On Sunday, June 4, HBO’s The Leftovers aired its series finale, “The Book of Nora.” Below, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Caroline Framke discuss the episode in full.
Todd VanDerWerff: So, Caroline, do you believe Nora?
Caroline Framke: I do. But that hardly matters.
The summary for this final Leftovers' episode promised that "Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends." So when the episode cut from Nora submerging herself in that tank to "go through" and find her Departed children, to an older Nora gathering those carrier pigeons we saw in the season three premiere, I spent approximately 30 seconds trying to figure out exactly what had happened before I gave up and let "The Book of Nora" wash over me.
And frankly, knowing The Leftovers' commitment to ambiguity, I didn't think the show would reveal anything about what had happened in the time between.
So when Nora and Kevin finally sat down together, decades after they left each other broken and miserable in the hotel room they literally burned down with their frustrated rage, the last thing I expected was for Nora to explain in painstaking detail what she had actually went through. Her recounting of "the other side" wasn’t embellished by any cutaways or flashbacks. It was just Carrie Coon describing Nora's experience of searching for her children in a mirror image version of her and Kevin’s reality world, where 98 percent of the world’s population had disappeared instead of the 2 percent The Leftovers has been mourning. Nora tells the story with patient steadiness, her eyes only darting to Kevin's face a couple times to see if he’s actually trying to understand.
Still: there's no way we're ever going to know for sure what happened to Nora, or if what she experienced was "real." But my gut says that if Kevin could take sporadic trips to a purgatory hotel and come gasping back to life on command, why couldn't Nora go to “the other side”?
Todd: I thought a lot about the finale of Damon Lindelof's previous show, Lost, during that sequence. In the immediate aftermath of Lost, there was some grousing about how the finale didn't answer enough, while those of us who are wise and true pointed out that the show had answered most of its questions. It just didn't do so in the form of a monologue that explained how everything worked.
So then The Leftovers did just that but in a way where you can never be 100 percent sure that the "answers" are answers at all. And for as much as I love everything else that happened in "The Book of Nora," it's that decision that elevates it to an all-time classic finale for me. You don't get to know anything. You can only choose to believe. And I do — because I, like Kevin, want to believe in Nora.
But so much else about this finale is daring. It barely features The Leftovers’ regular characters who aren’t Nora. We get a little time with Matt at the start. There's a phone call to Laurie. And Kevin, of course, pops up throughout the episode's second half. But by and large, this is an episode about a character who was an extreme supporting player in The Leftovers' pilot.
This type of overall shift in a series’ focus is happening a lot more on TV -- Halt and Catch Fire (which is also ending this year) has largely turned over its narrative to its original supporting cast, too — but series finales are usually a chance for the whole cast to have one last hurrah. Instead, The Leftovers gave us Carrie Coon's Emmy submission (and what a submission it was!).
But the reason we don't feel cheated is that essentially every other episode of this third and final season has functioned as a series finale for one character or another. Laurie comes to closure in episode six and drops away from the story. The same goes for Matt in episode five. With a few more episodes, I'm sure the series could have given closure to a few other characters (I would have loved an episode about the Murphys or one about the Garvey kids), but the strategy to treat this season as a cascading series of finales paid enormous dividends. Finally, Nora, alone, needs closure — or, perhaps, more accurately, to move on. It took years (decades?), but she's ready.
Caroline: I so loved that the finale devoted itself Nora's story. She — not to mention Coon — became such a ferocious and integral part of The Leftovers from the moment she exposed her grief for everyone to see way back in the pilot, before the show quite knew what to do with her. It says everything about how beautifully both The Leftovers and Coon have fleshed out her character that Nora didn't have to say anything as she walked, stark naked, into that tank for us to feel every ounce of her resolve, exhaustion, and even a little fear.
The only problem with a finale as dense and wonderfully strange as "The Book of Nora" is that there are so many things I took note of that I could talk about, but we’ll never have enough time to parse them all. I loved Matt filling in a MadLib obituary for his sister. I loved flashing forward to see an older Nora, gray hair streaming down her back, grimly eating an egg sandwich as it dripped yolk. I loved Kevin — poor, misguided Kevin — trying to erase everything that happened after the Departure to try and sweep Nora off her feet the old fashioned way. I loved the horror on Nora's face as she told him to leave.
But what I loved most — and what I suspect might become controversial about this finale in general — was that "The Book of Nora" confirmed something this season drove home again and again: grief may be the pulse of The Leftovers, but Nora and Kevin's love story is its heart.
Todd: I actually got into an argument with a fellow TV critic about "Certified," the Laurie-centric sixth episode, where he asked me when I thought Laurie decided to kill herself, and I said I thought the moment was meant to be at least a little ambiguous, and that I sort of sided with her not killing herself. Lindelof is, on some level, an optimist, and I think one of the things that made this show work so well is that his gooey self collided with Tom Perrotta's slightly more prickly artistic sensibility and made something beautiful (once they worked out some early kinks).
