[Warning: The following contains spoilers from The Leftovers series finale. Read at your own risk!]
After three seasons, The Leftovers said goodbye on Sunday with its final episode, "The Book of Nora."
The 72-minute long series finale focused almost exclusively on Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon), who finally reunited after spending decades apart. But, as things often are with Kevin and Nora, their reunion wasn't easy or particularly honest — at least not at first.
When Kevin arrived unexpectedly in the small Australian town where Nora had built her new life, he pretended this was pure coincidence and that they had never met, let alone dated, beyond their first encounter at the dance. His attempt to pave over their troubled past and start fresh troubled Nora, who eventually forced him to drop the act and face the truth. In exchange, Nora revealed to Kevin her truth: that she did let the scientists blast her with radiation — and it worked.
As Nora explained, she went through to the other side and found her family, but seeing how they had moved on without her, Nora decided to return. Convinced Kevin would never believe her, she chose not to seek him out, whereas Kevin revealed he had spent two weeks every year since she disappeared returning to Australia and trying to track her down.
With everything laid bare once and for all, Kevin and Nora realized that the only thing they needed - and the only thing they needed to believe in - was each other and tearfully clasped hands.
It was a wonderfully hopeful and satisfying ending to a show that once was the bleakest series on TV. To get the inside story on The Leftovers series finale — including that final shot and the decision to reveal where the Departed went — check out our interview with director and executive producer Mimi Leder.
The first six episodes of the season had different thematic songs playing over the opening credit sequence. Why was the theme song from Season 2 the right one to set up the series finale?
Mimi Leder: Well, it just felt right to revisit "Let the Mystery Be" because I think, perhaps, the grand question is not answered, but I think our characters' individual journeys are answered in their own, individual ways. And so I think it was appropriate for that reason.
To be honest, the finale did answer far more than I ever expected it to or needed it to. Were you surprised by how much Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta decided to reveal about what happened to the two percent?
Leder: I was very satisfied that they went that far... All of our characters, there's a great exploration in their belief systems, and so for each of them, individually, I think they had some closure, had some relief from the loss. And in Nora's case, either went on this journey or believed she did. And I think the ambiguity is very much in the hands of the viewer to decide what they believe. I think it's as close to an answer that the audience is ever going to get. It was very satisfying for me as a filmmaker and storyteller directing the finale and hopefully for the viewer. As you said, you were surprised and satisfied.
Did you ever consider showing Nora once she went through to the other side?
Leder: I think Damon and Tom had many conversations about it and ultimately decided, very smartly in my opinion, to not see it. Because I think if you do see it, it loses its power and its ambiguity and I think we all felt Nora, Carrie Coon, could absolutely tell this story with great honesty, truthfulness and with a great reality attached to all of that. And I believe she did. And you know, in directing it, we found different ways to do it, but landed on what you now see. And I felt it was the most truthful and honest performance. I think it was far more powerful to feel it and to imagine it than to see it. The imagination and her words and her eyes and Kevin's taking in of the story — is it real or it not? — was so much more powerful than being heavy-handed and making the audience see it, you know? Because then that makes it an absolute and then there's no more mystery, and therefore, the use of that song ["Let the Mystery Be"].
I love how in that final conversation you just gradually tightened in on Kevin and Nora's faces. How did you decide on that execution?
Leder: I just felt it was the way to go. I did very big, wide shots. I didn't use many of them because it lost its power. But I just wanted to keep going closer and closer so I just could be swallowed up in the story, literally, figuratively. You know what I mean? I just wanted to get lost in their eyes and their hearts.
The final shot of the series is that wide shot of Kevin, Nora and the birds returning. What was your process in constructing that and what did you hope to convey in it?
Leder: I had to work backwards in terms of, when we found the house, where am I going to put the pigeon coop? Because I had to put it there for the last shot and not move it, and it had to work then for all the shots that would be ahead of it. And so I worked backwards in placing and deciding what the angle would be for the final shot. Once I picked that angle and once I placed the pigeon coop and found the last shot, there it was. And I kept repeating to myself, "Keep it simple. Keep it wide. Just let the frame tell the story." They're in the window. We have just witnessed that love wins and the returning of the birds had to be in a wide shot. I never even shot any close-ups of pigeons flying in. I just felt it had to be in that wide-shot and it had to be simple and powerful. The pigeons representing love, all the love notes she had thrown away in that orange bucket, were returning. And therefore, kind of a verification, for me, that love wins. I'm very sentimental and mushy, but obviously I did not want to be and don't think I was in the framing of that shot. A very powerful three seasons had to conclude in one shot. And that shot, for me, just helped tell the story that we wanted to tell.
