Every week, Vox Culture is diving into an episode of HBO’s The Leftovers, which is currently airing its third and final season. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Caroline Framke take on “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” the sixth episode of season three, and the penultimate episode of the series.
Caroline Framke: From the second I heard The Leftovers’ season one theme start to play over this episode’s opening credits — beginning with that infamous, ominous “bwoooooommppp”! — I was both bracing myself for the inevitably intense hour ahead and laughing at the show’s sheer defiance.
Season one wasn’t received with nearly the same rapturous critical praise that seasons two and three have been; many found it too slow, too philosophical, too impressed with its own solemnity. But ever since the end of season one — which more or less followed the events of the Tom Perrotta novel that inspired it — The Leftovers has only gotten stranger and more fantastical, taking a deliberate sharp turn from the show it was in the beginning. After wrapping Perotta’s original story, the world of The Leftovers has jumped ever more freely between between perspectives, hemispheres, and even dimensions. It’s become a bigger show in just about every sense.
But as both the callback opening credits and the bruising ending of “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” confirm, The Leftovers is still, at its core, what it’s always been: a story about wrenching, deeply personal grief. For all the show’s talk of divine intervention and Doomsday proclamations, when Kevin — or more accurately, both Kevins — finally gets to the center of his mental maze in this episode’s final minutes, it’s not about God at all. It’s just about Kevin, a well-meaning man who’d nonetheless rather run from his problems than do the hard work of untangling them. It’s about the life he had, the life he wanted, and the woman he still loves.
But that’s not to say “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother) doesn’t also contain a ton of symbolism and pithy callbacks — even those gray sweatpants get to take a final bow! — so let’s dig in. What did you think of The Leftovers’ latest (and presumably final) “Kevin goes to the afterlife (or something like it)” chapter, Todd?
Todd VanDerWerff: While season two's "International Assassin" is probably the best "Kevin in the afterlife" episode, I think this one ultimately had the most to it, if that makes sense. By the time Kevin is fighting himself in an attempt to cut a key out of his own heart — a key that will launch nuclear armageddon, mind you — it's clear that The Leftovers has escaped its earthly bonds and jetted off to some new planet entirely.
And it's a great planet, too! I love hanging out there. In particular, "The Most Powerful Man in the World" gave us a beautiful curtain call for Ann Dowd as Patty, who turns up again to help Kevin through his latest crisis, while also offering us a moment with nearly every character who’s died on the show. (Notably absent, though the series plays around with the possibility of her appearance: Laurie.) Meg, Evie, even acclaimed stage actor Bill Camp — they're all here.
But everything boils down to Justin Theroux, the man at the center of this story, and the guy who's always been happy to chase the craziness of the series wherever it may take him, even if it leads to surprisingly amusing dick jokes. (Seriously, what a great dick joke!) I recently chatted with Theroux about the process of filming this episode, and what a technical mindfuck it was to film (especially since he had to shave in the middle of shooting the centerpiece scene), and I’ll get back to that, but I also want to know what you think of that final sequence, which suggests that in all of the craziness, we've missed something important: The real tragedy is Kevin and Nora's breakup.
Caroline: Okay, but first I need time to react to that dick joke, because ohmygod, Todd, that dick joke! Kevin putting his penis on a scanner is just about the best encapsulation of these bizarro Kevin episodes as we’re going to get There’s meaning lurking around every corner and in every inch of every familiar face on The Leftovers, but moments like those, more than anything, are just like the weirdest fucking dreams you’ve ever had. Of course Kevin would need to put his dick on a scanner in order to reach the innermost corners of his mind. It feels like a metaphor for both everything and nothing at all.
But yes, anyway, enough about dicks: Let’s talk about Kevin and Nora.
I love Kevin and Nora about as much as they hate themselves, which is to say, the most. This episode’s opening flashback scene of them relaxing in the bath while talking about what they each want the other to do with their bodies once they die (Nora opts for cremation, Kevin snarks about taxidermy) is as relaxed as we’ve ever seen them. It’s also a beautiful reminder of why they worked so well as a couple, for a time. Theroux and Carrie Coon have always been electric together, but in this scene — their eyes crinkling at each other in easy joy — they’re effortless.
I sighed with the happiest of relief when, at the end of “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” Kevin read that solemn “romance novel” ending to himself and realized that the rawest nerve of his hurt lay in his broken relationship with Nora. The two of them always understood each other on a deep, dark level that no one else could reach. It makes sense that Kevin would mourn the loss of that closeness, but I have to say, I was both surprised and thrilled when I realized The Leftovers was going to make room for it even with the end of the world as the show knows it rapidly approaching.