What I also love about this final season is the way that it ties together seasons one and two and makes them feel more like parts of a whole. There are still persistent arguments from folks who don't want to watch The Leftovers that they don't want to wait a season for it to "get good." But season three really does a great job of suggesting that the entire series is a journey through grief, one toward acceptance, not closure. It's the five stages of grief, the TV show.
And maybe that's not everybody's cup of tea, but season three has felt, to me, like a vital document of our current moment, just one that peeks at it from a slightly different angle, like reality is a snow globe that The Leftovers picked up and shook. So many people from all walks of life feel lost and alone right now, and The Leftovers is all about how hard we'll try to make sense of the senseless.
But sometimes it's as easy as sitting with someone you love and having tea. Then the doves come home (WHICH IS, I SHOULD SAY, A BIBLICAL REFERENCE TO THE IDEA THAT THE WORST IS MOSTLY OVER). Ugh, this show.
We didn't talk about the goat. Let's talk about the goat.
When it was revealed that the plastic beaded necklaces everyone was wearing at this episode’s Australian shotgun wedding (an excellent phrase) were supposed to represent their sins — which they then removed and slung around the neck of the aforementioned goat for the animal to take away — I straight-up laughed. Of course that's what it was. Why shouldn't the series finale of The Leftovers send a goat to wander the desert, weighed down by figurative sin, until Nora found him tangled up in necklaces and metaphors? The Leftovers can be an incredibly subtle show, but it loves itself an obvious symbol, too, and the goat is a great one.
Is it on the nose? Absolutely. But it also represents something The Leftovers does really well. Sometimes, life is incredibly on the nose; if you look for them, there are obvious symbols for whatever you're going through lurking around every corner. That goat is ridiculous, but if you take a step back, it's also totally plausible that a hippy wedding would lose a goat and Nora would find it on her bike path. Life can be exactly that obvious and strange. Whether or not coincidences feel more like some meaningful twist of fate or Scripture is pretty much up to whomever stumbles upon them.
Todd: This, I think, is why I keep circling back to Nora's story. The Leftovers is a show about faith, but also about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a life that can feel meaningless. On the one hand, that goat is just a goat. On the other hand, the fact that it's a goat weighed down with symbolic sins caught on a fence on a hill that's almost too steep for Nora to climb — that's a story, and the more you tell it to yourself, the more you become convinced that life and the universe have meaning.
Stories are just stories, but they're also more than that. Our religious stories don't have to be literally true to be true. There's value to them beyond even moral instruction. They're about how we interpret the world, how we force it to make sense so we can make sense in the short time we're alive.
Nora's story doesn't have to be true to be true, is all I'm saying to all my fellow TV critics trying to fact-check her. (Which does not include you, Caroline.)
Caroline: It’s okay, Todd. I know you like me best, but even if you didn’t, WE ARE RIGHT.
I do think it’s crucial that Nora’s the one who delivered our last, “Is The Leftovers fucking with us?” moment. Whether she was interviewing people for the Department of Sudden Departures, rolling her eyes at her believer brother, or packing up her things once Kevin told her about seeing Patti, Nora has always been the one Leftovers character who’s remained aggressively allergic to bullshit. She’s hunted down every answer she could with the fervent passion of ... well, a true believer. In the wake of the Departure — though I suspect she wasn’t so dissimilar before — Nora was called to worship at the church of common sense.
The Departure, however, was the one question Nora could never answer. Her climbing into that immersion tank was a Hail Mary to figure out what had happened — and if there were no answers on the other side, she would at least die and never have to think about it again.
Before Nora decided to tell Kevin about her experience, I couldn’t begin to guess what had happened in the years since we’d last seen her in that cold, metal tank. It was impossible to tell whether or not this grim, pragmatic future Nora was one who had done an extraordinary thing and lived to tell the tale, or just the inevitable result of a woman who we know is capable of hardening herself, creating a protective layer between her terrifying feelings and what she accepted to be the unceasing stupidity of other (weaker) people.
So to have Nora be the one to offer the show’s final word on the biggest, simplest question about the Departure — where the hell did those people go? — feels exactly right. We can believe her literally, or figuratively, or not at all. But Nora is not, and has never been, easy to dismiss.
Todd: Let me tell you how long I spent trying to craft a theory that she had gone through, and had arrived in an alternate universe, although one where the Sudden Departure still happened. That pretty quickly fell apart when she called Laurie, but I spent a long time thinking about it.
I think you're right, though, that it's telling that the show gave Nora the last word, more or less. (Kevin's there, too, but we spend far longer just listening to Nora talk.) If The Leftovers is about finding your way home, then Nora has finally done just that.
Sometimes, caring about someone means believing in them even if you think they might be bullshitting you (as Nora did with Kevin for so many years, and even as she does in this episode with the nun who’s clearly lying about her gentleman caller). Belief is the most powerful force in The Leftovers' universe, because it holds together all the strands that might otherwise float into nothingness.
I'm so sad this show is over, but I'm so glad to have watched it.
The Leftovers, in its entirety, is now available to watch on HBO Go.