‘The Leftovers’ And The Art Of The Finale

Spoilers for the The Leftovers, Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad ahead.

HBO’s oddball show The Leftovers follows Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) after 2% of the world’s population has disappeared into thin air. The show’s three season run ended recently with an ambitious, ambiguous finale.

Finales can be problematic. Fans build up expectations, they come up with theories on where story lines will go, or sometimes they want an answer, something final. Most times fans don’t want a show to end; often shows are ending because they’ve been cancelled and there’s tension surrounding the writers having enough time to finish what they’ve started.

Some finales go for something that suggests a change of scenery, but a continuation of the characters you know and love, like Friends or Buffy The Vampire SlayerThe Wire gave us little bits about characters that wrapped up storylines well: McNulty going in to forced retirement, Bubbles getting clean. Mad Men teases that Don Draper may be changing his ways and that we might learn some ultimate truth about the man before the final credits roll – and then, with a cheeky smile and a song, swaps “enlightenment” for advertising and assures us that Don will stay just the same.

Some finales try to answer questions and wrap up story lines, leaving fans with finality – and either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Some shoot ahead in time to do this: Breaking Bad shoots ahead so it can satisfyingly end the show and offers finality by (spoilers) allowing the main character to die.

Six Feet Under shot all the way ahead – and showed us the death of every character in the show in a heart-wrenching 10 minute long montage. Widely regarded as one of the best finales to ever grace a screen, HBOs Six Feet Under went against convention here and left absolutely no chance of any future content or revival.

Six Feet Under is a finale where we see everything, we know exactly what happens to every character in the show and there is no questions left unanswered. Other shows choose ambiguity.

Damon Lindoff is a master of ambiguity. His hit show Lost frustrated millions of viewers with its ambiguous ending, fans were angry with the lack of concrete answers offered by the ending to many questions the show had posed over its seven seasons. But Lost was a lot more populist than Lindelof’s second show The Leftovers. The Leftovers is instead a deliberate and unusual show. But, like Lost, it offers no obvious answers.

Lindelof on the legacy of Lost:

“What’s interesting about the show is it ended in 2010. We’re now seven years out and the legacy is going to change over time. I think what the short term legacy of the show was when it just ended is different to what it is now and will maybe be different 10 or 15 years from now. But I will say that, independent of whether or not you hated or loved the way that it ended, it’s pretty cool that people are still talking about it and have very strong feelings about it. That’s the intention of any art – to basically last. If it lasts you’re saying something even if people are saying it’s something that they don’t necessarily like. I think Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows of all time. I think the same thing about The Wire. But nobody ever talks about the finales of those shows because the endings were not as relevant as the journey themselves. With Lost, there’s a fixation over the way that it ended and I think that in and of itself that’s a very interesting legacy for the show to have.”

The finale of The Leftovers offers an answer to some of its questions, an answer of sorts. The last two episodes are incredible. The penultimate episode sees Kevin return to the place that he goes to when he dies (is it purgatory?). His mission is to find Christopher Sunday and learn his song, so Kevin’s father can sing and stop the end of the world. “Do you believe your father can sing a song and stop the flood?” Christopher Sunday asks him, “no” Kevin replies “then why are you here?”. There’s no song, there’s no flood, Kevin is chasing something ridiculous instead.

In this other world nothing makes sense. “God” is an idiot, Kevin is an international assassin and the president, the Guilty Remnant hold the White House and are dropping nukes to end the world. All this insanity is happening and Kevin realises that his dad singing is not going to save the world from a flood that will never exist. But he realises he has failed Nora. “We fucked up with Nora” – one Kevin says to the other Kevin in the bunker after having a chip removed from his chest by Kevin

[credit: HBO]

What follows, the finale, is undeniably romantic. Up until this point I had not though of the show as romantic at all, yet the ending just is and it works. Kevin has spent the last decade (at least, by the look of those grey hairs) scouring rural Australia, looking for Nora whilst everyone else presumed she was dead, or gone.

The last scene is an explanation to the mystery of the Great Departure, an explanation of sorts. Nora manages to go through to find her family (her husband and her two children departed – a statistical anomaly) and we are shown where the 2% have gone: nowhere. They simply exist in a mirror of the world – but in their world 98% of the population disappeared.

