If you don't have religion, you should at least have The Leftovers. HBO's rapturous drama hasn't found much of an audience during its brief time on Earth, but those who listen to its sermon long enough tend to convert — nothing else on television seeks, so nakedly and unironically, to explore the truth and beauty of what it’s like to be left behind. That its characters’ search for answers comes from a place of skepticism only makes their answers more meaningful; every revelation and faith-affirming moment is hard-won. That's truer than ever in its third and final season, which finds the show in a more overtly biblical mode than before as it approaches what could be the end times.
Based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, The Leftovers began with the instantaneous, inexplicable disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population — some 140 million people, apparently in the rapture itself. If you believe those people were chosen, as most in this world do, then you must also believe that everyone still here was not. Perrotta co-created the series, the first season of which covered the entirety of his book; the show has only improved since it began charting its own path forward.
Much like last season, this concluding chapter begins with a wordless, long-ago prologue seemingly divorced from the main narrative. We're introduced to a would-be utopia, whose Puritan-like denizens keep incorrectly guessing the date of the rapture; each time the world doesn't end as predicted, they grow more disenchanted. We're left to ponder that as Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon), the show's emotional center, find themselves dealing with a similar enthusiasm for Armageddon in the here and now.
Just ahead of the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure, almost everyone in the fictional Jarden, Texas — known as Miracle because it was the one city in America from which no one was taken — is convinced that a second rapture is on the way and that this time they'll be accepted into heaven's embrace. That includes Nora's brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a man of God so inspired by Kevin's two resurrections that he's written a newer testament about him.
There's also a 20-foot-tall Gary Busey balloon in the town square. Why wouldn't there be?
Swinging for the transcendental fences has come with a few misses along the way, but at its best, The Leftovers is as moving as anything I've ever seen on the small screen. Its focus narrowed and its time running out, the show now has the energy of a dying man who knows the end is nigh. It isn't raging against the dying of the light, but there's a clarity and a purpose to its creators’ every surprising decision — such as the latter half of this season taking place in Australia, and the explosive fate of a certain chainsmoking cult. There are also an abundance of gloriously off-the-wall moments that remind us that the series’ other co-creator is Damon Lindelof, one of Lost's showrunners — watch for a bronze medalist from the Sydney Olympics claiming to be God and absolving himself of responsibility for the Crusades but taking credit for the Sudden Departure.
Even as it expands outward, the world of The Leftovers remains concerned most of all with the moment that cleaved its world into “before” and “after.” This new season begins with most of the ensemble in a better place than we're used to seeing them, but it isn't long before we're reminded that no one would ever fully recover from something so unfathomable.
Countless movies and TV series have shown us miserable people putting on a good face and going through the motions, but how many feature characters who put on bulletproof vests and hire prostitutes to shoot them (as Nora used to) or duct-tape plastic bags around their head and hyperventilate (as Kevin does here)? In both cases, they’re choosing to feel alive by being close to death.
That sometimes-happy couple remains the show's beating heart, and their version of will-they-or-won't-they is considerably darker than it would be on any other series. Brought together by grief, they're constantly at risk of being torn apart by it. Coon, who's also in the new season of Fargo, makes every moment feel achingly real. Kevin is the one tasked with setting things right in this world, but it's Nora who makes it worth saving in the first place.
As in the first two seasons, special mention is owed to the music. Max Richter's recurring piano theme sounds like a post-apocalyptic bedtime song, an assurance that there may be hope for those still here. Hearing it makes you feel as though both you and the people on screen have just jointly realized some profound truth that has yet to be put into words. That's fitting, given a line from Season 2’s hauntingly beautiful finale that's repeated here: “I don't understand what's happening.”
The Leftovers asks us to walk alongside it without knowing where it's leading us — or, in some cases, where we even are at that particular moment — but the journey is worth it. Nothing else on television is at once so draining and so rewarding. When it completes its run in a few months, the show will have aired just 28 episodes. Like many who exited this mortal coil, it'll never have the chance to overstay its welcome. But just because this departure won't be sudden doesn’t mean it won’t leave a void.
The Leftovers airs Sundays on HBO.