But I'm curious as to what you think the episode’s fairly banal ending of Kevin realizing he lost the girl might mean for, you know, that whole religious reading of Kevin as a possible savior. I am currently as confused on that front as a naked Kevin washing up on a foreign beach.
Todd: What's neat about that ending is that it's still fraught with religious imagery. The sight of John and Michael sleeping near what could have been Kevin's corpse recalls the two disciples who fell asleep outside of Jesus's tomb and missed the resurrection in the New Testament, and, of course, Kevin returns to life after having apparently been dead awhile, which is not something people just do. (Kevin’s other resurrections have been slightly easier to explain via non-supernatural means.)
I think that's what makes Kevin's realization that he really fucked things up with Nora so poignant. He's sitting with his father, the world hasn't ended, and everything still feels shitty. When I spoke with showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta before the season even debuted, they described one of the themes of this season as, "What happens when the world doesn’t end?"
That's been a particularly poignant idea to explore in 2017, when the stakes of almost everything happening often feel like life and death. Plenty of liberals and other left-leaning folks have found themselves thinking that Donald Trump might signify the end of the world — and maybe he will! — but at the same time, even if every human being on the planet dies, the planet will keep spinning. The universe is much bigger than us, and that’s scary. So we invent narratives to insert ourselves into and hope for the best.
Yet in that quest for meaning, we can so often shunt aside the people who matter to us. Kevin and Nora got wrapped up in the stories they invented for themselves, and that led to the catastrophic failure of their relationship. It doesn't matter if Kevin is Jesus, at least not to him. What matters is that he abandoned the woman he loved.
Which all sounds pretty grim, when this episode is so funny. How about that essay contest joke?
Caroline: Or, again, the scanned dicks!
The Leftovers has always been funny in the way that Mad Men was funny. It doesn't tell jokes so much as let people be authentically witty. Some people can be pretty hilarious and self-deprecating in their darkest hours.
For me, the best example of this on The Leftovers — both in "The Most Powerful Man in the World" and beyond — is Patti. In life and in something resembling death, she’s a ruthless tyrant who can also be funny as hell, especially when she's exasperated with Kevin.
Even as I was gaping in horror at her blasé explanation for why she and Kevin should annihilate the entire world, I couldn't help but giggle at her nonchalance. Without a sense of humor, twisted though it is, Patti wouldn't be nearly as magnetic or compelling as she is — either to Kevin or to Leftovers viewers.
But I do want to go back to what you said about the fact that even if Kevin seemed to come out of his drowned coma more confident than ever that his father and Matt and all the rest of the true believers are full of shit, he really shouldn't have been able to come back at all. He has still died and come back more times than maybe he can count, all of which we see again in an almost frantic montage. He is still bringing back remnants of that afterlife, or that purgatory, or whatever the hell it is that he goes. (And hey, maybe it is hell, who knows!) Something is still up with Kevin — the question is, will we ever truly know what it is, with only one episode left in the series?
Todd: I mentioned earlier that I talked about this episode with Theroux himself, and hearing how it turned out to be something of a marathon for him — especially on a lengthy day of filming when it was pretty much just Ann Dowd and two versions of him alone in a room — only makes me appreciate this episode more.
“We had another actor that we hired, same height and able to be shot from the back of his head, who really did his research and played the scene with me,” Theroux told me, which meant that the actor spent his whole morning filming the half of the scene featuring bearded Kevin, before shaving over lunch and doing the afternoon’s scenes as clean-shaven Kevin.
That sounds confusing, yeah, but when you’ve got a Justin Theroux stand-in right there to function as a placeholder for the Kevin you’re not playing, well, that probably helps. So Theroux himself was able to stay situated, though he thinks it might have thrown off his costar.
“It was more confusing, I think, for Ann Dowd, because she couldn’t help play the scene to me,” he said. “Instinctively, you want to play the scene to the actor you [know best].”
Regardless, “The Most Powerful Man in the World” gave me a new appreciation of everything Theroux does to make The Leftovers work. It can only go as bugnuts as it does because he’s right there at its center, trying to hold the fraying pieces of his mind together by any means necessary. It’s telling, then, that the scene where Kevin literally kills himself by cutting open his own chest and removing that nuclear key — before killing his other self in nuclear armageddon — is scored to what might be the most beautiful pop song ever written: The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (“what I’d be without you...”). Who is Kevin without his increasingly troubled second self? We have one more episode to find out.
The series finale of The Leftovers airs June 4 at 9 pm on HBO.