Nobody is watching The Leftovers. Like, seriously nobody is watching it. “International Assassin” was beaten in its time slot by an episode of Law And Order: SVU. Not a first-run episode, not a sweeps-month crossover with Chicago [Insert Municipal Service], just a regular old repeat on USA, perhaps an episode where Olivia and Munch have to pose as a married couple to infiltrate a dog-fighting ring or some shit. Premium cable networks don’t excel at concealing their enthusiasm for a show, and HBO has never been bashful about handing out additional seasons to a show if they believe in it. Hell, the fact that The Leftovers got a second season is evidence of the latitude the network will grant to shows and storytellers they’re invested in. But HBO has yet to breathe a word about The Leftovers season three, even as the second season has earned a deeply passionate, if tiny following. This could very well be the end of the series, and if “I Live Here Now” is the series finale, it’s a really odd note to end on, and another deeply polarizing, spiritually playful series finale for Damon Lindelof to add to his resume.

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As I mentioned in my review of “Ten Thirteen,” this season of The Leftovers teaches you how to watch it as it goes along, but some audience expectations can’t really be unlearned, no matter how interesting or how daring the storytelling is. “I Live Here Now” had specific questions it needed to answer and plot points it needed to address, and it ticks down that list carefully, if perhaps a little dutifully, and delivers some emotionally powerful moments. But is it a satisfying episode of television? Certainly not on the level of the rest of the season. And this time, as opposed to season one’s finale, the issue is not so much that the ending is relentlessly bleak, though that’s definitely the case. It’s that the episode just feels kind of hollow in the middle, much like the trailer that Meg claims is packed full of plastic explosives but actually contains three teenage girls who have had to swear off Capri Sun lest they ruin their outfits. Beyond that, it advances the show’s most polarizing ideas and leaves it in a precarious position going into its hypothetical third season.

The muted conclusion comes as a surprise if only because the episode roars to a start. It opens with the fateful night of Evie’s disappearance, with the girls headed out after John’s birthday and Evie handing him what she claims is the best gift he’s ever gotten. Moments after they drive away, Evie, who is the ring leader of the group, shuts off the music in the car, beginning the vow of silence the Guilty Remnant requires of them. They drive out to the spring and stage the scene to yield all questions and provide no answers, but they spot a witness. It’s Kevin, who has carried his cinder block to the middle of the spring to kill himself and vanquish Ghost Patti, but Evie’s not startled by his presence. She notes his presence and goes on about her business moments before the earthquake that split open the ground and drank up all of the miracle Jarden spring water. An artful cut connects the rumbling tremor to Kevin as he crawls out of his shallow grave and finds Michael waiting, as surprised as anyone that Kevin has returned from the dead. They exchange notes, with Michael telling Kevin his grandfather is now dead, and Kevin telling Michael that Virgil helped him on the other side.

After “International Assassin,” there were some lively arguments in the comments about whether or not anything in the episode could be interpreted as “real” in any sense, as opposed to a hallucination or fever dream. The argument that what happened to Kevin in the hotel wasn’t real struck me as a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the viewers who understandably don’t want The Leftovers to drill down that far into its faith and mysticism. I didn’t want what happened in the episode to be real, because “Assassin” isn’t the version of the show I’m most interested in watching, but I had to believe the hotel stuff was real because it beat the alternative. Virgil’s suicide took place after Kevin was dead, and was therefore presented as an objective record of what took place. For Virgil to tell Kevin he was going to die temporarily, do battle with Patti, then emerge on the other side free of his imaginary friend, then kill himself only to appear in the hotel with information for Kevin seemed like a hell of a coincidence. Of course it’s not a coincidence if Kevin is just imagining everything in the hotel and went into his extended hallucinogenic trip with the idea that Virgil would be helping him along the way, but if Kevin is only dreaming, there’s no reason for Virgil to kill himself, and if the show had suggested Virgil wasn’t actually dead, that would have been a huge narrative cheat. I don’t love the hotel stuff, but there are dangerous implications for any version in which the hotel stuff didn’t actually happen.