This show does deal with some big, heavy questions, but I love that so much of the finale played with these rom-com tropes of a boy asking a girl to a dance. Why do you think that was the appropriate setting for Kevin and Nora's reunion?
Leder: I felt like that dance had to feel like, "What the hell are we doing in these other people's stories?" And then when they saw each other, they were the only two in the room. I felt it was absolutely appropriate in terms of telling this love story that this place, out in the middle of nowhere where Nora had been denying love and denying feelings and burying her feelings deeply inside, I think the location was the perfect place to open that can of worms. I don't know if I answered your question.
Yeah, I think so!
Leder: OK. That house we found. It just felt so absolutely right for someone who just wanted to live a monastic life, a life in seclusion with very few things. This finale was very much an awakening for her character and for her allowing herself to feel again, to love again. And the only way she could do it was through her story of what happened to her. This show is very much about belief systems and the stories in our lives that help us cope with living and life and love.
I think that theme is definitely reflected in Kevin's attempt to create this new, less painful story of his and Nora's lives. But ultimately, because that story wasn't true, it didn't work and Kevin first had to face the truth to get what he really wanted, which was Nora. What does that say about the stories that people tell themselves?
Leder: I think Kevin had his own story. He had to go and pretend that they didn't have a past because he felt like he could never get her back and it was painful to actually go over the past. And so he had to tell his story, this fake story. He had to start from the beginning and create a new story in order to get to her. And it almost did [work]. When they're dancing and they're allowing themselves to breathe and lean into each other and remember that love and he's still denying it and Nora cannot give in without giving in to the truth. And so ultimately, it forces Kevin to tell the truth and tell his story so that they can have their story come alive again.
Why do you think Nora was so convinced that Kevin wouldn't believe her?
Leder: They ended so badly... He really blew it with Nora, as he says in Episode 7 to his twin self. He had to tell himself and her this story to allow himself to ultimately get to the truth. It was too painful, the past, and what happened and how they were living their lives in not telling the truth to each other. It was a life told in many untruths and finally, the truths willed out and love won, ultimately.
Given that this season was only eight episodes, were there stories you wish the show had been able to explore given more time?
Leder: I think Damon and Tom felt they could tell the story in eight episodes and obviously, it was very challenging once they decided to do that. They had to cram a lot of story into eight episodes. I don't know if they felt they needed more, but I think ultimately they got it all in. And I guess, ultimately, we couldn't tell the completion of everyone's story in eight episodes, but I think there's a lot of story in there. I think there's a real satisfaction in most of our characters' journeys and getting released from grief and learning to live with the lives they have and making choices.
This show definitely isn't for everyone, but the people who do connect with it love it with a passion, myself included. What do you think this show provided that these viewers weren't getting elsewhere?
Leder: I think this show provided a vessel. It allowed our audience to journey into the meaning of life and the stories we tell ourselves to have a meaning in our lives. And I think it allowed us to feel the real pain of life and loss and also the joy of life and living. And this story, in many ways, talks about how you choose to live your life and the stories we tell ourselves, and I think that was very satisfying to our audience. And for those who missed the show, hopefully they will find it. Because I do think this show will live on when people find it because it is so powerful a story.
When you look back at where this show began in Season 1, how do you feel about the way it evolved?
Leder: In looking back at how the story began and the bleakness and how tough the first season was, it was just a kind of — I think there's no apology for it. I know some viewers were turned off by it because no one likes to look at how hard life is. It's too hard. It's looking at loss straight in the eye, and dealing with that pain is very difficult to look at. I think the show evolved naturally to a place of hope and understanding. The show really quite evolved to the next level of exploration of those themes and did so in such a personal way that I think people really jumped in and rode the train because it spoke to an audience who is searching for what the meaning of their lives is. I think we're all searching for that continually.
Despite the show being so critically beloved, it's never really gotten any major awards love. Why do you think that is?
Leder: I have no idea. I mean, I love the show and I wish more viewers had found it in its run, but I have faith that people will find it because it has been such a critical success with people like yourself who speak about it and write about it. I think, hopefully, people will find it when it's over and go, "Wow. That's what it was all about?" I think it will live on. I hope it does. It certainly was life-changing for me as a filmmaker and as a person to deeply explore those things. It taught me a lot, a lot of gratefulness for the life that we are given. Making this show completely spoiled me as a filmmaker because the writing was so extraordinary and you just don't get that level of writing. Damon Lidelof, Tom Perotta and their brilliant group of writers and our brilliant group of editors and our extraordinarily brave actors — it was a journey that will be, for me, unforgettable and really rank up there with some of the great moments of my life.
Every season of The Leftovers is available to stream now on HBO.