“I want fucking closure,” Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst declares during one of the final eight episodes of The Leftovers, a statement that speaks not only to her years-long quest to move past the sudden, still-unexplained disappearance of her family in the Departure, but to our collective human need for satisfying endings—from our lives and, more self-referentially, from the TV shows that briefly distract us from them. Across two seasons now, we’ve watched Nora and the other characters of HBO’s thoughtful, enigmatic, emotionally draining drama grasping for the kind of conclusion that might allow them to move on, to give meaning to their being left behind by the Rapture-like purge that took their friends, loved ones, and Gary Busey without any explanation or discernible logic. It’s a quest that’s only grown more pressing in the show’s third season, where (thanks to a minor time-jump) the Departure is fast approaching its seventh anniversary—a meaningful omen for those who haven’t grown too jaded to believe in them. These faithful console themselves by insisting that all they’ve suffered has to be leading to something. There just has to be a big, blowout ending to all this. Otherwise, what was the point?
It’s an especially poignant question for co-creator Damon Lindelof, who could go on to produce decades more of stories with profound, resonant, eminently satisfying conclusions, yet he will always live in a world where “Lost finale” is a shorthand for disappointment. That show—which presaged The Leftovers in its mélange of spiritual searching, science-fiction gloss, mystical hokum, and emotionally marooned malcontents—famously left many of its diehards enraged with an ending that ultimately valued the journey over providing some detailed, white-boarded explanation, with some of its most fervent fans similarly asking why they wasted their time.
Lindelof has wrested publicly with that backlash ever since—sometimes defensively, sometimes apologetically—and it’s also colored nearly every interview he’s ever given about The Leftovers, in which he’s repeatedly described it, quite pointedly, as “not the mystery-solving show.” Nevertheless, we live in an age where, glutted on great television and highly protective of our precious viewing time, a show is too often judged by whether it “sticks the landing”—a bullshit phrase that reduces years of graceful, thought-provoking art to a skateboarding trick, where all that matters is whether your flashy, expert maneuvering ends with you safely on the curb or sprawled on your ass.
Though Lindelof has always been careful in maintaining that The Leftovers isn’t a direct reaction to Lost or its disgruntled fans, that desire for finality—can God (or whatever) stick the landing?—has long plagued its world. Its characters have been bedeviled not just by their loss but also by the maddening ambiguity of it. The question of how to go on living—of whether they should go on living, or just don the white garb of the Guilty Remnant, stop wasting their breath, and smoke themselves to an early grave—formed the entire through-line of the first season, which drew directly from Tom Perrotta’s novel and concluded with the book’s open-ended cliffhanger. It was a meditation on living with grief that, perhaps understandably, left a lot of viewers cold. By continuing the show beyond Perrotta’s ellipsis of a final page, relocating the show to a new town and introducing new protagonists with their own miseries and mysteries, The Leftovers’ masterful second season widened the door, allowing a new sense of hope for both its characters and its audience, who saw it in the renewed possibility for resolution. But the main question posed by the third season is, do we really want that resolution? What would it even look like?
Happily, there’s no answer to that yet. HBO provided critics with only seven of the season’s eight episodes, leaving its conclusion, fittingly, just out of reach. Lindelof has also been adamant that critics avoid any spoilers or even too many plot points, to preserve the surprises that—guided by the urgency of the maybe-approaching end times, as well as the truncated episode order—are doled out here more swiftly than ever. But it’s not spoiling anything to say that the conversations both about and with God, which have long made The Leftovers one of the few shows to seriously wrestle with religion, are expressed here more directly than ever. As before, these endless dark nights of the soul are spurred on by Christopher Eccleston’s meddling preacher Matt, whose faith wavers between the evangelical, the desperate, and the downright blasphemous as he becomes convinced that the many deaths and resurrections of Kevin (Justin Theroux) means he’s the key to everything that’s happening. “I’m not fucking Jesus,” Kevin protests to this, though having thus far survived poisoning, drowning, shooting, and a purgatorial karaoke bar—plus his new, raggedy beard—others beg to differ.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn) is out in the wandering-friendly deserts of the Australian Outback, sporting his own Old Testament look and fervently convinced that another biblical flood is imminent. Back in Miracle, John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) and his son Michael (Jovan Adepo), still grieving the implosion of their family, have similarly found new purpose in Matt’s flock and the belief that they have a role to play in what they believe to be coming. All of them, along with Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), form a backbiting, F-bomb-dropping group of disciples around Theroux’s reluctant messiah, who’s not entirely convinced his many dalliances with the supernatural—his annoying ghost pals and side trips to the hotel underworld where he’s an international assassin—aren’t just part of a prolonged psychotic breakdown.
As these dirty-faced angels prepare to face their maybe indifferent, possibly nonexistent maker, Lindelof and Perrotta wisely break them off into single-character-focused episodes, which has always been the show’s most effective method. Exploring how each deals with potential Armageddon separately—some more welcomingly than others—the approach pays off in unusually strong showcases from Glenn, Brenneman, and Coon especially, whose flinty yet floundering work as Nora remains one of the most fascinating performances on television. And it serves to make the end of the world feel incredibly personal. Which, let’s face it, it is.
It can also be surprisingly funny. The Leftovers has always balanced even its most despairing moments with streaks of mordant humor (one long-running gag in particular gets an incredible payoff in the second episode), and the ticking of the doomsday clock has only intensified its droll sense of absurdity. The music choices from supervisor Liza Richardson are particularly inspired this season, a raft of old spirituals, ’60s pop schmaltz, and ’90s gangsta rap that comment cleverly on the action, reserving Max Richter’s elegiac score for just the scenes where it has the greatest emotional impact. And that sardonic wit undercuts even the most outlandish of the show’s many dazzling visual spectacles, which this season includes everything from lion encounters to orgies to nuclear submarines. You’d be hard-pressed to name a work of art, let alone another TV show, that balances such enormity so playfully, without also being glib about the ponderous questions at its core.
But will anyone be around to watch it? For once, it doesn’t matter: HBO has granted the critically acclaimed, yet criminally low-rated show these eight episodes to help it find its own closure, with Lindelof promising no loose ends that might leave fans bereft, similarly wondering how they’re supposed to move on. Still, for all of his talk of giving it “as satisfying an ending as we can give,” it’s hard to imagine The Leftovers going out with the sky cracking open and the hand of Gary Busey reaching down to deliver God’s final judgment, along with an exposition dump. The show has always seemed to not just shy away from such easy answers, but openly deride them as cons or delusions.
With its final season tailored squarely for those who have stuck with it through all that poignant uncertainty—and if all the posters prominently featuring Theroux’s abs haven’t drummed up any new viewers, no point worrying about them now—there’s little reason to expect it will change that overarching philosophy. The series has always been about how difficult it is just to live in the world, forced to move on, get back to work, keep breathing, even when it seems like death shadows our every moment, and the strange anger it provokes when it fails to hurry up and do it already. We all want closure, but when it comes The Leftovers, it’s just good to get a little more time.
Created by: Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
Starring: Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Kevin Carroll, Jovan Adepo, Scott Glenn
Debuts: Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Format: Hour-long drama
Seven episodes watched for review
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.