There’s something extra moving about watching The Leftovers in 2017. When the show premiered in the bright summer days of 2014, the main criticism was how achingly bleak it was. A sad, dark show about how people deal with profound grief, was to some, too hopeless.
And although the brilliant season two introduced more levity by embracing the humor and absurdity that comes with life’s unanswered questions, this first episode of season three, “The Book of Kevin,” makes it clear that this is still the most poignant, raw, and emotionally exhausting show television. And I mean that in a completely complimentary way.
In 2017, a time where many are still reeling from a political shift that feels borderline apocalyptic, where people who grew up under the shadow of war are realizing that we won’t be seeing the sun for many years yet, it’s strangely cathartic to watch something as unashamedly serious as The Leftovers. And for how serious it is, it never panders, it never tugs at your heartstrings, it never manipulates you. But it crushes you.
“The Book of Kevin” mimics the season two premiere by opening with a flashback, this time to 1800s America. The scene is referring to “The Great Disappointment,” an actual event that occurred in 1844 where a protestant religious group who we now call Millerites were told by a preacher, William Miller, that Jesus would come back to Earth on April 18, 1844. It didn’t happen.
Clothed in white, a believer stands on top of her house in the pouring rain all night, with the hope that something would happen. In the morning, she climbs down, the townsfolk, including her once believing husband and son, looking on at her in contempt, not unlike how those of the Guilty Remnant are treated by their families.
But from there, things move quickly. Evie and Meg were killed just following the events of season two by a bomb, allegedly launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (I think Liv Tyler was doing best-of-career work and made Meg more terrifying than I ever expected. Here’s to hoping for flashbacks.)
The current episode takes place three years later, where Kevin is the police chief, Tommy is a deputy, Nora is an Agent of Department of Departure, John and Laurie are together and running a palm reading scam, and baby Lily is goddamn gone and no one will talk about what happened to her.
And that’s the thing: although there are significant changes that have happened the past three years, and though we do spend much of “The Book of Kevin” flitting around from character to character to get up to speed, we get little to no explanation of why or how those changes happened. This episode actually works better the less exposition there is.
When we say The Leftovers is about grief, it’s important to note how huge of a role denial plays in the mourning process. The lack of exposition, the plastered on smiles during Tommy’s surprise party, John thinking Evie was going to come back, Tommy pretending he’s fine after killing Dean, it’s all bolstering the theme of denial. Even the too-on-the-nose discussion Kevin and Jill have about Nora and Lily played an important part of underlining how in denial Kevin is about Nora coping with losing another child. We already know Nora isn’t dealing with whatever happened, but Kevin’s insistence that she’s doing great shows that he’s fine pretending everything is OK too.
More broadly, “The Book of Kevin” lands emotional gut punch after gut punch, in exactly the fashion we expect. Kevin’s morning ritual of nearly suffocating himself was one of the more disturbing things I’ve seen in the series, and it was an excellent call back to when Nora would get people to shoot her while she wore a bulletproof vest.
What we don’t know is if Kevin is really doing this as a coping mechanism, like Nora did, or if it’s more closely tied to his experiences of dying and coming back to life. Hell, is he actually dying and coming back? When I watched season two, I was sure Kevin’s hotel hijinks were real, or as real as something happening in the afterlife could be. I was even debating if the show’s shift into admitting something supernatural was happening was a jump-the-shark moment. But now, I suppose we don’t technically know he actually died and visited the “otherside” and came back, or if they were hallucinations.
But Matt is sure. So sure that he’s writing a gospel about Kevin. How convenient that this episode aired on Easter. Over and over again, The Leftovers insists it’s not about answers. The season two theme song is practically a personal message from Lindelof, telling us to “Let the mystery be.” And this whole time we’ve thought the mystery was just what happened to the departed, when it looks like Kevin is the real mystery, even if he’s in denial about his role in all of this.
Finally, “The Book of Kevin” closed by turning things completely upside down. To see an aged Nora denying ever knowing someone named Kevin was chilling. There was some foreshadowing with Nora’s bike ride earlier in the episode, but truthfully, although the figure obviously looks like a woman, I really expected that long grey braid to belong to Kevin Garvey Sr. I only expect misdirects! That said, something about the the purposeful face-hiding, the strangeness of tending to carrier pigeons, and the wide open shots of cycling around rural Australia felt very alien and undeniable unsettling.
A time jump in general, although not necessarily supernatural, feels uncomfortable from everything we know about this universe. But if there’s one thing we can expect from The Leftovers, it’s that we will be forced to deal with emotions we aren’t comfortable with feeling.
The final season of The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.