As it prepares for its final episodes, it’s time to revisit HBO’s The Leftovers, where past years of struggles and miracles give way to a looming cataclysm. In brief, the show depicts the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, a Rapture-like event where 2% of the Earth’s population vanished in an instant. The first season focused on the immediate aftermath of the event in a small town in upstate New York, and the second turned to a community in Texas, which was spared altogether.
Having already moved most of the cast across the country, the final season moves most of the action to Australia, in the days leading up to the seven-year anniversary of the Departure: a growing consensus sees this occasion as the likely beginning of the End of Days. Simultaneously darker and funnier than its predecessors, the show is very conscious that this season is its last. Absurdity and grief pair together as the characters realize that their quest to make the Departure meaningful approaches its final hour.
While the other seasons largely focused on community responses to tragedy, this final season has been atomically individual. After all, we each go into death alone, even though we are all going to die.
One of my professors explained the insurance industry this way: Why do you buy life insurance? Because you might die. Why do you buy annuities? Because you might live. You have to be prepared for both. Tax implications aside, there’s a metaphysical point here: you might die, and you might live, but you won’t know until it’s too late to plan. With, of course, one tragic exception. The fundamental appeal to eschatological beliefs is that they resolve this uncertainty. On a particular day, at a particular time, the world will end, and with it, death will come to an end. You may become immortal or you may be obliterated, but either way, it’s over.
Accordingly, the season begins ominously with a montage set in community of Millerites in 1844. These were the followers of William Miller, who was a 19th century American preacher in the Second Great Awakening, who concluded that the Book of Daniel predicted that the world would end on October 22, 1844. He promoted this theory for twenty years, gaining a following in the hundreds of thousands before the big day.
In The Leftovers’s Millerite sequence, a community gathers on their rooftops on the fateful night, only to come down disappointed in the morning. Their preacher discovers a mathematical error in his prediction, and so, reduced in number, they return on the new date.
And again, come down disappointed.
Only one believer—rejected by even her family—maintains a vigil for the third predicted End, and while a raging thunderstorm briefly raises expectations, it only means her morning embarrassment is wetter than before. It was all meaningless.
The unnamed Millerite seems to approach the End, three times, without a doubt in her mind. But the characters here lack her certainty about what is to come, and given the Departure itself, even skeptics lack confidence in their predictions. They all wrestle with the fear that life itself—and the Departure in particular—are fundamentally meaningless. The comic absurdity of the season seems to mock the very search for meaning, but the humor is tempered by the looming possibility of suicide: the one exception to the uncertainty of death.
Pastor Matt Jamison and his sister, Nora Durst, map out the two poles of belief and doubt. Both suffered terribly from the Departure, and have coped by taking opposite extremes: Matt is endlessly convinced that there is an underlying purpose to it all, that he can discover, while Nora clings to the other edge, believing that her suffering had to be random.
Nora’s husband and children were all taken in the Departure, and her immediate response was to sign up with the federal Department of Sudden Departure, the government agency responsible not just for researching the event, but for uncovering and prosecuting Departure-related frauds, mostly murderers who claim their victims Departed. This brings her into contact with Mark Linn-Baker—the co-star of the ’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, who gamely plays himself. Baker faked his own Departure because every other cast member of his show Departed, fleeing to Mexico before being found and sheepishly returning. Now more stable, he has a new proposition for Nora.
The show leans heavily on the comic absurdity of Baker’s position, even replacing its theme song with that from Perfect Strangers. However, smiles fade quickly when Baker reveals the existence of a device which—purportedly—can replicate the Departure for anyone in its crosshairs. But Baker warns, it’s a one-way trip. Nora instantly concludes that the thing is simply incinerating its targets while someone else pockets the $20,000 fee: there’s no Departure, only death. However, she’s intrigued enough to get approval to investigate further, bringing the requisite cash and a cover story to Australia to gain access to the machine.
As this plotline moves forward, it becomes increasingly ambiguous whether or not Nora actually plans to use the machine on herself, and if she does, whether or not she anticipates a reunion with her family or death. She wears a cynical mask, and is scornful of her TGIF-alumnus contact. But the only way to get a certain answer is to step into the machine, and it’s tempting.
Her brother Matt is the opposite: he is so committed to his belief of divine intervention around the Departure that he’s written a new gospel, and prepares to be with his messiah in the right place at the right time to greet the world to come. But events seem to conspire to mock his faith: arriving in Australia, the erstwhile Ninth Doctor finds that his only way forward is to book passage on a ferry chartered by a sex cult worshipping the real (!) Frasier the Sensuous Lion.
Among his fellow passengers is one of Frasier’s descendants, and a retired rugby commentator who claims to be God. The latter is eaten by the former, but not before Matt lashes out at him, raging at a version of God who takes credit for the Sudden Departure, but who still insists that all of human history is meaningless. Matt, of course, denies that the God he worships has appeared before him on this ferry full of lion sex cultists, but his words seem to echo upward.
The outlandish comedy of the ferry ride is abruptly undercut by the revelation that, apocalypse or no, Matt’s time on Earth is limited. His childhood leukemia has returned, and his days are numbered. Reflecting on his first fight against cancer, he wonders if he was cursed or blessed: was he cursed with the disease, or blessed with the cure? The tension infuriates him, and he pushes himself to believe that his stay of execution has been purposeful. His apocalyptic prediction would confirm that purpose, but while his faith appears strong, his uncertainty matches Nora’s, as revealed in his rant against God.
Similar feelings grip Matt’s reluctant messiah, Kevin Garvey, whose brushes with death—and returns from its clutches—may have given him a glimpse of the afterlife, that is if it’s not all a hallucination. Stuck somewhere between Nora and Matt, Kevin is driven to madness by the dual possibilities before him: is it real, or an illusion? He briefly embraces hope as he chases a Melbourne librarian he believes to be his dead neighbor, but the delusion fades to a vague resemblance; the show pushes this ambiguity on the viewer by switching the actress in the end. He risks death repeatedly—diving into maybe-poisoned water (it’s fine), and wrapping a plastic bag around his head, but removing it before the passes out. He’s driven to learn whether or not he does have the ability to cheat death (as Matt’s book proposes), and if the afterlife he experienced was real. But of course, the only way to know for sure is to actually let himself die, and so another character goes into the final episodes on the possible brink of suicide.
Similar stories capture the other characters this season, turning a show that’s always been a study of depression into something even more acute: the morass of delusion, anxiety, and major depression that can manifest as suicidal ideation, if not the act itself. The show withholds answers, while keeping up wildly dissonant emotional tones—swinging from comedy to tragedy, from farce to horror. The effect on the viewer is to not only to provoke empathy for the character’s psychic strain, but actually emulate it, by allowing the viewer to experience the characters’ temptations around their deaths. You share the desire to know if Kevin has become immortal, if the device is merely an incinerator, if the End of Days is at hand, and above all, if the Departure actually meant anything at all.
There are two episodes to go, and the show has resolutely held back ultimate answers, but in a way that deepened, rather than frustrated, its underlying messages. Standing at the precipice of its own end, that pattern may or may not hold. If it is not able to resolve the fundamental doubts that torture its characters, it will need to express a different solution to their despair.