With the final season of The Leftovers available all at once on-demand, we’ll be bringing you our thoughts on each episode one at a time. Warning: This contains spoilers.
“He is saved!” cries Michael, in Season 3 of The Leftovers. He’s just baptised Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), in front of the town of Jarden, Texas. Kevin walks out of the lake, quietly muttering three words to his saviour: “That didn’t count.”
False starts and misplaced hope have always been at the roots of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s HBO series, which mines the dregs of doubting humanity after 2 per cent of the world’s population one day disappeared. With Perrotta’s original novel left behind, Season 2 expanded its mythology to introduce us to the Texan town, a miracle place where nobody departed whatsoever. Christopher Eccleston’s priest, Matt, had already moved there with his wife, Mary (Janel Moloney), who was paralysed in the Sudden Departure – and, sure enough, she was inexplicably healed by the season finale. That was nothing compared to the miracle visited upon Kevin, who wound up dead and somehow came back to life, following a bold, bizarre chapter taking place in a hotel in a subconscious universe that ended with him singing Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel.
These aren’t the happenings of an ordinary TV show, and Season 3’s opener once again makes it clear: The Leftovers is an extraordinary piece of television. Its serious themes, at times impenetrable depth and gloomy premise stop it from being a mainstream hit, but dip your toes in its waters and it’s hard not to be converted. From the off, this final season stays true to its remit, as we begin, naturally, nowhere near our main narrative: we open in 1844, as a priest leads his rural congregation in preparing for the end of the world. Standing on rooftops and gazing expectantly up at the sky, they happily await some kind of Second Coming – or Second Leaving. Nothing happens, but still they go up again, come rain, come sun, until it’s just one woman left. Perpetual disappointment lingers ominously in the air.
The same cloud hovers over the Guilty Remnant, as we jump right back to the events following Season 2’s finale, when the nihilistic, extremist cult marched on Jarden. They brought with them something explosive: Evie, the daughter of the Garveys’ neighbour, John Murphy, who went missing on the same night as an earthquake. Presumed to have vanished in some kind of Departure 2.0, the revelation that she had merely run away to join the GR was a blow to those clinging to supernatural or heavenly beliefs. Season 3, though, reveals just how complicated and personalised theology has become in this muddled, muddied world. Within a few beautifully shot and soundtracked minutes, the Remnant invaders, who have infiltrated and taken over the town’s visitor centre, are all blown to high heaven by a military missile – a tactical strike that will later be denied by Sheriff Garvey and the other officials. The last we see of the GR is Evie looking at the looming rocket, shocked and hypnotised by the destruction on the horizon. She’s given up her life to a movement, much like the woman in the prologue, but nothing good comes of it. John, meanwhile, uses the decidedly un-supernatural event as a way of fuelling his own deluded coping mechanism – he tells himself, somehow, that this was all a ruse once more and that Evie’s simply run away a second time. Belief begets doubt begets fanatical belief all over again.
That’s the cycle of all-too-human nature that The Leftovers seamlessly drops us back into, as the whole town tries to move on with life. The season proper begins three years on from Season 2, and things seem to be as they should. Kevin’s now Sheriff, with his son, Tom, reconciled and working as his deputy. They police the town with a firm, fair hand, joking as they go. Nora (the sensational Carrie Coon, also doing gangbusters in Fargo Season 3) is back with the DSD and working as a consultant for the Jarden police in the run-up to the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure. They kiss, they smile, seemingly at peace with the unmiraculous, but satisfying mess of an imperfect existence.
But humans will be humans, and satisfaction comes to them as easily as it did The Rolling Stones. Seven, of course, is a Biblically significant number, and with 14 days on the calendar until the key date, Matt is back behind his pulpit (helped by Michael), rallying a congregation to hope that it will mean… something. Meanwhile, we start to glimpse the weird cracks in the idyllic surface of Kevin Garvey’s life. Dean, his co-dog hunter from the first season, is back with a gun and an even farther-fetched canine conspiracy – a conspiracy that, even in Jarden, is met with bemused laughter by Kevin, resulting in a violent confrontation. His ex-wife, Jill, meanwhile, is working with John to provide solace and counselling to people in mourning – not through psychic powers, but by one of them hiding upstairs and checking their Facebook profile to glean personal details. And if you thought Kevin was well-adjusted, after shaking off the ghost of Patti, wait until you see his morning ritual of trying to suffocate himself to death with a plastic bag. Does he enjoy the sensation? Does he hate living that much? Or is he just trying to test whether he can actually die or not?
