TV Review: "The Leftovers" Series Finale
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED THE SERIES FINALE OF THE LEFTOVERS THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW
The season finale of The Leftovers was poetic and simple and beautiful. I have not always loved certain elements of this show, namely the afterlife episodes in season two, they confused me upon initial viewing. But I see now, after it's conclusion, the overall message that I think the creators and writers and actors were trying to convey: that there are some things we just can't know and that conflicting and confusing and dueling desires rage within us all. That we all are a mess in our own ways, but we must make peace with that, and do the best that we can. That we must find a way to be ok, even if that only means admitting that we aren't ok. That all of that, is what it is to be human.
It was just the right ending, providing answers in the form of "it is what it is," i.e.: there really are no answers. While that might sound like a cop out, stay with me, because it actually worked out beautifully.
To understand why that works, we first need to look at the questions the show poses and wrestles with from the very beginning: how do people in grief and confusion and bewilderment as to how to be alive in this world come to accept the truth that sometimes, many times, there are no answers? How do they make peace with the contradictions and messiness and pain of this world? What we discover over the life of the show is that people don't ultimately want answers, no, we just want to find a way to undo whatever bad hands we have been dealt, and subsequently a way to erase our pain.
The ending begins with Nora, visibly older or possibly just more weathered, I wasn't sure at first. Initially I thought that maybe her difference in appearance had to do with whatever her body underwent by going through the machine. The first frame is a head on shot of Nora giving her name, age, what day it is and then giving her consent to go through the machine that will supposedly take her to the other place where everyone disappeared to on October 14. She is hardened and at the same time exhausted, wide open. She has finally let go of trying to pretend that she is ok and in control; she is ready to go see her kids, that is, unless she dies in the process. But she is ready to die, if it comes to that. "I'm ready to go now," she says.
The next scene was probably one of my favorite of the entire series. She sits with her brother, the good Reverend Matt Jamison. They sit in beach chairs in a parking lot overlooking the water. Nora is hooked up to an IV in preparation for her own imminent departure, and she and Matt play "Matt Libs." They laugh, genuinely, and it is joyous, infectious. Nora remembers that, as kids, Matt used to call her "the bravest girl on earth." Matt then admits to Nora that he is scared; he is scared of chemo, of his son not remembering him and the sound of his voice, of dying. But mostly, he is afraid of surviving, because if he does, then how could he "ever stand up in front of a room full of people and convince them that I have the answers when I have no idea what the fuck I'm talking about." She says that he can come with her, and he replies: "I think, dear sister, that defeats the purpose." The melancholy, aching theme music has, by this point, been playing and building in the background and it is one of the more emotional and raw scenes in a series ripe with them.
Fast forward to the end, where Nora and Kevin are sitting across from each other in Nora's Australian kitchen, drinking tea. Nora begins a monologue explaining what happened, without any visual aids. Initially, I kept waiting for the frame to switch over to a visual, but then I realized that this scene was dependent on the power of story through words alone, and Nora (played by the captivating Carrie Coon) killed it. She explains that she did go through and that she first found a man and woman in a house, where the man explains that seven years ago he was in a grocery store and all of the sudden it was just him in the store, everyone else had vanished. The woman had likewise lost everyone—her husband, three daughters and eight grandchildren. And there it is: in this parallel world, 98% of the population went missing, only 2% remained. So obvious, once said out loud. Nora then tells how she went on a long journey (because in this existence there aren't many pilots so she has to travel from Australia to New York by boat) to find her kids and her husband in their house, her son about 15, her daughter about 11. Her husband appears, and with him is a woman, a "pretty woman." And it hits Nora right then that in this world, her family were the lucky ones. While most everyone else lost everyone, her family was still mostly intact. Her grief and pain and loss was their good fortune. They still had each other. In this world, she was a ghost amongst orphans, to paraphrase. So she went back, after another long journey to find the physicist who could send her back. She went back to the world of Mapleton, NY and Australia that only lost 2% of the population. She asks Kevin if he believes her, and my first reaction is: Of course! Why wouldn't he believe her? Kevin says as much, and I didn't think more of it. But I read in a different review that one's interpretation of the ending probably says more about the viewer than the creators of the show, and it wasn't until then that it dawned on me that the ending could even have different interpretations than how I received it. It seems there is a consensus amongst some that she was lying, that she made it up in order to not have to hurt Kevin by saying that she never went through with going through to the other side in the end, and in turn had spent the last twenty odd years not reaching out to him, not going to her brother's funeral. I guess my inability to even consider that makes me either an optimist, believing the best of people, or else I'm naive.
