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Bigger mysteries, fewer answers in ‘The Leftovers’ finale

Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, from left, Kevin Carroll as John Murphy, Christopher Eccleston as Matt Jamison, and Jovan Adepo as Michael Murphy in a scene from “The Leftovers.” Photo courtesy of Van Redin/HBO

Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, from left, Kevin Carroll as John Murphy, Christopher Eccleston as Matt Jamison, and Jovan Adepo as Michael Murphy in a scene from “The Leftovers.” Photo courtesy of Van Redin/HBO

(RNS) Viewers hoping for answers to big questions in the series finale of HBO’s “The Leftovers” went to bed unsatisfied.

Series creators and main writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta left hanging the show’s central question: Where did 140 million people — 2 percent of the world’s population — go when they disappeared in a Rapture-like event called the “Sudden Departure”?

Was the Sudden Departure an act of God? Wait; is there a God? And if there is, why does God let bad things happen to the good people in the series?

These theological questions came up repeatedly in the show’s three seasons. None were definitively answered in the final episode on Sunday (June 4). Lindelof, who was both touted and taunted for leaving another series, “Lost,” mired in ambiguity, promised fans early on that if they were looking for tidy answers they should watch something else.

Instead, he asserted in a phone interview a week before the series’ end, that he takes his inspiration from one of “The Leftovers” theme songs: “Let the Mystery Be.”

“I’ve always been interested in mystery in general — not the whodunnit kind, but in the construct of why are we all here,” Lindelof said. “The not knowing is part of the beauty of it all and it is part of our human experience to generate our own answers without an answer key.”

Mystery, especially existential mysteries usually tackled by religious faith, formed the foundation of “The Leftovers.” Storylines and themes were inspired by the Book of Job, Daniel in the lion’s den, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and, in the introduction to the final season, a time-travel segment back to 1844 when the Millerites, a doomsday Christian sect, awaited an apocalypse that never came.

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof poses for a portrait while promoting his movie “Tomorrowland” in Beverly Hills, Calif., on May 8, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

Lindelof’s work is often dotted with religious references (Jack Shephard, the main character in “Lost” was a thinly veiled representation of Jesus). But “The Leftovers” has ventured unusually deep in theology for a mainstream, big network series.

And that’s fine with Lindelof, who was raised Jewish by a believing mother and an atheist father and said he wanted to make a show both could watch. Today, he said, he believes in something — but that something is always changing.

“(Personal faith) is a constantly evolving construct and I embrace that,” he said. “I want it to evolve. I want to continue searching and questioning and exploring different fundamental ideas that feel right to me. So for me, my religious identity is based on the ongoing exploration and less about am I going to find the answer to the search for what it is all about.”

Perrotta, who wrote the acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name and co-wrote much of the series with Lindelof, is also OK without an answer key. He was reared Catholic, now identifies as agnostic, but is deeply interested in religion.

“My feeling is religions have mythological paths,” he said from his home in Boston. “We can’t know did Jesus return from the dead or if Muhammad heard the voice of God; we have to act on faith. With ‘The Leftovers,’ our characters are not in the position of the Israelites who could follow Moses or the first Christians who could follow Jesus. They are dealing with interruptions of the miraculous or the supernatural in their world.”

And that, he said, set up a writer’s playground to dig deep into how people make meaning of their circumstances, with or without personal faith.

The show frequently highlighted a push-pull between faith and skepticism in conflicts between religious characters, like the Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), and nonbelievers, like his sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). Stuck in the middle is main character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who hears voices, sees dead people and seemingly cannot die.

Christopher Eccleston as Matt Jamison, left, keels during a scene from “The Leftovers.” Photo courtesy of Ben King/HBO

Kevin makes a couple of trips to a purgatory-like afterlife (brutally depicted as a bland but luxurious hotel with a karaoke bar where “guests” must sing their way out). Jesus metaphor alert — he always comes back to life.

Reza Aslan, creator of the television series “Believer” and a consulting producer on “The Leftovers,” said the series also highlights an American response to religious disappointment and supernatural phenomena.

Jovan Adepo, left, as Michael Murphy and Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey in a scene from “The Leftovers.” Photo courtesy of Van Redin/HBO

“This is a country that has always bred religious experimentation,” he said. Some of these religions become successful, like the Mormons or the Seventh-day Adventists (who evolved out of the disappointed Millerites). We are all about starting anew, starting fresh.”

Americans also have a talent for absorbing new information into existing religions — seen in the show’s season two relocation from the novel’s town of Mapleton, N.Y., to the fictional town of Jarden, Texas, a semi-sacred pilgrimage site for religious seekers when no one disappears there.

“If aliens suddenly showed up in Central Park it wouldn’t do away with Christianity any more than the discovery that we are not the center of the universe did,” Aslan said. “We would absorb it and move on. In ‘The Leftovers’ we observe that through the drama of these surviving characters.”

All of this (and a basket of religion-oriented “Easter eggs” viewers can hunt for, like the absence of Bibles in hotel’s rooms, a pillar-sitting hermit, and songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Wade in the Water“) separate “The Leftovers” from other television shows like “The Young Pope,” “The Path,” and “American Gods” that tackle similar themes.

