to his family, but his ultimate understanding that he really does love Nora and isn't just using her to feel more in control of his life. (Ditto the incident where Lily is briefly snatched helping Nora accept that she isn't like the radio show caller, but someone who genuinely wants Lily, and every other part of her new family.) Kevin insists to the man from the bridge that singing karaoke to escape the afterlife — assuming he's actually in the afterlife, as opposed to his schizophrenic mind creating this as a place to retreat to when his body has just suffered a major trauma — is a stupid idea, and as trials go, it seems a relatively easy one. But it's necessary for him to come to grips with who he is and what he has — he lives here now, these are his people, no more running away — and the integration of the song, Theroux's acting, and the carefully chosen clips of old scenes (the National Geographic he tossed in the trash, the family at the BBQ from "The Garveys at Their Best," Nora smiling) was stunning.
And that's why I believe in the magic of this finale, regardless of where Kevin actually went after that bullet went in one side of him and came out the other.
Meg has brought her thugs to shake up this town, and the world that believes in it, and in many ways she succeeds. The Jarden that Kevin wanders through at night is a gruesome bacchanal, and who knows how or if the National Park Service will be able to get all of these intruders out of the town without a Waco situation(**). Even if Miracle does get cleaned up, its image within and without will be forever changed.
(**) Though this suggests perhaps the only way that a hypothetical "Leftovers" season 3 could improve on this one: Leslie Knope is sent in to clean up this mess. April joins the Guilty Remnant, Ron has the lake refilled so he can put his canoe into it, Tom sets up a Miracle memorabilia business, and Ben looks befuddled by every damn thing Kevin Garvey tells him. Writes itself.
And yet... none of that matters on the micro level that is the crazy, extended Garvey/Durst/Jamison family all being together. Kevin is walked home by John, a man who — perhaps because his molester claimed to have a direct line to the world beyond this one — has dedicated his life to stamping out any talk of miracles in Miracle, yet has now been given some evidence of same that's awfully hard to deny. And when Kevin walks into that house and finds literally everyone he cares about in there, one by one, all relieved to see him (if understandably concerned about his physical condition and long absence), the miracle is complete. The family that was breaking up before the Sudden Departure, and that disintegrated entirely after, is not only back together, but bigger and stranger and in some ways stronger than ever. Maybe they're only under that roof for the night, or a few days after. (It's hard to imagine, for instance, Nora being particularly comfortable with Laurie's ongoing presence.) But in that moment, the world inside that house is the spiritual opposite of the debauched rave taking place outside it. Everything is okay. Kevin has friends, he has neighbors, he has family. He lives here now.
The Guilty Remnant wants to remind people that the world ended on October 14, and to shake them out of their attempts to go on living like that didn't happen. But the world didn't end in any practical sense. It still has billions of people on it, who can't just chain smoke and write on pads and glare at each other. They have to make something of what was left behind, and sometimes that can have all the magic that John Murphy didn't want to believe in, and that Meg worked so hard to stamp out.
I've braced myself for the possibility that "The Leftovers" might itself suddenly depart — that HBO will look at the budget, and how far the ratings fell in spite of better reviews and bigger buzz, and decide Lindelof and Perrotta's weird little experiment is no longer worth the bother. Been there, done that, still have the "Enlightened" swag filling up a supply closet to prove it. And if that happens, then I can at least take comfort that the last image the series had to offer us was Kevin's face soaked in the kind of tears — not of pain, or confusion, or longing, as so often befell him in episodes past, but of pure happiness at the sight in front of him — so many of its viewers felt at one point or another in this riveting but all-too-brief journey. It's not a Happily Ever After ending, because life is too messy for that in either "The Leftovers" universe or our own, but it's a happy enough moment to offer some degree of closure, rather than being lifted away from us right after we yelled at it for spilling juice on our phone.
But part of the beauty of HBO is that it doesn't have to care about the numbers if it doesn't want to. The channel's brand matters as much as the ratings a particular show gets. As David Simon once put it to me about the ongoing survival of his own amazing drama with its boutique ratings and lack of awards traction: "That's, in a way, what 'The Wire' added to the brand: 'This show goes on because we can't bear to kill it.'"
It was a different administration that kept "The Wire" alive long enough for it to build that library of 60 episodes that would only in their own afterlife come to be recognized as one of the greatest shows of all time, but in a way that continued to reflect glory onto the HBO brand. I'm not saying "The Leftovers" will ever reach that point, no matter how long it runs. It's even more idiosyncratic than all that Novel For Television business over in West Baltimore. But this season was so extraordinary, so audacious, and so powerful that I can imagine it being discovered anew years from now by young TV fans who watch episodes like "Off Ramp" and "Lens" and "International Assassin," and marvel at two things: 1)That a television show was able to pull this stuff off, and 2)That HBO, of all places, didn't care enough to keep this work of art alive.
I cover television for a living, so I'm not supposed to believe in miracles (he writes, while staring wistfully at his "Terriers" poster). But I want to see what amazing feats "The Leftovers" still has in store, and I want to believe — like Matt Jamison playing that damn Bellamy Brothers song over and over again — that the miracle is coming, somehow, some way.
Prove me right, HBO. You'll be glad you did.
Some other thoughts:
* The finale establishes that Virgil is the father of Erika (who still doesn't know he's dead), and not John. But despite John's angry denials in the animal quarantine, he was clearly the victim of Virgil's crimes, based on the dialogue — "I hurt him. I hurt him a long time ago. And then he hurt me back. And he freed me." — in "A Most Powerful Adversary."
* Loved the girls' reaction in the opening sequence to Kevin's suicide attempt. Less committed people might have been shaken by the sight and turned back, but they can just shrug it off after a moment — if anything, it's useful to them, since he can't rat them out for faking their departure — because the continued existence of things like that is exactly why they believe the GR needs to exist.
* When last we see her before Kevin is shot, Meg is being taken into custody by the park rangers. When Kevin wakes up, she's free and hanging out with the rest of her GR splinter sect in the seized welcome center. Given how overwhelmed the rangers seemed to be by the violent invasion, I can imagine her being liberated in the chaos.
* In our interview, Lindelof admits that among his many regrets of the season (because even in a year this good, he's too much of a critic of his own work to not see all the things that could have been better) was not enough of Nora, whether on her own or with Kevin. And as a card-carrying Carrie Coon fan clubber, I could never have enough of Nora Durst on this show. But even in brief moments — trashing the radio, chasing desperately after the woman who stole Lily, and smiling and saying "You're home" at the end — she was, as usual, extraordinary. (Also, loved Nora's brief moment of triumph at realizing she — trained debunker of secondary Departures — was right that the girls hadn't Departed.)
* Speaking of underused performers shining when called upon: How perfect is the smile on Christopher Eccleston's face when he sees that Mary is awake again?
* Who knows what state John and Erika's marriage will be in if/when we see them again, but Kevin Carroll and Regina King brought it in every single moment they had in the finale, whether it was John transitioning from having shot Kevin to learning that the rangers had found Evie, or Erika trying desperately to get through to Evie, or the lost look on John's face as he leaves Kevin and heads back to his house (complete with a reprise of their awkward waves from the premiere), unsure of what he'll find inside.
* At first I assumed the dog was running the other way over the bridge because Nora and Lily were still in the trailer, but they were already back at the house by that point. Also, to paraphrase the Baha Men, who let the dogs out, and how did they know to leave Kevin's behind?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com