Sunday, June 4, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Leftovers' - Nora Gains a New Perspective on the World in 'The Book of Nora'

HBO's The Leftovers - Episode 3.08 "The Book of Nora"

Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.

It was a little over seven years ago (on May 23, 2010 to be exact) that Damon Lindelof's last critically-acclaimed drama series aired its final episode. It was a little show called Lost. That ending was very divisive amongst its millions of fans. It was divisive when it first aired and it's still divisive today. Fan reaction to it ultimately forced Lindelof off Twitter. Social media proved toxic for him because he was always having to answer for the decisions made during that series finale. As such, anticipation is high for how Lindelof will wrap his latest critically-acclaimed drama series, The Leftovers. He and co-creator Tom Perrotta went into this third season knowing that it would be the final season. They made that decision when HBO renewed it. They knew they only had so much story left to tell with this world and these characters. Speculation began immediately if Lindelof would be able to stick the landing this time in a way that truly satisfied everyone who watched and loved the show. Or if he would someone find himself in a whole new mess that he'll need to explain for many years to come. A lot of pressure ultimately is coming down on this series finale. It's unfair. This final season has proven that The Leftovers is the best show on television. I fully expected it to be my Number 1 show of the year regardless of what happened in the finale. Things would have to have gone horribly awry for things to have changed that much.

Of course, the divisiveness of the Lost finale comes from the resolution - or lack thereof - of the central mysteries. Much like The Leftovers, it was many different shows in one. It was an examination of the human condition and how various people relate to each other after a life-changing event occurs. But Lost was also much more interested in the mystery and the ongoing mythology of the island. Over the course of its six season run, it set up a ton of mysteries. It provided a number of answers over the years. But in the end, some mysteries were just left dangling. It should be noted that I enjoyed the Lost finale when it aired. However, I haven't been able to revisit it or anything from the show since it first aired. My opinion could be entirely different now with some time removed from it all and some more personal experiences in the world. When it comes to The Leftovers, I was never all that worried about how the show would end because the journey getting to this point was so compelling. It's been rewarding to watch in a number of ways. Plus, it never treated its central premise as a mystery that needed to be solved in the final episode of the show. That was clear from the very first episode. The Sudden Departure happened and the stories of the show were how the various characters reacted to it. As the song that accompanied the second season credits (and which reappears in "The Book of Nora"), it's better off to just let the mystery be. That's been a satisfying way to enjoy the show across its three seasons. I wasn't looking for an explanation. I was just watching to see how time and life experiences change these characters over the years following this massive event.

After airing the first seven episodes of this final season though, it wasn't entirely clear how The Leftovers was going to wrap things up. Because the show told its narrative through unique character-perspective episodes, most of these characters already had their final endings throughout the season. Plus, a lot of the main narrative thrust of the season was resolved in last week's crazy penultimate episode. So much of this season revolved around the seven year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. It was made into such a big deal. Everyone believed that something big was going to happened. It was a part of their religious beliefs. Something happening after seven years is symbolic of something more being out there in the world and having an influence in their every day lives. It was a date everyone was anticipating. This season was a fascinating exploration on how the Sudden Departure is still affecting these characters even though they are now far removed from the event itself. Time has the potential to heal all wounds. And yet, the ambiguity of the situation is still causing worldwide feelings of depression, despair and isolation. There was no getting over this massive loss. The anniversary could return all of the departed or it could end the world. But ultimately, nothing happened. The world didn't need to be saved. Kevin wasn't the savior who needed to protect this world from the pending apocalypse. It was all just stories people told themselves in order to feel in control of their lives.

That's a strong piece of finality right there. People just accepting that there is no control or understanding of the Sudden Departure. It's simply an event that happened. No one knows why or if it'll happen again. It could have been the end of the world and civilization just doesn't know it yet. People can claim to have a connection of some kind to the departed. Others can proclaim that they can take away suffering through a hug. Meanwhile, it can be comfortable to live in the one place on Earth that wasn't touched by this massive event. The ambiguity of it all has always been fascinating and compelling from a narrative and emotional standpoint. From a character perspective, this season has already wrapped things up in finite ways. Erika got answers over her daughter's death and was able to move on with her life. Matt got his answers from God and found peace again with enough time to fix what he had selfishly broken in his life. Laurie accepted that she never truly recovered from the Sudden Departure and still saw it as the end of the world. The ambiguity at the end of "Certified" was a strong way to close things for that character. The show never needed to say whether or not she ultimately committed suicide. Things were also perfectly fine with Nora being left on the hillside to go down to the physicists below and get in the machine to see her kids again. It was something she was going to do no matter what. And finally, there was a sense of tragedy of Kevin having to die in order to figure out that he wanted to be alive and with Nora. Once he woke up, it was already tragically too late to do anything about that because she was already gone. All of these moments were perfectly fine ways to end the stories for these characters. And yet, there was still the actual series finale. Plus, there was the ongoing mystery of what was going on with an older Nora in Australia from the end of "The Book of Kevin." And now, things have truly come to an end for this show.

