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‘The Leftovers’ Is Back, and It’s As Crushing As Ever

HBO’s grim, expansive hour starts its final season with a measured bang

(HBO)
(HBO)

The most crucial exchange in “The Book of Kevin,” the premiere of The Leftovers’ third and final season, is between two people with enough history to know each other and enough distance not to sugarcoat what they see. Our hero Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) pays his ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) a visit to plan their son’s surprise birthday party; Laurie brings up that one time Kevin drank poison to go to the underworld and assassinate a demon in a mid-budget hotel. (Remember that?) “I’m better now,” Kevin insists, not a little desperately. “Of course you are,” Laurie responds, not a little patronizingly. On The Leftovers, the idea that anyone truly has it together is always wishful thinking. And in the year-plus since we’ve seen these characters, the cracks in their composure have only gotten deeper, even as everyone’s gotten more practiced at concealing them.

The Leftovers has clawed its way from polarizing cult series to critical champion through its eerie, allegorical exploration of grief and our attempts to reckon with it. The show has long walked a tricky line between the deeply personal and the impossibly global, the mundane and the magical. In the closing episodes of Season 2, The Leftovers started to bring some of those elements together, implying that Kevin Garvey’s struggles might have a broader significance and confirming that not everyone on this show who claims to have answers is selling snake oil. We’ll never know the reason for the Sudden Departure, creator Damon Lindelof seemed to be telling us, but we will learn that in this world, it’s possible to come back from the dead. In its final season, The Leftovers starts to sort through the implications of those developments, even as its players do their best not to.

Between the first and second seasons of The Leftovers, the primary shift was one of location: The Dursts took their makeshift family from dreary Mapleton, New York, to the electrified Jarden, Texas, and the much-vaunted changes to the show and its tone followed accordingly. The world of The Leftovers opened up, adding new characters as well as settings; the mythology of the show (Is magic real? How does it work?) got just the tiniest bit clearer. Between the second and third seasons of The Leftovers, the primary shift is time. We’re now three years past the climactic events of Season 2’s finale. But just because our protagonists have moved forward doesn’t mean they’ve moved on.

“The Book of Kevin” actually begins with a massive rewind to yet another anachronistic parable about belief, sacrifice, and endurance. As DC Talk’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” plays, a woman and her family prepare for the end of the world, as predicted by their 19th-century doomsday cult. It never comes, of course, even as her persistence costs the woman her husband and child, her dignity, and eventually, it seems, her life. The opener is also a fascinating perspective flip. After a year and a half away, Lindelof and Tom Perrotta remind us that the apocalypse not arriving when you desperately need it to can be as much a psychic blow as the apocalypse actually happening. Nearly a decade of waiting for the other shoe to drop tends to wear on people. Seven years after 2 percent of the global population vanished into thin air, the rupture left in the Departure’s wake hasn’t healed. It’s festered.

Before we can bear witness to that fact, though, we make a brief pit stop to the moments after the Guilty Remnant’s act of emotional terrorism. Naturally, the one place on earth “spared” by the apocalyptic event would become a target for the so-called “living reminders”; to that end, they recruited three Jarden teenagers, had them dramatically reveal themselves after faking their own Departure-like disappearance, and stormed the town’s strictly policed borders. The sect is subsequently eliminated by either an extrajudicial drone bombing or a freak gas explosion — potato, potahto — and in the years since, a measure of peace has been restored to Jarden, the “Miracle” town left untouched by the Departure. The GR at least partially succeeded in their goal of making Jarden a less special place. To their probable dismay, it’s largely been for the best: At long last, the town’s at something of an equilibrium.

This is the closest we’ve ever seen Kevin Garvey to being at peace, and he’s not the only one who’s found stability, or at least the illusion of it. Matt (Christopher Eccleston) has his wife and child, and a flock to show them off to. Laurie has finally found a way to help people that isn’t entirely about assuaging her own guilt. John (Kevin Carroll) has gone from uptight firefighter to blissed-out hippie (and Laurie’s new husband). These are people who’ve found love among the ruins, joking about the end of the world while they shoot the shit over beers on the porch. On a show that was often accused of being a miserable slog in its early going, the relative calm is a welcome reprieve, if an inevitably temporary one.

This is The Leftovers, after all. And all the coping mechanisms in the world can’t hide the trauma that’s going to rip through to the surface sooner rather than later.

Every member of the extended Garvey clan believes they’re better, because they have to. But if there’s one takeaway from “The Book of Kevin,” it’s that the further humanity gets from the Departure, the deeper that event’s roots have taken hold in its collective psyche. If Kevin is better, why is he asphyxiating himself as part of his Sunday routine? If Matt is better, why is his wife leaving him? If Nora (Carrie Coon) is better, why can’t she talk about losing Lily — and by the way, where’s Lily? The Leftovers is split between people who cling to the idea that the Departure had a purpose and those who cling to the idea that it didn’t with equal fervor. They’re different versions of the same psychological salve, but that doesn’t stop them from exploding when they come into contact with one another. Under Mimi Leder’s direction, the barometric pressure in Jarden is crushing even before it erupts into violence. We’re constantly on guard for a lit match. In “The Book of Kevin,” we get two — a near-gunfight and the revelation that preacher Matt has started to write his own holy text based on Kevin’s life. We don’t get the chance to find out what’s in it, but it’s already binder-sized.

Kevin has never taken kindly to any aspect of the supernatural, let alone his own role within it. He’s been able to integrate his (multiple!) trips to purgatory into his worldview, though just barely; the idea that he might be a canonical messiah is simply too much. And so our contented, levelheaded police chief who manages thousands of unstable faithful with ease loses his shit on his brother-in-law. The status quo Kevin has so carefully assembled is once again unraveling, just in time for the Departure’s most symbolic anniversary yet. (As Matt reminds us via sermon, the number seven is weighted with biblical significance.) It was never going to last. Trouble brews on the horizon — literally, judging by that brief glimpse of Australia — even as it bubbles just beneath the surface at home. On The Leftovers, denial is as useless as delusions are powerful. As the woman in the prologue learned the hard way, just because you believe in something doesn’t make it true.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.