UK TV review: The Leftovers Season 3, Episode 7 (The Most Powerful Man in the World)
Ivan Radford | On 15, Aug 2017
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.
“I thought we were going to do it together,” says Kevin Garvey Sr. (the brilliantly grizzled Scott Glenn) to his son, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), in the penultimate episode of The Leftovers’ final season. ‘It’, of course, is drowning the latter so that he can come back to life on the Other Side, find the aboriginal elder Christopher Sunday, learn from him his fabled rain dance, and then come back to the real world with the ability to stop the apocalyptic floods that Kevin’s dad is convinced are about to rain down on the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure. It’s a wonderfully touching moment that gets to the dark hilarity and strangely profound observations on human nature that have made The Leftovers one of the best TV shows of the last decade. Yes, someone’s about to commit suicide to save the world on some astral plane from something that may not even happen, but the important thing isn’t the ridiculous act itself: the important thing is that this father and son do it together. Awwwpocalypse now.
There’s always been a strong sense of communion at the heart of The Leftovers, which finds its best moments at points where these dazed and confused individuals connect with other stray souls, all clinging for support and some sense of direction. It’s fitting, then, that as Kevin prepares to embark on a uniquely isolated mission, Episode 7 (The Most Powerful Man in the World) opens on him sharing a bath with Nora (Carrie Coon) in a sweet flashback. Define “sweet”: a cute conversation in which they talk about what they want done with their corpses when they die. Nora? Cremated, a remark that tragically foreshadows her later desperation to use that radiation machine (which may or may not exist) to attempt to Depart herself and see her kids again.
From that watery confrontation, we cut to Kevin drowning himself – only to be dragged out of the lake by his dad, annoyed that Kevin went ahead with their plan, while he, Grace and the Murphys were still sleeping off their Laurie-administered drugs from last episode. A quick recap later (not only must he find Christopher, Kevin must also find Grace’s children) and Kevin’s back in the water – and we cut again to the Other Side, this time not a limbo hotel with a bird in the lobby, but a beach. And judging by the lukewarm reception from a burly man in uniform, Kevin Harvey: International Assassin is about to have another whirlwind adventure.
The visuals are part of what makes The Leftovers’ journeys into the afterlife so unsettling and immersive – director Craig Zobel, who helmed International Assassin in Season 2 and effectively set the rules for this strange alt-reality, is back in the chair again, and the consistent tone is really quite remarkable, as the show outdoes our expectations by taking us somewhere entirely new. Harvey’s mission? To kill the President, who plans to launch a nuclear warhead. Before you can say “Donald Trump”, The Leftovers goes one better: rather than opt for the easy route of topical satire, it jumps straight to POTUS himself. And he’s none other than (you guessed it) Kevin Garvey, aka. the international assassin’s twin brother.
Delivering a speech to the nation, Garvey (dressed in white, like a Messiah – or, more accurately, a TV preacher) extols the work his Guilty Remnant party has done in ruling human civilisation, wiping out marriage and other such quaint, old-fashioned notions of intimacy. From the off, we can’t help but root for the assassin, but things are far from that simple – and the episode wastes no opportunity to remind us of that.
The script, written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, smartly avoids the disappointment of going back to a realm where we know there is no immediate physical threat; where International Assassin was a head-fist dive into weirdness, this is a sustained burst of the surreal that’s intercut with the real world to remind us how sinister the Other Side is, and how real the stakes are. Find Christopher Sunday? No problem. Does he know a rain dance? No. And as we see Kevin Sr. worrying about the cloudy sky back home, we immediately start to share his panic.
That rising sense of tension is beautifully undermined and reinforced by the unexpected oddities the Other Side throws at Kevin – from the return of John’s daughter, in a brief cameo, to him vomiting water out of a car window. Oh, and the bit where he has to get into a nuclear bunker by using a biometric scanner. On his penis.