I realize that the narrative of one "going through" via a mysterious machine to a parallel universe is not exactly plausible in our reality, but reality is relative, and in the life of The Leftovers, this worked. This is, after all, a world in which Kevin dies and comes back to life multiple times, a world in which 2% of the population went missing into thin air. That being said, I still have to consider whether this story makes sense for Nora's character, and I think the answer is yes. I don't think she backed out of the experimental machine last minute. I believe she was ready to die. She was tired and she wanted closure, whether that be in death or in truly finding out where her family went. In going through, of course, she discovers that she was actually the one who went.
So while there was an answer to what happened regarding the Departure, I suppose that's up for debate as to whether that's the truth or not. But even if Nora was just telling Kevin this story, what that would represent in the grander scheme of things is that this story was one she was telling herself, as a way to cope, a way to move forward. It was apart of her belief system. And don't we all have a belief system to some degree? Don't we all have faith in certain stories to help us make sense of this life, to help us figure out how to live? That is not a vague, underhanded knock on religion, or faith. After all, I have faith in Jesus, and his message. But it didn't occur to me until nearly two decades into my life that there is a possibility that I might be wrong, that I might not have it all correct and figured out. But that's what faith is, belief in something even when you know you might be wrong. Even when there is no way to know with absolute, concrete certainty.
I did take Nora's story at face value given the reality of this particular show, and in that light, I really appreciated that it was not concluded in the same way that Lost was, i.e. it was all a dream. I wanted closure, too. And the solution is so obvious in hindsight, so easy to see. And yet, even if one takes Nora at her word, it still leaves her, and us, with the question of how to live, how to be ok. Just because there is a so-called answer, that does not take away the pain, it does not undo the past. It doesn't answer the question of: ok, what do we do next?
I watched this last episode a few days ago and it left me feeling wrecked and inspired, an unlikely combination, but a perfect manifestation given the elements of this show. I've been thinking a lot lately about the very idea of answers and searching and questioning and conflicting feelings and dueling desires. Is it worth it to try to reconcile these wants? Am I wasting my time, going around and around in circles in my own head? Does anybody really have any answers?
Before I watched this episode, I had written most of this a few days ago:
It dawned on me as I made a snack for Theo in the form of dropping little blobs of honey onto squares of white cheddar cheese that there is no answer, no tidy resolution. I must live with these constant and contradicting and dueling desires of motherhood and ambition. It will not go away. Analyzing it to death will not help me. The simple, infuriating truth is this: no matter how I turn it around or flip it over, I will always have the urges to be with my children and simultaneously to be out there, in the world, drinking it in and writing it up. I completely lose myself in those magical but fleeting moments of motherhood manifested in the smooth, browned curve of Evelyn's shoulder or when one of them comes to me crying, skinned hands, in absolute need of me, and only me. And yet, every time I see someone posting pictures from Florence of those colorful houses built into the hill which leads right into the sea, I go a little mad with jealousy. The fleeting part of motherhood is what tells me that I need to be here, right now. That's the un-answer. Still, a little bit of me will always wonder what my life would've been had I not gotten pregnant at 22 in the sticky summer before my senior semester when gas neared $4 per gallon right at the height of the housing market crash. But I had no sense of what was going on outside of my own body, I just knew that I was unwed, broke and growing a baby inside of me. Regardless, there are just some things we can't know, our parallel ghost lives being top on that list. These thoughts feel blasphemous, horrible, evil even, as if I'm tempting fate, especially when I consider these words by Ariel Levy, who lost her baby at 19 weeks: "And the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody's mother were black magic. There is nothing I would trade for them. There is no place I would rather have seen." (The Rules Do Not Apply, p 178)
This is what it is to be a mother, a woman. This is what it is to be a human.