The greatest trick The Leftovers ever pulled was getting audiences to stop thinking about what had happened to the Departed, the 2 percent of the world’s population who simply disappeared one October day in the series’ universe.
This was no easy feat! Damon Lindelof, who co-created the series with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel the show was based on, was previously most famous for Lost, a series known for asking big questions that weren’t always answered to viewers’ satisfaction.
And television abhors a vacuum. With all those episodes to fill, the medium essentially demands that you eventually explain everything, to the degree that when TV plot points are deliberately left ambiguous, people tend to flip out — ask any fan of the Sopranos finale.
But maybe The Leftovers managed to keep its viewers from wondering Hey, what happened? because the series is deliberately about what happens when there aren’t any answers and you’re just circling the void.
With every season, the Departure has felt less like an event that took place on the series and more like its central symbol, standing in for everything from depression to death to God (and/or God’s absence) to the simple fact that you can never truly know the people you love, no matter how much you think you do. The Departure can never be explained, because life can never be explained.
Better, then, to find a kind of peace with the fact that answers won’t be forthcoming. As The Leftovers glides through its third and final season — I’ve seen seven of its eight episodes — it remains one of TV’s absolute best shows. Characters slowly leave the story as they finally reach their own emotional catharses, because to become okay with the void at the universe’s heart is to cease to be a regular character on The Leftovers.
And to not be okay with it means you’re going to have to get to Australia.
The Leftovers shifts location yet again for its last season
“Some of the characters go to Australia” is pretty much all I feel comfortable revealing about the plot of this final season of The Leftovers, mostly because the fact that the series was filming down under was covered a lot in the press. But one thing I will say is that Australia, home of deeply existential films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and even the Mad Max series, feels like a perfect spiritual fit for The Leftovers.
The series heads way out into the Outback for a handful of episodes, and the massive, empty landscapes feel of a piece with the series’ quiet, lonely soul. In particular, pay attention to the way director Mimi Leder shoots these remote landscapes in episode three — a frequently silent hour of wilderness wandering — as though Australia belongs on a different planet.
Truth be told, maybe it does. The continent has always been held up by The Leftovers’ as a place where interesting things are happening, even if we’re not seeing them. These were just rumors in season one, while one character actually traveled to Australia in season two, leaving the rest of the cast behind. (We catch up with him this season, as you’d expect.)
Australia may not be the end of the world, but it’s close. It takes a long time to get there from the US, and for the most part, its population huddles on the coasts. Many in its aboriginal population are living roughly the same lifestyle as their ancestors did 150,000 years ago, and there are hardy farmers and small-town folk carving out their own space amid the unforgiving landscape.
So if you were going to pick a spot that emphasized just how much the larger forces of the universe don’t give a whit about any one human’s plans, Australia, with its endless skies and rumbling storm clouds and animals unlike any other, is just about perfect. When Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), and a few others arrive there, it feels not at all like one of those stunt vacation episodes that sitcoms used to do. (You know, the Family Ties gang visits London or something.) No, it feels inevitable. This is always where we were headed.
Beyond that, I won’t say much about what happens in season three. That’s partly because perhaps the season’s biggest twist occurs just a few minutes into the first episode, and partly because a show operating at the peak of its powers like this one deserves to be enjoyed and experienced with fresh eyes.
I can tell you that the characters are slowly settling into their new lives in Jardin, Texas (where they moved in season two), before leaving for Australia. I can tell you that there’s once again a prologue set in the past that seems to have nothing to do with anything but actually serves quite well as a sort of thematic foreword to the season. And I can tell you that a lot more time passes in this season than you might expect, given that there are only eight episodes.
I wish we’d all been ready
Like Lost, The Leftovers is a post-9/11 TV show, in that it’s a series less about fearing death than about fearing unknowability. Those who were among the Departed still cast a heavy pall over every single character on the show — even those who didn’t lose anyone — because you can never guarantee that it won’t happen again.
And yet the idea that it won’t happen again perhaps makes the Departure all the more difficult to bear. If it became a new kind of naturally occurring phenomenon, it might end up feeling like a tsunami or hurricane, sweeping in off the sea to demolish some lives and leave others grateful for what they still have. Yes, it would be different, because no one would know what happened to the Departed, but it would become a Thing That Happens — terrible and random, yet also quantifiable.
But leaving the Departure as a one-time event, well, there’s something a little unbearable about that, because while you can never guarantee that it won’t happen again, you also can’t guarantee that you weren’t taken because you failed some test you didn’t know you’d been asked to pass. The more time that elapses since the Departure happened, the more The Leftovers’ characters seem as if they’ve slowly been driven around the bend.
The world of the show is filled with obsessives, who wait and watch and hope for some clarity amid their madness but only seem to slip further out of their own heads. The series has always been a potent study of the ravages of mental illness on the human psyche, and on the ways that grief can become all-consuming when you lack the means to process it (like knowing there’s a body to put in a casket and mourn).
And in that sense, The Leftovers is about the inability to process huge, traumatic events because you lack a frame of reference for them — which makes it feel very much like a series that has found its moment in history.
When it debuted in 2014, its overwhelming grief was, perhaps, a little out of step with the times. But with each subsequent season, The Leftovers has felt more and more like it reflects our world, the one where 2 percent of the population didn’t disappear but where impulsively striking a Syrian airbase is seen by many as exhibiting good leadership skills, because people want to believe somebody knows what they’re doing. (I will hint that one episode in The Leftovers’ third season has great fun with the iconography of the US presidency and leave it at that.)
It is impossible to watch this season of The Leftovers and not think about the world we live in right now. In some ways, the theme isn’t “What happens when the world ends?” but “What happens when it doesn’t?”
An early sequence is scored to the Christian rock song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” — a mournful tune told from the point of view of the people left behind after the rapture — and there’s a weird chipperness to it. “Sucks to be you,” the song seems to suggest, “because we get to be in heaven!”
But we’re more than 40 years on from the writing of that song, and we’re still here. There’s been no rapture. You can never be ready, not for the world’s end or for its continuation.
You stab, blindly, in the dark, hoping you’re doing the right thing, whether you have immense amounts of power or no power at all, but in the end, you know just as much as everybody else, which is to say you know nothing at all. You can’t be ready, because some people you love will die, some will drift away, and some will still be there when you wake up. And you’ll never know who’s who until you do.
The Leftovers returns Sunday, April 16, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Appropriately, that’s Easter Sunday. The two previous seasons are available on HBO Go.