‘The Leftovers’ Figured Out Exactly Which Answers to Give Us

It wasn’t easy being a fan of The Leftovers’ first season. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s sad, slow adaptation of Perrotta’s novel may have been the most polarizing show of 2014; for every partisan like me who found themselves drawn into a world deeply traumatized by an event as all-encompassing as it was inexplicable, there was another repelled by the relentlessly grim, dramatically inert series they saw onscreen. Every week, I’d emerge from an hourlong trance convinced we were watching different shows. 

In its second season, however, The Leftovers managed to convert even the most vocal of skeptics (though not, unfortunately, the viewing public). Last night’s finale, “I Live Here Now,” capped off a run that’s near-universally considered an improvement, replacing last year’s critical divide with minor disagreements over how much, and how, The Leftovers managed to course-correct.

When the show returned in October, some of its upgrades were immediately obvious: the change of location from the wintry New York suburb of Mapleton to the sunny, sheltered enclave of Miracle, Texas; the expansion of the central cast to include the Murphys, a family whose dysfunction both mirrored and contrasted with the Garveys. Some changes, on the other hand, only became apparent as the season progressed — the most important of them, perhaps, being the show’s difficult, hard-won balance between mystery and resolution.

The Leftovers, after all, centers on a giant mystery. The Sudden Departure, the moment at which two percent of the Earth’s population suddenly vanished into thin air, is the black hole at the center of the show: everything revolves around it, while the event itself remains a stubborn, terrifying blank. Perrotta’s novel made no attempt to explain the Departure, and neither, so far, has his and Lindelof’s show. But it’s understandable that those who felt Lindelof failed to deliver on his last paranormal-ish extended mystery — and there were enough of them to drive the showrunner off Twitter — were put on guard by a seemingly inevitable disappointment.

It didn’t help matters that The Leftovers’ first season was rapidly populated with secondary mysteries. Were the voices heard by Kevin Sr., fallen Garvey patriarch, real? If they were, what did they want? What does Kevin do when he’s sleepwalking, and who’s the man who keeps following him around? What the hell was happening with Mapleton’s dogs?

To those of us willing to take The Leftovers at face value, all the open questions had the cumulative effect of teaching us that plot, and the expectation of answers that came with it, simply wasn’t that important to the show. The Leftovers was about immersing oneself in a world that’s recognizable and yet fundamentally different from our own, making it perhaps the first television series in history to take place entirely in the uncanny valley. It’s a message that was reinforced by the first season finale, which offered emotional catharsis — the separated Garveys coming together to rescue their daughter, the widowed Nora Durst taking in a baby — but nothing in the way of definitive answers.

Which is fine if you’ve been trained not to expect them, yet understandably frustrating if you believe narrative momentum is necessary for good television. I happened to appreciate The Leftovers’ radical refusal to meet its audience’s expectations, choosing instead to craft a mood rather than a story. Until, that is, Season 2 managed to preserve the mood while pulling back the curtain on the supernatural, and even just plain human, forces at work on the screen.

The Leftovers centered on two main subplots this season — neither of which, thanks to last year’s events, I expected to be resolved tidily. One was the sudden, uncannily Departure-like disappearance of teenage Evie Murphy and two of her friends, plunging the town into the closure-less panic they’d supposedly been spared four years before. The other was Kevin Garvey’s continued mental, and possibly spiritual, unraveling as he continues to sleepwalk, now haunted by the ghost of Guilty Remnant cult leader Patti Levin (enabling the return of the masterful Ann Dowd).

For much of the season, the nature of Evie’s disappearance, and Patti’s reappearance, was left ambiguous, and for much of the season, I thought viewers were meant to learn the same lesson as last year: that The Leftovers isn’t about why things happen, but how they affect others, both in general (a society-wide case of PTSD) and in specific (John Murphy’s manic insistence that there’s nothing magical about Miracle — or his daughter’s disappearance). And then both mysteries were resolved. Spectacularly.

Evie, we learn, has joined the Guilty Remnant, the cult that teaches members to erase their identities and attachments in order to become “living reminders” that the world as we know it was destroyed. She brings the cult, and the zealots camped outside Miracle, back to town with her, destroying the sanctuary the townspeople have created for themselves. It’s a reveal that’s in keeping with the show’s belief that the psychological, not the supernatural, is what matters.

Except it’s not, because Kevin’s journey gives us The Leftovers’ first real acknowledgement that, beyond the Departure, there are otherworldly forces at work here, and there’s even an internal logic to them. The season’s most widely acclaimed episode, “International Assassin,” saw Kevin go on what was either a vision quest or a bona fide trip to the underworld to face off against Patti. The finale confirms that Kevin did, in fact, travel to the other side, because he returns when John shoots him — and that the show’s mystics, from Kevin’s father to his “guide” Virgil, aren’t just another set of lost souls grasping for explanations that aren’t there.

It’s a controversial move, one that’s just as bold as crafting all that ambiguity in the first place. Last season also culminated with the Guilty Remnant committing an act of emotional terrorism, filling Mapleton with effigies of the Departed. This season’s finale felt more climactic still, positioning Evie’s return as the answer to a looming, urgent question, and pairing it with the resolution of Kevin’s series-long spiritual angst.

The Leftovers didn’t simply walk the line between mystery and revelation in its biggest plot lines, though. In retrospect, the approach is all over the new-and-improved version of the show. Matt Jamison, for example, maintains that his wife Mary woke up from her vegetative state their first night in Miracle, but we’re left to wonder whether he’s simply desperate and lonely until she’s revived in the finale. But just as it’s essential that we’re always kept in the dark about the Departure, other, crucial action is left offscreen, as when Guilty Remnant leader Meg goes to a psychic to learn her mother’s would-be last words, only for the camera to cut away before we hear his answer.

The effect is to leave just enough questions unanswered to preserve the hypnotic feel of the show — while also revealing enough to make The Leftovers a believable world and more than a semi-allegorical fever dream. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as the season’s wandering-cave-woman opener shows.) It’s an enormously tricky balance to strike, and one that Lindelof, Perrotta, and company landed so masterfully, they’ve elevated The Leftovers into one of the finest dramas on TV. Let’s hope they get another season to build on their success.