By James Poniewozik
September 8, 2014

The season finale of The Leftovers played as if it thought it was the series finale of The Leftovers. It didn’t answer the questions the series was adamant from the beginning that it would not answer: what the Sudden Departure was or why the Departed were taken. But it did wonderfully–as if Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta suspected this would be their last chance–offer closure to the human drama the season followed–and, maybe surprisingly after all the gloom of this season, it offered hope.

The title of the finale was “The Prodigal Son Returns,” which I first suspected would be a reference to Tommy’s returning home. He did–and with that, finally united the show’s main storylines with the hoo-hah surrounding Holy Wayne–but this episode was full of returns. Kevin is reunited with his father, if only in his own fevered sleeping mind. Laurie returns home with her daughter, if only briefly.

But maybe the most important return was… the dog.

From The Leftovers‘ first episode, dogs have been a stand-in for humankind; running feral in packs after they lost their owners in The Sudden Departure, they raised a disturbing question and set the terms of debate for the survivors. Were they still “our dogs”–reclaimable, deserving of protection–or were they a lost cause, and a sign of things to come for humans? After the random Departure traumatized the world and destroyed systems of belief and moral order, was society doomed to slow but sure collapse from spiritual death? This, really, was what Kevin was betting about when he bet Dean that he could tame one of the ferals. Could our dogs come back to us, or were we going to the dogs?

“The Prodigal” didn’t solve the debate definitively. Only one dog came back. The Garvey family reunited, but maybe only briefly. Nora changed her mind about fleeing, but we’ve seen her change her mind before. But after a beginning that was, typically, mesmerizing and confounding, the ending came together gorgeously and symphonically to suggest that there was a chance. That Laurie could still be reached within her monastic isolation to cry out her daughter’s name. That Kevin still had his decency if not all his marbles. That even after losing everyone, Nora, finding Holy Wayne’s baby on the Garvey’s doorstep, could find it in herself to reach out to another castaway.

Nora–a remarkable character who made Carrie Coon a breakout performer of the TV season–appropriately gets the last word: “Look what I found.” What has she found? In the end, we don’t know any more than Holy Wayne if he was a prophet or a fraud. But savior or antichrist or neither, the baby had a role in the end–to make someone realize she still had the capacity to care.

A baby in a basket, prodigals–for a show with so many unbelievers and nihilists, The Leftovers‘ first season was aggressively and adamantly spiritual. But it was about people in an unusual spiritual predicament, summed up by the passage from Job that Matt asks Kevin to read when he buries Patti. In it, Job speaks of both longing for God and being terrified of Him. Likewise, the leftovers have experienced, if not God, then some sort of spectacular power–but at the same time they feel abandoned. They have proof of something greater than themselves–but something so terrifying and capricious that they no longer know what to believe in.

Which is why I’ve never really gotten the criticism that The Leftovers is a show where nothing happens. It’s a show where a huge thing has happened–the biggest thing, maybe, ever to happen to humanity. It just doesn’t take the approach that many shows might have given the same premise: sleuthing out whatever alien invasion, supernatural force or government conspiracy was behind the Departure. (I’ll bet you Kevin’s dollar a network version of The Leftovers would have ended season one with a second Departure.) Instead it asked, given the demonstration of a staggering power and no scientific or religious explanation, what do you believe?

The Leftovers was at its finest addressing the question on an individual level: the Matt- and Nora-centric episodes were two of the best hours of TV this year (and the Garvey-centric flashback episode was pretty close). The bigger picture was hazier, but the Guilty Remnant storyline gave it a weird, fascinating drive while hinting at what was going on in the larger world, the emergence of new belief systems, or, to a non-member, cults.

The GR’s means were bizarre like performance art–the symbolic smoking, the passive aggression, the final Loved Ones stunt that led to the final, chaotic images of actual bodies mixed in among replicas. But their approach was not really unprecedented–compared, for instance, the response of medieval Christianity to its own Sudden Departure, the Black Plague. Medieval monks self-flagellated. The GR provoked attacks against themselves. The Church preached memento mori–remember that you must die, that you will be meat for worms. The GR made itself a prod and an irritation, devoted to making people remember the same terrible moment forever.

Patti, a fascinating creation, is dead now; the Mapleton chapter of the GR seems to be weakened at best. And this again seemed to be a way of putting a period on that story should The Leftovers not get a second season. (That commitment only came after the current season was in the bag.) But Mapleton is just one town. The crises of faith are still out there, the cults (and hostility to them) seem to be everywhere and there is likely to be one hell of a hangover after this last night. I’m guessing that those forces will drive The Leftovers forward in a second season and possibly beyond. (And I’m just guessing, but I would bet that HBO’s commitment to more came after getting a sense of where Lindelof and Perrotta plan to go.)

“The Prodigal Son Returns” had some of the elements that could make The Leftovers confounding and frustrating. (I’m glad to be done with the cockamamie Holy Wayne storyline–and how exactly do the GR break so silently into so many homes? Is their secret leader The Grinch?) But this show lingers with me the way few TV series do. The last half of the season did a remarkable job paying off setups from the first, like the nature of Kevin’s lost-time episodes. Performers like Ann Dowd and Amy Brenneman gave a committed reality to the surreal, and Justin Theroux rooted the show in a way that reminded me of Kyle Chandler in Friday Night Lights.

This show was bound to disappoint the Doubting Thomases of fandom, who need to put their hands in the wounds and know who was in the outrigger. And that’s fine. I didn’t always get The Leftovers, but I always felt it, and that would have made it a success even if it were canceled.

Next the series, like its characters, will have to figure out what it’s going to do, now that it’s still here. I can’t wait, even if loving this show means embracing it, like the GR, with a combination of faith and fatalism. I don’t expect the answer from The Leftovers. And yet I believe.

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