Justin Theroux is in his element here, able to be suave, confident, determined – and completely and utterly flummoxed at every turn. His wildly lurching facial expressions make it clear that he doesn’t know whether he’s about to make the right choice in any given situation, or fall foul of this universe’s warped logic. He might be able to come back to life, but what’s the point in coming back if he’s caused everyone to die anyway?
Speaking of dead people, what a treat it is to have two returning guest stars: Ann Dowd and Liv Tyler. Dowd, who perfected her balance of menace and mirth-inducing sarcasm in Season 2 of The Leftovers, is deliciously foul as the President’s Secretary of Defence – while Tyler is surprisingly earnest as his Vice President, trying to warn him that Secretary Patti has been planning this nuclear attack all along to wipe out the world. Why? Partly because that’s precisely what the world wants: on the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure, something has to happen to fulfil their beliefs. Why not something they can control and instigate?
There’s a wonderfully provocative return to the show’s themes of meaningless searches for meaning in Kevin and Patti’s heated exchange – and it says a lot that he agrees to go through with it. But it’s also just fun to see Dowd tear up the scenery (she worked with Zobel, don’t forget, on the gut-churningly tense Compliance, and their comfort and respect for one another shows), as Theroux reacts to her no-holds-barred venom.
To detonate the nuclear bomb, though, requires a key – and the key is buried (you didn’t guess this one) inside the stomach of Kevin Harvey. And so it is that The Leftovers’ Christ-like figure sacrifices himself in the goriest way possible: by shoving his hand underneath his doppleganger’s rib cage to retrieve the tiny metal object. All accompanied by The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. It’s nasty, weird, astonishing and, frankly, rather brilliant television. Catharsis ain’t catharsis without a bloodied fist in your own twin’s abdomen.
The sight of nuclear explosions lighting up the screen, as Patti and Kevin look on at their manmade closure, is jaw-dropping stuff, but it’s the smaller moments that really land, as Patti first forces Kevin to read out his Untitled Romance Novel he’s been writing. The book? It’s about a bloke who flees his partner and sails out to sea to be alone.
“He was terrified of her. To lie beside her. To be comforted by her as he wept. To show her he was small,” Kevin reads. “For her to know that and touch his cheek and whisper words softly in his ear. All of that was a nightmare. All he knew to do was run.”
Soon enough, we’re back in Australia, with Kevin Garvey Sr. standing on the rooftop of Grace’s farm, with no flood in sight. It’s a revelation that takes us right back to the misunderstood false prophecies and deluded hopes of the opening episode’s cult – a slide into melancholy that’s perfectly matched by the credits’ use of Max Richter’s haunting main theme, which we haven’t heard over the titles since Season 1.
That prologue in the bathtub, meanwhile, becomes even more poignant, as it once again brings us back to the separation of Kevin and Nora – two halves of a damaged coin in a slot machine of forgotten pennies, who finally found someone to heal and comfort them, rather than lead them on with theological lies or misplaced hopes. Harvey tells the President to get that key and detonate the weapon so they never have to return to this limbo again, but is Nora still around to stay on Earth for?
“Now what?” Kevin Garvey Sr. asks his son. Kevin, in following his dad’s ordained destiny, has tried to find some sense of purpose – but once again, the afterlife only brings him another personal lesson: the realisation that he’s a coward and has thrown away the only real thing in this leftover world. Whether faith or not is real, the important thing, as his father pointed out, is not doing these things on your own. But the tragedy of The Leftovers, and it has been ever since the broken marriage of the first season, is that Kevin knows no other way. How quietly sad it is that every time we cut from one perspective to another within the Other Side, it’s only caused by Kevin looking at reflections of himself – taking that match cut from the bathroom prologue and turning it into a solo act.
“Just read the last page, the ending’s better,” quips Patti, as Kevin begins to recite his book aloud, perhaps a nod to fans who complained that Lindelof’s Lost didn’t have a satisfying conclusion. Judging by this remarkable penultimate hour, though, the final chapter of The Leftovers is set to be all kinds of satisfying.
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 7-day free trial.