[credit: HBO]

But really there is no payoff, no true answer to the questions your inquisitive mind has asked whilst you’ve been watching the show. There is maybe an impression that there could be a payoff. There is consistency that suggests a tangible answer: Kevin keeps dying, he keeps going to a place, there is logic to that world and that gives the impression that there could be sense behind this, and we might learn what this sense is. But ambiguity is better here; an answer can disappoint, and it could undermine the show if the “answer” wasn’t good enough.

The Leftovers was crazy and out there most of the time. Making the finale romantic brought it to a personal level and connecting the viewer to the characters was a great way to end something that doesn’t need an “answer”. Sure, some people may be disappointed, but The Leftovers is not a puzzle to be solved, it is an ambiguity to be enjoyed. The real beauty to be found in The Leftovers is that it can be literal, it can be figurative, it can be both. But it is best not explained, it is best just experienced, because it isn’t a puzzle.

Sources: The Independent, The Guardian

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The Prescience Of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ In A Post-Trump World

Margaret Atwood

The lady herself [source: Giant Freaking Robot]

Margaret Atwood is amazing. Her first novel was published in 1969, The Edible Woman, a feminist masterpiece that deals with eating disorders and gender roles in the 1960s. Since then she’s written 17 novels, 10 short story collections, 20 poetry collections, 7 children’s books, 10 non-fictions books, 3 operas, and a graphic novel. To call her prolific would be an understatement.

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, a finalist for the Booker prize (a prize Atwood later won for The Blind Assassin) and a commercial hit. When Atwood wrote the book, many of the things it deals with may have not been quite as close to the forefront of the cultural consciousness as they are today, but they had all happened at some point in history.

If you’ve read almost any of Atwood’s novels you would know that her insight is undeniable, whether she is writing in the genre she states is speculative fiction (not containing the fantastical elements of science fiction, but something that could feasibly develop from our current reality) or the more straight forward fiction of some of her other novels. The Handmaid’s Tale still stands out for me as my favourite and a career-defining novel.

The show

[Source: Hulu]

The high level of production you expect from a modern TV show is clear from the moment The Handmaid’s Tale begins, and a lot of care has obviously been put in to adapting what is a widely read and well loved novel. The cast are fantastic, the direction and cinematography is incredible; but the music selection, especially in the first few episodes, really stands out.

Elisabeth Moss is a boss. Like most people I first caught her in Mad Men as the superlative Peggy Olson and after that in the incredible Top Of The Lake. Her turn in The Handmaid’s Tale is incredible, no other actress could so perfectly embody Offred, her expressions of defiance and audacity elicit absolute empathy. Samira Wiley also stands out as Moira. The entire ensemble cast of Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel kill it throughout the entire season.

Adaptation and Original

The expansion of the story line is so subtle and well done that I kept having to flick through the pages of the book to try and remember if it happened. The inclusion of Luke’s, Serena Joy’s and Ofglen’s stories gives the show a new depth and exciting promise of more. The series ends where the book ends, but has added much more to the story line. The inclusion in the final episode of Moira making it to Canada and meeting with Luke was exciting: something the show offers that the book didn’t is the prospect of seeing how the world changes back, how the resistance wins. In the novel there is an epilogue based in a conference which is discussing the time of Gilead after it has ended, so we know it has ended but we don’t get the vindication of seeing it happen.

The show is glammed up a bit. There’s more violence, more sex, and more trauma than the novel (this has been criticised by some, not without reason, see Alison Vincent’s article in The Telegraph). The beauty of the way Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale is that everything was understated, hinted at. This works amazingly for a novel but not always so well for a TV show, especially when we’re all used to Game of Thrones‘ level of spectacle (Mad Men used subtlety constantly, but was also extremely watchable and had a devoted audience, so got away with it). The book uses understatement and subtlety throughout, so you have to pay attention, and never really tells you what is going on. The show is still subtle, but it does this much less and makes much bolder moves with the story lines.

Why The Handmaid’s Tale Matters Now

The timing of the filming of the show was obviously not intentional, the creators could not have known that the rise of certain values in the west would become apparent with votes that took place. But it is nonetheless prescient, many hard-won women’s rights are being challenged by politicians and courts, whilst climate change is being ignored more fervently than ever.

The rise in right wing extremist Christianity, due to an extreme decline in fertility is the catalyst for the Gilead government taking power in the novel. Climate change is held responsible for the decline in birthrate to near zero (amazingly Atwood was writing in the mid 80s, when climate change would have barely been on anybody’s radar) and the rise in religious extremism creates the perfect storm.

