Note: I’m only reviewing each individual episode in the third and final season, but I’ll have reviews of Season 1 (not so great) and Season 2 (a masterpiece). I chose not to write reviews of each episode in those seasons because it would be tedious, episode quality is more uniform in those seasons, and to be brutally honest, I’m not sure exactly how many people really want an in-depth analysis of “The Leftovers” first seasons.
Overall, it was a series worth watching and—to me—the series finale did answer more questions than I thought it would. Of course, I was one of the few people that really loved the “Lost” series finale, and people are still raking “Leftovers” co-creator Damon Lindelof over the coals for that one, so if you’re one of the people that thought “Lost” was too abstract or confusing, you’re probably going to hate this show. Or, more likely, you’ve never watched it.
Worst Season…Season 1: This is a season you suffer through to get to the good stuff. I enjoyed Tom Perrotta’s source novel, and even though season one largely has the same plot, the tone is so, so wrong. It’s self-serious to the point of ridiculous, and is trying way too hard in almost every “somber” scene. The wry humor of Perrotta’s book is completely jettisoned to show the complete agony all of the characters are in, even if they didn’t lose anyone during “The Departure.” And Ann Dowd’s Patty may be a near-mythological figure of malice, but to me it never made full sense why “The Leftovers” three biggest whack job villains—Patty Levin, Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbott, and Jasmine Savoy Brown’s Evie—were all women when the majority of religious violence and oppression in our world is committed by men. Grade: C
Best Season…Season 2: Everything about this season is so remarkably better than the first, that it’s like we’re watching a different show altogether. And in a way, we kind-of are since the location is different (plain Jane Mapleton exchanged for eerily “perfect” Miracle, Texas a semi-theocratic police state) and we get several new characters like the Murphy family, including the great Regina King in a stand-out role. From the opening scene (the evolution of a cave mother) to the acclaimed “International Assassin” episode to the literally explosive season finale, “The Leftovers” finally becomes the show it wants to be in terms of making thoughtful points about religion. Grade: A
Now on to season 3…
Season 3, Episode 1 “The Book of Kevin”…Despite the episode title, this is the only season-three episode that showcases most of the entire cast rather than an individual character being the main focus. It alternates between filling us in on what’s happened and setting up what’s to come, without the main plot of season three (an Australian spiritual journey for most of the main cast) really kicking in, but it’s still a stack of scenes that are mostly satisfying. Right off the bat, most of the insufferable Guilty Remnant cult that ruined (or liberated) Miracle, Texas is wiped out in a drone strike–hooray!–and an opening flashback to 1844 is pitch-perfect at exposing the secret wish-fulfillment in end of the world prophesies. These two opening scenes and an inflatable Gary Busey alone make this a near-perfect episode. Grade: A-
Season 3, Episode 2 “Don’t Be Ridiculous”…This is a mostly Nora-centric episode and begins the season 3 structure of centering an episode around one main character. Your reaction to this one will probably depend on how much you want to follow Nora for an hour, but to me this is more a sober reminder of the characters we won’t be seeing this season like Lily (Kevin and Nora’s adopted daughter, now back with her birth mother), Kevin’s son Tom (who largely disappears after this episode), and especially missed is season two stand-out Regina King. She makes only one appearance in season 3, and it’s mostly to listen to one of Nora’s long stories—in season 3 alone she tells ramblers about a tattoo, a beach ball, her kids, and the series final scene—and then jump on a trampoline. A waste of a great character, and combining that with the sort-of gimmicky casting of Mark Lynn Baker (playing himself), and this is the third-worst episode of the season, even if it does set up the Australia plot and have a terrific ending introducing Lindsay Duncan’s character and Scott Glenn’s reappearance. Grade: B (and mostly salvaged by that ending)
Season 3, Episode 3 “Crazy Whitefella Thinking”…This may seem like the most throwaway episode of season 3, and maybe it is, but it’s also my personal favorite. You can almost hear fans asking “What the hell? An entire episode centered around Scott Glenn’s Kevin Garvey Sr.? During an abbreviated final season?!” And while it seems like a…”curious” choice on the writer’s part, it pays off beautifully with Glenn’s effortless acting (unlike so many of “The Leftovers” younger cast, you don’t see him straining) that is Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy-worthy. The entire episode has an intriguing weirdness that never feels forced and includes aboriginal rain songs, suicide by fire, and thoughtful questions about faith. The final scene between Glenn and Lindsay Duncan’s Grace is beautiful, moving, devastating, and ultimately hopeful. Duncan and Glenn are so good in this mirror scene of all the “long talks” Nora and Kevin have, that I can’t help but feel a little more captivated by these characters than their younger counterparts. Grade: A
