In an instant, they were gone. Family, friends, lovers. You turned around for one moment, and when you turned back they were gone. Where? Why? Who knows. How to go on? Who knows. And how can you ever hold on to anyone again if you don’t know whether it might happen again?
No, I’m not talking about the Snap. (We’ve done enough of that elsewhere.) I’m not talking about the Rapture either, not quite. What I am talking about is one of the strangest, saddest, most infuriating, most hopeless, most hopeful stories I’ve seen, on TV or elsewhere: The Leftovers.
I love that The Leftovers exists. I love that HBO spent money to produce three years of a story that was often more depressing, and of characters that were often more depressed, than Six Feet Under and the Fishers were on their worst days. I would even say that I love The Leftovers itself – as much as any series HBO has released since it rang in the Golden Age of Television with the likes of The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire. At the same time, though, I find it difficult to recommend The Leftovers to viewers that may not be on the same wavelength as me, because not only does it want to be liked less than pretty much any long-form narrative I’ve ever watched, it also starts with the first season from hell.
The Leftovers didn’t have a bad first season, but it had a first season that didn’t pull any punches: it presented us with characters so dysfunctional that they were frequently unpleasant to spend time with, as they attempted to deal with a reality that, three years after the Sudden Departure, still had a crack right down the middle that could never be fixed. They were often cynical, suicidal, selfish, and deeply nihilistic, and none were more nihilistic than the Guilty Remnant: a cult of chain-smokers, silent, living statements that the world was broken and that it wasn’t hopeful or constructive to act as if life could just go on. Life, they argued with their white clothes, omnipresent lit cigarettes and smugly passive-aggressive faces, was meaningless and you’d damn well better live accordingly. Oh, they were hateful, those Guilty Remnant, and they were everywhere in the first season, so I don’t blame anyone who just pressed the STOP button, ejected the DVD and never came back – and that’s before we even got to scenes such as the stoning of a woman, shown in unflinching detail. (While I don’t particularly get anything out of violence in media in general, I can watch it, but I found that particular scene nearly unwatchable.) I hesitated to recommend The Leftovers not so much because I thought that people might dislike it – that is always a risk, as the most interesting stories are rarely those that please everyone – but because it practically felt like an abusive act.
As The Leftovers emerged from the first season, the only one that closely followed the novel by Tom Perrotta that it was based on (Mege wrote posts about all its episodes), it began embracing its weirder and funnier side, elements that had previously been a mere pinch of sugar in a strikingly bitter concoction. The series didn’t become softer or more sentimental, but it gained a balance that was previously missing. It also leaned more into the metaphysical, which some viewers may have found off-putting, but in spite of its Rapture-adjacent backstory it was never a religious series. If anything, it was about why some people embrace religion and others reject it in view of everything that life throws at us that is horrific or incomprehensible. The Leftovers wasn’t interested in telling us a story about God so much as about what we see when we look up at the sky and only see ourselves reflected back at us. Why do we lose the people we love? Why do we hurt the ones that are left? How can we live with ourselves?
The third season of The Leftovers built on what the second had achieved – and took things further, made them stranger, sometimes hilariously so. Guest appearances by ’80s sitcom stars playing themselves, wildly inappropriate walkabouts in the Australian outback, lion-themed sex orgies on boats, afterlives complete with karaoke bars and penis scanners. But as it widened its scope, it also zoomed in on its characters. I believe that the actors starring in the series must have loved working on it: how many series have run the gamut of emotions, tones and genres as widely as this one? In a series filled with an amazing, perfect cast and strong, expressive performances, there is nonetheless one that stands out for me: Nora Durst (played by Carrie Coon), a woman whose entire family disappeared in the Sudden Departure. When 2% of the world’s population vanishes, what are the odds that this includes your husband, daughter and son? Coon portrayed a woman who, on the surface, seems to have it together more than many people who haven’t suffered that kind of loss in a world where the Sudden Departure is just a premise for an HBO series – but underneath that, Nora was someone barely holding on. If you are incapable of trusting anything in the world to be permanent, to be real, how do you survive? Coon’s portrayal in The Leftovers deserves to be regarded as one of the best performances in the medium.
And then came the last episode. In a series that escalated the metaphysical, yet also all too human, absurdity as it was working its way towards the end, it brought it all back to two individuals, sitting in a kitchen, carefully finding a way towards each other, no matter how frightening it was or how much they’d previously hurt each other.
In Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, which shares some sensibilities with The Leftovers (even if I don’t expect Barnes’ novels to feature Tasmanian sex cruises or presidential penis scanners any time soon), he writes about W.H. Auden’s poetry:
‘We must love one another or die’, wrote W.H. Auden… Auden, however, was dissatisfied with his famous line from ‘September 1, 1939’. ‘That’s a damned lie!’ he commented, ‘We must die anyway.’ So when reprinting the poem he altered the line to the more logical ‘We must love one another and die’. Later he suppressed it altogether.
For most of the series, Nora Durst would have cheered on Auden and his editorial change for its seeming no-bullshit frankness. And she is right: death and loss, these are about the only constants in life. All else is stories we tell ourselves so we don’t despair. Is there a God? Is there a heaven? Do we reunite with our loved ones? Or do we, as do they, end up as so much dust and ashes, like the Guilty Remnant members’ cigarettes? Does courage lie in revealing comforting lies about life and love? Or does it lie in trying to make them true?
A woman and a man sit at a kitchen table, over cups of tea. They look at each other. They talk to each other. Each of them might turn around for a moment and turn back to find the other gone. Nonetheless, The Leftovers leaves us with a frightening, hopeful, simple last image of two people daring not to let that fear determine their actions forever. We must love one another or die.
Postscriptum: I was quite certain I’d referred to Barnes’ thoughts on Auden’s “September 1, 1939” before, so I did a quick search. Turns out that I had, in my post on Arrival (2016). Tonally it’s quite different from much of The Leftovers, but it shares some themes – and composer Max Richter both wrote the original soundtrack for The Leftovers and his “On the Nature of Daylight” was key to establishing the mood of Arrival.