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‘The Leftovers’ Finale Pulled It Off

‘The Book of Nora’ was not a perfect episode of television — but it was a perfect, overwhelming end to the series

(HBO)
(HBO)

This piece contains spoilers about the series finale of The Leftovers.

The most difficult quality of The Leftovers to capture in writing is the surprise. Shock is a constant and fundamental part of watching this show, though it’s all but impossible to communicate after the fact; events that seem straightforward in retrospect are enormously difficult to grasp in the moment. About two-thirds of any given Leftovers episode is spent trying to figure out, along with the characters, what the hell is going on. Disorientation is key to the experience, leaving the audience vulnerable to tidal waves of emotion that burst from the most unexpected places.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I had no idea that this finale was coming, and I still don’t quite know what hit me.

“The Book of Nora” focuses on the character most affected by The Leftovers’ defining event, which is not a surprise in itself. Nor is the moment that should have been the hour’s biggest twist: Nora Durst, having fought tooth and nail for the right to join her husband and children wherever it is they Departed to seven years ago, chooses instead to stay right here on earth. At the very last second, she stops the scientists she’s harassed into beaming her through (or maybe just vaporizing her), and suddenly we’re right back where we were in the season premiere: 20 or so years later, in rural Australia, with Nora living under an assumed name and tending to a flock of doves.

But The Leftovers isn’t about what happens to people; it’s about how people feel about what’s happened to them. And so, in its final minutes, The Leftovers tightens into a short story — a snapshot of a single moment in a single relationship. The decades-in-the-making reconciliation of Nora Durst and Kevin Garvey is a two-person case study in how it’s possible to be equally broken in radically different ways. The Leftovers as a whole, but especially in its last season, is obsessed with the narratives we impose on our lives to convince ourselves they’re significant, rational, and most of all, worth living; it is the prestige TV version of that Pinterest-beloved Joan Didion quip, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The stories Kevin and Nora tell each other distill all the surprise, beauty, and wonder of this special show into two fantastic scenes.

The first comes after Kevin shows up unannounced on Nora’s doorstep. She knows he’s been asking after her, and yet the man she last saw in a Melbourne hotel room claims he’s just in the neighborhood, on vacation from his job as police chief of … Mapleton, New York. This Kevin, whoever he is, claims he never dated Nora, never moved to Texas with her, never told Nora she should join her children in the ether. They just had a nice conversation once in the hallway of a high school, and all these years later he saw her riding her bike on a street half a world away, like it was fate. Would she go to a dance with him?

We think we understand what’s happening, and so does Nora: Kevin is in the middle of another massive delusion, like the one that made him see a complete stranger as Evie Murphy. So she takes the advice Laurie Garvey (who’s alive and well, by the way) has offered time and time again: When someone’s this deep in their own reality, don’t break the spell — join them there. Nora goes to the dance, which is really a wedding. She probes Kevin for details about his life, or at least the version of it he thinks he’s living. And she follows along with his fantasy of kismet and missed connections and true love … until she doesn’t. “I can’t do this,” she tells him. “Because it’s not true.” Nora prizes the truth above everything else: It’s what kept her from believing she was a “lens” who caused her family to disappear in Season 2, and it’s what made her so contemptuous of dupes like the Jarden pilgrims who believed a dead man had actually Departed. Truth — or rather, her version of it — is Nora’s rock. Preserving her sense of the world, carefully constructed and maintained, is more important than reuniting with Kevin in his.

But then it’s Nora’s turn to tell a story, and Kevin’s turn to decide how he’ll react to it. Kevin is not, it turns out, having a psychic break; he’s been looking for Nora for years, and when he finally found her, he decided to play pretend rather than let out the anger and pain he was feeling. He’d been told Nora had gone through to the other side, yet here she is, having abandoned their relationship on a catastrophically awful note and left him in emotional limbo. Faking it didn’t work, though, so now it’s time to try Nora’s way: the truth. And just when he’s about to let loose, Nora gives him an alternative.

She did go to the other side, she tells him. And what she found there was devastatingly simple, the anticlimactic yet obvious answer to the Departure that no one had bothered to consider: a world where 98 percent of humanity had disappeared, not just 2. In this bizarro universe, the flip side of her tragedy is her family’s good fortune. Her husband and children went through together where everyone else became unmoored, and they’ve formed a happy life that Nora doesn’t want to disturb. So she came back, a process that took years of effort and ingenuity. By the time she returned, it was too late to return to her old life, including Kevin.

It’s a powerful story, rich with detail and pain. Carrie Coon sells the idea with the Zen resignation of someone who’s finally made their peace with eternal solitude; Justin Theroux gives an incredible performance by just taking it all in, in keeping with Kevin’s passive nature. Elegant and clean, Nora’s yarn finally offers what the entire world’s been missing: a solution. Which is the first sign that it almost certainly isn’t true.

We know Nora’s great with absurdly thought-out hypotheticals, thanks to the foolproof suicide plan she outlined for Laurie; it makes sense that she’d dream up a best-case scenario for her family that’s just as specific. On a show filled with elaborate coping mechanisms, Occam’s razor suggests that Nora’s come up with another — she’s just passing the comforting fiction on, with the added embellishment that she was there to witness it.

That doesn’t stop Kevin from instantly taking her explanation at face value. “I believe you,” he says — the most important words anyone can say to anyone else on this show. “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.”

And there is the difference between Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst, perfectly distilled. Kevin accepted long ago that a story’s veracity matters less than the purpose it serves. That’s why he drowned himself in the penultimate episode, doing what Nora couldn’t and entering the twilight zone in exchange for inner peace. Whatever that place is, he told Laurie, it feels real, he feels alive in it, and if a feeling is all that place is, it’s more than enough. The same goes for Nora’s yarn: It saves Kevin from holding a grudge against the love of his life, so he buys into the myth without a second thought. (Or maybe he just says he does; to Kevin, as we learned last week, drastic and potentially fatal actions speak louder than words.) He’s a true believer who can appreciate Nora’s need to be a true skeptic. The two characters fit together perfectly, filling in each other’s gaps like puzzle pieces. Even the episode titles — the season premiere was called “The Book of Kevin” — position them as mirror images.

“The Book of Nora” is not a perfect episode of television: Coon’s old-age makeup is distractingly prosthetic, and there are several moments of thuddingly obvious symbolism, including the very last shot. “The Book of Nora” is, however, a perfect ending to The Leftovers. The sheer magnitude of feeling that Kevin and Nora — or Nora and Matt, or Nora and Laurie — inspire in us is enough to overpower the relatively minor hiccups in how that feeling is introduced. The Leftovers could be both blatant and subtle, forceful and accommodating. The show blindsided us with stories that felt wildly implausible in one moment and made perfect sense in the next. Just like the tall tales Kevin and Nora trade, even if some parts didn’t add up, the whole clicks seamlessly into place.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.