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.
“And lo, she did kiss the lips of Kevin and it was good.” Those are the words of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), grieving mother, strong partner, and one of the best female characters in modern TV. She’s cynical, she’s tough, and she’s not afraid to joke about her husband potentially being the new Messiah. It’s that ability to juggle tones that marks The Leftovers’ final season out as its best yet – its confidence is soaring, and it’s a confidence that’s driven, in part, by such characters as Nora.
“Try not to walk on too much water while I’m gone,” she quips, as Kevin heads off for another day of dealing with the population of Jarden. Today, the case at hand is the disappearance of Pillar Guy, the bloke who spent the best part of the last season living at the top of that pillar in the middle of town, generally shouting holy things at the people below. Because why be a monk, when you can be a monk 20 feet high in the air?
That height matters, if you believe the believers in the town – after all, Pillar Guy was closer to heaven, so it stands to reason that he would get to depart before anyone else. Did we mention that it’s only days until the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure? But, of course, things aren’t as mystical as people would have you believe – and, of course, Matt (Christopher Eccleston) is right at the heart of the whole kerfuffle, after Pillar Guy’s widow, Sandy, went to see him. What’s uncovered is the story of man (and a family) with a fondness for penance, from beatings to wannabe crucifixions.
“That man never wavered,” says Sandy, the woman who spent her days and nights waiting beneath the pillar for her husband. “He proved himself to God and got his reward.” Matt is all too happy to join in the myth-building. “He deserves a legacy,” he argues to Nora, who immediately sees through the lies to the simple fact that Pillar Guy merely died of a heart attack.
Yes, the same Nora who said that not having a sense of humour about Kevin being the Messiah would be a problem. Because Nora’s kindness and strength snaps when it comes death, departures and deception. After the loss that so threw her off balance in Season 1, she’s calmer now, more composed. But Episode 2 of Season 3 (“Don’t Be Ridiculous”) reveals just how much that facade hides the aching melancholy that fuels her cool exterior – and her cynical heart.
Humour is a coping mechanism in itself, masking her real feelings – just like the cast on her broken arm, an injury that she did herself to cover up the tattoos she had done. The tattoos? A Wu-Tang Clan logo to block out the previously inked names of her children. As these layers peel back over the course of an hour, Nora slowly begins to unravel, and Carrie Coon is sensational at that slow sense of spiralling into depression. Watching Coon by herself on camera is mesmerising enough, but she gets the chance to convey it in a string of heartbreaking interactions with other characters, from Christina, the mother of Lily (the baby from the end of Season 1), who is disturbed to see her make an unannounced visit, to Lily herself, who doesn’t even recognise her.
We see her cross paths with Tom too, who has heard about her trip to see Christina (and Evie’s mother), and is under no illusion about what she’s going through, her emotional stability, or their lack of familial connection.
Best of all, though, are her conversations with Kevin (Justin Theroux), and Justin and Carrie’s chemistry is as quietly powerful as ever, as convincing in its romance as in its tragedy. When she walks in on Kevin, only to discover him pulling his plastic bag trick once again, she’s almost totally fine with it; when you build a relationship on life-destroying grief, anything’s normal. They’ve already handled each other at their worst; the rest is just more of the same.
There’s almost a laugh-out-loud quality to the way in which they still seem to bond over their respective traumatic wounds. The most dramatic sentence of the episode is funny for us as well as them: “Let’s have a baby.”
If there’s a twisted joy in the way we see the couple trying to build a life in this rubble and move on to something new, there’s a gentle melancholy to what Nora’s secretly planning: a trip to Australia.
Why? That takes us back to the opening credits of the episode, a meta-joke that pays off halfway through, as we realise we’ve been listening to the theme tune from sitcom Perfect Strangers. The US show starred Mark Lin-Baker, among others. The Sudden Departure, though, saw all of the rest of the main cast vanish seven years ago – with only Mark left behind. When Lin-Baker turns up, it’s a bizarre moment of world-building, a neat piece of post-modern nostalgia, but most of all, a quirky mystery, as the actor tells Nora that there’s a chance for her to see her family again.
He calls her strangely at night, before arranging to meet her in a hotel room. She goes, because she still works for the DSD, but also because he knows the names of her kids (Erin and Jeremy) – a reminder of how typical it is for Nora to fuse her personal grief and professional sense of purpose together. Swanning off to see him, he explains the science behind his offer: after finding a certain type of radiation in high concentration in sites of Departures, scientists, have begun to zap people with it, so they can be sent to whatever kind of afterlife exists and meet their Departed loved ones. All they need is $20,000 and a flight to Australia.
Nora, of course, is dubious, interrogating him with a ruthlessly straight face. But while she’s the woman who printed off a gigantic photo of Pillar Guy’s corpse and placed it at the bottom of the pillar to prove his decidedly un-magical demise, she’s also the woman who can’t resist the offer of seeing her children again.
Australia, of course, has been mentioned multiple times in the course of The Leftovers to date. Season 2 saw Kevin’s dad head Down Under, only to appear strangely on the hotel TV in Kevin’s limbo room, conflating the other side of the world with the proverbial Other Side. We also saw it in Episode 1 of this final run, as a woman who looked like Nora spoke to a nun and was asked if she had heard of Kevin. (She said she hadn’t.) Is this slightly older woman who Nora will turn into after this laser treatment? Is it someone else altogether? Is it a parallel world?
Episode 2 gives us another slice of information about the country, as we close with seeing four women drowning a police chief in the Outback. Why? It seems to be because he’s called Kevin, which again positions the chief of Jarden as a Messiah with a legacy that’s spread around the world. Are these witches? Nuns? Former members of the Guilty Remnants? Random outlaws? All we know is they’re willing to go to extremes to test their theory – killing this non-Kevin Kevin without a second thought. Enter Kevin Garvey Sr., who asks what they’re doing. The plot thickens. Now that we know he’s really in Australia, is he immortal like his son?
That, of course, presumes that Kevin Garvey really is immortal. If we’ve already accepted his Messiah-like status as true, do we also believe Matt’s proposal that he’s only immortal within the boundaries of the Texan town? That’s about to be put the test, as the proto-Jesus agrees to go with Nora to Australia, even though the seventh anniversary of the Departure is days away (so much for keeping the local peace). And so they decide to set sail for the new world, a journey that fittingly takes them both away from the past and hurtling back towards it.
The result is an episode that reaffirms The Leftovers’ potential, and its renewed promise to fulfil it. The show’s rarely been better than it is here, as Nora emerges as the programme’s beating heart. Strong, grieving, and able to laugh, she’s a character with a doubting streak who is still daring to hope. But in a post-Leftovers world, hope is just a synonym for desperation. “Are you happy?” Nora asks Kevin. “Yes,” comes the reply. The fact that both of them know it’s not true is only another thing they have in common.
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.