It's not surprising at all that the finale is centered around Nora. She is truly the most tragic character of this story. She's the one who lost the most from the Sudden Departure. The Garvey family was always central to the main story. Theirs was a story of how their lives were ruined even though they weren't personally touched by this event (at least not until Laurie revealed the fetus inside her did depart that day). It instead revealed to them - as well as the Murphy family - just how broken they actually were. Meanwhile, Nora lost her entire family. Her husband and two children were taken that day. It's that loss that has defined her for so long. She doesn't want that to be the sole thing people know her for. She doesn't want to be the person defined by this tragedy. She doesn't want to be "Nora Cursed." And yet, that's frequently what her life could be perceived as. She was always searching for answers. Everyone came to her claiming to know the truth. Matt with his religious beliefs. The Guilty Remnant to say that their departures are a massive wake-up call to humanity. Scientists saying that she was responsible because of the energy she sent out into the world. The worst was it being completely random because that wasn't a comforting answer. Nora could be a cold and cruel woman too. She took pleasure out of exposing fraud when it came to departures. She enjoyed that work for the government. But she still wanted to find the truth. She needed to understand. Some may have doubted how far she was willing to go in that journey. Kevin was incredibly cruel to her when he said she should just be with her children at the end of "G'Day Melbourne." And yet, he was right. This is something she needed to do. And so, she does.

It's incredibly moving to watch as Nora gets into the machine to visit the land of the departures. Matt is there by her side. It's his comforting voice that is incredibly supportive in this moment. He's not trying to stop her. In fact, he's spending the last few moments with her being the best brother he could possibly be. Yes, he selfishly worries about his own future. He worries about dying and what that will mean for his family. He also worries about living and the newfound clarity that he is in regards to not truly knowing anything about the world. He's envious of Nora a little bit because she is absolutely certain about her life. She knows exactly what she wants. And now, she's actually committed to it. This opportunity has presented itself to her. When she was first approached by Mark Linn-Baker, she looked at the machine with skepticism. She just saw it as the latest scam brought to her attention by an actor from an old sitcom. It was only after she was rejected that she realized just how much she wanted it to be true. She was willing to risk everything in order to go through the machine. She ultimately gets what she wants. She gets in the chamber and departs. The finale is just a little manipulative in what actually happens in that moment. There is a cut that makes it appear like she stops it at the last possible second. She lets out a scream while inside the machine and then the action returns to the future with her riding her bike and delivering the pigeons. It's only after seeing this new life of hers that the audience fully understands what all actually happened in this moment.

Most of this finale is ultimately about the connection between Kevin and Nora. They were the main couple of the show. It was a romance that blossomed out of tragedy. They were each fully aware that they were walking into this relationship with baggage. They knew that the other person wasn't perfect. And yet, they wanted to desperately hold onto each other in order to have some meaning in their lives. Nora knew that Kevin was suffering from psychological issues while Kevin knew that Nora would always be lashing out because of her family departing. They wanted to accept that. But ultimately, they couldn't. And thus, they never were truly honest with each other when they were actually together. They would bottle things up inside because their experiences in this world were just too crazy. They never believed that the other person would understand and still love them. It was a lack of honesty that kept them apart for many years. Kevin was committed to being with Nora again. He went through his whole journey in death and the world didn't end on the seven year anniversary. He realized it meant he needed to be with Nora because he genuinely loved her. He would spend his whole life fighting to be with her. Nora comes to that same conclusion. It just takes her a whole lot longer to get there. It's a journey worth going on and one that continues the show's fascination with time and how it affects relationships between people.

It could be very frustrating that Kevin spends a significant amount of time in this finale pretending that he and Nora never had a major romance. He knocks on her door in Australia claiming that he's just on vacation and happened to see a girl he once knew in Mapleton but never had the courage to ask out. It's a story that seems like bullshit the moment he says it. Nora knows that he has a picture of her and was asking if anyone saw her in town. She knows that he's lying. And yet, the pull is still there to be with him. He is literally on her doorstep asking for a date. The chemistry and attraction is still palpable after all of these years. The yearning is immense. She doesn't want anything to disrupt her new life as Sarah. She chose to live this way for a reason. She wanted her story as Nora to end with her getting in the machine to go be with her family. After that, her life had to be something else completely. Something far removed from what happened in Mapleton and Jarden. A life without Kevin or anyone else she used to know. And yet, here Kevin is. He has found her. They've lived these lives apart from each other. But life has brought them together once more under strange circumstances. They reunite at a wedding. It's heartbreaking and beautiful to watch as the two dance once more. The looks on both of their faces love this moment. It's profound and meaningful to them. It's them finally being reunited with their greatest love. But there's still something artificial about it.

