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In Season 3 of The Leftovers, Everyone Is Waiting Around to Die

The Leftovers has always been a tough show to be a fan of. Learning to do so came through repetition, each episode a ritual with similar, intense emotional impressions. Over the course of two seasons, viewers got a sense of what they were meant to be paying attention to on this bizarre show: their own feelings, mostly–muscle memories of grief, the emotion that surges to the forefront of every episode in punishing waves. Stray memories from grade-school Bible study sessions might get dredged up. Even if you couldn’t remember specifics, the basic New-Testament-adjacent impressions resonated. Now, viewers know that it’s best to simply enjoy the circuitous journey and not expect for everything to be illuminated by the series’ end result. By that metric, the final season of The Leftoversits most well-whittled and emotionally resonant–will certainly not disappoint.

It is a strange, fortuitous time for the show to be returning to the airwaves: Its run overlaps with the third season of FX’s Fargo, prestige-TV’s other most highly mannered, convention-flouting drama, which also stars Carrie Coon, The Leftovers’ breakout star. Over the course of their final two seasons, both of those shows have increasingly walked a line between compelling formal experimentation and self-important headiness that verges on the unintentionally comic. In Fargothe elaborate cinematography, invasive pop music cues, and cryptic monologues are always in danger of overwhelming the fairly straight-forward plot framework. But The Leftovers’ wild time jumps, dream imagery, and high-concept bottle episodes are exactly as decadent as its subject matter–which is, in a nutshell, something like “the human condition.” The whole package makes sense, whether or not you have the tolerance for it.

Another major difference between the two series: It took well into the second season of The Leftovers for its creators to figure out that it could be funny. People often manifest their grief in bizarre ways as well as heartbreaking ones, and given the show’s core plot–2% of the world’s population has vanished without any explanation–absurd things should be expected to happen fairly frequently.  In the show, someone may kill a dog or another person in response to some private crisis, or lay naked in stocks in self-imposed penance, or sing karaoke in an alternate dimension. The compelling blend of genre-bending stylistic gestures, cosmic speculation, and outright zaniness that made Season 2 gripping and even fun continues in the new and final group of episodes. There’s a feeling of renewed confidence and commitment, fitting for a series that is knowingly in its final season, with a plot that seems to be pointing towards literal apocalypse.

In its first fifteen minutes, the new season premiere of The Leftovers delivers at least three major fuck-yous–at least, to those who are looking for further resolution to the climactic events of Season 2. First, there is a lengthy, silent montage of an unidentified family in the 19th-century, being gradually split apart by their mother’s faith in some impending divine happening; it eventually leads her to join what appears to be an early prototype of the Guilty Remnant. Immediately after, the show kills two of its most intriguing, mysterious personalities, Meg (Liv Tyler) and the wayward, evasive Evie (Justin Savoy Brown). Then, we’re catapulted three years into the future–and we don’t even know exactly where we began before we fast-forwarded–in a flash of white light. Even the most tolerant fan might murmur “Goddamnit, Damon.” It is a declaration of purpose for the rest of this beautifully unhinged season of television.

The premiere resettles us back in Jarden, Texas a.k.a. “Miracle,” where  all of our heroes ended up by the end of the series’ last season, but it is nearly unrecognizable. Kevin–who we last saw mentally and physically scarred, after returning from a stint in a spy-thriller-inspired afterlife–has settled into the role of police chief. Nora (Coon) is back at work, mercilessly quizzing people who claim to have lost someone in the Departure. Laurie and a softer, more diplomatic John (Kevin Carroll) are now, somehow, married, and collaboration on their own handprint-reading con operation, offering hope to the lost. Matt (Christopher Eccleston) is more zealous than ever, pouring all of his faith into a couple of discrete miracles as evidence that a divine happening will be occurring on the Depature’s seventh anniversary. His evidence? Kevin’s tale of resurrection, and the fact that Mary has awoken suddenly from a years-long coma with her fertility restored.

In the new season, Damon Lindelof makes it appropriately–and typically–difficult to get our bearings. Viewers are plunged into scenes with no idea of where they fit into the timeline of the show, or on what plane of existence. The point of The Leftovers has always been to disorient its audience as much as its characters, who never fail to try to normalize any situation, no matter how supremely muddled and tragic, even as they play out their misery in private. Nora has lost another child–baby Lily, who has disappeared–and has taken to self-harm. Kevin retreats to his room to asphyxiate himself with plastic wrap and duct tape (Lindelof scores this to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy,” just to be an asshole). Matt’s marriage is falling apart thanks to his obsessions, and beneath his sunny, newly-bespectacled mien, John is still grieving for Evie, who he hopes is alive in the afterlife Kevin glimpsed.

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CREDIT: Ben King/HBO

Has there ever been another show on television on which every single character, at least in part, seems to just want to die? It’s this impression, perhaps more than anything else, that makes The Leftovers so singular and haunting. Lindelof introduces Season 3 by trying to fool us, for a moment, into believing that the Garvey, Murphy and Jamison families–who have at least in part been in different places for the majority of the series, who we’ve seen at the verge of psychological implosion numerous times before–are happy and feeling life again. But their dormant sorrows and misguided obsessions flood to the surface quickly and suddenly. In turn, this season, the most enigmatic unit on the show is forced to reckon with itself honestly, perhaps for the first time: Kevin and Nora, who are, at turns, one of the most refreshingly human and horrifyingly toxic relationships on television. Lindelof excavates it fully, in some of the best dramatic scenes of the show’s run, just as their search for meaning and resolution leads the duo–stumbling, guided by blind hope–far away from Miracle.

As it is for its characters, the muddled, half-ruinous universe of The Leftovers continues to be a minefield for our paranoid impressions. Like Nora and Kevin, we remain cynical that anything will ever be resolved or clarified, even as we chase the show’s many threads pointing towards possible cosmic resolution. There is something comforting rather than nerve-wracking about watching this weird, bold series careen toward a graceful close. (More shows should call it quits after three solid seasons!) The Leftovers has always been about individuals making private, Sisyphean pushes toward closure, following paths that intersect in strange, uncanny ways. By now, it feels like it could end up almost anywhere and we’d still feel fulfilled.