Current Attitudes Towards Climate Change

The Paris agreement [source: This Week]

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement cemented his indifference towards issues of climate change. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead claim that their government have reduced carbon emissions by 78% in three years through taking complete control of society. The current political attitude towards climate change, especially in America, is incredibly dismissive with many politicians outright denying its existence. For many people climate change is a pressing issue that is not being dealt with by people in power with enough expedition. Without the decline in birthrate this would appear to be similar to the situation regarding climate change before the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Defence of Women’s Rights

Women's March 2017 [source: Huffington Post]

The women’s march that took place on the day of Trump’s inauguration was a protest against the reduction in women’s rights, with people around the world not only showing solidarity with Americans, but also all the women who do not have basic rights throughout the world. The election of a man to one of the highest offices in the world who has voiced anti-female sentiments on multiple occasions throughout his life, coupled with the wish to repeal rights-ensuring legislation that would affect millions of women throughout America, has brought the issue and women’s rights to the forefront. The questing of women’s rights that keeps happening in current political discourse feels alarmingly familiar to the sentiments behind the much more extreme actions of the Gilead government.

Dystopias in the Modern World

George Orwell & Aldous Huxley: masters of dystopia [source: flickr]

Atwood wrote an introduction to a new edition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which she discusses the relevance of both Huxley’s novel and Nineteen Eighty-Four to modern society (2007 at the time of her writing). If you aren’t familiar with either of these books (they are both fantastic and worth reading) she explains that they contain two very different dystopias: one characterised by totalitarianism control (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and one characterised by prescribed consumerism (Brave New World).

Throughout the world the boot of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the soma of Brave New World can be seen: the boot in oppressive governments and regimes and the soma in the rampant consumerism of shopping and the tranquillising effect of the internet.

The Handmaid’s Tale is arguably on the same level as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both of which contain striking prescience about the modern world; The Handmaid’s Tale‘s insight focuses on religious extremism within government and female subjugation. Just like how aspects of the dystopias in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World can be seen in our modern world, aspects of the dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale are obvious. In recent years the rise in anti-female sentiment and continued attacks on women’s rights make this patent.

In the passage from the novel that holds the same sentiment Elisabeth Moss speaks as Offred, Atwood says that when the Gilead government took power they gunned down Congress and blamed it on Islamic fanatics, and that there were no riots, that everyone stayed home and watched their TVs, that “there wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”.

The boot is more flagrant, but it’s the combination that will get you.

Bring on season two.

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Halt and Catch Fire and the slow burn

Halt and Catch Fire is currently my favourite thing on TV (well, internet). Yes, I know Game of Thrones is amazing, there’s tits and dragons, Westworld is great (tits and horses), I will definitely watch Mr. Robot at some point, and The Walking Dead is still enjoyable I guess, sometimes, if you’ve got nothing better to do…

But, Halt and Catch Fire isn’t particularly like any of those shows. Set around tech in the 80’s it’s closer to AMC’s hit Mad Men than most of the most popular shows of today. Like Halt and Catch FireMad Men was a costume drama set within a particular industry and within a particular time period. Like Mad Men, Halt builds very slowly, focussing on character development and dialogue, no decapitations, nudity, or dragons. Boring, right?

But unlike Mad MenHalt is not a hit. Having just finished its third season, numbers have actually fallen. Hovering at about 300,000 for the third season, which is pretty low. Other slow dramas may start off with low ratings, but generally slowly build over time as they gain more views, like Mad Men or Breaking Bad (another incredibly slow show, not that you’d know it for the phenomenon it became).

Amazingly however it has survived, and even been renewed. You could speculate the reasons for this, AMC may have more than enough money that they’re happy to support something without the high ratings usually required for renewal. The third season has been critically applauded, I’ve see several articles knocking around that suggest people should binge it immediately.

I was always amazed Mad Men did as well as it did, excellent although it was, simply because of the speed it moved. If you think about Game of Thrones as well you make think it incredible that it’s the international obsession it is considering how slow the first couple of episodes are.

For whatever reason, Halt hasn’t captured the hearts of swathes of viewers like other slow moving dramas have managed to before it. I still think the four main characters, their relationships with each other, and their development over the three seasons is the best thing on TV.

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