Neither Nora nor Kevin are being honest with each other. It's the quality that doomed them as a couple the first time around. They could return to being together if that's what they wanted. And yet, they need to do so being fully open with each other. They can't just pretend that none of it ever happened. That would only end in disaster once more. They still have journeys to go on in order to finally tell the truth to one another in this finale. With Kevin, it happens offscreen. He commits to his story of not remembering the life he once lived with Nora. And thus, she runs away again as a result. With Nora, she needs to put in the hard work to make something out of the tragedy of life when others only want to see the beauty. The symbolism at this wedding is powerful. It's a part of the text of the story as well. The pigeons are suppose to deliver messages of love to the rest of the world. Nora realistically knows that the birds will just fly back to her house with the messages. The goat is suppose to symbolically carry the sins of the wedding guests out into the Australian outback. Instead, it gets tangled up on a fence post and Nora needs to save it. It's ultimately Nora who needs to carry the weight of past sins on her shoulders. She's the one who chose to have this life. She chose not to be with Kevin. They hit their breaking point. There was no reason to return to him. But now, the two of them have more clarity over the lives each have lived in the time apart from one another.

It's all simply building to that beautiful and significant final conversation between Nora and Kevin. It's largely just Nora telling Kevin exactly what happened in her life after he left her all alone in that hotel room in Melbourne. He has regrets over what he said but Nora doesn't. She went to be with her kids. He helped her see that that was what she truly wanted. But more importantly, Nora actually went. The show actually provided an answer to what happened to the departed. They left for a parallel universe where 98 percent of the world's population departed. It's the exact same world as this one. The people are dealing with the same feelings of grieve and loss. They too are trying to figure out how to move on once this massive event has occurred. But more importantly, they had to deal with so much more. They lost almost the entire world. They had to rebuild. A simple journey by plane is easy in this world. In the other one, it takes significantly longer. It was in going on this arduous journey back to Mapleton that Nora realized just how lucky the rest of her family was. This world of the departed lost so much on October 14. But the Durst family got to stay together. They lost Nora but they weren't all alone in this world. So, Nora was able to take comfort in her family being okay and happy. They were able to move on. They no longer needed her. And Nora got what she wanted as well. She got her answers. She just wanted to see her family again. She did. But this world wasn't hers. That's why she returned. It took years to build the machine but she finally returned. She did so knowing exactly what happened during the Sudden Departure. She may be the only person in this world who actually knows the truth. But she isn't shouting it from the rooftops and forcing people to believe. She's simply living a solitary life in Australia. She got what she wanted and began anew. To her, it was too crazy of a story for anyone to truly accept. She believed that because she didn't know about Kevin's adventures as an international assassin. He has the ability to understand which he ultimately does. So, this moment is less about answering the big mystery and more about these two kindred spirits finally being able to make a relationship work that has the ability to last for the remainder of their lives. And that is just absolutely beautiful. It's a perfect way for the show to end. Yes, it answers the big mystery. But it's so much more than that because it's ultimately about two people connecting. They end the show happy and full of joy over what the future might hold.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Book of Nora" was directed by Mimi Leder with story by Tom Spezialy & Damon Lindelof and teleplay by Tom Perrotta & Damon Lindelof.
  • In the years since they last saw each other, Kevin never accepted that Nora was gone. And yet, it's very telling that after his adventure as the most powerful man in the world (and his identical twin brother) that he respects his responsibilities as chief of police in Jarden and only travels to Australia to look for her during his two week vacation. Before that, he would have just never returned home.
  • Of course, Nora was talking with someone in Jarden the entire time as well. She actually stayed one of Laurie's patients in the years since their hillside conversation. That also means that Laurie didn't kill herself. That reveal seemed bound to happen once the finale made it clear it would update the audience on what happened to everyone following the time jump. But still it's an important moment of growth too.
  • Matt feared that he would die from his returning cancer and that ultimately came true. He was able to reunite with Mary. She delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Plus, he got to say goodbye to Nora before all of that happened. She didn't return to the actual event largely because she probably was still in the parallel world at that time.
  • The swelling of emotion happened early and often throughout this finale with me. It started with Nora and Matt's final conversation. Additional moments where the tears were flowing included Nora and Kevin dancing at the wedding and Nora's final story about when she ultimately changed her mind about going through the machine.
  • And that's it for The Leftovers. I still can't believe this stunning, beautiful, funny, intelligent, wonderful and heartbreaking show is over. This third season was such a perfect year of television. I highly doubt anything will come close to it for a long time. It was just exquisite from the first moment until the very end. This show deserves to have such a healthy life for years to come. I can't wait to see more and more people discovering it as the years go by.