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 Slayer. The 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
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.
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.