I’m not going to lie; I have incredibly mixed feelings about the season finale of The Leftovers. I hung in there with this terribly melancholy viewing experience to the very end in hopes of a conclusion that would bring all the tangents of this story together in a beautiful arc. And I just don’t know if that happened here in “The Prodigal Son Returns.”
I found myself in this awkward zone of just wishing this was a one season show. To take material this laden with sadness and stretch it to its seams beyond the parameters of the book doesn’t feel right. This episode pulled heavily from the end of the novel, and while the novel left me with questions, I was okay with that because I accepted the story in its entirety and the implications of what might come next pushed at the edges of my imagination. But with the show, some of these mysteries we’ve been waiting to understand culminated in anticlimactic endings. Overall I thought the season finale lacked that great sense of comprehension and cohesion we were all seeking. Last week’s flashback episode was so powerful and revealing, and prior to that Patti’s death seemed so significant and foreboding that I expected something different from this conclusion.
The show opened with Kevin in the kill cabin smoking a Guilty Remnant cigarette while covered in Patti’s blood. Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” filled the scene and gave the whole thing a tragic French noir feeling, especially with the unfurling cloud of smoke and Kevin’s reflection in the pool of blood eliciting a nod to smoke and mirrors. And that’s an applicable way to approach this episode which closely follows Kevin’s perspective – what is real and what is just an illusion? And are those illusions grounded in viable mental illness perhaps connected to the phenomenon of the departure, or are they just the result of severe guilt and denial?
Kevin calls the good Reverend to come help cover up the crazy, and to my surprise – he did, and quite happily. Was it just me or was Matt pleased that Patti was dead? She was, after all, the relentless leader of the GR that stole his church and instilled in him a desperate mission to unravel the very fabric of their organization by returning everyone to their humanity. Matt obviously believes Kevin didn’t kill Patti, but his willingness to hide the whole thing didn’t seem like something a man of god would do, and with such a positive attitude to boot!
One of the most powerful scenes for me this episode was Kevin reading the passage from the bible over Patti’s grave. Between Theroux’s delivery and the actual words, I felt like I understood everything a little better within the context of the show. I don’t know if that means I drank the Reverend Matt Jamison’s kool-aid or if that passage just spoke to all of the themes that have permeated this season.
“But He stands alone, and who can oppose Him? He does whatever He pleases. He carries out His decree against me, and many such plans He still has in store. That is why I am terrified before Him; when I think of all this, I fear Him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” –Job 23
The Guilty Remnant dwell in that silence, they linger in that place characterized by God’s darkness. It is Matt who believes that this has all been a test, and that the Sudden Departure was the work of the terrifying almighty, and yet human beings must triumph on in their humanity. I think Matt helping Kevin ties into the actual reference to the Prodigal Son parable after which the show is named. In a parable about loss and redemption, a son returns after having sinned and fallen off his path, and he is forgiven and treated in a way that he would have no right to expect given his actions. Isn’t this exactly what has happened to Kevin? And then there was the baptism symbolism and the rebirth from his sins when Kevin washes himself clean of blood with the water the reverend has brought him.
I felt that while Kevin got the most closure in this episode, there was still the question about his sanity and those weird ass dreams. Kevin drifts off in the car and wakes up in a dream to find his worst fear of losing his mind has come true and he’s being committed to the asylum. In solitary confinement he peruses the National Geographic issue that Garvey Sr. obsessed over giving to him. Once Kevin gets some alone time with his dad, the two have a pretty vague conversation in which Garvey Sr. insinuates that every person left behind on October 14th knew why they were still there, and like Patti he insists that Kevin knows this as well. Then Garvey Sr. goes on to discuss the matter of intentions and stirs up the debate about what makes a good man good and what makes him bad. This seemingly incites a war in Kevin’s subconscious when Patti shows up. Kevin is pulled between the philosophy of Patti and the resigned penance of his father and what that might mean in relation to Kevin’s own guilt. Are these two supposed to be like the devil and the angel on his shoulder? Is this the I Heart Huckabees battle between Nihilism and Universal Interconnectivity?
What does it all mean? Kevin wakes up and the Reverend is ravenous after his afternoon of obstructing evidence. They stop into what looks like the same diner that Patti took Laurie to and in the same booth, which was an interesting parallel. It’s in this conversation that Kevin confesses to the Reverend this great truth, this big reveal we’ve all been anticipating: the night before the Sudden Departure, Kevin wanted to leave. He didn’t want to have a family. He admits to the affair and the strange woman disappearing mid-coitus, and how his reunion with his kids and Laurie made him realize just how much he loved them all. But then he lost them all, slowly and painfully as if his wish had been granted.
