The Leftovers Series Finale Recap: "The Book of Nora"

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
The apocalypse never came.
That is, simply put, the grand coda of The Leftovers. The finale, “The Book of Nora,” is an hour of television more soothing than confrontational, more mellow than the punctuated, message-driven finales we’ve grown accustomed to. There is no message here. There is instead a purposeful lack of anything resembling a message. There is only a palpable, tender acceptance of the things that happen to us, the things that don’t happen to us, and the things we wanted to happen to us that were never meant to.
As the title implies, the finale is Nora’s story, and argues that The Leftovers was really really her story all along. Nora’s presence was so often confounded by the things we know about her — the loss of her family and her inability to really deal with that fact — and less by who she really is, because we never got to know the Nora who wasn’t upended by grief. But the finale attempts to reason with the idea that Nora is hard to know. It’s less that, and more that we’ve never seen the real her at all, only her ghost. That’s how she refers to herself in the show’s final moments. A ghost.
Grief is such a fickle thing. A different entity to every person who grows comfortable in its gnarly embrace. To Nora, grief was discombobulating, an identity thief. We’ve watched her waver through every iteration of self, from the hardened woman who needed a gunshot to start her heart, to the doting, sundress-wearing Texan mother who could temporarily delay the inevitable by playing house with children she didn’t know. All along she’s been compiling personalities that might stick, hopeful that the feelings she warded off could be contained in some new thing, any new thing. It was all a lie. That’s why, as season three unspooled, we bore witness to Nora in her fullest form: a woman who just wanted her kids back, plain and simple.
The heartbreaking truth of the finale is that she was never meant to get them back. Sometimes life snatches away what’s important to teach us how to feel at home in our interior self. Nora learned this after blighting herself to another dimension and seeing her family happy without her. “I was a ghost who had no place there,” she tells Kevin with an even disposition. Something like acceptance.
The real reveal of the episode is that the Nora we saw at the end of the season opener – grey-haired, wrinkled in the face, going by the name of Sarah — is the real Nora. Not some alternate reality, afterlife version. Just Nora, years later, in the same general place we left her. The episode opens in a Kubrickian contraption, with Nora about to take her nuclear blast to the other side, before flashing instead to the future where she lives quietly, delivering carrier pigeons to a nunnery on her bicycle, living on a farm with clay pots, surrounded by greenery and solitude. Until Kevin shows up. An aged Kevin, who pretends he only ever met her once. It’s meant as a diversion, but is really a straight play. This is the Kevin who comes back, after years of running away.
He shows up Nora’s door step — after a nosy nun told him where to find her — and invites her to a party, which she puts off attending but eventually gives into. It’s actually a wedding, and Kevin is waiting at a table alone for her. The two dance, tears in their eyes, in the milky light of what you’d assume is a parallel plane. Some ethereal, heavenly distance where soulmates find each other.
But it’s the future, which in a way is its own other world, one of healed wounds and a shift in gravity. Nora runs away from the wedding and tries to reassemble the quiet life she’s taken up, but Kevin comes back — again — to tell her why he came. Because he loves her, has always loved her, and because life is empty without her in it. He comes every year from Jarden, where he’s still chief of police, on his two weeks’ vacation, retracing the steps of where he lost her. Even-tempered, she listens to this, then invites him in for tea — characteristically unfazed by such a heartfelt admission.
Inside, she finally reveals what happened to her after tracking down the scientists, and saying goodbye to Matt. (Who, we learn, died shortly after.) She really did cross over. She really did find her family. She learned that “over there” the Sudden Departure was the same as her own, only all of the people who survived hers were lost in theirs. That means that her husband and children were the lucky ones — because in a world of orphans, they still had each other. Her husband remarried. Her kids turned into teenagers. And she was, in this world that had moved on, no longer necessary.
And so she came back. Supposedly. Frankly, I’m not positive I buy her story of crossing over. It’s told to us free of flashes, so we never “see” it, and can therefore question its legitimacy. It feels so tidy that she was able to go and come back without consequence.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter. Because the real point is that Kevin believes her. And why shouldn’t he, with his own life so transformed by the majestic? In her seeming absence of relevancy in both worlds, Kevin presents to her an end game. He needs her. He wants her. She’s not a ghost to him. In the end, The Leftovers wasn’t about catastrophic events, but about the humans who survive them and must contend with them thereafter. Through Nora and Kevin, we saw two converging tracts in the aftermath, two stories of people ill-equipped to survive, but who did it anyway. If there’s one thing to take away from this finale — which is really a game-changing, beautiful end note merely by being so ordinary — it’s that life, for all its lack of cohesion, can be purposeful even when we think it’s past our time.
Other observations:
— It’s been a great honor to recap this season, which taught me to love the show even when I had my hesitations.
— Laurie isn’t dead! I was really hoping the scuba thing was just a diversion. Looks like she’s happily back in Texas, helping to raise her grandbaby.
— Old Nora listens to a lot of Billie Holiday.
— The old-age makeup in this episode is absolutely stellar. The liver spots, the crinkly eyes, even the wrinkled lips. Somehow Justin Theroux looks even hotter with grey hair and some saggy under-eyes.
— Also, Kevin’s heart scar from the penultimate episode actually has a logical reason for existing: old Kevin has a bad heart.
— I know I’ve made a lot of Lost comparisons all season, but this episode really brought that home. The Nora/Kevin wedding reunion felt so much like Jack/Kate in the Lost finale at the Driveshaft concert. Two long-ago lovers reuniting in unusual circumstances. Also, Kevin’s chest scar is a lot like Jack’s abdominal scar.
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