The chances are Kevin doesn’t even know, and Justin Theroux once again does a fantastic job of portraying someone so confused that even the guy playing him probably hasn’t sussed it out. After two seasons of misery and wallowing, Kevin could be one of the most toxic characters on telly, but it’s testament to Theroux’s performance that he remains so engaging and interesting to watch.
The possibility of him not being able to die hasn’t gone unnoticed, though: John is well aware that he shot Kevin point blank last season and that he’s now walking about just fine. It’s the kind of thing you don’t keep to yourself, and, sure enough, John’s told Michael, who tells Matt and – voila – you end up with exactly what the episode’s title promises: The Book of Kevin. In a show of allusions, symbols and metaphors, it’s reassuring to see Season 3’s opener take its name so literally, and that’s exactly what Matt has done. Given the possibility of a physical, tangible, actual person with the apparent power of resurrection, he’s applied the logical, literal deduction: Kevin is some kind of messiah.
“I’m not fucking Jesus,” Kevin shouts at him. “I’m not saying you are,” replies Matt. “But the beard looks good on you.”
There’s a lightness and sense of humour to this third season, which sits perfectly next to the weighty subject matter. There’s a notable maturity on display, alongside that balanced tone, as the show has outgrown its initial narrative mysteries to instead dwell on characters as mysteries: with the three-year time-jump, we’re not left asking what’s happened in those missing years, but how these people have grown. In the case of Matt, it’s no surprise that he should be feeding off a church-full of people, and even less of a surprise that the church should be built, to some degree, on deception: Matt’s wife, the excellently named Mary, is secretly all but ready to leave him, as his devoted faith has pushed him to disturbing lengths. Where once he was in awe of Jarden and its power to heal Mary, now, the preacher’s afraid to let her go outside of the town, lest its spell be cancelled out. She’s gone from being liberated to being a prisoner of a different kind.
The appeal of Kevin being some kind of messiah, then, is easy to see, not least because Eccleston channels that mix of sincere optimism and tragic desperation with every inch of his expressive face. When the seventh anniversary of the Departure arrives, something might happen, he promises his followers. Well, it might not, he adds. But if something were to happen, he finishes, it would be then. It’s a lame duck of a prophecy, but in The Leftovers, even a lame duck is better than no duck: in a world where people have had to come to terms with losing everything, including their most fundamental existential understanding, what’s the difference?
And yet, and yet, there’s the other delicious possibility: that Matt is right. We’ve seen all manner of warped, strange and surreal occurrences, both inside Jarden and outside – and The Leftovers’ beauty lies in the way that it challenges religion, faith and hope, but also allows them all to exist. Halfway through the episode, Kevin goes to the lake where Matt’s church is baptising people, in response to a police call about a Guilty Remnant attack. They’ve dumped toxic waste, we hear, so nobody can go for a paddle. Kevin, though, climbs in anyway and declares the water fine – and proceeds, in the name of reassuring the public, to be dunked by Michael. The GR’s prank was a hoax, he tells Matt. But the more we see, and the less ordinary things become, the more Matt’s gospel makes sense. What if the water really was poisoned, until Kevin got in?
A flash-forward at the end of Season 3 to an older woman looking like Nora in Australia only opens up more questions for these final chapters. Is that her? How did she get there? What’s with all the pigeons she’s bringing to that nun, who seems to know of the name “Kevin”? With eight episodes to wrap everything up, The Leftovers’ return has the audacity to convince you it’ll pull it off. This isn’t a show to binge-watch quickly or race through. It’s a font of wonder, fear, doubt and inflatable statues of Gary Busey. Others may have left the show disillusioned after a first season that failed to deliver the expected epiphany, but since Season 2, the show has become more confident and inspiring with every new revelation. Will The Leftovers deliver on its promised conclusion? We have every faith. Dive in to the water: let’s go swimming.
The Leftovers Season 1 to 3 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 14-day free trial.