“‘The Leftovers’ is not only a show about religion and faith and our search for meaning; it is itself a religious show,” said Manuel Lopez Zafra, assistant professor of religion at the New College of Florida who blogs about religion and popular culture at “Lost Among the Walking Dead.” “The way Damon Lindelof has developed the show is that it is almost another form of scripture. It takes the vocabulary of religion and inserts it into the language of American popular culture — a TV show.”

“That is what ‘The Leftovers’ is,” he continued. “A conversation about very old topics using very new language.”

And television — which many critics say is in a “golden age” — has, to an extent, displaced film and books as the popular culture form where big questions, including those about religion, can be discussed deeply.

That makes perfect sense to Lindelof.

Unlike churches, temples or mosques, which require us to go to them, television “is the place that comes to us,” he said. “It is a very intimate medium and it happens on your own turf. It is just a much more palatable way to have these broader, larger and sometimes threatening and scary questions presented to you. You can have a more intense emotional relationship with those questions on TV that you may not be able to in houses of worship.”

As for the finale it remains ambiguous to almost the last minute.

“The word we keep using is ‘satisfying,'” Aslan said of the ending. “No great questions are answered, no great mysteries are solved, there are no great revelations. But you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it is supposed be.'”

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Since season one we’ve had a pretty good idea of why everyone disappeared and why Kevin was pretty much immortal. This definitively answered the major remaining question and leaves one hook for the future – What about Miracle Wayne’s daughter? Did he go to such extremes to leave progeny out of simple paternalism or is there a grander design? Or did Kevin’s destruction of the afterlife end it all?

  • I think there were a lot of possibilities raised as to why everyone disappeared, but it was never stated with any kind of firmness. I think Holy Wayne was just a womanizer and had lots of kids. As to what Kevin did with the Other Place, it might have been specific to his own Other Place.

    The question as to “where” the departures went _was_ answered. What wasn’t answered was _why_. Also, I don’t recall the existence of God or questions of theodicy being major themes on the show.
    Nevertheless, religious themes were woven into the show, especially with Reza Aslan consulting on the third season. Thank you for writing this article, it’s a great show to talk about.

    I’m going with what was implied first season and reinforced by the opening titles – if anyone was wishing you weren’t there at that particular moment you went away. Nora getting the notice of being able to return to school as her children and husband were nagging her, Kevin wishing he wasn’t in his illicit affair, his wife looking at the ultrasound screen just as she had decided to leave him, etc. I think its clear that Miracle Wayne granted a wish in a sloppy manner and instead of it just effecting the person wishing it was as if everyone in the world had wished it – hence the ‘Guilty Remnants’ that on some level realized others were gone because they wanted them gone.

    And Kevin’s unspoken wish as Wayne was dying was to be reunited with his family, which happened immediately and preventing him from ever leaving them – even by death.

    But yes, that could have been just his after life but once he destroyed it it might have ended his wish’s benefits.

    And with all the Wayne wives all dying except one child – there was some wish Wayne granted for himself.

    I enjoyed the ending far better than the Lost ending. Nora went to where the Departed went, and got sent back. The world didn’t end and even the pigeons found their way home again.

  • Leftovers are sometimes OK, but not a steady diet. Remember the family that always had leftovers, every night?
    One of the kids finally asked his dad, “Why do we never have a fresh meal? Why is it always leftover? What were they before they were leftovers?”
    Dad: “Why, they were leftovers-to-be!”

  • for me the only good thing I got from leftovers was to learn not to see a Lindelof show anymore. He only knows to do this kind of crap and most people still talks about when the show ends, as if there was any rational or expected planned end for the show. But with Lindelof there is never one. A completly waste of time… but well this time was only 3 years… Never more Lindelof!

  • I liked that explanation of why the Departure occurred, but having grown to enjoy seasons 2 and 3 more than 1, I more or less moved past asking why and just said “Let the mystery be.” Definitely enjoyed the ending. I may be one of about ten people who watched The Leftovers but has never seen an episode of Lost, so I’m evaluating it on its own merits. The only thing that would have made it perfect-er in my mind is to have added on a coda. There is a Vulture article about the writers of the show and how they decided to go with Season 3. They mention an unfilmed scene concerning Sam, the departed baby from Mapleton. Read the article for more info, it would have eliminated the endless arguing about Nora’s story.

    Yes, and the real ‘meta story’ is about in the face of a totally incomprehensible event like that that threatens so many of the stories we build our lives around humans are compelled to write their own stories.

    That’s one of the paradoxes of life – from the written word the stories that we like and last fall into the construct of 3 act as identified by the earliest philosophers and playwrights even though every person who lives a life knows that so many very important events aren’t that way at all. So we shoehorn them into that format after the fact, creating understandable meaning where simple chance is explanation enough.

    So 2% (or 98%) of the world disappears and we have to create a story why and what it mean to have a sense of completion or peace for all our broken assumptions and stories. Now in this series we do get the impression that something other than random chance is at work, Kevin hallucinating seeing the girl in Australia that served to reunite him with his father. It all seems like there is a story there but in the end its just about love and some birds that oddly, to the bird, got lost for the very first time and may never get lost again.

    Life is about living, not the stories we create about it would seem to be the final take away I got.