To write about a television series as breathtakingly expansive and deliberately opaque as HBO’s The Leftovers is to challenge oneself to render in written language an experience that revels in being largely indecipherable. Rather than answering the myriad questions raised by the characters and the increasingly mysterious world they inhabit, the series works by burrowing deeper and deeper into its own ambiguity until those more concrete questions about causality become largely subsidiary to the more theoretical notion of faith: Without tangible evidence, how much can we be asked to believe? And what does it actually mean to be a believer?
The basics of the backstory are more or less clear. In the wake of a mass departure in which roughly two percent of the world’s population disappeared without a trace, the global community struggles to move on, with varying degrees of success: cults form, families break apart, and relationships fray under the pressures of dealing with unresolved grief. The Garvey family—including patriarch Kevin (Justin Theroux), the troubled yet stoic chief of police of a small town in New York—serves as a microcosm of the rupture that’s befallen the population left behind after the departures, and The Leftovers follows this fractured family through the years as their relationship to the mysterious event becomes progressively more fraught.
The first season of the series saw Kevin and his daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy after Kevin’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), leaves the family to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose self-stated purpose is to be a living reminder of the those who departed—memories they believe everyone else is trying to leave behind. Chaos ensues. And in the second season, which was cannier in its conceptual vision, we found Kevin in a relationship with Nora (Carrie Coon), a woman whose husband and children all departed suddenly during a family breakfast, and living in Miracle, Texas, a possibly magical town famous for having none of its citizens depart and which may even offer healing qualities to those who reside there. Now, in the third and final season of The Leftovers, the main characters find themselves in a crisis of faith on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the departures, which many believe will signal the world’s end.
There’s a holy text, a possible messiah, and yet another journey into the unknown. There’s also—in one particularly stunning episode in which the series fully embraces its tendency toward excess and a heightened sense of the weird—a tiger, a sex party, and a murderer who believes himself to be God. And there’s also further efforts to explain the departures, all of which now demand questions of belief and the limits of conviction in the face of unexplainable phenomena. Throughout, characters struggle to articulate their faith to one another in ways that reveal the gaping chasms of grief and despair lurking just below the carefully composed surface.
The plot has somehow gathered most of the principal characters in the wilds of Australia, chasing down what some believe is their last chance for redemption. The series, which in its second season embraced an aesthetic of constantly challenging viewers to distinguish between reality and fabrication, has doubled down on its commitment to the exploration of the spaces between what we want to be true and what’s actually true. And with only a few odd missteps—including an episode reminiscent of one from season two in which Kevin travels to what seems to be an alternate dimension—that sometimes test the audience’s patience with diversions and over-the-top narrative experimentation, the lead-up to the series finale escalates brilliantly by implicating the audience in the questions the characters are facing, allowing us to share the experience of their disorientation and turmoil. The final result is a harrowing examination of how we each build our own reality around what we choose to believe.
Just like last season, this one begins with a vignette from the past, in this case bringing viewers to a small village in 1844 where a congregation of pilgrims, having predicted the exact date of the rapture, don white robes and climb onto the roofs of their houses when the day finally comes, expectant faces turned up to the sky. When nothing happens, they continue to adjust their predictions, with similar results, and the numbers of the devout begin to dwindle as each failure further erodes the purity of their faith. Finally, one woman remains, having lost her family and suffered the open scorn of the other villagers, but still she climbs to the roof at the appointed time—during a lightning storm, no less, the rain streaking down her face bringing to mind the biblical flood—to anticipate deliverance.
While the village rejects the woman’s faith, perhaps even fears its intensity, The Leftovers itself remains ambivalent about her dogged pursuit of answers. She urgently needs to believe that something better is waiting for us on the other side, whatever that might mean, and since the show’s audience knows that the inexplicable departures do eventually happen, we’re inclined toward sympathy for her conviction. And the rest of the final season, which revisits the residents of Miracle and then sees them off on their own pilgrimages, examines the tangibility of faith and whether it’s enough just to have it, or if it needs to be a means to an end. There are no real answers in The Leftovers, even as plot questions are resolved, and the series miraculously turns that ambiguity into its greatest accomplishment.