The Leftovers was already an odd beast in its first season. Here’s a series about a world where, on October 14 three years ago, 2% of the world’s population just vanished. Poof. You may have been sitting at breakfast with your family, you may have been getting in the car where you’ve just put your infant after shopping for groceries, you may have been in the middle of having a tryst with someone not your wife – and from one moment to the next, they’re gone. Your highschool sweetheart that you occasionally see at the store? Gone. The old man who touched you when you were a kid? Gone. What’s this? The Rapture?
The R word isn’t mentioned even once in the series, much like The Walking Dead never says “zombie”. The Leftovers, however you want to describe it (and believe me, it ain’t easy), isn’t Left Behind, it’s not an evangelist nutter’s wet dream. Some of the 98% trying to come to terms with the incredible and inexplicable happening are religious, some are spiritual, some are die-hard atheists. Some of the 2% may have been good people, some were probably monsters, but most were just… people. So why does something like this happen? And how can you continue afterwards, in particular if you’ve lost someone? Just imagine if you’ve lost everyone.
The Leftovers doesn’t allow fully for the simple loophole of, “Ah, well, you see, it’s not the Rapture. It’s metaphor. Nothing metaphysical to see here, move along.” There are weird things that happen, there’s inexplicable shit beyond the primal incident that drives the show. Nevertheless, in a very real way the series isn’t particularly interested in the supernatural or the divine. It’s not interested in god, and while it has fun with the mystery (and with the kind of audience obsessed with solving them like so many banal Sudokus), it’s not particularly interested in it either. The Leftovers very much tells a story about grief and loss, about guilt and resentment and the attempt to pick up and continue, somehow, after a hole has just opened up and swallowed a part of your life, of who you are.
In its first season, The Leftovers was also often an extremely dark series – sometimes to a point where viewers would be forgiven for saying, “Honey, this is too grim and unpleasant. Can we watch Game of Thrones instead?” There was one episode that in its darkly humorous (and agnostic) retelling of the tale of Job veered towards the sadistic, and another episode started with a bluntly depicted stoning, a scene that was nearly unbearable to watch. If there was anything I truly minded about The Leftovers in its first year, it was this: it came dangerously close to wallowing in the depression of grief, and while this may be a believable and deeply human reaction to profound loss, it’s not something I can watch week after week. There needs to be something else, something more.
Which is where The Leftovers picked up in its second season, relocating its core cast of characters to Miracle (formerly Jarden), Texas: a town of 9000 people with not a single loss during the Departure. No wonder that hundreds of people travel to Miracle every day in the hope that whatever spared the place will rub off on them. As the town’s choir sings: But in Jarden Town the sun shone bright – a miracle/The light of love poured down, it’s a miracle/Our hearts are pure we knew for sure a miracle/That God had spared our town. Which is perhaps where the series’ insistence to handwave the specifics of existing religious beliefs becomes difficult to ignore: if one day a small percentage of all people on Earth vanished, might not at least some of the devout believe that they weren’t spared so much as, well, left behind? Nonetheless, the reaction of the good people – okay, the people – of Jarden is very much a human one: we were spared, we are the good guys, and we’ll never have to examine the truth of that smug assertation ever again.
Where the first season examined primarily the reality of those dealing with loss and how they try – or fail – to put their lives together again, the second season looked at the insidious and sometimes downright toxic fiction of being the chosen ones, of considering yourself spared – because if you didn’t experience loss, that must mean that you’re special, right? The season looked at people who considered themselves blessed or special, or who simply took for granted that they weren’t like those others, and pulled the rug from underneath them. But where the first season only rarely leavened its depiction of emotional and spiritual depression and even its humour was usually of the darkest kind, although there were still many grim and harrowing moments, season 2 did a better job of balancing its tones and themes. More than that, without becoming sentimental or even saccharine, the writers of The Leftovers found moments of true grace – something that is rarely seen on TV.
The Leftovers has already shown its third and final season in the United States, and while I haven’t seen it yet the reviews are generally glowing – though it’s likely that the series had shed those viewers among the way who found it cruel or sadistic or pointless (and The Leftovers definitely toyed with all of these, knowingly and even willfully). It is one of a very select group of TV series during the last five years or so that I would consider up there with the golden age of HBO: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire. It isn’t for everyone, and there were times when I wasn’t entirely sure if it was for me, but at this stage, even before I’ve finished the series, I would consider it one of the most special things I’ve ever seen: audacious and subtle, harrowing and funny, grandiose and intimate, frightened and hopeful, and I haven’t even mentioned that this is the series that introduced me to the wonderful Carrie Coon, and – imagine this! – that made me fear Liv Tyler.
I’m almost a bit scared to continue watching. It’s a gargantuan task for the third season to live up to the praise and to my expectations, added to which I don’t want to have seen the last of The Leftovers. So, for the moment, I’m in denial. I’ve been watching TV, and missing series that ended before their time, for long enough to know that anger and bargaining don’t particularly work. I’m sure, though, that The Leftovers will help me accept that this, one of the most daring TV series I’ve ever seen, has already come to an end.