This was a good transition into the Holy Wayne bathroom scene. The whole time the car radio was on there were reports about Wayne muted in the background, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that he popped up there. But it made me think about this location if it is in fact the same diner that Laurie and Patti went to as well, like its some weird place of convergence for all these characters to show their interconnectivity.
I feel like Wayne was totally underutilized in this show. Every episode he’s popped up in has revealed him to be an enigmatic character. There is such intensity in his performance, and the show really just let the Holy Wayne story linger on the back burner without giving us much more than glimpses. As predicted, Wayne is on the cusp of his death and even in his last moments he wants to validate his existence, he wants to prove he is the powerful man he thinks he is, and so he asks Kevin to make a wish. And kudos to Theroux for his acting chops, because that look he gives while making his wish was intense and I felt it. He wanted his family back.
And Kevin gets his wish, in a very strange turn of events. In a storyline that did very little and accomplished close to nothing the entire season, Christine abandons Holy Wayne’s baby even after Tom offers to be the man Kevin was to him and step in and raise the child. But Christine finally realizes she is free from Holy Wayne, she is free from the former identity of herself and so she leaves. And Tom, after a brief conversation with a traveling Christian, realizes that he needs help and heads home to Mapleton.
While all this is happening, the Guilty Remnant has employed their impeccable ninja skills and snuck into houses to stage the replicas of the departed. This is their big event, their “reminder” to everyone of their loss, of the terrifying almighty. It ended in an explosion of violence that wasn’t unprecedented. The whole thing was temporarily stalled by Jill, whose arrival at the GR threw Laurie off her cold calculations. But Meg was the more militant and persistent GR member who pushed Laurie to go through with the plan. I have to say that I felt like Jill’s only real reason for being at the GR was so she could be rescued, to motivate something heroic and good with Kevin. Plus all of that fire symbolism from Kevin’s dreams had to mean something, so why not make it matter here?
Poor Nora, whose battle with grief and the pain of guilt was pushed beyond whatever temporary peace Holy Wayne bestowed upon her with his magic hug. As soon as she saw the replicas of her family at the table, it all came rushing back to her like a bullet to the chest. There was definitely some ugly cry face here, but damn I felt the power of that moment, and I hated the GR for what they did. I never really believed that Nora was completely free from the pain of her loss, and whether it was Wayne’s power or his power of suggestion, she did find peace after her encounter with him. To see that peace shattered was heart breaking.
I wasn’t a fan of her voice-over letter, but I did like that this was an element from the book carried over into the show. In the book Nora writes the letter and then goes to leave it for Kevin and finds the baby that Tom has left. The scene with Kevin returning to his house with Jill in tow, along with the now-tame dog, to find Nora on his porch holding a baby was the most hopeful note the show could have ended on. Kevin’s wish is granted and even Jill looks at Nora holding the baby and sees a mother – a mother she no longer has.
But what about everything else? I thought we might learn more about the Guilty Remnant and what exists behind their structure. I thought we would learn more about this “purpose” Kevin has that his dad was talking about. I thought we might understand more about the Sudden Departure. I thought we might learn more about the dog killing man.
What I didn’t expect was a totally random encounter between a smoke stained Laurie and Tom next to the monument erected in honor of the departed. Where will those two go? They are in a similar situation, both on the fringe of their cult beliefs and struggling to make sense of it all. I’m struggling to make sense of it all.
Overall, I liked the show. However, I didn’t feel like all the craziness and foreboding built into the season felt justified by the climax in the season finale. I mean, at its core, the arc came full circle because from the first episode Kevin was voicing his concerns about the Guilty Remnant and look what ended up happening to them. But is that it? Kevin seemingly gets a happy ending, while Nora gets a new beginning and Jill gets to be a kid again – but what about the crazy dreams and the Mr. Hyde aspect of Kevin’s personality. I just don’t know what a second season of this show will bring. The big mystery regarding the Sudden Departure is still out there, and while there have been hints dropped that perhaps the departed disappeared because their loved ones wished them gone, they feel pretty flimsy. I was hoping for all the answers and only got some, but I suppose that’s the point – the ultimate unknowing.
Amanda Lowery lives, writes and studies in Baltimore where she is held hostage by potholes, stray cats and rats that make her watch way too much TV and rhyme unnecessarily. You can find her book reviews and pop culture thoughts at amandasthinkingoutloud.blogspot.com.