In the sixth episode of the third and final season of HBO’s The Leftovers, a show so little-watched that it’s managed to survive on critical acclaim alone, three main characters contemplate suicide. Each of them does this for entirely different reasons, just three hours before the end of the series. These people’s lives are, or should be, by most metrics, “okay”: it’s been seven years since the Sudden Departure — the Rapture-like scenario that kicked off the series, in which 2% of the world’s population vanished without explanation —, and after much grieving, things have had time to settle down. Still, by the end of that hour, we’re left to wonder if one of them has actually gone through with it. And there is no judgment.
The Leftovers is a show about grief, about the coping mechanisms human beings turn to when experiencing loss without closure — like the stories we tell ourselves to make narrative sense of a world that just doesn’t work that way. It’s unwavering in its commitment to explore the fathomless depths of its characters’ emotions, including their often excruciating, inarticulable pain. But its greatest virtue is that it doesn’t demand they overcome it; instead, it’s happy to trot along and watch them deal with their sorrows, never expecting a cathartic climax in which they finally get “over it”.
To the audience, Leftovers is about getting to the core of our woes, confronting them face to face, when all the noise is stripped away, and there’s nowhere to run. That can be very empowering, and incredibly cathartic.
This series has delighted us with many outlandish coping methods — like someone hiring sexual workers to shoot them in the chest, just to feel something —, bred from a desire for internal peace that those with a mind for business are quick to exploit — big plot points in season one involve a company that manufactures mannequins in the image of departed loved ones, so that families may have a corpse to bury and bid farewell to. People in this world are desperate to get rid of their suffering, which, supply and demand, provides a fertile ground for con artists promising to cure their heartache.
We’ve met a few of these scammers during the course of the show: some adopt semi-religious facades and call themselves holy; some form mute, chain-smoking cults. Even our heroes have fallen for such tricks, but the resolution tends to be unambiguous: there are no magic fixes to your pain. The longer you see it as something separate from you, a cyst that can be surgically extricated, the harder it’ll cling to its moors inside you, the tighter its grip. The best you can do is face it, digest it, and learn to live alongside it, despite it; beyond it. That is, if you can.
Some Leftovers characters have found peace through reclaiming their grief. If you’re not ready to embrace your sorrows as a cold winter breeze’s bitter hug, letting them hang overhead dropping acidic rain laced with thunder instead, The Leftovers will not judge you. Here you will find a sheltered corner of the world where you can wallow in your pain, if that’s where you’re at, or enjoy the hilarious beauty of the world around you, as humanity scrambles to weather the storm. Either way, your heart won’t stay untapped. You will find communion.
After a pretty devastating — though still excellent — first season, the show adopted a much brighter tone, fully embracing its weirdness, and finding hilarity even in the darkest places. This is best encapsulated by the new theme song that accompanied such changes, which sings, “Let the Mystery Be”. If a series unafraid to feature a lion-themed orgy aboard a Tasmanian ferry can have anything resembling a thesis statement, it’s that. In a world obsessed with death and loss and what is or isn’t next — much like ours —, no one really knows a thing. There’s something so calming and freeing about coming to terms with that.
If you’re struggling, you might be able to see yourself in some of these people — in their search for cosmic reason, their self-destructing impulses, their unrelenting guilt; the grief-buffet goes on and on. If you just want to dig deeper into the beautiful and messy absurdity of human emotions, you’ll be thrilled to take this ride.
I won’t spoil the series’ ending to potential freshman viewers, what these characters meet on the other side of grief. But just know that The Leftovers gets there, and it’ll be delighted to take you with it.