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The Leftovers’ Hungry Ghosts

The series finale had disappointed hopes, thwarted quests, and something like resolution.

Courtesy HBO

“There was always going to be bulletproof vests, hugs from holy men, tattoos to cover up,” Nora Durst says in the finale of The Leftovers. She is speaking to Kevin Garvey, the show’s protagonist, and she is trying to explain why she disappeared into the Australian outback for years. The reason she gives sounds like science fiction—she got into a machine that took her to another Earth—but this is a show about the aftermath of the Rapture, so suspend some disbelief. Some years before the events of the episode, Nora’s husband and two children vanished in front of her. The same event disappeared 2% of the world’s population, an event the show’s characters call The Sudden Departure.

For three seasons, Nora mourns her family via a variety of unhealthy mechanisms. She has hired prostitutes to shoot her while she wears that bulletproof vest, embraced cult leaders, gotten bad tattoos, conducted an occasionally toxic romantic relationship with Kevin and most recently, climbed into a probable death machine because some physicists tell her it will take her to her children. “I knew there was a chance it would kill me, but I made my peace with that,” she asserts.

Does she find her children? She says she did, but it’s possible she isn’t telling the truth. This ambiguity is vintage Leftovers, and it is as brilliant as it is maddening. We never learn what caused the Sudden Departure, and we never find out where the Departed went. They could be in the grotesque mirror world Nora describes to Kevin, where the Departed believe they are the only ones left and that 98% of all humans on earth are gone. They could be nowhere. What we do learn, however, turns out to be sufficient.

Since 2014, Damon Lindelof’s HBO series has teased out an almost Biblical narrative. Kevin hears voices that may or may not be divine in origin, indicating he may have larger purpose. He appears to die and come back to life on several occasions. One particularly divisive episode shows him trapped in his own version of purgatory, a Boschian nightmare hotel that he must sing karaoke to escape. His “resurrections” are enough to convince some that he has supernatural abilities, and his cult grows as the seventh anniversary of the Departure looms. This is consistent with the dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Revelations, which holds that the Second Coming of Christ and The Final Judgement will occur seven years after the Rapture. Christian eschatology may not quite capture the essence of the Departure, but it’s still the best explanation this world has to offer.

But Kevin and Nora only meet again because the apocalypse didn’t happen. Maybe Kevin prevented it, or maybe he’s not really the second coming of Christ. Maybe he is what he initially appeared to be: An average person, trapped in extraordinary events. Did he really travel to purgatory? Who knows. In the finale he says he has a heart condition, so all that astral travel could be a series of heart attacks. And in any case, it doesn’t matter. If there is no apocalypse, Lindelof’s world doesn’t need a savior. Vulture accurately calls the show a “gospel of grief and faith,” and a supernatural finale would have corrupted those themes.

Despite its premise, The Leftovers has never really been a show about religion. Its rapture is instead a pretext for telling a story about trauma. The Sudden Departure inflicts loss on a massive scale; a loss worse than death, even, because there are no bodies to bury. And traditional religious explanations don’t quite fit, because the Departure doesn’t just take the faithful. It’s worldwide, spanning all religions and all demographics. Kids depart, and that makes sense—but why take Gary Busey? Why take Nora’s adulterous husband? There’s no scientific explanation either, a fact the show establishes in its pilot. So much for scientism.

When your myths are not fit for purpose, you make new ones. In the world of The Leftovers, new cults fill in the cracks of orthodox Christianity. There is the Guilty Remnant, whose chain-smoking members dress all in white and haunt families of the Departed until they are eliminated by drone strike. There is Holy Wayne, who says that his hugs can take away pain, and who eventually dies in a stand-off with the show’s version of the ATF: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults. And there is Matt Jamison, Nora’s clergyman brother, who comes to believe that Kevin is a Christlike figure who will play some world-changing role on the seventh anniversary of the Departure. He dies too, in the finale, not from murder but from cancer.

It’s not a coincidence that each of these movements ends in death. This is a central theme in the show: Death is the only closure anyone ever gets. There will be no apocalypse, no savior, no magic hugs. The characters inflict terrible damage on ourselves and the people they love when they refuse to accept this.

The Leftovers hinted at this in this season’s first episode, in one of its typical anachronistic sequences. Not quite a dream, but not set in its contemporary almost-dystopia, the show depicts members of a millenarian sect as they wait for doomsday. Time after time they shed their clothes to stand vigil on their roofs, but with each failed prediction their numbers shrink. Eventually one woman remains, cut off from her family, stranded by her dreams of deliverance.

Showrunners say these scenes are inspired by a real-life Australian branch of the Millerites. They were the followers of 19th century preacher William Miller, who answered a personal crisis of faith by devising a complex numerology to establish the date of Christ’s return. Most Christian traditions teach members that this is an impossible thing to know, and that God’s ambiguity is a deliberate choice to test the faith of believers. Miller could not live with the mystery. So he set a date—Oct. 22, 1844. When nothing happened, he set another date, and then he gave up.

“Why was I deprived of meeting those congenial minds, in this good, this glorious cause of light and truth?” he later wrote. “Why are the providences of God so mysterious? I have often inquired: Am I never to have my will?” These are questions that surface time and again in The Leftovers, merged, often, into a singular, thundering why. We call Miller’s failure The Great Disappointment, but his disappointment makes him a sympathetic figure, and it makes sense for the show to reference his sect. Millerism emerged in an era that, like ours, was defined by a sense of dislocation. In the early to mid 1800s, Miller’s upstate New York home spawned Mormonism and Spiritualism and fuelled the Second Great Awakening. There’s no single reason for the area’s religiosity. But it can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that Miller’s area of New York was a frontier place, marked by rapid economic changes in a land residents did not fully know.

In The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure establishes a new frontier. The show’s religions seem like a natural response to an impenetrable unknown—especially one defined so sharply by grief. The Guilty Remnant believe the world should end. The followers of Holy Wayne place their hope in the end of suffering. The disciples of Matt and the reluctant Kevin fear doomsday and long for salvation. Pilgrims swarm the town of Jarden, Texas, and rename it Miracle because no one disappeared within its boundaries; here, they believe they will be safe. All are disappointed. The stories we impose on random chance aren’t answers. They are how we convince ourselves to survive.

Nora learns this, eventually. It doesn’t even matter if her story about the other world is true or false. She took a real journey, even if it was only inside herself: She accepts that her children no longer belong to her, and that they will stay wherever it is they’ve gone. She carves out a relatively ordinary life, and she’s clearly established some sort of coping routine in response to stress: tea, hot baths, bike rides. We see A Soft Place To Land, a novel about “a shocking accident” that sends two sisters on a healing journey, on her bookshelf. But it’s not quite enough. She has to reconcile her lost relationship with Kevin, too.

Nora’s story is recognizable to anyone who’s suffered trauma. It reflects a certain fantasy, even: You will walk out into the wilderness. You’ll change your name, build a house in a lonely green expanse, and keep some animals. And by the time your past inevitably knocks at your door, you are—finally—able to cope with it. It’s the best anyone can expect.