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The Leftovers season 3, episode 1: “The Book of Kevin” ambitiously looks to the past — and a startling future

Welcome back to not knowing what’s happening, Leftovers fans!

The Leftovers, HBO’s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic drama, premiered its third and final season on Easter Sunday, April 16, with “The Book of Kevin.” Below, Vox Culture writers Caroline Framke and Alissa Wilkinson discuss the episode in full — so beware, there are spoilers here, and lots of ’em.

Kevin, the Book of.

Caroline Framke: It feels fitting that this final season premiere doubles down on the fact that no one in The Leftovers whole damn world is ever going toas season two’s plucky theme song by Iris DeMent suggests — just “let the mystery be.”

To name one immediate example, “The Book of Kevin” opens with a bleak and beautiful prologue in which a 19th-century woman prepares for Judgment Day over and over again, to no avail. That sequence transitions into the burning wreckage of Jarden, Texas, in the immediate wake of the season two finale. And then, in a gasp-inducing shot, Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) blinks into the sky as a missile heads toward her and the rest of Meg’s Guilty Remnant faction, before the show flashes forward three full years — where her father, John (Kevin Holland), is holding out hope that she might still be alive, all evidence to the contrary be damned.

But the entire hour is marked by people trying desperately to find either logic or absolution as the seventh anniversary of the Departure looms large.

Kevin (Justin Theroux) is now Jarden’s police chief and head of the kind of family he’s been craving forever, but he still finds time to casually asphyxiate himself before work in the morning just to see if he can make it out the other side. (He can — a point that becomes crucial soon enough.) Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) isn’t just working with John to help people “communicate” with their disappeared loved ones through the cunning use of Facebook stalking, but married to him. Matt (Christopher Eccleston) has built a whole new church around the fact that his wife Mary (Janel Moloney) snapped out of her coma and bore a son when everyone said it was impossible.

And Nora (Carrie Coon)? She is, as always, a bit more of a question mark, bearing a mysterious plaster cast and nursing the hurt of losing her baby Lily (how, we still don’t know).

With The Leftovers, there are about a million things to parse in every other shot. So, Alissa, what immediately struck you about “The Book of Kevin”?

Alissa Wilkinson: Last year, The Leftovers’ season two premiere kicked off with that really enigmatic sequence, of a prehistoric woman giving birth right after a calamitous earthquake kills off her tribe and leaves her alone. Season three also starts with a historical callback, but this time to a small town where a doomsday preacher keeps predicting (and botching) the specific date of Judgment Day. And it ends in what appears to be the future — I gasped when I saw Nora’s face.

I kind of can’t get over how cool that is. I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen this season, but now I have the basic contours of it, plus the fact that, as this season’s advertising suggested, we’ll end up in Australia somehow. I’m pretty sure the world isn’t actually going to end on October 14.

Then again, with The Leftovers, the world is always ending, and I guess that’s the point of the sequence with the devout woman: The world itself doesn’t have to end for your world to collapse in on itself. And every time The Leftovers seems to come to a place of stability — as with the seemingly solid marriages and happy family gathering we see in “The Book of Kevin” — we just know something’s going to go wrong.

Caroline: I absolutely felt that uneasiness throughout the hour — which is perhaps to be expected, given that it opened with a missile homing in on a teenage girl. But you’re right that the updates on everyone’s whereabouts were strangely sedate. Everything from the surprise party for Tom (Chris Zylka) to Kevin clopping around town on a horse felt just a little too idyllic to be true, giant inflatable Gary Busey balloons and all.

Regardless, I have to say that from the second “The Book of Kevin” started, I was grateful to know I’d be debriefing about it with you in particular, given your background in writing about Christianity and its themes in pop culture. In that respect, what did you find in “The Book of Kevin” to be the most interesting?

“The Book of Kevin” is exactly as fueled by religious allegory as it sounds

This flashback!

Alissa: There have always been a ton of religious allusions sprinkled throughout The Leftovers. But they’re especially prevalent in this episode, Kevin’s status as an infinitely resurrectable pseudo-messiah notwithstanding. That people appear to have fixed on October 14, the forthcoming seventh anniversary of the Departure, is significant. Many people believe it will be the Judgment Day, though some people seem to think the Departed will return on that day, including the Gary Busey fans who are camping out in Miracle.

Matt says as much, but it’s also worth noting what he doesn’t say: that in some interpretations of the biblical Book of Revelation (which foretells the end of the world), the “tribulation” period between the rapture — similar in nature to the Departure — and the final judgment is seven years, and there’s a clean break at the 3.5-year mark when the Antichrist will make himself known. When The Leftovers debuted, it dropped us right around that halfway point, and the events we’ve been watching have been happening in that space all along.

