Trying to develop a unified theory of The Leftovers is probably foolhardy, not least because its defining episodes (“Two Boats and a Helicopter,” “Guest,” and “The Garveys at Their Best”) so thoroughly shatter any effort to reduce the series to a description of its supernatural premise. But if you were to ask me what The Leftovers is about, its rendering of the tumultuous relationship between head and heart is where I’d begin: Half of the series is built from bibilical parables, scraps of verse, philosophical investigations, holy ghosts, while the rest is composed of blood, burns, human embraces, and feral animals. The Sudden Departure, the void at the center of The Leftovers, surpasses understanding, but the show’s true subject—loss itself—is one we can all identify with. “The Prodigal Son Returns,” like The Leftovers as a whole, is a primer for all the physical and psychic weaponry we deploy to fill the gulf that opens when what we held dear is gone.
Picking up where “Cairo” left off, the season finale features a series of reckonings, not all of them as satisfying as one might have hoped. In particular, the ignominious end of Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), clutching his fatal wound in a bathroom stall somewhere on the road to Mapleton, fails to resolve the tension between his charismatic presence and his failed leadership. On the one hand, the pitiable circumstances of his death befit the false prophet who’s abandoned his flock: “Just another asshole who thought he was God,” the agent interviewing Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) explains, as if to comment on Wayne’s deluded promise to grant Kevin’s unspoken wish. On the other hand, Wayne’s empathic encounter with Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) in “Guest” made clear that the force of his personality, if not his half-baked ideology, attracted followers whose belief was sincere and ardent and recognizably human, reaching out to reclaim the connections that the Sudden Departure irreparably severed. The increasingly measly glimpses of Wayne, simpering and alone in tight, airless spaces, neglected to explain why he suddenly lost his ability to draw apostles close; instead, his role in the series devolved into indications of his fugitive status and the inexplicable pregnancy subplot. Every martyr is, to his doubters, just another asshole pretending to be God, and Wayne’s unceremonious shuffle off this mortal coil did little to address how we distinguish between the two. I, for one, was relieved to see him go.
Indeed, “The Prodigal Son Returns” replicates certain of the problems that plagued the series premiere and “Penguins One, Us Zero,” falling back into an unwieldy, melodramatic vein that subsequent episodes largely avoided. Kevin’s dream sequence, bringing back both his father (Scott Glenn) and a bellowing Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), manages to undermine the powerful finality of the elder Garvey’s mad tirade in “Solace for Tired Feet” and the Guilty Remnant leader’s suicide in “Cairo,” all while hitting the “crisis of masculinity” angle too hard to be effective. The series has long since been most successful when it invests its most profound concerns (faith and doubt, bereavement, regret) with workaday intimacy, as in the horror that consumes Coon’s face when Nora discovers the life-sized dolls of her departed family at the kitchen table. The moment earns its emotional ferocity because the images that precede it—Nora brushing her teeth, for instance—are so unremarkable: As I wrote about the depiction of the Sudden Departure in “The Garveys at Their Best,” the terrible thing that happens is terrible, in part, because we failed to see it coming.
And yet, The Leftovers has enveloped me so thoroughly in its universe that the finale’s flaws (too many characters, too much plot, too little focus) ultimately melt away, supplanted by the brilliant conclusion. After Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) comes to Kevin’s aid, helping him bury Patti in the woods with a selection from the Book of Job; after Jill (Margaret Qualley) confronts Laurie (Amy Brenneman) in the GR compound; after Christine (Annie Q) deserts Tom (Chris Zylka) and the baby; after the residents of Mapleton respond to the Guilty Remnant’s heartless act with a storm of destruction and violence—after all of this, another day still dawns, borne up by a tenacious, quiet belief that we continue on in the face of tragedy, doing the best we can.
Nora’s note to Kevin, recited in the same calm, gently sorrowful manner that has marked Coon’s tremendous performance all season, returns the episode, and the series, to its central question: What happens when the only thing you have left is the memory of what you’ve lost? “Sometimes when we were together, I remembered who I used to be before everything changed,” she reads:
“But I was pretending. Pretending as if I hadn’t lost everything. I want to believe it can all go back to the way it was. I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization. I want to believe it’s still possible to get close to someone, but it’s easier not to. It’s easier because I’m a coward, and I couldn’t take the pain. Not again. I know that’s not fair, Kevin. You’ve lost so much, too, and you’re strong. You’re still here. But I can’t be, not anymore. I tried to get better, Kevin. I didn’t want to feel this way, so I took a shortcut, but it led me right back home. And do you know what I found when I got there? I found them, Kevin, right where I left them. Right where they left me. It took me three years to accept the truth, but now I know there’s no going back, no fixing it. I’m beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair. I can’t go on the way I’m living, but I don’t have the power to die. But I have to move towards something, anything. I’m not sure where I’m going, just away, away from all this. I think about a place where nobody will know what happened to me, but then I worry I’ll forget them. I don’t ever want to forget them. I can’t. They were my family.”
The message has an incantatory quality to it, the declarative repetitions striving to magic away the darkness that descends upon realizing that there’s no going back. But for all the bitter resignation it carries, Nora’s letter holds within it the same faint hope we place in bibilical parables and scraps of verse, philosophical investigations and holy ghosts, blood, burns, human embraces, and feral animals: the hope, as thin as the paper it’s written on, that while we can never return we may be redeemed, simply by moving forward.
This is, of course, the moral of the prodigal son too. “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad,” the Bible says, “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
“Look what I found,” Nora says, smiling, as she holds Wayne and Christine’s baby.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote, reflecting on a wasteland of his own. I suppose this, for me, is the most succinct statement of what The Leftovers is “about.” It doesn’t matter what fragments we use to fill the gulf left over after we lose what we hold dear. What matters is that we find something, because there’s the next day, and the next, and the next. “Before” may be lost, but there’s always an “after.”
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