I want to believe I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization.”
It’s been a while since it last seemed like everybody in America was tuned into the same show. Sure, we had the last season of Breaking Bad, but it took a full four years before it became The Show You Have To Watch. Season 5 of Game of Thrones is nearly a year away. Mad Men‘s almost done for good. The public has been itching for something to come together and obsess over, and with this summer’s ten-episode run, The Leftovers has boldly stepped up to the plate.
Sunday night’s Season 1 finale, “The Prodigal Son Returns,” delivered everything one could have hoped for a season end, and, at least in my mind, solidified The Leftovers as worthy of the wreath of America’s TV Obsession. Despite a premise that is unyieldingly grim, audiences have found deep connections with the characters’ of Damon Lindelof’s bleak, gritty parallel world. And this latest episode, especially paired with its predecessor, “The Garveys at Their Best,” delivers on the character growth and catharsis that is ultimately the reason we keep coming back to this show.
“The Prodigal Son Returns” starts where episode 8, “Cairo,” left us: with Patti, enigmatic leader of the Guilty Remnant, dead by suicide, set up perfectly to frame Kevin Garvey, whose slipping mental coherence has quickly spiraled him out of control. Kevin sits by Patti’s bloody body, smoking one of her cigarettes, as “Ne Me Quitte Pas” plays somberly above (some have found the music direction on Leftovers to be a bit heavy handed, but I have found the combination of original scoring by Max Richter and lengthy, indulgent forays into various genres of music to be quite striking.) Meanwhile, Laurie watches Jill smoke a tentative cigarette, clearly disturbed by her own reflection in her daughter’s face. And somewhere far away, Tommy is abandoned by Christine, stranded with a baby to whom he has no ties.
The Leftovers has always excelled when it focuses deeply on just a single character, but “Prodigal Son” proves that the show can also handle the ensemble, which is especially necessary for a finale episode, when the audience expects (and to an extent, deserves) some kind of conclusion for all of the characters and their storylines. Though the episode at first seem to be focused on Kevin–and a rather baffling dream sequence lends to this illusion–“Prodigal Son” is ultimately about Mapleton itself, as the town is subjected to the Guilty Remnants’ cruelest, most disturbing stunt yet.
It had started to become clear what the Remnant was planning a few episodes ago, as the pieces of their seemingly erratic actions came together: the breaking into homes, the stealing of family photos, the ordering of mysterious, person-sized packages. But there was no balm for how horrifying and truly devastating the final effect was, when the GR planted plastic likenesses of all the departed in the homes they’d left behind. Director Mimi Leder was wisely restrained when depicting the morning of the stunt: it was revealed fuzzily at first, as dolls sat still and lifeless in the background as the sun rose on Mapleton. It is, unsurprisingly, through Nora’s eyes that we first witness the full, terrifying effect, and her silenced screams convey unprecedented anguish on a show that is already rooted in sorrow. Nora has always been our window into the worst of the Departure, having lost the absolute most that a person can lose. But no other scene, including the scene in “The Garveys at Their Best” when her husband and two children departed, fully drives home her hopeless, helpless depression like this one.
Kevin’s dream, or hallucination, or whatever it was, didn’t help forward the plot, but it did reveal some of Kevin’s true beliefs as to the cause of the Departure, or rather, the reason he stayed: he believes himself to be a bad person, and the bad people were left behind. From what we’ve seen on this season of Leftovers, this is unlikely to be truth, but it’s easy to see how Kevin ended up in that headspace. I have to admit that I was relieved at first when it seemed Kevin had finally been committed–protagonist or not, he certainly has proven himself to be erratically dangerous–but was even more relieved when it turned out to be just another vision. For all his very likely insanity, it is hard not to care for Kevin, and root for him to be reunited with the family who have all left him, one way or another. The first part of the episode is vital to Kevin, as his confessions to Matt (and, not so subtly, his cleansing himself of blood with the jug of water) seem to lift a weight he has carried alone until now. Justin Theroux seals his performance as one of the best of the year.
It’s when Matt and Kevin finally return to Mapleton, though, that the episode, and the season, really come together. They return to pure chaos in the wake of the Guilty Remnant’s stunt. It’s almost like a flashback to the original Departure: people screaming, cars crashed and stalled, fire. But the scene, in its own way, is much, much worse. This riot is not about confusion and fear; this riot is about rage. The citizens of Mapleton unleash a mass lynching on the members of the Remnant the likes of which Kevin, and certainly not the Mayor, ever expected from this peaceful suburban town. A woman runs shooting a gun through the streets. A family lines up to take turns beating up a Remnant member. The entire GR compound is set ablaze, and a pyre in the middle serves the burn the Uncanny Valley dolls. In the chaos is it impossible to tell who’s dragging a doll behind them and who’s dragging a living body. Their rage is palpable, and certainly understandable, after witness Nora’s reaction. Meanwhile, the members of the Remnant seem to have gotten what they wanted, whatever that really is: Megan, beaten to a pulp, holds up a sign smugly to Kevin: “We Made Them Remember.”
In these last few minutes of pure disaster, it is Laurie whose character takes the biggest jolt to her system. Her earlier silent stoicism as she tried to dissuade Jill from joining the Remnant is shattered, along with all her pretense of detachment from her family, as she begs Kevin to save their daughter with the tremendous effort of a single screamed word: “JILL!” The difficulty Laurie has in even uttering her daughter’s name, despite her obvious desperation, only adds to the power and horror of the scene. Later, she walks alone by the Statue of Heroes, clearly shaken, at odds with all the beliefs she’s held so close to. Finally, Tommy shows up–the titular Prodigal Son, although that label might actually be more suited to Kevin–and we see in Laurie’s eyes a fascinating combination of bewilderment, sadness, and hope. That sense of hope continues as Kevin walks hand in hand with his rescued daughter, away from the fire and back to their home.
Lastly, we have the abandoned baby that Nora finds on the steps of the Garvey home. About to flee, on the brink of despair, Nora is quite literally saved by this innocent, helpless creature. After she met Wayne, she was able to shed some of her external sadness, but this is the first time we see her truly, radiantly happy. Wayne is now dead, of course, with no more answers than we had. The mystery of his baby is perhaps the most obtuse part of the show, and hopefully the next season will delve into the repercussions of Wayne’s “power.”
Oh, and the dog. The dog comes home. That was really nice.
In only ten episodes, The Leftovers has delivered a tour-de-force, and it will certainly be hard to wait for the next installment. Harder still will be finding a fall premiere that comes close to providing the philosophical and personal scope of this one. Emmys all around. Fantastic work.