The following is all spoilers.
The Leftovers ended on Sunday with a monologue from Carrie Coon’s character Nora Durst, maybe revealing at last to Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and eager TV audiences what happened to the 2% of the population that departed the Earth seven years ago, the event that provided the impetus for the entire show’s narrative. In her earnest speech, Nora describes having gotten into a pod full of irradiated wet metals made by a Dutch scientist, and suddenly being sent to a world that was exactly like ours — but mostly abandoned.
She soon realized that it was a sort of flipped version of our reality: the 2% who’re missing from our world live in an identical world where 98% of the population disappeared. In order to find her children, Nora had to traverse this depopulated terrain. She got to Mapleton and found that her missing family members were the lucky ones of this society: because all of them had departed from our world, they were the only ones here who didn’t lose most of their family. And so, with her children grown up, she started to realize that she was a mere “ghost” in their world. Per her monologue, she decided to come back, by tracking down the scientist who built the zappy wet pod thing, having him build another zappy wet pod thing, going through it, ending up back in our-world’s Australia, and becoming the pigeon lady we saw at the end of Episode 1.
On a number of recent series, from Stranger Things to Twin Peaks and even previous episodes of The Leftovers, we’ve seen vivid depictions of characters’ journeys to an “other side” — a liminal alternate reality. But in The Leftovers’ last episode, “The Book of Nora,” the show decided to depict that reality solely through Nora Durst’s words. Why use a monologue instead of a thorough glimpse at the depopulated bizarro world, particularly when the show so brilliantly showed Kevin’s dive into a separate purgatorial place? What does this method of revelation say for the show at its conclusion, and for the particular character delivering it? How does this verbally manifested parallel world differentiate this show’s vision from the likes of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things?
First, it should be noted that Season 3 Episode 3 (“Crazy Whitefella Thinking”) introduced us to the show’s faith in the theatrical storytelling form of monologuing. Films and TV series — with their often higher budgets and abilities to transcend the bounds of certain sets and locations as much as they please — can afford to show rather than tell, but theater has long relied on verbose narrators to deliver the narrative contents of a climax. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf particularly touched on this, allowing its lead characters to “kill” their (imaginary) son through a vicious storytelling competition. In Greek tragedies, a messenger would often come onstage to woefully detail gristly character deaths. Even the meticulously naturalistic Chekhov would have characters deliver news of unseen deaths in the final act; when Tuzenbach is shot dead at the end of The Three Sisters, it leads the siblings gather as the eldest delivers a collectivized self-help type monologue: “The music is playing so happily, so cheerfully, that it seems, in just a little time, we will know why we live, and why there is all this suffering… If only we could know! If only we could know!” The scope of what TV series can do with special effects or elaborate sets becomes evoked solely by the inflection of the actor.
The Leftovers first showed it could exquisitely execute the storytelling device in an atypical medium in Episode 3, when it put all of its faith in Lindsay Duncan to keep our attention for a monologue about how her (just introduced) character assumed her children had “departed,” never realizing that they’d actually gone looking for her; she never tried to find them, because she was so certain of their departure, and they died in the wilderness. The episode, masterfully directed by Mimi Leder, never cut away to a visualization of the traumatic story — it lingered on the magnetic power of one person sustaining another’s attention with their story.
The conclusion of the series mirrors this moment, with Carrie Coon getting to illustrate with words and tone and facial expression what episodes like “International Assassin” — where Kevin travels to an otherworldly hotel where he commingles with, and re-kills, the dead — did with elaborate visual world-building. In one speech, she builds a world; if you want to believe it, you’ll color it in.
Season 3 showed every character fraying into their own religious explanations of reality: Kevin, based on persistent claims from his father (Scott Glenn), Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo), starts believing he’s Jesus, and that he alone will stop the apocalypse by drowning in a bathtub. But this vision is challenged with various other people’s own odd new spiritual absolutes: a cult devoted to a particularly horny lion named Frasier; another man with a business card declaring himself God; an organization of Dutch scientists that claims it can zap people into the land of the Departed. With the large view we’ve been given, we can see both how Kevin could, in the fervor of the moment, think he’s Jesus, but also that — as in the real world — the bounty of alternatives, and people who believe firmly in them, can only mean there are many realities, many prophets, rather than any single one.
Up until now, Nora was the character most prone to scrutinizing beliefs in the hopes of debunking them — she was the show’s character most focused on some idea of absolutes and objectivity, relatively unwilling to plunge into what she saw as anyone’s or any group’s personal zealotry. (I’d say the same about Laurie…but she had that whole Guilty Remnant phase; while that may have been an atheistic cult, it was a cult nonetheless.) But despite her job as a government inspector of people exploiting the Sudden Departure, even she was prone to having her curiosity piqued by those who told the most compelling, scientific stories — even if they sounded like fake science. This season saw her chasing down the aforementioned Dutch scientists “for work” but really attempting to figure out whether she wanted to be radiated, as they claimed to be able to do, into the other realm. The procedure, by this shady underground company, could essentially just be voluntary suicide — there was no proof that this worked and didn’t merely turn the paying customer into a pile of ash with a huge debt. Brilliantly, the moment she’s about to get zapped, we see a change of heart register on Nora’s face…and then the episode suddenly skips ahead to her sporting a grey braid and (unconvincingly) aged skin.
When Kevin approaches her out of nowhere all these years later, he tries to sell her his own version of a personal religion: the idea that none of what we’ve seen on the show ever happened, and that they once flirted outside a school dance, and now he’s happened upon her by chance in the middle of nowhere in Australia. She refuses to give into this sermon, and instigates him to shatter his scripture by admitting it was a story he made up to avoid confronting the painful truth of their separation. But then she — the shatterer of all stories — shows that she may have become just as much of a believer in a personalized fiction as everyone else in this world. We, the audience, are offered no proof of the fact that Nora ever went to the other side, beyond her monologue; nor is Kevin. But whether they get back together depends on his answer to the question: “do you believe me?”
What is an expositional monologue if not a personal sermon? When everyone onstage/onscreen — and in the audience — is given the question of whether they want to believe a good, narrative-altering story, dictated by a single character, it much better mirrors the fundamental question about religious belief than when we’re visibly shown a potential alternate reality. At religious services, and in religious text, all that’s given are words — words compellingly rendered, and often even more compellingly spoken. Other series like Twin Peaks and Stranger Things are far less interested in the existential question of whether or not their bizarro realities are real. The Leftovers, however, was a show with a fantastical component that couldn’t ever be about anything but the nature of religion: after a vague rapture-type event, of course human society would seek explanations within elaborate mythologies. With the world fervently fracturing therein, the most generous thing a person can do is to join someone else in their unsubstantiated belief.
What Nora’s monologue tells us is that, in the lapse between when we last saw Nora stepping into the pod and when she got this old-age-braid and splash of skin discoloration, she herself may have become a storyteller, like the rest of the world. (Or, for that matter, she may have gone to the other side.) Whether or not she’s telling what really happened to her is moot, because this is what we’re being presented with, and all we’ll ever get: someone vehemently telling a story that’s been woven deeply into her being. Religion is, for many, a way of clinging to something: an afterlife becomes a way to cling to the idea of self — we don’t disappear, we continue, we must. But Nora’s belief in/tale about having gone to the other side, only to not belong there, is, fascinatingly, a religion to help her let go of the inexplicable, of the mythological, of the other side. By making it a monologue rather than a visualization of her experience, or non-experience, The Leftovers allows it to be up to the audience to appraise Carrie-Coon-as-Nora-Durst’s conviction: did this newbie pastor convert you to her religion of letting go?