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One of the points “I Live Here Now” had to hit was some kind of explanation of Kevin’s otherworldly journey, and the episode took care of it early with the conversation between Kevin and Michael. But I’d have never expected to revisit the Purgatory Luxury Inn and Suites, and that’s just what happens when the hot-headed John corners Kevin with questions about how his handprint wound up on the last place his daughter was seen alive. John actually seems relatively calm during most of the conversation, considering the hair trigger he’s displayed all season. But when Kevin tries to explain that Evie might have just ran away, just as Laurie and Tommy, and later Nora walked out of his life, he does it in the most callous way imaginable. Maybe Evie just doesn’t love John as much as she claimed to, Kevin says, and John fires a single shot that tears clean through Kevin’s body, leaving him badly injured, but alive. Kevin wakes up in the that tub again and climbs out, this time opting to wear his old Mapleton police uniform. Virgil’s not around to help him this time, but the helpful man from the bridge tells Kevin he can’t return to his world for the second time until he sings karaoke. If dying means going to the terrible karaoke bar in the sky, I’m about to start going to the gym, and I’m switching to alkaline water.

While Kevin is racking up rewards points for his latest hotel stay, Nora is in Outer Jarden to reunite Matt with Mary, who suddenly startles back to consciousness on the anniversary of the Sudden Departure. There’s no damage to her memory or her other faculties, and she instantly remembers the night she spent with Matt when she got pregnant. Their joyful reunion is interrupted by the appearance of Meg and her trailer, which she tows past the guards after telling them it’s a bomb on wheels. The countdown clock starts ticking down the seconds, and the denizens of Outer Jarden are all too thrilled to see the bridge detonated. When the clock counts down to zero, there’s no explosion, of course, just the reappearance of the three girls many in Jarden feared had departed, ruining their streak of good luck. It’s an anti-climactic moment, which can be expected of any story in which there’s a promise of a bomb and no explosion. But it’s in keeping with what we’ve seen from Meg thus far, and it’s essentially a larger-scale version of the inert grenade she rolled down the aisle of that school bus. The purpose isn’t to actually blow anything up, it’s to remind people that life is random, cruel, and stingy with answers, and no one is favored over anyone else. Evie’s appearance is a devastating moment, particularly when Erika charges onto the bridge to appeal to her daughter only to be rebuffed Guilty Remnant-style, and Evie reminds Erika that she knows all too well to have the urge to disappear from your life without notice.

The display on the bridge is basically a distraction to keep the authorities busy and the bridge accessible while droves of the Outer Jardenites change into their Guilty Remnant garb and flood into the city that has worked so hard to keep the outsiders at bay. This is the outcome Meg wanted all along. The object wasn’t to seal off Jarden, it was to open it up. When the girls vanished, the people of Jarden were exposed to the same existential horror and disillusionment with life that the rest of the world had to face. There shouldn’t be any sanctuaries, or safe havens, or dumb luck. No one gets to be spared. The Jarden Of Eden had its gates stormed by the faithless, and now no place is safe from the cruel realities of the Sudden Departure. It’s a thematically interesting move, but it relies too heavily on the prominence of the Guilty Remnant, an element that was deployed too heavily in season one. Part of what made season two interesting is that it was a version of The Leftovers in which, with the exception of Ghost Patti, the Guilty Remnant and its chain-smoking antics wasn’t a huge component. The final reveal of Evie and the girls in “Ten Thirteen” was a moment of brilliance, but I’m not sure it justified this dramatic a return for the show’s most challenging element.

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The same can be said for Kevin’s return to the beyond, which ends abruptly after he does his rendition of Simon And Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and falls back to Earth gutshot, but no worse for the wear. He stumbles home with John, who’s now calm after seeing that Evie is alive, and the two of them walk into their houses, hoping to see some familiar, loving faces. Kevin doesn’t just find a few familiar, loving faces, he finds all of them. Jill, Nora and Lily, Laurie and Tommy, they’re all there waiting for him to come home. It’s a touching moment that feels like it exists independently of the episode that preceded it, but doesn’t do enough to acquit a surprisingly wan finale for one of the most interesting seasons of television in ages. Season three would still be a gift, but one I’d open with almost as much suspicion as I started the season with.

Stray observations

  • John’s present from Evie is the cricket after all, though Erika insists it isn’t the one he’d been looking for.
  • Meg and Evie’s duet on the Miracle song is super creepy. I wonder how many times they practiced that harmony?
  • Regarding a potential third season, it should be noted that HBO has been consistently referring to “I Live Here Now” as a season finale, but it should also be noted that networks commonly bill final episodes as season finales before canceling them days later. Series finales are still technically season finales, after all.
  • If HBO cancels the show, I propose a fan campaign in which we dress in all white and silently smoke outside HBO’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan. I’m not a smoker so I’ll be sucking a Blow Pop and holding an incense stick, but the visual impact will be just as powerful.

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