The Leftovers Finds Satisfaction with Ambiguity

Major spoilers for The Leftovers in this post.

So, while the creators have been saying it since day one, it was still startling that The Leftovers ended last week without definitively explaining the Great Departure. The event was the show’s central mystery: in an instant, two percent of the world’s population vanished without a trace. Since much of the series was about the struggle to understand the Departure and find meaning in a world where such things can happen, it was a bold choice to, shall we say, let the mystery be.

This is significant, not only in light of the show’s thematic work around doubt and anxiety, but also in the current era of television, where audiences endlessly focus on solving riddles and then angrily demand answers for ambiguous moments.

Since The Leftovers aired on HBO and was headed up by former Lost executive Damon Lindelof, the tension between narrative ambiguity and audience expectation always loomed large. HBO’s first prestige mega-hit, The Sopranos, famously ended abruptly, suggesting but not confirming Tony Soprano’s death. Fans were furious, either raging at David Chase or poring over every detail to find (non-existent) clues that would resolve the tension.

The final season of Lost, and particularly its finale, was received similarly, disappointing audiences by leaving too many of its major questions unanswered. Years later, the showrunners were still working to explain what they had done.

Surely with those two finales in mind, more recent television endings have been more specific. Breaking Bad left no doubts about Walter White’s death in the finale, and Mad Men almost went out of its way to give each of its characters a meaningful—and clear—farewell before the final curtain.

The Leftovers bucks that trend. But the decision to embrace ambiguity meant waves of added pressure on the show, risking the enormous critical praise that it had built up over its three seasons. The gamble paid off: the finale, titled “The Book of Nora,” was enthusiastically received by both the audience and critics:

There’s a counter-intuitive reason for the finale’s success: in defiance of all writing instructors in history, it decided to tell, not show, the ending of its story. Mostly set decades after the series’ main action, it eschews flashbacks, and instead simply allows its two leads, Nora Durst and Kevin Garvey, to tell their own stories one more time, and resolve the devastating fight that led to their breakup earlier in the season.

The episode begins as a conventional finale: Nora has finally found the scientists who claim to have a machine that can replicate the Departure. She pays the fee, receives her instructions, and walks into the machine. Lights flash, engines hum, and the audience prepares to finally see the other side. The screen goes dark.

And then we come back to an utterly mundane, even pastoral, scene. Nora is much older, riding her bicycle from an old farmhouse into town to deliver live doves to a nun, so newlyweds at her church can release them at the appropriate moment. The nun says a man named Kevin has been looking for her; she denies ever knowing someone by that name. She returns home, and knocking on her door is a grey-bearded Kevin Garvey—who seems to know nothing about their long, tumultuous relationship, denying that this encounter is anything more than a coincidence.

This is all odd enough to give the viewer pause; are we in some parallel dimension, after all? But familiar details keep falling back into place, and finally, after multiple confrontations, Kevin admits the truth: he’s been searching for Nora for years, and when he finally found her, he was unable to face the truth of their lives and invented a corny backstory for himself.

Only then does Nora give her account of what happened in the machine: she says that it worked, and that she went through to a world where the Departure happened in reverse, where 2% of the population remained while the other 98% disappeared. While she had the phenomenal misfortune of losing her husband and children in a moment, they only lost her. She discovers that in this reality, her family was incredibly lucky, with a parent and two children still together. In a world of orphans and widows, they still have each other. Realizing that there’s no place for her with them now, years after the initial Departure, she finds the first scientist to go through, persuades him to rebuild the machine, and goes home.

Nora’s journey seems almost perfect for the screen, but the show denies us any images of overgrown cities or Departed loved ones. We are only given Nora’s account—which concludes with her assumption that Kevin would not believe her story. While he assures her that she has his trust and faith, the viewer is left with doubts. Did any of it happen?

The show offers a remarkable conclusion: It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Kevin believes her, as he tells her, “You’re here.” And so the show dismisses the mystery in the final episode, and answers a more important question.

In the previous episode, Kevin and his father sat together under a bright blue sky; the elder’s prophecy of an imminent apocalypse having failed. The last line, then, from the erstwhile prophet, was simply, “Now what?” In the “Book of Nora,” once we’re freed from the show’s central mystery, we can see the abundant answers the episode provides.

In the moment, we see the joy both Kevin and Nora experience at their reunion, and realize that this joy and happiness has been all around them while they obsessed over unanswerable questions. We remember the broad grin on the face of the nun, while she denies any knowledge of the man who just left the convent on a motorcycle. We remember the bride and groom, boisterously celebrating with their loved ones while we watched Nora and Kevin struggle against the walls between them. In a finale that’s so focused on the existential pain of its leads, the return of joy is striking.

This aspect is reinforced because the episode also offers snippets from other characters’ lives, told to Nora by Kevin. Jill’s happily married with a baby, Michael’s running the church, Laurie and John still live next door. Even Matt’s death is bittersweet: Kevin tells of the stirring eulogy and the crowds who gathered to pay their respects.

So, now what? You keep living. You find joy where you can, and grieve your losses, because the mysteries of life will always remain beyond your control. You accept that you will not be able to know everything, to solve everything, to control everything. Only that you can get through the day and take care of yourself.

This ambiguity and uncertainty is a basic element of reality, but authors rarely accept it because fiction doesn’t demand it. Stories can end with a “happily ever after,” or a trainful of Potters and Weasleys on their way to Hogwarts, or with a promise that the Penvensie children will never have to leave Narnia again. Even where endings are bittersweet, they can be certain. The author, after all, controls life and death there, and few shy away from exercising that power. Audiences usually reward them for doing so: one of the pleasures of fiction is the feeling of purpose. Until the final page, everything happens for a reason, and the story can leave us satisfied.

In its ambiguous ending, The Leftovers defies that norm. It achieves a satisfying conclusion, not by asserting that everything happened for a reason, but by asking for acceptance of the fact that the world doesn’t work that way.

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