TV or Not TV | Chronicles of Deaths Forestalled: The Leftovers

By Kate Rennebohm

Televisual and serialized storytelling has long been haunted by a Scheherazadean sense of the relation between storytelling and death. Like that famous narrator’s death-defying fabrications in Arabian Nights, the longer a television show goes on, the more it reminds us that an inevitable end is coming, every new episode only forestalling this death-like cessation of its characters and fictional world. Damon Lindelof, he of the generation of television writers that became “showrunners,” leans into this connection more than most. In the finale of his and Carlton Cuse’s influential Lost (2004-2010), still famously (and only semi-fairly) hated many years after the fact, the pair outraged viewers by directly confronting the link between death and the end of a story: the episode organized itself around the “revelation” that, eventually, all of these characters will die (no doubt reminding audience members that, hey, you’re going to die one day, too).

In retrospect, Lindelof’s evident fascination with the link between death and storytelling carries over from Lost to his and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2014-2017), which recently concluded its stellar three-season run. Adapted from Perrotta’s 2011 book, The Leftovers is set in a contemporary world that is recognizably our own, but for one major difference: on October 14, 2011, two percent of the world’s population (140 million people) blinked out of existence, leaving a gutted and emotionally disintegrating human race behind. The show centres on the Garvey family, headed by police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux), and his eventual love interest Nora (Carrie Coon), as they struggle through post-Rapture life in Mapleton, New York: while Nora deals with her grief and rage over the two children and husband she lost to the “sudden departure,” Kevin battles with the local chapter of the Guilty Remnant, the cult that his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has left him for.

While the show had already diverged from Perrotta’s book over the course of this first season, the real departure came in season two, when every major character uprooted and moved to a small town in Texas and the show introduced a new, African-American family, the Murphys, as co-leads. Per the general consensus, this turn was show-defining: season two marked the moment where The Leftovers suddenly became the best thing on television. Also per the general consensus, secret-sauce credit for this narrative overhaul belongs to Mimi Leder, an AFI graduate and veteran of large-scale Hollywood action films who had joined the show as a director midway through season one and, with season two, became Lindelof and Perrotta’s acknowledged third co-runner, eventually directing over a third of the show’s 28 episodes.

While never absent, the intertwined themes of storytelling and death take centre stage in The Leftovers third and final season: sequences with two characters sitting and facing one another, as one tells the other a long unbroken story, emerge as a sort of emblem for the season over its eight episodes. The fact that such sequences might not strike one as formally unusual—shot-reverse shot being the workhorse of the cinematic workshop—goes some way toward illustrating the show’s remarkable assuredness in its own approach to storytelling. The first few episodes, for example, almost revel in providing the audience with scenarios that seem impossibly disconnected. The premiere catches us up on Kevin and Nora’s life in Texas as the seventh anniversary of the departure approaches, but ends with an unexplained sequence of a much older Nora in a different country—she’s now called Sarah and claims she’s never heard of Kevin. The second episode concludes with an equally context-less sequence in which a group of horse-riding women in the Australian Outback kidnap and murder an asshole police chief, who is named—wait for it—Kevin. In the next episode, an unknown man confronts Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn), again in the Outback; the man asks a question about the preferability of killing a child or curing cancer, and then lights himself on fire.

The seeming nonchalance with which the show brings these various threads together over the remaining episodes is breathtaking; the same can be said for the show’s location shooting in Australia, where much of the third season is set. The vertiginous movement between the small-scale and the large-scale—between the emotional devastations of the personal and the seeming grand significance of the global—ultimately defines what The Leftovers is doing throughout. Unlike the other major television event of 2017, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return (which I wrote about in Cinema Scope 71 and 72), The Leftovers doesn’t blow up or abandon the norms of “quality” or “prestige” television—rather, it quietly deranges them. While the show appears to stick to the prestige mandate of a consistent tone and homogenous aesthetic, Leder et al. often use this guise simply to lend coherency to the show’s unexplained events and narrative leaps. Similarly, in organizing episodes around a single character’s experience, The Leftovers inflects each hour with remarkably different formal models and reference points, pushing against any ostensible sense of homogeneity. In doing so, each episode invariably calls up other modes of narrative or storytelling for thematic investigation.

In episode two, “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” for instance, Nora and her inconsolable rage-grief are pitted against the sitcom’s aggressive cheerfulness as Perfect Strangers actor Mark Linn-Baker (playing himself) contacts Nora on behalf of a group that claims to be able to “send people through” to the same location as the departures, while that ’80s television show’s hilariously inconsonant theme song plays throughout. (The Leftovers’ incredibly sharp music choices often lie at the heart of its humour and self-referentiality.) In “G’Day Melbourne” (episode four), the visual and musical ur-text for Kevin and Nora’s disintegrating relationship is the music video for a-ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me,” with its depiction of a couple literally struggling to share the same world (the uncharacteristic graininess of the episode’s final shot hints at the video’s animation style). With overtly restaged scenes and an appearance by David Gulpilil, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” (episode three) draws explicitly on Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971)—a choice that heightens the episode’s clear-eyed sense of white people’s long history of taking stories, and more, that don’t belong to them. The fifth episode offers up a hilarious but miraculously uncynical take on religion (another narrative form) as Nora’s preacher brother Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) finds himself on an overnight ferry populated by a man claiming to be God and a modern-day lion-worshipping sex cult. Questions of what religion can and cannot offer to suffering people, embodied here in the terminally ill Matt, abound.

