Did ‘The Leftovers’ Series Finale Actually Explain the Sudden Departure?
The Leftovers has come to a somber, emotional close; finally returning us to that far-flung future of Nora living in Australia under an assumed name. Tears were shed, goats were rescued and “Matt Libs” were written, but perhaps most shocking of all – did Damon Lindelof actually offer an explanation of the Sudden Departure? Let’s take a closer look.
You’re warned of full spoilers for Sunday’s Season 3 and series finale, as well to keep in mind that The Leftovers is famous for not promising answers. “The Book of Nora” itself showcased an intimate meditation of grief, closure and re-connection that declined many specific explanations, but Nora’s apparent odyssey to another universe is worthy of at least a little scrutiny.
The hour began shortly after our last visit with Nora and Matt, as Nora convinced the physicists that previously rejected her to let her go through the machine. We walk through the entire process, from saline drip “Matt Libs” to a nude Nora entering a small bubble that fills with an irradiated liquid. The last we see is Nora about to be enveloped, and seemingly shouting something before a hard cut to the elder “Sarah” in Australia.
By the time an older Kevin has tracked her down and dropped the facade of not remembering their broken relationship, Nora is ready to share the truth. She didn’t change her mind in the machine, but rather “went through” to a seemingly identical Earth, albeit one where 98% of the world’s population disappeared. That’s right – the Departure wasn’t a Rapture that took 2% to another plane of existence, but instead split the universe in two, and divided Earth’s population. And while “The Book of Nora” shows nothing more than Carrie Coon’s recitation of the story, we learn that Nora made the long journey from Australia-2 to Mapleton-2, and glimpsed her seven years-older husband and children. Realizing they were lucky to have one another, Nora opted not to reveal herself, but rather sought out the physicist who first went through the machine, Dr. Van Eeghan, in order to build another and return home.
The story is treated partly as an explanation of Nora’s absence in the last ten years, as well as a chance for Kevin to tell Nora he believes her, sight unseen. That said, why didn’t we see any of Nora’s journey? We spoke to finale director Mimi Leder, who offered:
I think that in the storytelling of The Leftovers, we’ve done a lot of these type of scenes. I did that scene in Episode 3 [this season] twice in different ways with Grace telling the story of her children, and Scott Glenn brilliantly telling the story to Christopher Sunday about how he’s going to stop the flood of the apocalypse from happening. Now you could have seen all that and in the final scene you could have seen Nora see her children, but it was much more powerful, we felt, to see her tell the story. Because you’re completely captivated by her, by her eyes and her truth and her telling of her story, that it was more powerful to hear her talk about it and see how it affected her then to see it. Much more exciting to imagine it. That was the thinking behind it, because you did see it – you imagined it, you felt it. And that’s really fantastic.
Understandable, though we’re left to question if Nora’s fantastical story actually occurred. There’s no explicit reason suggesting Nora would have made it up, yet the hour is rife with stories that exist to cover painful truths. Kevin spends much of the finale pretending he and Nora only ever met briefly in Mapleton, when in reality he spent ten years’ worth of vacations returning to Australia to find her, refusing to believe Matt’s claim she was gone. When an angry Nora confronts a nun over the foolishness of releasing short-range doves to carry messages of hope across the world, the woman acknowledges “it’s just a nicer story.” Before Nora even enters the machine, she asks what Matt will tell people about a sister who walked naked into a semi-truck, disintegrated herself with lasers, and left only a “fossil” outline of her shape. “Whatever you want me to,” he replies.
But perhaps more important than textual clues Nora is telling a “nicer story” than fear having gotten the better of her, is the possibility of her telling the truth. If Nora actually did go to the other side and come back, she’d now be the lone person on the planet with answers to the single most important event in recorded history. The implications of Nora’s explanation being true are significantly weirder than the explanation itself.
Think about it; Nora Durst solved the Departure! Or rather, she’s the only known person to have returned from the alternate Earth that houses the population’s missing 2%. Not only does Nora know what became of everyone’s loved ones, but back-and-forth travel between two duplicate universes is now established science. And for that matter, what exactly was Dr. Van Eeghan doing on the alternate Earth all that time, before Nora showed up? Had he not thought to build a second machine himself, report back on his findings, and go down in history as the most revered and significant scientist ever?
There’s little to no ambient mention of the Departure in the future we glimpse, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility the physicist team shared some of their findings publicly. And there’s arguments to be made both for, and against Nora sharing her experience with the world. On the one hand, she’d provide comfort and closure for the millions who lost loved ones, fulfilling a function of the Department of Sudden Departures beyond simply debunking claims. On the other, she’d be popping the beach ball of all those who needed to believe in some divinity and security to the Departure. Not everyone was so “lucky” as her family to depart side-by-side. On the 2% Earth, the pilot episode’s baby Sam sat abandoned in a Mapleton parking lot, as with thousands of helpless children around the world. There is also a very disturbing cleanup required at Laurie’s OB/GYN.
And then there’s the fact that Matt and Laurie were theoretically aware of Nora’s experiences. Matt would know his sister wasn’t vaporized, and have agreed to lie* to Kevin, yet keep to himself that Nora missed out on his final battle with cancer. Laurie would also have heard the tale of Nora being vaporized, and while it seems unlikely of Nora to tell a trained therapist about her fantastical venture to another universe, they’d presumably have had at least one conversation explaining what happened.
*Kevin does mention refusing to believe Matt; a potentially telling reflection of the nun’s warning that he’d seen through her lie about Nora.
“The Book of Nora” begins with the title character reciting statements of fact, and being told “I don’t believe you.” It’s no accident that the finale bookends this scene with Nora sharing something impossible to verify, yet earning Kevin’s full belief. Just as it’s no accident that the finale marks Season 3’s first usage of Season 2 theme song “Let the Mystery Be,” which itself has always seemed like a statement about the show’s unwillingness to conclusively answer big questions.
Dramatically, it doesn’t make much sense of Nora to lie to Kevin about finding her children, given the mention of bulletproof vests, Holy Wayne and the other solutions that failed to provide her with closure. There’s also something very specific and unrehearsed about Nora’s tale, itself full of details Kevin wouldn’t know to question in the first place. When Kevin spun the lie of his and Nora’s past; it was reactive. Nora would ask, and Kevin would answer. When it’s Nora’s turn to tell her truth, Kevin stays silent. It isn’t the testimony of someone who spent ten years building an excuse for the closure they never found – it’s a fantastical, if perhaps embellished collection of stories that inspires someone to find meaning. It’s “The Book of Nora.”
Did Nora actually travel to another universe, return, and never tell a living soul? Was true knowledge of the Sudden Departure her burden to bear, just as she took on the “sins of the world” from a goat wandering the Australian countryside? Considering she dumped those beads onto a full paper towel rack – once the symbol of her inability to move on from the Departure – I’m inclined to believe Nora found the fulfillment she needed. And no sooner does she unburden herself and accept Kevin back into her life, do those ceremonial doves finally return to the spot they’d previously departed. They may not have made it to Timbuktu, but it’s a sign of the tangible power of belief.
That, and it’s just a nicer story.
All episodes of The Leftovers are now available to stream on HBO.