That’s also, interestingly, the point where Kevin starts experiencing his hallucinations, which still linger in his mind now: His old dog-hunting Mapleton buddy has hatched a conspiracy theory about dogs taking over the country, and comes after Kevin with a gun when Kevin doesn't believe him, furious that Kevin has "changed." But after Tom shoots him, Kevin tries to commiserate by telling Tom about the time he killed someone — and flashes back not to the cabin where he actually did kill Patti in season one, but to his hallucinated assassination of (the already dead) Patti in season two. And now that he’s gone through resurrection and seems to be unkillable, he’s being seen as a Christ figure — quite explicitly, with Matt writing a new “gospel” for him. Kevin seems to both hate this and be a little intrigued by it.

And that seems like a dead giveaway: Will Kevin turn out to be the Antichrist? It seems from the end of the episode — which is set in the future, but we don’t know how far — that Nora wants to forget him. Is he going to turn out to have been leading people astray all along? I don’t think The Leftovers is all that interested in mapping its story directly onto the Bible, but it’s always been happy to call up biblical imagery from Job to Mary and Joseph for its storytelling purposes. I wonder if this is where it’s headed.

There are a couple of other things too — the use of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” in the first sequence, for instance. It’s a 1969 song by the legendary granddaddy of Christian rock, Larry Norman, and it’s been re-recorded by everyone from the Christian rap/rock group DC Talk in the 1990s to Jordin Sparks, who covered the song for the truly bad 2014 Left Behind reboot starring Nicolas Cage. It’s an apocalyptic tune written from the perspective of someone who had been “left behind” (the phrase appears in the lyrics), and it’s based on the biblical passage Matthew 24, which the voice at the beginning of “The Book of Kevin” quotes.

Then there’s the end of the episode, when Kevin looks to the sky and sees a dove flying, which morphs into the final sequence in what is apparently the future, when Nora — going by “Sarah” — raises doves somewhere verdant and green, far from Texas. The dove is best known in the Bible as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and in the Gospels the dove alights on Jesus when he is baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. There are a lot of parallels here, including Kevin being baptized by Michael after wading into the river to declare it safe and unpoisoned.

Or there’s the fact that Matt and Mary named their baby “Noah,” which seems to be a clear allusion to the first apocalyptic story recorded in the Bible: the story of Noah and the flood, when the whole world was swept away and only Noah and his family were saved in their boat. Jarden’s name seems to be recalling the Garden of Eden, but it also seems like a kind of ark, a place where people feel safe from the destruction they’re so certain is impending. Does this child represent more than just a miracle conception?

Who knows? The thing about The Leftovers is that everything is significant, and nothing is by mistake. That’s the mark of masterful television.

Everyone on The Leftovers has always been looking for answers they will probably never get

Nora? Is that you? Who knows!

Caroline: I do want to go back to the opening sequence, mostly because I can’t get it out of my head.

Gorgeously directed by Mimi Leder, this story of a tiny community trying to predict the end of the world is the kind of haunting tangent only The Leftovers could pull off. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” brilliantly frames the circling narrative, from the parishioners’ first giddy hopefulness that they’ve cracked God’s code to their devastation when nothing happens, and around again, and again, and again. Some let their faith wither and die; some flaunt the fact that they never had faith at all.

But only one, the red-haired woman who centers the whole thing, keeps trying. She keeps donning her white robes — which, not for nothing, look a lot like 1844-era Guilty Remnant garb — and opening her heart to a god who will reward her faith. It’s impossible to tell by the end whether she still believes the judgment she’s been hoping for is nigh, but then again, hope is all she has.

This story is, in other words, The Leftovers in miniature: a seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going even when your experience in the world is screaming into your face that everything you’ve ever known might be completely pointless.

This show has always been about people searching for answers, hunting for meaning in a seemingly chaotic and cruel world. They sift through their own minds and guts to try to find hope, or peace, or vengeance. What they don’t (or can’t) do is accept the fact that 140 million people disappeared all at once on October 14, almost seven years ago now. Instead, everyone is, in their own ways, either fighting or reasoning with it.

So even though I never have any shortage of questions when it comes to The Leftovers, my main ones about this last season are pretty straightforward. Do you think we’re going to get any real answers? Or does that ultimately not even matter?

Alissa: I’d be surprised if we got real answers. In fact, I think it would be antithetical to The Leftovers’ whole point, which is that in life we don’t really get answers. If the show were to give us any, it would run against its own grain.

That said, I do think we’ll come to understand what Kevin has been experiencing since the beginning of the show — the hallucinations, the potentially messianic qualities. I’ve never found him to be as compelling as everyone else, but that’s been slowly changing since the latter half of season two. And now I’m genuinely curious. Given how inexplicable his experiences seem to be, I can’t imagine we won’t get some clearer picture of where he fits into the cosmic plan.

But then again, maybe not. And I’m not sure that would make for a better show. In the end, it might be best to let the mystery be.

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 pm on HBO.

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