The show’s tactic of framing individual episodes by different characters’ otherwise often opaque psychologies becomes most overt in episode seven, the Kevin-centric “The Most Powerful Man in the World.” Like the previous season’s “International Assassin,” this episode largely takes place in a world that may be either a purgatorial afterlife, a complex self-delusion of the possibly mentally ill Kevin, or both. Via The Leftovers’ characteristic agnosticism about determining what is and isn’t real, the show (sort of) establishes in the second season that Kevin can die, go to this other world, and then return. Picking this thread up again in “The Most Powerful Man,” the series paints this space as Kevin’s fantasy: it serves the impossible need of both freeing Kevin from responsibility (the weight of partnerhood and fatherhood torment him, and in this trip to the other world he has just successfully outlawed marriage and family) and giving him all the power in the world: he is now both the president of the US and his own twin brother, out to assassinate the president. But throughout the season, Lindelof and crew have indeed played with the possibility that Kevin actually is some kind of saviour (as proclaimed by Matt in the “gospel” he is writing about Kevin’s extra-real exploits), and that he will have some crucial role to play in preventing a threatening catastrophe, harbingered in the soon-to-arrive seventh anniversary of the sudden departure. Then, late in “The Most Powerful Man,” the team ditches both Kevin’s potential saviour-status and impending catastrophe with astonishing casualness, via a character’s not-unkind question to both Kevin and the audience: Do you really believe any of this?

Repudiating a lead character’s show-hinging significance at the eleventh hour is a risky move, to the say the least, and it’s a marker of The Leftovers’ conceptual and narrative strength that it makes such a move seem both elegant in passing and inevitable in retrospect. The upending of Kevin’s diegetic importance is of a piece with one of the show’s structuring traits, and one that the third season ultimately returns to in its last episodes: particularly after the first season, The Leftovers was willing to circumscribe its ostensible protagonist’s story—Kevin’s damaged white masculinity and attendant hero/escape fantasies—as only one among many kinds of stories, all equally worth telling.

This impulse is there in “Most Powerful Man” (the title takes on a different meaning when it becomes clear that Kevin is entirely surrounded by women who have more knowledge and power than he does), just as it was in season two’s story reboot. It begins in earnest in the third season with episode six, the Laurie-focused “Certified,” through which Kevin’s ex-wife moves with seemingly no plot arc of her own, over and over playing a receptive audience for others: to a woman with five dead children who just wants to know where they left their missing shoes, or to Nora, who has decided to “go through” in Mark Linn-Baker’s departure machine, knowing full well that this may simply mean her death. (All of the performances on The Leftovers are top-notch, and it says something that Brenneman, in these repeated scenes of muted, self-denying shock at everyone else’s horrors, here reaches the level of series MVPs Theroux and Coon.)

The final scene of the episode turns into one of the show’s most unmooring, devastating reveals, as it dawns on the viewer that Laurie has been (possibly) taking her leave of the world, preparing for a suicide that will not even, in presenting itself as an accident, make her pain retroactively evident. Where the previous scene, in which Laurie seems to give her blessing to Kevin for his other-world trip/possible suicide, at first reads as an event in Kevin’s story, it is now revealed as a trace left by Laurie’s: utterly private, even to the audience, Laurie’s goodbye emerges only faintly in her questions about someone else’s story (to Kevin, about dying: “Are you afraid?”). Unlike Kevin’s fantasies of conquering death through grisly (self-)violence—that not-uncommon trope of both TV and movies—in Laurie’s absence of fantasies, in her embodiment of the damage done in being an audience to other’s stories, The Leftovers calls up something much rarer: a limitless loneliness, unbearable for not being tellable.

From this abyss, the series’ finale returns to storytelling, again reframing what had seemed to be Kevin’s story into someone else’s. “The Book of Nora” begins with Nora climbing into the departure machine, but leaves open the question as to whether she goes through with “going through.” The episode then returns to the final scene of the season opener, with Nora now many years older and apparently living in Australia. With Leder helming the episode (she’s directed all three finales), “The Book of Nora” reads like an inversion of the show (and television’s) tradition of literally blowing everything up in season finales. A very quiet and at first strange episode, it features a lot of scenes of Nora riding her bike, falling down, and fighting with a broken bathroom door. Coon’s character on The Leftovers has always been the one for whom “having a story” has been a horror: as for all grievers, the weight of having to tell, over and over, what grieves her becomes its own source of agony. In turn, this informs Nora’s radical hatred of the fact that others might have stories that comfort them: she is a defrauder of faked departures by trade and calling.

But by the end of “The Book of Nora,” in another scene of face-to-face storytelling, Nora seems to have come to the point where she can tell this kind of story. She sits with Kevin and narrates a belief-testing tale about her visit to the land of the departed, where she found her family happy without her, and so she came back. As The Leftovers ends with this scene, it doesn’t make Nora into Scheherazade, cheating death or denying its finitude via an inconclusive story, so much as it makes death a natural companion for storytelling rather than an adversary. What’s left at the end of The Leftovers are no other worlds to escape to, no certainties, but just this scene of sitting with someone’s story, and the implicit question: Do you believe any of this? Rennebohm Kate