As expected, The Leftovers series finale didn’t offer any concrete answers about the Sudden Departure, but it did examine the mystery from a surprising angle, leading to a poignant, even heartwarming conclusion for characters who’ve basically been in agony for three seasons.
The Leftovers’ second and third seasons were heavily focused on Kevin (Justin Theroux), whose ability to resurrect from multiple deaths offered an intriguing way to explore the show’s spiritual themes—not to mention have fun with the bizarro afterworld that he visited each time he kicked the bucket. But as fascinating as Kevin’s journey has been, the series finale, “The Book of Nora,” turned the spotlight on The Leftovers’ most fucked-up character. (Which, for this show, is saying a lot.)
Nora (Carrie Coon) was introduced as someone who became a minor celebrity, if that’s the right word, after losing her husband and her two kids in the Departure. In Kevin, she found a partner who was as damaged as she was, and that dynamic made their relationship as volatile as it was passionate. In season three, she’d seemingly found her calling as an investigator for the Department of Sudden Departures—basically, a professional skeptic. On a fraud case, she learns about a group of scientists who claim to have created a machine that essentially recreates the Departure, zapping willing participants with carefully calibrated amounts of radiation so that they can (presumably) join their lost loved ones. It triggers something inside of her, and her desire to see her children again overwhelms everything else. This includes her love for Kevin, especially after a screamingly angry break-up cements her decision to rapture herself.
In “The Book of Nora,” we see her enter the machine and very nearly scream “Stop!” at the last possible moment; the scene then cuts to an unfamiliar time and place, with a Nora who appears to have aged 20 or so years. As is The Leftovers’ wont, we immediately have questions: Did she go through with it? Did she jump out at the last minute? Are we in the place where the people taken in the Departure have gone? Did the apocalypse happen? Then, when Kevin (also aged) shows up in Nora’s remote corner of the world—acting like he just happened to run into her, and that she’s just a casual acquaintance from Mapleton—even more questions arise.
Every season three episode of The Leftovers used a different theme song to score its credits, each chosen because of some significance to the episode. The finale deployed the jaunty country tune that was used throughout season two—the one that memorably suggested we just “let the mystery be.” And indeed, we never learn why the Sudden Departure happened. We never learn why those who disappeared were chosen. We never learn why Kevin was apparently immortal. The Leftovers, after all, is about people dealing with stuff they don’t understand, and coming to terms with the fact that some things simply can’t or won’t ever be explained. (That applies to the characters—and the audience, too.) But the show didn’t play totally coy. There was a big reveal in the third act, but it was completely out of the realm of what was expected.
Rather than seeing the tale unfold like an action movie, like we did on Kevin’s afterworld visits, we learn about it as Nora quietly explains it to Kevin. The machine did work. But in the world inhabited by Sudden Departure victims (surprise, it’s not heaven; it’s just like our world, except a lot emptier and more overgrown), her family has found happiness, a rarity in that lonely place, without her. There’s simply no room for Nora in that parallel universe. So she finds a way back to our dimension, and more or less goes into hiding. Her fear that Kevin won’t believe her, she says, is what prevented her from reaching out once she returned. But as we learned last week, Kevin has realized that love is the only thing that matters, and has made it his mission to find her and convince her of the same.
Was it corny? Yeah, a bit. But it was well-earned—even hard-earned—for characters who have been in extreme struggle mode as long as we’ve known them. Honestly, it would have been a cop-out and a disappointment if the script had offered a complete rundown of what really happened in the Sudden Departure. In the end, that event was really a grand MacGuffin that’s allowed us to watch these flawed characters fumble through their weird and unpredictable world. Providing a truly happy ending for Kevin and Nora, however, is maybe the most shocking thing The Leftovers has ever done. And it could not have been more satisfying.