It seemed inevitable that, after a season of swapping out its theme song week to week, The Leftovers finale would revert its title music to what it used throughout season two: “Let the Mystery Be” by Iris Dement. As the song’s title suggests, The Leftovers, for all its themes, is not about uncovering answers.
Instead, it’s a show about storytelling. That’s never better exemplified than in this season: Matt, spinning out of control by himself, takes hold of Kevin’s story, turning it into gospel. Kevin Sr. is spinning his own yarn in Australia, an all-too-neat story about the apocalypse coming seven exact years after the departure and a Horcrux-like quest to halt the impending flood. He, in turn, gets sucked into Grace’s narrative, who, one way or another, lost her entire family to the departure in uniquely heartbreaking fashion. In a show with such a deep mythology and occasional psychedelic vision-quest episodes, The Leftovers moves its plot, for the most part, by two people sitting down and talking to each other.
Which is how we spend the vast majority of the series finale, “The Book of Nora.”
It’s a triumphant finale, bold in its utterly simple treatment of a love story we’ve seen growing since the very beginning. We don’t get neat resolutions for each of the show’s cast members—in fact, just four main characters show up at all. Of course, first we’ve got one last loose end to tie up. The first 20 minutes of the episode focus back on the “other place” machine, which, in a very Leftovers twist, is absolutely real and seems to work. In one of the show’s most sci-fi moments, we see a geode-like fossil with a human-shaped hole in the middle wheeled past Nora as she approaches the device, completely naked.
That near-wordless sequence was the final day of filming, says Mimi Leder, the show’s executive producer and director of a huge number of its episodes, including this one (she’s known as the “directing showrunner”). “There were a lot of tears,” she says. “It was very emotional, but it wasn’t sad. I knew I still had a lot of responsibility that day.”
The machine powers up, the water floods the compartment, Nora looks up at the sky and screams something. Then we go somewhere else.
“In the script, it says ‘another time, another place,'” Leder says. “That’s all it says.”
Suddenly we’re back to the beginning, the scene we saw at the end of the season opener, “The Book of Kevin.” An aged-up Nora collects a group of doves, tosses them in cages, and brings them to a nun in the garden of a church. By the nun’s accent and the landscape, we can presume we’re in some version of rural Australia. But Nora and the nun might as well be the only two people on Earth.
Did Nora pass through? Is this where the departed went? Alternately, is it the afterlife? That’s certainly at least suggested with the unexpected appearance (via phone call) of Laurie Garvey, last seen hurling herself into the Tasman Sea. Kevin’s inevitable appearance, too, keeps this suspicion going. He’s no stranger to forays into “the other side,” after all. Kevin and Nora’s revived courtship lasts the bulk of the episode. It’s at once disorienting, bewildering, and thrilling to be treated to such a quiet moment, considering their relationship has been, at times, manic, hilarious, and brutal throughout the series.
But we need an ending. To the show. To the book of Nora. And as it turns out, she did go through, at least according to her story. Nora went through to a world that had its own departure. But instead of 2 percent disappearing, 98 percent did. A long, long trip takes her back to America, back to Mapleton, back to the house where she lost her husband and two children (now knowing this is instead the house where they lost her). Nora sees her children again. They’re grown. They’re with their father. They’re happy. “They were the lucky ones,” Nora says, realizing she has no place in this world, where the Dursts remaining three-quarters intact is a miracle. And so she comes back, tracking down the inventor of the machine that took her there in the first place (he was the first to “go through”), convincing him to build her another one. And he does, and she comes back.
All of this—an entire season’s worth of narrative—is told by Nora in a monologue. The credibility of The Leftovers’ most fantastical, sci-fi plot point hinges on how much we trust one of the show’s characters.
At one point in our conversation, out of nowhere, Leder asks, “Do you believe her?” I say it’s hard not to. It’s hard to look Carrie Coon in the eye and tell her she’s lying.
Though that’s exactly what happens at the beginning of the episode, when Nora gives her filmed permission to use the machine. One of the scientists is displeased with her performance, asking for a second take in which she says her children’s names.
Nora’s story is great. It’s neat, simple, and offers a satisfying resolution not only for us but for her, for Kevin. It’s almost too good to be true. Not that that matters. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” says Kevin. “You’re here.”
“In our world, release from grief and resolution is all about finding love, and accepting love,” Leder says. “Our characters are searching for some belief system, each of them, to live with themselves. And at the end, Nora finds that belief system, and she’s able to love again. They’re able to love again.”
Nora smiles back at Kevin. “I’m here,” she says. And that’s it.
“Do you believe her?” I ask Leder a bit later. She pauses for a second. “Do you really want to know?” she asks me. I say I do. She leans forward, and she tells me.