Things just happen. Loved ones die. Spouses have affairs. People lose their homes. Millions of people suddenly disappear into thin air, leaving the rest of the world confused and susceptible to false beliefs, forming cults and living with a constant emotional burden. Alright, that last one might not just happen, but that is a synopsis of The Leftovers. Throughout the series, viewers had a lot of questions. What is all of this building up to? What does it mean? Why did all of this happen? After watching the final episodes and digesting the series, I have developed a cynical interpretation of The Leftovers. As I share this interpretation, there will be some major spoilers.
Early in the series, I had an instant connection with the religious themes. I was especially intrigued by the rivaling explanations of the Departure: an arbitrary event or divine intervention? Interestingly, I think that answering that question was one of the driving forces of the plot. The writers would intentionally guide you in one direction only to tear it all down.
Our Questions Were Answered
During the final episodes of the series, characters such as Kevin Garvey Sr., Matt Jamison and John Murphy believed that something significant was going to happen on the 7 year anniversary of the Great Departure. At the center of it was going to be Kevin Jr., who many characters came to believe was a messiah-like figure. It was not an unreasonable assumption considering that they all knew that he rose from the dead on multiple occasions. But the day of the anniversary had less than 5 minutes of viewing time. Nothing happened. The finale skipped decades ahead to continue the storyline.
At first blush, some viewers might find this unsatisfying. That story arch just departed. It almost seems like the messiah themes are just left hanging. But I do not think they were. I think they were resolved. The Departure was an arbitrary event. Kevin’s multiple resurrections were arbitrary events. Things just happen in the Leftovers world and there is no purpose for them. Whether we find that explanation satisfying or not is irrelevant.
God Explained It To Me
When I say God, here, I am referring to David Burton. Matt Jamison realized that Kevin had risen from the dead a few different times. This led him to believe that Kevin was the messiah, and he began chronicling his life by writing Scripture about him. He traveled all the way to Australia on what he thought was a divine mission to bring Kevin back home by the anniversary. But when the critical moment came, he stayed with his sister. He told his companions who were going to see Kevin to apologize to him for including him in his book. What changed Matt’s mind and what provided insight into my cynical interpretation of the Leftovers was his encounter with David Burton.
David Burton was a man who also rose from the dead. Unlike Kevin’s resurrections, Burton’s led him to claim that he was God and that he could not die. But then he was eaten alive by a lion. It was at that moment that Matt realized that he was ascribing too much significance to Kevin’s resurrections. Things just happen. That does not mean that Kevin was the messiah, and it does not mean that Burton was God.
Matt realized this before his traveling companions did. He abandoned his divine quest and confessed his fear to his sister in the finale, telling her that he knew that he had no idea what he was talking about. In fact, Matt was probably ahead of most of the viewing audience on this front. The episodes were designed to make the audience believe that something would happen on the anniversary. But Matt already knew the truth. Nothing was going to happen because the Departure was an arbitrary event.
Finding Purpose In Purposeless World
Death might be hard to deal with, but the Departure was something different. Plastered on signs during the first season was the common echo: “Where did they go?” People wanted to know what it meant and how they could deal with the answers. Nora would hire prostitutes to shoot her. She paid a man a thousand dollars because she believed that he could hug her pain away. Lori joined a cult. People were manufacturing solutions to their pain because with the Departure, they were confronted with the reality that life did not mean anything. In fact, cult groups such as the Guilty Remnant embraced this. Remember the GR member who told Tom, “Your pain does not matter.” Or when they gave him a pamphlet that said, “Everything that matters about you is inside,” and it was blank.
Yet while I do have a cynical interpretation of The Leftovers, I do not think that the message that they are trying to convey is totally bleak. If their message was just, “Life does not matter, and neither do you,” they probably would not bother making a show. The Leftovers is a story of how people overcome pain by relating to one another. Kevin Sr. never found purpose nor overcame his pain wandering the Outback, but perhaps he did when he went home with his son. Recall the final scene of season one. It was also the last line of the Tom Perrotta novel. “Look what I found,” Nora said holding the baby that she named Lily, and that gave her something to cling to. Another person.
Think of the story that Kevin told Nora when he came to her home after the wedding. He came to Australia every year for two weeks, traveling from town to town asking people if they had seen her. He knew that the only way that he could be fulfilled was if he found her. People need one another.
I think that is why they did not show Nora going over to the other side. It leaves a potential hanging question of whether it really happened. Perhaps she imagined it. But I think that was left hanging for the same reason that the messiah theme was left hanging. It does not matter. The world is arbitrary, and crazy things happen. But our relationships are important. The story of Kevin and Nora is more significant than the anniversary of the Departure.
A Cynical Interpretation of The Leftovers
I hope that this blogpost does not betray the theme of my website too much, but I have been digesting the show’s theme for a little while and I wanted to write it before I just forgot it. Also the themes in The Leftovers do have a lot of overlap to apologetics and theology. It is a very thoughtful show, and the battle between divine intervention and arbitrariness is deeply interwoven. But my cynical interpretation is this: Yes, Kevin resurrected three times. He went to Purgatory. Crazy things happened. But ultimately, they were arbitrary. There was no purpose behind them.