Season Finale: The Leftovers – “The Prodigal Son Returns”

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When I dropped in on an episode of The Leftovers at The A.V. Club earlier this season, it was cathartic: after weeks of watching but not writing about the show, it was nice to have a space to confront the series’ opaqueness.

But as I return to confront the finale, I’m wondering if I had it all wrong. On the surface, The Leftovers struck me as a series that begs us to analyze it, full to the brim with characters with uncertain motives building toward something and yet nothing at the same time. What’s the deal with Wayne? What drives the Guilty Remnant? Those questions at first seemed to bear fruit as it related to the themes of the series: even if we ignore the existential question looming over the entire series, these other questions funnel back into the meaning of the departure and accumulated considerable meaning as the season wore on.

That meaning was a smokescreen. It was a powerful one, granted, but as The Leftovers concludes I’m struck by how little separates a show that begs us to analyze it from a show that resists all analysis. Say what one will about Lost, but it wanted us to be invested in its mysteries, and even in the end sought to give purpose to our investment even if that failed to appeal to all viewers. By comparison, however, The Leftovers built a house of cards that it knew was going to burn away by the end of the season, leaving behind characters we relate to because they too were caught up in the construction. They lived through what we lived through, and must equally confront the landscape that revealed itself when the house burned to the ground. It was in those final moments that the show finally revealed its hand, and for the first time as an entire series became legible, and real, and open to the kind of analysis it had nonetheless inspired while resisting such visibility.

And the result was compelling, if also guilty of building a neater circle than it necessarily needed to.

When I suggest that The Leftovers resisted analysis, this doesn’t mean that things those who watched it thought about—or wrote about—were entirely unproductive just because Wayne was a dead end. However, there was realistically no way for us to be able to piece together some of the character details until the penultimate flashback episodes. The meaning of the final scene is built around the events of that episode, from the baby Laurie lost during the Departure to the dog they never ended up buying. The Guilty Remnant’s whole purpose was to show the people of Mapleton that the answer lied in the past, as opposed to the future, and The Leftovers itself embodied this by building a conclusion that completely required the flashbacks to pull together in the end.

The flashbacks had bothered me. On the one hand, it was so obvious that they were bringing new meaning to this story, and unlocked truths about Laurie, Tom, and Kevin that pulled together their character arcs. They felt essential, which isn’t always the case with flashbacks, and this made the episode engaging. And yet at the same time there was always the sense that because we were seeing this so late in the game, various details—Patty and Gladys showing up, the broken circuit at the science fair—felt too pat, too clean. Understanding that the series is about meaning on a higher plane, and that it doesn’t necessarily believe in coincidences, there was an inherent construction to the buildup to the Departure that made the world feel much smaller than I’d expected.

In the end, though, that was fitting given the direction the finale took. The town of Mapleton, the focus of much of the series thanks to Kevin’s responsibility to protect it, was collectively lost. Forced en masse to confront the Departure, enough of them cracked under the pressure that chaos overtook whatever stability they had created. Perhaps most poignant for me were the parents of the special needs man, who we saw in Kevin’s flashback and who Nora had interviewed earlier in the season. We saw who they were before their son disappeared, we saw how they were dealing with his absence, and we saw the hurt and anger they felt when they were forced to confront that on a level they hadn’t prepared for. Although the Mayor argues that she could have done more, that she should have taken Kevin’s concerns seriously, in truth the problem was that each person was so fraught with their own existential crises that there was no way to ever bring them together. In this way, the Guilty Remnant was right: there was never a chance to creating stability in a world where each individual was repressing his or her emotions about the Departure.

The members of the Garvey family each took their own journey. Kevin tried to mend the family he had been planning to leave, believing that the Departure was in some way punishing him for sleeping with the accident victim at the time. Laurie turned to the Guilty Remnant to find a space to confront the grief she couldn’t feel in the open, grief that could include believing that her uncertainty about whether she would keep the baby contributed to its departure. Tom, already reeling from the news about his biological father, followed the aimless path of the undeclared college student to the post-Departure equivalent—where people once backpacked across Europe, now they fall in with an enigmatic cult leader who offers the answers you’ve been seeking. And Jill, who was a bright-eyed teenager without a care in the world, has gone through adolescence with the world in flux, and with her family drifting apart.

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When the series began, I wondered why we were focused on a family that had been seemingly unaffected by the Departure directly, at least not in the same way as the Reverend or Nora (which was a big part of what made their episodes so effective). What I’ve come to realize—slower than I should have, I admit—is that we are the Garveys. We are the people who can never completely understand what someone like Nora went through, and who don’t have to live every day facing the reality of what happened on that day. And yet there are some among us like Laurie who understand better than people know, relating to the depression—building on Todd VanderWerff’s point earlier today—that lies at the heart of this world and the people fighting to live in it. And we all relate to these events in ways we might not admit, or in ways we don’t understand yet, or in ways that are only visible when something else happens to throw them into sharp relief. The series therefore, in retrospect, was telling the story of the Garvey family’s awakening, coming back together after following their different paths and acknowledging the wounds they lost sight of in trying to adapt to this new world.

