In the Bible, Luke 15:11-32 tells the story of the prodigal son and his return to his family. The title of the season finale of The Leftovers, “The Prodigal Son Returns,” takes inspiration from this passage. As we’ve seen throughout the series, episode titles potentially contain multiple meanings…or in this case, multiple prodigal sons.
Every prodigal son story consists of two key characters: a prodigal son and a father. The son leaves home for a different life that eventually becomes worthless, driving him back to his father, who receives the prodigal and restores them in some way. The other necessary element in said stories is the prodigal son remembering what life was like back home – this is always what drives the prodigal’s change of heart.
Using the framework for a prodigal son story, I see five “prodigal sons” in The Leftovers.
Kevin & Matt
Kevin fits as prodigal son in a variety of ways. He certainly returns to his own father – even if in a dream. Perhaps most interestingly, though, when making his confession to Matt at the diner, he states that he knows why he is there and not taken in the Sudden Departure. It’s because he wanted to leave. He wanted to be free – just like the Bible’s prodigal son. Our prodigal Kevin eventually does return home after a series of debaucheries in Cairo. Matt, our father here who greets the prodigal with open arms in this scenario, mouths the words to Kevin that every prodigal son longs to hear: “Let’s go home.” Even the FBI agent who interviews him advises prodigal Kevin to, “Go on home to Mapleton.”
Tommy & Laurie
Tommy is perhaps the most obvious prodigal son who returns home in this episode. His journey bears the most literal resemblance to the story from the Gospel of Luke. However, it’s the “father” we see him return to that is most shocking: Laurie. Despite all of Kevin’s attempts to reach his son through the season, it is Laurie that this prodigal son returns to instead. He even abandons the baby he promised to take care of as perhaps a symbol of the past he is leaving behind to return home to Laurie. Can we assume that Season 2 will open with this prodigal fully reunited with his “father” Laurie, in the ranks of the Guilty Remnant?
Jill & Kevin
While Tommy might have been on the longest physical journey, Jill seems to have been on the most significant internal adventure, forging her own prodigal path back home. Even Laurie is able to see how far her daughter has strayed, eventually begging her on her ever-present note pad to, “Please go home.” Eventually, it is her biological father, Kevin, who risks everything to see her restored, literally bringing her home in the process. And while this geographical return is significant, we can’t miss the change in Jill’s countenance when she stands outside the Garvey home near the end of the episode. The prodigal has returned.
Nora & Christine/Wayne’s Baby
In Nora’s letter to Kevin, she talks about what led her back home. Of course, the point she makes is supporting her decision to actually leave home and head out on her own prodigal journey. That journey turns out to be the shortest in both distance and time. Nora quickly remembers. She remembers having hope. She remembers having someone more fragile than herself to care for. She remembers her life. She remembers her purpose. In the story of the prodigal son, the father gathers the son into his arms as a memorable picture of his return home. In this scenario, it is Nora as the prodigal son who gathers the father figure – here, Wayne and Christine’s baby daughter – up in her arms as a symbol that she has finally now returned home.
The Feral Dog & Kevin
While we do not see the journey of the feral dog, he certainly had one. Jill cut the dog loose on the night she fled to the G.R., and luckily the dog did not fall prey to Dean’s gun. Despite Dean’s declaration that the dogs were not theirs anymore, this dog seems to defy that logic. While the dog – here, the son – did not look like he enjoyed his initial stay with the Garvey family, as evidenced by his incessant barking, he does return home to them…and specifically Kevin, here playing the role of the father. The barking is gone. Perhaps, he too remembered what it was like to be at home with the Garveys and that it was better than whatever journey he had undertaken after leaving.