Was The Leftovers worth it? I’ve been pondering this question for the back half of Season 1. I’ve mentioned the ups and downs of the season quite a bit and how a superb episode would sometimes be followed by a subpar episode that made everything unfocused. Mostly, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people (friends and critics) who have given up on the show because of the grotesque violence — the way the camera unflinchingly remained on Gladys’ beat and bloodied face or Patti’s fate in the woods. Outside of the violence is hopelessness, despair, and depression — not exactly things to cheer you up on a Sunday night — so the question is: Was the season good enough to justify sticking around and wading through the darkness? The finale makes a case for it.
“The Prodigal Son Returns” had a lot to accomplish but it drifted around confusingly and aimlessly for a while which is something that I’ve come to expect from a Leftovers episode but finds itself toward the end. It feels like Patti’s suicide was ages ago (the next episode was a flashback and then the show was off for Labor Day weekend) but the show doesn’t hesitate with returning to it. Kevin calls Reverend Matt to help him out — he has a strange relationship with both Kevin and the Guilty Remnant — and the solution they come up with is to bury Patti’s body in a grave in the woods.
Kevin and Matt make up the bulk of the episode but there are definitely other scenes that need to be addressed. Tom and Christine have never been my favorite part of the show and I find that they usually bog down better episodes. This time, Christina has had her baby — a daughter — but is clearly disinterested in the child. It’s deeper than postpartum depression and she abandons the baby in a public bathroom for Tom to find and take care of alone.
The other important pairing of the night is Jill and Laurie. Last we saw, Jill had visited the Guilty Remnant compound and sort of reunited with her mother. The GR have been in the middle of planning something big so Laurie tells Jill to go home because it’s not safe but Jill refuses, instead putting on all white to show her dedication — which is less a dedication to the “cause” and more of a dedication to proving something to the mother who left her.
But back to Kevin. Matt tricks him and he ends up in the mental hospital with his father and that mysterious National Geographic magazine that’s been haunting him. Suddenly, Patti is still alive and straddling him and then, of course, Kevin wakes up in the passenger car seat. I’m a little bored with these trippy dream sequences, as surreal as they may be, because this one in particular was raising the screwed-up bar for the show but then The Leftovers yanked it away with a “just kidding!” But at least it means we get a fantastically heartbreaking scene with Kevin in the diner, confessing to Matt about the night he cheated on Laurie, about how he wanted to leave his family, about his guilt revolving around the Sudden Departure.
Justin Theroux has always been a quietly good actor but The Leftovers has succeeded in pulling even better stuff out of him and elevating his acting game. You can’t take your eyes off him the entire episode, whether he’s talking to a dying Holy Wayne in a diner bathroom or taking in the anarchic Mapleton scene or kicking down a door in a burning building.
When Kevin and Matt drive back to Mapleton, they find the town in total chaos. It’s a full-fledged riot with flames shooting up in the sky and stray bullets flying. There has been a war brewing between the citizens and the Guilty Remnant from day one. Kevin’s been aware of it but has failed in getting everyone to believe him. This isn’t the “I told you so” moment he wanted, though. This is far worse. The Guilty Remnant have strategically placed those creepy dolls around the town where the Departed were last seen, clearly causing rage and distress for the people who were left behind. Mapleton has been on the brink of breaking since the pilot and this is when it finally happens — and the entire scene is beautiful and harrowing at once, especially once Laurie finally utters a word to Kevin (“Jill!”) and Kevin has to save his daughter.
What follows is a very strange ending. Tom has returned to Laurie but has abandoned the baby, too. Kevin and Jill are reunited but nowhere near repairing the damage in their fractured relationship, and even the vicious dog is now tamed and walking with them (it’s hard not to think of the “these aren’t our dogs” motif from earlier in the season). Then there’s Nora who was planning on running away after she woke up and found her “family” has returned. It was exactly how she pictured in her head: the family back in their same spots around the table like nothing had changed. Except they weren’t actually her family, just plastic replicas, and she couldn’t deal with it anymore. But she goes to leave a goodbye to letter to Kevin and finds Christine’s baby on the front porch.
I read the book so I knew this was all coming but the way in which she says “Look what I found” with a combination of optimism and heartbreak was such a killer. But this is what passes for optimism on The Leftovers: finding hope in some truly dark shit, coming together as makeshift families to replace the ones that have broken apart.