Season 3, Episode 4 “G’Day Melbourne”…Once again, we’re following Kevin and Nora and your reactions to this episode will depend largely on how much you like Kevin Garvey Jr. For me, he’s a very limited character on a complex show, and it seems like he pretty much reacts to every situation the same way no matter what it is which is basically just him adding “fuck” and saying the same thing angrier. Kevin: “I’ll take a vanilla ice cream cone.” Someone else: “What?” Kevin: “I’ll take a fucking vanilla ice cream cone!” This one just didn’t do it for me personally, and is my pick for the 2nd worst of the season. And that closing hotel room fight between Nora and Kevin underscores a nagging sense I have that these two have always felt a little more like angry, morose plot devices than characters you fully believe in. [It’s okay though, Jack and Kate weren’t my favorite part of “Lost” either.] Grade: B-
Season 3, Episode 5 “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”…Matt’s never been my favorite character either so it’s hard to explain why this episode centered mostly around him works so damn well but it absolutely does. What starts off as a deceptively simple apostles-episode turns into a late-game surprise as a ferry boat cruise turns into a floating Sodom and Gomorrah, complete with lion worship, orgies, and a mildly psychotic God (played by the great Bill Camp as bemused and uncaring) that murders someone for seemingly no reason at all. Preacher Matt is the only one who seems to want to hold a murderous “God” accountable among the pleasure seekers, and that’s a great allegory for all the atrocities that go unnoticed in our everyday world. Grade: A
Season 3, Episode 6 “Certified”…As surprising as it was to find terrific episodes centered around side characters in episodes 3 and 5, the gambit isn’t quite as successful here. I feel “The Leftovers” has never known exactly what to do with Laurie—who never leaves The Guilty Remnant in the source-novel—and that’s why she’s been a devoted wife and mother, a merciless cult follower, an awake ex-member, a manipulative medium, and now a…what? Someone who flies across the world to save her ex-husband, but then chooses not to, drugs everyone else, and then goes scuba diving instead? This episode feels like pure filler, and is my pick for worst of the season. It also doesn’t help that as maddening as I might find the worst “Leftovers” episodes, this is the only one I’ve ever had trouble staying awake during, and I had to attempt watching it three separate times. Grade: C+
Season 3, Episode 7 “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”…An interesting episode that serves as a companion to the slightly overrated season 2 brain fuck “International Assassin” where Kevin goes back into that alternate world. The alternate world—is it an afterlife or an alternate dimension or a dream?—has always felt like a more accessible, exciting version of “Twin Peaks,” but this episode may have been scripted by Freud’s ghost as the psychological undercurrents of “Assassin” take center stage here. Kevin has to annihilate this alternate world if he hopes to save his relationship with Nora or at least be satisfied by it, and that’s great and all, but if this world isn’t solely for Kevin’s benefit then isn’t he basically committing global genocide to force himself to commit? And wouldn’t that gesture have made more sense before he told Nora to seek out a machine that will literally put her in another world or kill her? Lindelof’s point only really works if you believe the alternate world is a metaphor for religion (and, by extension, death) that exists exclusively in Kevin’s mind, and his decision at the end is saying no to death—by, of all things, blowing it up…huh?—and yes to life, especially a love life. Still, it’s very hard not to be moved by Glenn telling his son he loved him before shoving him into that bathtub (“if I could do this instead of you, I would”) or saying he had no idea what to do now that the world didn’t end. Grade: A-
Season 3, Episode 8 “The Book of Nora”…Did Nora really go through to the other side or were the “scientists” just pulling off the ultimate hoax? Is what she told Kevin at the end true or was it just a metaphor for what she realized about the “next life” she wasn’t ready to join? Once again, the character of Nora makes sense more as a plot driver than someone you really believe in. [Would Nora have spent the entire series missing her family and wanting to be reunited with them, and then be reunited with them only to go back…to run a pigeon sanctuary?] And shows that “The Leftovers” is more an emotional experience than something that holds up to close scrutiny, but common sense isn’t really what we’re after here, and shouldn’t be entirely expected in a show that wants to have a conversation about religion. Even more than the two previous seasons, this final season wants to analyze the different ways people find meaning (or lack of) through religion. And Kevin and Nora both deciding to opt out of “the next world” to spend more time in this one feels like the perfect allegory for a show that is advocating people spend less time talking to God and more to each other. The ending scene combined with the ending of episode 7 makes you realize “The Leftovers” has always been a critique of the ways religion divides us, and makes people so obsessed with the next world that they forget to make this one as good as it can be. Not bad, not bad at all. Grade: A-