'The Leftovers' sets the standard for modern drama

NOSELL

NOSELL
HBO

 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 3:22pm

I don’t know how to do this. At the risk of inflating the self-importance of writing the review of a television show’s finale for a college newspaper, I am, for all intents and purposes, at a loss for words.

They say a series finale is the one in which a show reveals what it’s all about. That’s a tall order for “The Leftovers.” It’s a show that has willfully, aggressively avoided any semblance of narrative gratification, and instead of providing clear-cut answers, it burrowed deeper into the psyches of its monumentally tormented characters. “The Leftovers” was both big and small, expansive in its themes but refreshingly intimate in scope. A one-hour finale to explain it all? Impossible.

Yet, by opting to end his show in radically personal fashion, creator Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and his team have crafted the most moving, stunning and emotionally rewarding finale in years. “The Leftovers,” for the duration of its three seasons, was a singular achievement, and it should be remembered as one of the greatest shows ever made — but what is most impressive, perhaps, was the finale’s refusal to cater to the demands of cheap fulfillment and its steadfast emotional integrity.

Truly, the finale could have been anything, gone anywhere. The show was genuinely thrilling, not least because of its wild sense of unpredictability — something that trafficked in the most heavy subject material on television was also a beacon of possibility. The Season Three premiere was titled “The Book of Kevin,” the finale was titled “The Book of Nora,” and so it was. “The Leftovers” would end as a love story.

What transpired in Nora’s (Carrie Coon, “Fargo”) final journey was almost comically, cosmically simple. After finally entering the LADR machine (Season Three’s Chekhov’s gun), the episode smash cuts to an aging, curiously agrarian Nora out in Australia — much like the season premiere’s mystifying coda. “The Leftovers” is purposefully disorienting, placing the audience in increasingly confusing situations until, finally, the sheer emotion of the moment overwhelms and normal logic is superfluous. Toying with our expectations of whether Nora lived or died or was in some weird in-between space (that wouldn’t be a first for this show), Lindelof instead opted to tell a deceptively simple romance.

Kevin (Justin Theroux, “The Girl on the Train”) finds Nora. They go to a wedding and dance. The two reconcile, and we’re left to grapple with this season’s singular motif: The lies we tell ourselves to continue living, no matter how outlandish they may be, are often all we have to get by. The sheer audacity of ending the show’s dizzyingly complex mythology in this fashion is only the second most impressive thing about it: It’s all so flawlessly executed, so emotionally devastating, so breathtakingly confident that “The Book of Nora,” a patient and demanding hour-plus of television, is the most fully realized and satisfying series finale I’ve ever seen.

We all had our own personal relationship with this show. (Of course, the ratings were never that high, so there aren’t as many personal relationships I’d like). I’d like to get into the particular delights of the episode — Matt’s (Christopher Eccleston, “Legend”) tear-filled confession, the random promiscuous nun, the inspired music choices and Carrie Coon’s final masterpiece of sustained, verbal storytelling — but then I’d betray the entire spirit of the show. “The Leftovers” isn’t great because you can point to your favorite parts of the show; it’s superb because what remains, what you’re left with when each episode ends, is an intoxicating cocktail of all the emotions you never knew you had.

It’s increasingly rare to experience art that is this transcendent — especially on television. Everyone’s got a half-hour dramedy, everyone’s got an anthology series, everyone’s got a tentpole big-budget fantasy. Where’s the challenge, then? It’s in drama. It’s in art that may fly under the radar but nevertheless seeps under the skin. It’s in a show that sustains a lifetime’s worth of accusations of pretentiousness, and simultaneously embraces and laughs at them. It’s daring to go to places we’ve never been — not north of the Wall but rather the emotions we refuse to challenge. “The Leftovers” is all of that and more. It was utterly strange and wildly ahead of its time, but it was, always will be, flawless.