The third season of “The Leftovers” isn’t as big of a step up in quality and ambition of storytelling as the second season was to the first, but is still a brilliant, ambitious tackling of weighty themes. The show’s interest in the genesis of religion is carried over from the first two seasons, but with less focus on the interplay between religion and family units and the apparent mysticism that can spark religions (although the mysticism from the second season is very organically extended into one of the main stories of the season). Greater focus is instead placed on the more pragmatic psychological reasons that see some embrace certain belief structures.
The season also explores in depth the risk of vulnerability (whether “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” and all that) and the nature of self-destructive cycles, the latter tying in interestingly to the iterative nature of a third season of a show in the first place.
[This review contains spoilers for all the second season of the show.]
The show’s second season was a fantastically unified, cohesive work, with all its themes, character arcs, plotting, everything interplaying perfectly. The pacing was particularly perfect, and the way it built to arguably the closest the show has come to outright divinity (in the karaoke realm, the underworld, the hotel that Kevin visited twice) was bold and stunning. Thematically, the conclusion to the second season essentially restates the conclusion of the first (and of the novel) – that while the unknowable aspects and chaos of life can be tremendously harrowing, meaningful connections with other people are possible, and can make it all worth it – but it felt even more earned and powerful in the context of that season’s unique approach.
The author of the novel the first season was directly based on, Tom Perrotta, is one of the key minds between the series as well, so it’s no wonder the thematics of the show have always remained so tight, and that’s still the case in the third season. However, coming off such a tour de force of a season was never going to be easy, and the fact HBO only gave the third season eight episodes instead of the usual ten also made things difficult. While the third season builds off the second season extremely neatly and organically, and comes to its own unique thematic approach perfectly well, it never achieves that unity in purpose or clarity of vision that the second season did.
The only aspect of the third season I’d outright call a misstep is having Laurie suddenly alive in the finale, invalidating her heavily implied suicide in the sixth episode – to me, it felt enormously unearned, and invalidating that incredible episode and it’s extremely deft approach to suicide irritated me. That is more of a personal issue, but there are other issues with the season that go deeper. I’d identify these other problems as John feeling like a much more difficult character to grasp in the wake of the three-year timeskip (along with his notable character development yet lack of any solo episode to properly capture his frame of mind for the season), Matt’s huge shift in attitude towards religion following his solo episode never really being properly examined beyond implications in the finale, and the way the finale glosses over the great misdirection the show pulled with the focus on Kevin’s messianic status to such an extent that the actual writing felt underwritten rather than the story point itself feeling intentionally undercooked. These are all issues I’d imagine were born more out of the structural difficulties of developing the season rather than any great deficiencies of the writing. They’re unfortunate, and hold the season back from the greatness of its predecessor, but they’re also understandable.
The opening of the third season’s premiere establishes all three of the season’s biggest themes and concerns – the self-destructive cycles people engage in, the psychological motivations for people to follow belief structures, and the trade-off between being vulnerable and opening either one’s heart or mind or instead remaining closed-off and stuck in one’s ways. Like the second season’s “prologue”, it takes place a long time before the actual events of the season, has no direct connection to the season’s characters or plot, but lays out the themes of the season and works as a sort of lens to interpret the season through. A religious family repeatedly prepare themselves for the coming apocalypse they truly believe in. The religious leaders change the date of the coming apocalypse after it continually fails to come on the proclaimed date. The father and child of the family lose faith, but the mother does not, and the family breaks apart. The mother remains engaged in the self-destructive cycle of preparing for the apocalypse rather than questioning the religion or placing the direct concerns of her family over the weightier issues of the religion. She clings to her faith instead of opening up to the painful possibility that it could be invalid.
Many characters in the third season grapple similarly with these issues. Rather than be vulnerable, open up and risk the pain or change that could come with opening up with each other (as they did beautifully in the second season when confessing their bizarre secrets), Kevin and Nora avoid meaningful conversation and cling to superficial and physical aspects of their relationship instead. They both have their own unique self-destructive cycles as well – Kevin’s asphyxiation ritual and retreats into mysticism that blots out his “mundane” concerns, Nora’s self-inflicted wounds and reckless rogue DSD activities. Kevin pursues “suicides” to avoid the potential pain of opening up and properly reckoning with his life and relationships, and Nora (one way or another) exiles herself to a lonely existence in Australia for perhaps decades, for many of the same reasons.
As for how Kevin and Nora tie into the season’s concern with the psychological motivations behind following belief structures, the final conversation in the finale acts as a microcosm of that issue, and of religion in general, for both Kevin and the viewer by extension. It’s a season filled with characters telling themselves stories and engaging in belief structures for various reasons – Kevin Senior telling himself the Flood story and believing in that apocalyptic so deeply as a way of finding purpose in life and coping with his issues, Laurie and John believing that lying to customers under cover of religion pretences is a noble way of deploying stories to help others find meaning and closure in life, Matt and Michael constructing the narrative of Kevin as a messiah figure as a way to bring structure and meaning to both their lives and the great unknowable issues of their time). It’s notable that a season so filled with characters using apocalyptic scenarios as a way to cope with all the more pressing issues of life opened with a religious prelude depicting exactly that.
At the very end of it all, of the season, Nora tells a story of visiting an inverted world that all the Departed inhabit, a mirror world where 98% “departed”, the inhabitants of the show’s world, and that lost 2% see the fact any survived at all as a blessing, a consequence of the flipped ratios. Kevin eagerly, unquestionably believes it, he engages in that belief structure, and is overjoyed to find a chance for a life and love together with Nora again. The two of them finally cast aside their diversions and self-destructive tendencies, and committing to actually being in the here and now. Is Nora telling the truth? Putting aside the logical gaps in her story (like why wouldn’t the scientist use the transportation machine to send people between the worlds to assure and unify each other, and why would Nora’s family that seems to be over her still be in that same house in a ghost town, when she points out how so many places have been abandoned because of the small population), Nora’s self-exile in Australia fits into her self-destructive patterns, the episode is full of her literally blocking out the outside world because of the potential pain of opening up to it, and her story works as an excellent cover for sparing Kevin the pain of her having been able to reach out to him for years but being too weak to do so. The viewer can embrace the ambiguity and either believe her or not, but Kevin definitively chooses to, and doesn’t his embracing of that belief structure in the name of unity and a family unit represent and explain so much of religion in general?
For all those years of Kevin not knowing whether Nora was even in the same realm as him anymore, he was faced with that ambiguity of losing a person but not knowing whether they were dead or just “gone”, just as Nora had to face with her family “departing”. For all those years, whether Nora actually was transported to another realm or not, Matt abandoned his narcissistic beliefs that justified his own life and choices, and instead said the lies Nora asked him too, and proved a great and loving brother for that. The season saw many characters grappling with a Biblical flood, but Nora’s flood of tears after her and Kevin’s break-up was always a more powerful, pressing, and important issue. Grace grappled with the apparent rapture-like loss of her children instead of actually looking for them. Characters grasping for control instead of surrendering to the ambiguity inherent to life nearly always ended badly.
While not absolutely perfect the way the second season was, the third season of “The Leftovers” was still an outstanding, moving exploration of complex and weighty issues, rendered beautifully by the show’s brilliant writing team and incredible cast. The season being set in my own country and actually depicting it accurately and respectfully was a surprising cherry on top. I give it four and a half scapegoats, and a gospel.