Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” was published just short of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 on Aug. 30, 2011. Sunday night, HBO’s remarkable TV adaptation of his novel about a “sudden departure” wrapped. “The Leftovers” wasn’t precisely about 9/11, either novel or series. The lens was both wider, and narrower. (For the uninitiated, show and novel were about how a handful of characters in a fictional upstate town adapted to the sudden disappearance of their loved ones, part of a bizarre global phenomenon when two percent of the world’s population just ... vanished.) The first season was essentially the novel, the next two a creative collaboration between Perrotta and Damon Lindelof -- probably best known as co-showrunner of “Lost” -- who transported these “leftovers” to a town in Texas then on to Australia for the third, which ended Sunday.
And from this point on -- beware -- the dreaded “spoiler” is coming. If you haven’t seen the show and plan to, maybe best to move on. Otherwise, stick around.
In the waning moments of the series closer, a wide shot of a ranch-style house in a remote stretch of the Australian countryside, a warm glow from a window, and inside, a warm glow from Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), lovers reunited in a deeply affirmative -- and elegiac -- wrap, especially for a series so rooted in dislocation and tragedy.
“The Leftovers” was terrific, also short-lived. But “Leftovers” burned hot over these three seasons, and “three” seems about right. Any more would have forced the show into either an “expository” phase -- explaining What It All Meant -- or a strrrretching one that could have pulled it deeper and deeper into the Mystery, also further and further from resolution. I suspect Nora’s long and moving soliloquy about going to the alt-world where the Disappeared had gone was perhaps a snapshot of a potential fourth season.
But less is more -- far more. Her haunting trip through that netherworld of lost souls was a masterstroke of brevity, all painted in blacks and grays. “Here we lost some of them,” she said quietly, almost under her breath. “Over there, they lost all of us.”
Both Nora and the show also left open the possibility -- just barely -- that her trip to the other side was another one of those flights of fancy (or lunacy) characters on “Leftovers” occasionally indulged in to get through the night. “You do believe me?” she asked Kevin. He smiled. Sure.
Sure. Why not. (And I am glad she found that physicist, who was willing to reverse-engineer his water tank to transport her back to the land of the living.) Maybe real, maybe not. In any event, unverifiable. It doesn’t matter anyway.
But what has any of this to do with 9/11? Because “Leftovers” was about loss: How is someone supposed to cope when the most important person in his or her life ... disappears? The lens became narrower: How is someone supposed to survive when a child is lost? Insanity is always an option. The abyss also beckons.
While acknowledging these options, “The Leftovers” considered alternatives, and not always preferable ones. In death, Kevin became an assassin, then president, with the treacherous Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) at his side. His father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn), wandered the outback in search of songs that would save the world from the impending flood. Nora became a strict rationalist, chasing down charlatans who promised a trip to the other side. Her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) embraced the mystery and an unknowable God. Kevin’s ex, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), vacillated between reason and faith, ultimately settling for reason.
Reason vs. faith: That was a prevailing theme of Lindelof’s “Lost,” a prevailing one here. In “Leftovers’” sober estimation, a piece of the human soul is lost when a loved one is lost. The survivor scrambles to fill the void. Faith is called upon, but the silence of God was overwhelming in “The Leftovers.” Reason is called upon but the blunt fact of the Disappearance ultimately defeats that as well.
Faith or reason? Well?
Music was a huge part of “The Leftovers,” more than any other recent series in memory, and music always enriched meaning. Giuseppe Verdi, the composer who died in 1901, for example, played a major role over these three seasons. Along with Max Richter’s beautiful, haunting theme (“The Departure”) passages from Verdi’s “La Traviata” and especially “Nabucco” tracked constantly over these three seasons. Dedicated viewers may not realize this, but they now know by heart the opening of “Nabucco’s” famed third act -- leading into the even more famous “Va Pensiero.”
Why Verdi, why “Va Pensiero?” Because it was Verdi’s great ode to human suffering, a chorus by Hebrew slaves in exile in Babylon. Verdi had recently fallen into an abyss of his own -- the deaths of his beloved wife and young children, a boy and a girl. He would spend the rest of his career writing operas about fathers and daughters, seeking closure through music. But “Nabucco” and “Va Pensiero” held a special place in his canon. For him, they were a way forward -- a way to begin filling the void.
Why Australia? A few reasons. The country has only recently come to terms with a long, shameful history of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from families when they were determined to be “mixed race.” Australia apologized for the “Stolen Generations” -- a quick reference to that in this season’s episode “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” with Glenn. Australia was also settled by penal colonies filled with people -- including children -- who had been forcibly removed from their families to the other side of the world, a penalty for even stealing a loaf of bread. The metaphor for this series seems obvious.
Why last night’s ending? Perhaps Lindelof may have also had unfinished business here to attend. “Lost” -- Lindelof’s (and Carleton Cuse’s) magnificent series which ended in 2010 -- tangled with the same themes of “The Leftovers,” and occasionally (then ultimately) became entangled by them. But, one unresolved story does still stand out: The star-crossed love affair of button-pushing Hatch man Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) and his beloved Penny Widmore.
It was an emotional high point for “Lost,” possibly a guide for “The Leftovers” as well: Love, finally, may be a way to fill the void, love may be all that’s left.
Reason or faith? Maybe just love instead. A famous poem by Philip Larkin about an arundel tomb -- a pair of stone statues of husband and wife, side by side -- closes with an ambiguous line that also feels like an appropriate coda for this magnificent –and magnificently ambiguous -- series: “... Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.”