Think about endings. They’re necessary, of course, but suffocating. An ending is a constraint; scripts need third acts, series need finales. That’s the convention we’ve accepted, and it’s one we’ve adhered to, fastidiously. But to consider the thrilling possibility of ambiguity — that maybe not every event needs a logical conclusion, not every question needs an answer — is to entertain the taboo. Is a television show’s final season worthwhile if, by the end of it, some threads remain loose? Does a purposefully reticent final act render the entire journey, well, pointless?
Here’s the thing, though: “The Leftovers” is, in every sense of the word, art. And its final season is nothing short of stunning. It’s thrilling and ambitious, frustratingly brilliant and emotionally draining, an artistic achievement that both celebrates and challenges the medium in equal measure. With my sincere apologies to “The Americans,” “Veep” and “Fargo,” “The Leftovers” is unquestionably the best show on TV.
So, in short, no — I don’t really care to find out where everyone went on October 14. I’m more challenged by the innumerable new questions the series poses than its original, big one. And by all available accounts, so too is the show. Perhaps Damon Lindelof learned from “Lost” ’s infamous firestorm of an ending. Maybe he, like Kevin (Justin Theroux, “The Girl On The Train”) in last season’s awe-inspiring “International Assassin, ” had to endure some sort of narrative purgatory to come out on the other side renewed, invigorated, ready to confront his demons.
This line of thinking, one of closure and acceptance, extends to the show’s characters, as well. Each principal character — from Kevin, who must now reconcile with his bizarre Messiah-like stature, to Matt (Christopher Eccleston, “Legend”), the preacher who seems constantly put-upon by his own God, to Nora (Carrie Coon, “Gone Girl”), from whom life seems to be constantly taking away, and without justification — is grappling with his/her own existential struggles. Just as the show’s creators deny us any form of concrete resolution, so too do the writers refuse to let their characters off the hook.
Since its first season, the principals on “The Leftovers” have been stuck in a world that now makes no sense, unforgiving and ultimately devoid of meaning, while everyone around them tries to continue their lives as normally as they can. Death, and dealing with its fallout, is comparatively easy; what do you do when there is no body to bury and no biological process as explanation? What is the point of grief, of trauma, of this condition of inherent dissatisfaction, when you will never find the answers you so desperately seek? There are no documented seven stages to squeeze yourself through, and “coping mechanisms” take on new meaning. In the show’s new season, we’re alternately treated to people suffocating themselves with plastic bags and slamming car doors on their own arms. It’s all bizarre, and it’s all just to feel something.
And if that reads as unbearably pretentious, don’t worry. Beginning with its second season (for what it’s worth, I still ride hard for the show’s oppressively depressing first season; never before has a season of television so actively explored and interrogated the notion of grief as a human necessity), Lindelof and his team have found increasingly creative ways to make the show unassumingly, darkly funny. The show laughs with you, skeptical viewer, whenever it gets the chance; its mastery of tone is utterly jaw-dropping and downright impressive. Lindelof is fond of his winking religious symbolism (the new season premieres on Easter, hilariously) and astoundingly complex imagery, sure, but there’s also a wordless, slow-motion sequence featuring Regina King (“American Crime”) and Carrie Coon jumping on a trampoline set to Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
The third season of “The Leftovers” also revels in the second season’s radical narrative structure. Season two was so tightly, immaculately constructed that it seemed almost impossible to repeat, but season three proves no different. The POV switches and shifts in perspective still manage to work wonders here, and when characters get their own standalone episodes, they are, without fail, always incredible. The change in setting, too, provides another gorgeous visual backdrop for Lindelof’s searching narrative; Australia is a whole different beast than Texas, and the show produces a number of surprises here, from another stunning, season-opening vignette to the return of one of the series’ most mysterious characters, who transitions from the shadowy fringes of last season’s plot right to the center of our characters’ stories.
It seems as if there are too many “best on TV” designations to bestow upon “The Leftovers” in its final season: Coon’s consistently heartbreaking performance, Max Richter’s magnificent score (and Liza Richardson’s music supervision), Mimi Leder’s direction, Lindelof’s toying with narrative convention, etc. I could go on forever. But what remains “The Leftovers” ’s singular achievement, to me, is its ability to provoke some feeling within you.
It’s a visceral experience, watching this show. Whether you find it actively disturbing or wondrously liberating, it’s a series that is unafraid to grapple with big questions and uncomfortable ideas, in ways that elicit only the most buried of our emotions. It confounds, but it frees. It’s art that agitates; it’s television that actually tries, without pretense, to be something more. “The Leftovers” is not a bingeable experience. It’s not comfortable, and it takes time to digest. But what Lindelof and his team have crafted here, this inimitable artistic achievement, is impossible to ignore. However the show decides to conclude, whatever meaning we eventually derive from its thorny questions of religion and closure and the lies we tell ourselves to keep living, we can rest in knowing that the journey has been, without flaw, worth it.