Yet as much as the Garveys’ awakening and the audience’s are connected, I feel the surrogacy ends here. The flashbacks linked our awakening to their own, showing us what Kevin confronted during his showdown with Patty and what drove Laurie to push forward with the plan that would burn everything to the ground. But what they have to confront is different: we’re understanding a television show, but they’re understanding life, and the two were sometimes in conflict as The Leftovers reached its conclusion. The harrowing moments as Kevin saves Laurie from an attacker, and she breathlessly tries to find the words to tell him that Jill is inside, were among the most powerful in the series. And yet as Kevin and Jill walk down the road hand in hand and the dog they tried to tame walks up to them, and as Nora walks onto Kevin’s doorstep to find Wayne’s child abandoned there, and as Tom finds his mother on the water’s edge, it all felt too clean. The episode welcomed me in to feel Nora’s pain at seeing plastic versions of her husband and children, but it pushed me away when it tried to make this about the circle of life, and to try to make it seem as though everything was building to this moment.

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As frustrating as I found parts of the ending, though, I think it’s made more effective by the fact it won’t be the end of the series. I agree with those who suggested it would have made a fine series finale if the show hadn’t been renewed, but this story ending goes against the very nature of this world. The show is about living in a world shaken by tragedy, and so I take solace in the fact that the story coming full circle for the Garveys is an illusion of the seasonal storytelling model. Laurie has helped orchestrate the destabilization of an entire town, but now she has to live in that world she created, with the events of that night having only brought her closer to the family she left behind to do so. Kevin still has a loose hold on his sense of reality, one that seems to run deeper than any guilt he felt about his actions at the time of the departure. And Tom and Jill are still in flux, lacking sure identities to rely on and continuing to face the truths of a broken family.

In other words, we thought we were watching the struggle of living in the wake of the departure, but in reality we were watching the struggle not to. We were watching a town that refused—collectively and individually—to do more than commemorate the event that changed their lives. Although the Guilty Remnant’s methods were suspect, they were ultimately right about the instability of the way the world tried to move on. And so what the show can now do is explore what happens when you have that moment of realization and come to terms with the world you have, and there’s this release of emotion that makes you feel like you’ve rediscovered a part of yourself, and then you have to pick up the pieces and keep living in the world. And while that’s going to likely to be bad news for the Garveys, and Norah, and the Reverend, and Meg, and anyone else we follow into next season, it’s good news for The Leftovers continuing to tell meaningful stories that resonate, an easier task now that we have lived through a chapter of their lives in haunting detail.

Cultural Observations

  • It will be interesting to see if The Leftovers gets any momentum whatsoever from the Golden Globes—I would expect it’s too dark for them, and that other cable fare is likely to draw nominations, but I really feel like Carrie Coon and Ann Dowd need some sort of space where they can be recognized for their work on the show, and my guess is the late summer slot will make it challenging for them to have any momentum by the time next year’s Emmys roll around.
  • Without overdoing the comparisons to Lost, Justin Theroux is in a similar position to Matthew Fox: a consistently strong performance, but one that rarely took the center of attention for much of the season. When it did during some key moments here, Theroux was up to the task.
  • Curious to see whether Jill’s friends—Amy, the twins—end up being a part of the second season. They were ultimately superfluous, but they were crucial to the idea that life was still going on, and that someone like Jill would still have people her age with whom she could break into people’s houses. But their absence in the finale makes it possible that they could be part of downsizing should it be necessary.
  • Not sure what combination of practical and VFX were used throughout the fire sequences, but Mimi Leder’s direction combined with that work really captured fire without abandoning the series’ realist aesthetic.
  • I’m really impacted by Max Richter’s score for the series, and think the central themes do a lot to support the tone and mood of the show, but I definitely think that they were used a bit too loosely here—too many similar scenes with similar scores, to the point where the music was doing too much work even if that was mostly working.
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3 Comments

Filed under The Leftovers

3 responses to “Season Finale: The Leftovers – “The Prodigal Son Returns”

  1. Pingback: The Leftovers | Tired and Bored With Myself

  2. magnificent put up, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector do not realize this.
    You should continue your writing. I am confident, you have a
    huge readers’ base already!

  3. pj hunt

    Only the most narcissistic of women could come up with this much self-important crap, “Myles”. LOL. Good lord, this is a pathetic attempt to rationalize this show. Try again.

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