June 5, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “The Leftovers”


There was a lot of attention paid to the amount of attention paid to the series finale of HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS, almost all of it because its co-creator was Damon Lindelof, and the last time he brought a series to its conclusion, it didn’t go so well.  But in many ways The Leftovers was designed from the start to be the anti-Lost:  Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel on which the series was based) made it clear that there would never be an explanation for the show’s central mystery, the Sudden Departure in which 2% of the world’s population spontaneously vanished.  The final season undercut its own suspense by revealing via a season premiere epilogue that the world would survive the 7th anniversary of the Departure, and that Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) would still be around as well, two facts that would otherwise have been deeply in question.  Even more fundamentally, the subject matter of the series had always been not the solving of mysteries, but learning to live with them, a circumstance not so different, really, from ordinary life.

That principle held true in the series finale, written by Lindelof and Perrotta (with a story contribution by Executive Producer Tom Spezialy) and directed by Mimi Leder.  The Leftovers changed (and improved) significantly in each year of its 3-season run, and this final season was more of a ensemble piece than it had ever been before, with many of its 8 episodes centering on different characters.  The finale focused squarely on Nora, who had lost as much as anyone from the Sudden Departure, with her husband and both her children having vanished.  Most of the 75 minutes were set in the territory of that epilogue. However, as much as Lindelof and his partners may resist solving mysteries, they’re addicted to setting them up, and the episode was trickily structured with a jump cut from the moment when Nora was about to be subsumed by the irradiated liquid that might be taking her to the realm of the Departed–if it wasn’t killing her–to her life in Australia several years later, so that we couldn’t know whether the sound she made in that last instant before the cut was calling off the transport or if it was her final gasp on present-day Earth.  The script furthered the game by having Kevin (Justin Theroux) appear in that years-later time claiming that his and Nora’s past relationship was merely a matter of a polite conversation or two, creating an ambiguity as to whether we were in an alternate reality (this had the meta-quality of feeling like a dig at those who had hated the “sideways world” of Lost‘s final season).  Ultimately, though, he confessed that he had made up that story, and that he remembered everything and had been searching for her since her disappearance.

In the end, the finale was more lucid than one might have expected, and it achieved a near-perfect balance of explanation and unknowability.  Nora recounted to Kevin her story about travelling to an alternate Earth, one where the mirror image of the Sudden Departure had occurred, as 98% of the population vanished, including Nora herself.  Tellingly, this was conveyed strictly through Coon’s near-monologue, without any visuals of the story she was telling, and it was as impossible to know whether she was telling an objective truth as it is to know about the accuracy of any account of the after-life.  The point wasn’t whether that story was true, but that it was her story, and that Kevin was able to accept it.  That shared belief made the finale, and The Leftovers itself, a deeply felt love story, one about trust more than passion.

The finale was mostly about Nora and Kevin, and it was much lower key than earlier episodes this season, which had included a lion-worshipping, orgy-enjoying cult, a possible visit from God (before he was eaten by that lion), and a return to the universe where Kevin was an international assassin (as well as his identical twin brother, the President of the United States).  Every moment of it, though, was precisely calibrated. There was a lovely farewell, early in the episode, between Nora and her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), at least one of whom was shortly to die.  Later, we had a glimpse of Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who hadn’t committed suicide after all at the end of an earlier episode, and between Nora’s conversations with her and with Kevin, we were filled in on most of the show’s other leading figures, who were all doing fairly well.

It’s a testament to Lindelof’s judgment that he put the weight of the finale on Coon and Theroux’s shoulders, and while they were both excellent, Coon’s work on the series continued to be a revelation.  (Pity the poor Emmy voters who have to begin their acting choices by deciding between Coon and Elizabeth Moss, among others, for Best Actress in a Drama!)  Nora has run the gamut from self-destructiveness to wry humor to fury to profound love–and more–and there hasn’t been a moment that she hasn’t made convincing.  Leder’s direction was also remarkable, shifting from the suspense of Nora’s journey into that pod in the opening minutes to the more purely emotional impact of the lengthy dialogue scene between Nora and Kevin at the end.

The Leftovers may make Lindelof 1 for 2 in finales, but it’s a big one.  Few shows have adjusted so effectively mid-stream, and concluded so beautifully.  Its own departure will leave it missed.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."