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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.