Recaps

The Leftovers Series Finale “The Book of Nora”

Photo Credit: Ben King/HBO

I’ve been equally full of dread and excitement when it came to watching the series finale of The Leftovers. The excitement part is obvious; we all want to know how it ends. But the dread was two-fold.

It was the fear that this last episode, “The Book of Nora” would be disappointing, and it was also having to accept that this show that has grown to mean so much to me is over. But if there’s one thing to learn from The Leftovers it’s that you can only live in denial for so long.

And I’ve spent much of this season writing about the role of denial in this show and how characters on The Leftovers frequently lie to themselves and to others in order to cope with the world around them. “The Book of Nora” dug in deep with this concept, not only having Kevin blatantly pretend that most of his life with Nora never happened, but also Nora’s repeated reactions to lying. She is furious with the nun for denying her tryst with the man that just climbed out of her window. She’s told she is lying when she’s filming her video before she enters the machine. She brusquely responds that she doesn’t lie.

Photo Credit: Ben King/HBO

But we’ve seen her lie plenty of times. She lied about getting rid of her handgun in season one, she lied about going to see Lily, and she lied about the purpose of her trip to Australia. And then she spent the rest of her life having Laurie and Matt lie to Kevin about her being alive.

Kevin assumes Nora backed out of going through the machine and remain in Australia since then. Nora denies this. She claims that she went through and that the machine sent her to another world, just like our own, except that instead of two percent of world’s population disappearing, 98 percent of the population disappeared. Meaning, to everyone who departed in “our” world, it seemed like they stayed exactly where they were and the people around them departed. She says that had to spend a long time there, and she came back because in this other world, her family was happy.

I must say, it’s a simple, yet elegant explanation of what could have happened. But it’s not really believable. For one, we see more than once Nora yelling while in the machine, very convincingly looking like she’s changed her mind. And we don’t see any scenes of this other world. At this point, Kevin’s “otherside” is more convincing. And I hate to nag, especially in a finale I throughly enjoyed, but the one thing that bothered me was what happened to Laurie’s unborn child then? I didn’t like it at all when this plot point was introduced, because the last thing I wanted to cloud this fantastic show was frustrating discussions about when life began and arguments about Laurie’s fetus disappearing being some part of a political discussion.

So if the fetus disappeared, according to the rules Nora has introduced, the fetus would experience Laurie disappearing around it? And if the machine exists in the other world, why isn’t everyone going through it? It doesn’t make sense. My point it is, of course Nora is lying.

But it’s kind of perfect. What our show runners provided is both much less certain, and much more grounded in reality. We were given an answer, but we’ve also been given reasons to doubt that answer. And while this could be seen as a copout, it actually drives home an important point.

The beauty of The Leftovers is that you can choose to believe what you want, whether it’s to embrace the fantasy of separate dimensions and an afterlife, or to embrace humanity’s flawed desire to build stories so we can feel better. It doesn’t really matter if what Nora said was true or if it was made up. Kevin believes her, he believes in her. And that’s the truth that matters.

There were some portions of “The Book of Nora” that were at risk of seeming manipulative, including the ambiguity with what actually happened. But for me, it was finding out that Laurie was alive. “Certified” left me reeling for days, and it might be my favorite episode of this final season.

In my piece about that episode, I flippantly mentioned that it was always possible that Laurie never went through with killing herself. I wasn’t expecting that to actually be true, but part of the reason I felt the need to mention it was the fear that we were going to get hoodwinked. And we did. But, oddly, it doesn’t bother me very much. I found “Certified” to be important and effective in it’s own isolated bubble, and the fact that Laurie decided to live doesn’t cheapen her struggle with suicide. She decided to live before and she decided to live again. And I wanted her to choose to live. When you assume The Leftovers will be bleak, it’s turns around and gives you hope.

Photo Credit: Ben King/HBO

I adored the early scene with Nora and Matt doing Mad Libs to make up an obituary. I know the final scene with Nora and Kevin was supposed to be the emotional high note, but it’s this funny, dark, goodbye scene between a brother and sister that really got to me. Christopher Eccleston and Carrie Coon have great chemistry, and they exude the perfect mix of love and frustration that feels true to a sibling bond. And then the actual moments leading up to Nora getting into the machine had an eerie sci-fi feel that The Leftovers has never really done before.

But for the most part, “The Book of Nora” stuck to the tried and true that have come to characterize The Leftovers. It had black comedy (Nora talking about Matt keeping her “fossil” had me rolling), random, absurd events as catalysts (Nora almost trapping herself in the bathroom spooks her enough to get her to meet Kevin at the dance), and animals as a symbol (The birds of course, and also Nora saving the goat! AARP-aged Nora rolling down a hill after falling off her bike, and getting back up to save a damn goat!). “The Book of Nora” was an ode to the entire show.

I like that this finale wasn’t a monumental, epic, earth-shattering ending. Although The Leftovers has a mythical, world-encompassing quality, this story doesn’t need anything huge. It’s a show about how a few regular people cope with a traumatic event. And maybe that’s one of the reasons that it has hit me, and I think most people who watch it, so hard. Everyone will experience grief at some point or another. If anything, The Leftovers is infinitely relatable. And its conclusion simply being Nora and Kevin sharing an emotional moment over a cup of tea is startlingly regular and a lovely, quiet way to close this journey.

“The Book of Nora” was also a straight-up happy ending, or at least as much as you could ask for from a show like this. I’m legitimately delighted that at the end of this emotionally harrowing 28 episodes, our people are OK. Laurie, Kevin Sr., Erika, John, Michael, Jill, Tommy: all living normal lives. They made it. It’s all I could have asked for.

As for Kevin and Nora, we knew things wouldn’t be so easy for them. How heartbreaking and romantic and depressing as hell is it that Kevin has spent years looking for Nora while she hid from him? But in the last moments of “The Book of Nora” it seemed like maybe they’d be able to help each other make it through the rest of their lives.

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