(This review begins without spoilers, before delving into some of the finer details of the season below. There is a spoiler warning midway through, so feel free to read the beginning of this article without any worries)
Halfway through season 2 of The Leftovers, I wrote this article detailing the improvements that the series writers had made over the initial season. At the time, I wrote that “The Leftovers has proven to be one of the most fascinating shows on television,” but that “those who want a clear, concise, central narrative, or who desire answers to all of their questions, should stay far away from The Leftovers.” Since then, HBO has aired the remaining five installments of the season, and my opinion on the season as a whole has only risen. Not only is this still a fascinating series, but its second season may be one of the all-time great seasons of television.
It’s also worth noting that my comment about a “clear, concise central narrative” is only a half-truth now. One of the biggest surprises this year is how brilliantly all of the various plot-threads DID manage to come together. Stories that would have been just fine staying mysterious or disconnected have actual purposes that tie into a greater whole and are paid off beautifully at the end of the year. Somehow Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and their team of writers manage to pull this off despite sticking to a singular character POV for nine of the ten episodes, keeping us wholly engaged in the moment while building a more serialized arc in the background. It’s a structural miracle, giving the viewer several complete, immensely satisfying story arcs while still leaving The Departure itself as a mystery.
Once again, I’d like to stress that despite the season’s strength as a whole, the individual episodes are in no way diminished. Of the ten episodes this season, I would argue that at least seven of them (episodes 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) deserve consideration on their own for any “Best episodes of 2015” list. The intense focus on individual characters means that most of the cast gets to be the star for at least one week, and the near-unprecedented narrative risks that Lindelof and company take lend an air of excitement to each week as well.
From here on, I will discuss some of the specifics of the season. But if you have not been watching The Leftovers (which, judging by the ratings, you have not), I implore you to bear through season 1 (which has some wonderful moments but can be a bit of a drag) and give season 2 a shot. It would be a shame if the best TV season in years went unnoticed by the public.
So, holy shit, how ’bout that “International Assassin?”
I’ve attempted to explain the episode to a couple of people who have not watched The Leftovers, and it is completely impossible to get across why it works. How could you? It’s a full hour of a main character journeying around in the afterlife (or purgatory? or a hallucination?) as an international assassin tasked with killing a presidential candidate. Not only that, but the candidate appears as his “adversary,” a dead character from the previous season, and in reality is just a decoy for her REAL incarnation, which is a young girl who he must push into a well.
In a show otherwise grounded in an approximation of reality, calling this episode “audacious” is an understatement. It’s goddamn ludicrous. But somehow it’s enormously engaging and successful, and even further, doesn’t completely break the world of the show. All signs point to Kevin’s experience being “real,” but there’s still a rational explanation for the episode. We’ve already had Laurie explain the possibility of a psychotic break at this point, and given Kevin’s near-death state, such a bizarre experience could easily be in his head.
But what’s brilliant about Lindelof’s work is the way that, despite often holding onto possible rational explanations, he likes to continue piling on evidence of the supernatural to test the faith of his characters. It’s something of an inversion of the real world, in which faith in religion or the otherworldly often requires one to ignore or deny contradictory evidence in the real-world. Here, in a world in which The Departure is an undeniable event with no obvious scientific explanation, and a person can seemingly return from the dead twice, somebody who denies the supernatural has to make some off-the-wall assumptions about how the world works to account for the what’s in front of their eyes.
Looking past “International Assassin,” it would be easy to detail the moments and performances that make this season so wonderful. Carrie Coon, Regina King, Christopher Eccleston, and Liv Tyler all get fantastic showcases here for their range and adaptability. But instead of going down that rabbit hole, let’s just talk briefly about how well the Evie/Guilty Remnant reveal played out. Looking back, plenty of seeds were planted: the awkward car ride in the premiere, their mocking of the Miracle anthem, the nude run, etc. In the very episode that it was revealed, we see Evie meet Meg for the first time. But it never feels like the show is being too clever for its own good, and the surprise works because it’s an answer to a question for which the show has trained us not to expect answers.
This sense that the writers had arcs planned out is present throughout the whole finale. All major plotlines are given closure: John gets his retribution on Kevin and learns to accept the miraculous, Matt’s wife leaves her catatonic state and vindicates him, Nora returns home, Meg’s plan comes to fruition, Laurie and Jill begin to heal their relationship, and Tom finds himself protecting the child he passed onto Nora. So many narrative loose ends are tied up, yet it never feels like the show is scrambling. Stories weave in and out of each other seamlessly, and it ends on a satisfying note.
Unfortunately, very few people are watching The Leftovers. Even for HBO, a network that is more concerned with building its brand through acclaimed shows than watching over ratings, The Leftovers is in danger of being cancelled. It would be an absolute shame to not see what’s in store for the Garveys and company next year, but if this is the last we see of the show, it’s a terrific ending. Perhaps this season is destined to fade into obscurity for the time being, a cult curiosity for others to discover down the road. For now, we can just be content having been the small pool of witnesses that experienced such a miracle of a TV season.