I was raised Catholic but I knew I wouldn’t stick with it. Even before my confirmation I felt it was all sort of phony: the robes, the chanting, the off-key verses mumbled by bored churchgoers. The whole process of worship seemed to be mostly about going through the motions. There might have been something genuine at the core of it all, but I lost the thread early. Even at twelve years old, it felt like I had questions God couldn’t answer.
My disillusionment with religion wasn’t particularly traumatic — I was religious and, then, I simply wasn’t. I accepted that God, whoever He was, was very likely the product of the most profound fiction. I made my peace with that, but not without difficulty. I knew something was missing. I still feel that way. I am still searching for God and asking the same questions. Who am I? What am I doing here? What does it all mean?
As a humorous twist in my own crisis of faith, my Sunday night programming choice of late has been The Leftovers: a show that centers its story on belief and sets its characters on perpetual quests for answers, context, and justification. It’s very easy to see the appeal as each character wrestles with the same existential questions that beleaguer so many of us.
I was reluctant to follow The Leftovers at first, but I decided to take a chance on Kevin Garvey, Nora Durst and Matt Jamison, among others. I’m glad I did.
The Leftovers series finale, “The Book of Nora,” should go down as one of the greatest endings in television history. It epitomizes the best of everything about the show, capitalizing on its capacity for storytelling as well as its broad range of emotional depth and its celebrated pastiche of psychological color. Moreover, it came packed with plenty of surprises — no shocking twists, but rather a series of emotional marvels that can only be described as revelation.
In the past I’ve often tried to sell friends on The Leftovers with the same line that drew me in: “It’s a show about what would happen if the rapture occurred but there was no explanation.” But really that line only serves to pose the show’s least interesting questions: Where did they go? Why did they go? (The latter of which many are still asking after “The Book of Nora” wrapped up the show for good). Thankfully, the why of the Departure was never definitively resolved. Even the question of where they went is answered in spectacularly vague fashion in the most riveting few minutes in the show’s history: Nora’s final gospel.
The series finale, however, did offer answers. We learned the fate of the terminally ill Matt Jamison; we learned Laurie’s scuba diving trip was not her attempt at suicide; we learn Kevin Garvey, Sr., Jill, and Tommy are doing OK. Most importantly, we learned what happened to Nora after she “went through.”
Much has been made of the fact we don’t actually see Nora’s journey in the other world she describes — one in which 98 percent of the population has departed and the remaining 2 percent live in a worldwide ghost town. While the telling of this tale abandons the “show, don’t tell” rule of TV, it upholds a vital truth within the world of The Leftovers. Reality is subjective.
There is no proof that what Nora is saying is true. A nonspecific number of years have passed since Nora climbed into the pod, so it is completely possible that she never went through the process at all — choosing instead to live in exile and establish a new identity. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who imagined that Nora cried out “Stop!” at the last moment, before the “water with metals” overtook her. What’s to say she didn’t pull the plug?
The ambiguity is more than just fun here. It’s necessary. Viewers are left to determine for themselves whether or not Nora really passed through, saw her children again, and opted to leave them alone. Could we believe that Nora is capable of that, after all she’s been through? Can we believe her seemingly impossible story about the building of the second machine? The alternative is equally difficult to consider. Did Nora chicken out? Did she not spend those many years finding a way back from the other world? Does she instead merely exit this world, choosing a life of exile in the Australian outback?
Does it matter?
The Leftovers leaves it up to the audience to decide. If viewers were looking for answers, they got them. But whether or not those answers are true is an approximate certainty. Early in the episode, Nora reminds us, “I don’t lie,” but can her final story be a fable intended for Kevin? She has certainly had a long enough to fabricate it.
It seems that something is still missing from the end of The Leftovers, but that absence now leaves a kind of satisfaction rather than a sense of longing. In being incomplete, it completes itself in unique fashion.
Lindelof chose to end things small: a man and a woman and a conversation over a kitchen table. Kevin and Nora end up together. In that final moment, they are together for the first time in a long time, in the same physical place and time. In the end, Nora is the only departure in whose return we are invested. And her story, though fantastical, is the only answer we really need. Whether or not we invest our faith in Nora’s story isn’t important. What’s important is how we feel.
Perhaps that’s the truth lurking behind the many doors of religion. Not that we have belief, but rather we have feeling. That we find it in ourselves to love and to love again.
I, for one, believe Nora’s story, but I’m not going to think about it too hard.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Watch every episode of The Leftovers on HBO.