The Leftovers: Season 3 Episode 8 review – The Book of Nora
This review contains spoilers.
There’s a mountain of pressure on any show to deliver a show finale. That grand summation that must not only tie up all of the primary strands, but which must also leave viewers with an emotionally satisfying conclusion for beloved characters that they will never see again.
That pressure is multiplied when the show is helmed by the same man who had a strong hand in LOST‘s ending, which – while not wholly perfect (the church gathering was a little too religiously inclined for my tastes) – was a stunning and near-perfect ending to the very best show ever to have graced television.
Consider the weight borne upon Lindelof here, for a moment. There would always be the temptation to make this finale similar to LOST‘s finale (both shows have shared a lot of parallels along the way). There could also be the temptation to try to “make up” for letting some viewers down with that LOST finale (I loved it, but there is certainly a formidable percentage of people out there who didn’t and Lindelof knows that).
There’s also the fact that this season achieved its peak with Episode 7. You could tell by the magnificence of this episode that it was the true moment where everyone involved was giving it their all. That left the finale some room to be a character-driven comedown, which is fine, if the approach is right, but what was delivered simply wasn’t anywhere near what we deserved as dedicated viewers and investors in this show.
We opened with Nora about to undertake the vaporisation procedure that would allegedly reunite her with her children. Seemingly, somewhere between her stalking those scientists in Episode 6 and this scene she had managed to convince those scientists to give her another shot. How she managed that is unclear (they seemed pretty decisive once she answered the question wrong). It’s a gap in the narrative, but it’s a forgivable one.
The visual design of that procedure – the ball that fills with a water-like substance – was a poetic choice. It’s essentially returning to the womb, in order to be birthed once more – this time into a new world. If you view Nora’s story about what happened to her during this procedure as false (which we’ll get to in a moment), then you could look at this womb-like device as simply part of the conning theatricality of the murderous group who are selling this lie.
Then we were dunked straight back into the apparent flashforward that we saw in the season premiere. This was an older Nora delivering birds to a woman who asked if she knew a Kevin. Even back when it aired it always held hints of a flashsideways-like set-up – an afterlife (perhaps different to the purgatory-like place that Kevin has visited) where all of our characters could meet up in a LOST-like emotional regrouping.
And as soon as Kevin showed up and didn’t seem to fully remember all of his life with Nora (while she very clearly did), it looked even more likely that Lindelof and co might be going down that same route. That Kevin would eventually remember who he had been, in a flood of emotion. It seemed foolish to tread the same path twice, but I ran with it, expecting perhaps some small deviation on that well-worn ground.
Then something else happened that seemed to concretely confirm that this was an afterlife; Laurie showed up. Not alone either, but holding a young child. Immediately, my thoughts jumped to this perhaps being an older version of the child that she lost from her womb, when the departure happened.
It seemed such a certain indication, because we saw Laurie kill herself in Episode 6, as she deliberately went scuba diving after hearing Nora’s advice on how to most elegantly kill oneself, while making it look like an accident.
We didn’t see her body, but that entire episode had been wholly designed to lead up to that moment. So it seemed unfathomable that the writers would be reneging on that great moment now. To have Laurie truly and genuinely alive in the finale would mean that she didn’t in fact kill herself in Episode 6. It would ruin a great achievement, in my view.
But that’s exactly what they did, because as the episode goes on, we learn that what we are seeing is in fact a reality and that Laurie is in fact alive. Thankfully, Variety actually put this question to Lindelof and he said this:
To be completely and totally transparent, when we wrote the episode — when Patrick [Somerville] and Carly [Wray] wrote episode six — Laurie was dead. The decision was, she is committing suicide, and when Amy Brenneman reached out and was like, Is she killing herself down there? My response to her was, I have to leave space for the possibility that she doesn’t but I’m 90 percent sure that she does.
So cheat both the audience and 90% of himself by turning Laurie’s fate on its head is a bit of a joke, in my view. Lindelof attempted to rationalise this like so:
Once we moved through the phase of upset that Laurie was gone, there was something that just didn’t feel right about it… Then we just watched Amy’s performance. And it started to feel like when she went into the water, she didn’t know whether she was going to kill herself yet or not. Once she was in the water, it was a baptism of sorts. Laurie Garvey is just too courageous, and not selfish enough, to do it. Then once we actually started contemplating, what if she came up? What if she came up out of the water? then that feeling that we were all feeling, of something being not right, completely and totally lifted. And was replaced by a new feeling, which was — are people going to feel manipulated? Are they going to feel it’s a cop out? Are they going to have that feeling like but we should the car basically drive over the cliff with their hero in it, but at the beginning of the next episode, you see him jump out of the car, and you’re like oh, come on!
So the foresight to see that this move would anger the audience was there, but the act was followed through anyway, which to me feels like a disrespectful sleight on the audience. A sleight that’s been made at the worst possible time – at the end of the show; the most important time to get things right.
Laurie aside, the rest of the episode focused on Kevin trying to woe Nora and Nora giving in by inches. It allowed for some marvellous acting from Theroux, who very nearly convinced both Nora and myself that he genuinely remembered nothing from their first meeting onwards.
It was sometimes touching (the look on Kevin’s face when Nora arrived at the dance), but was mostly all too dry for my taste and most important of all: it lacked the romantic foundation to pull off what it strived to accomplish. What I mean by this is that Kevin and Nora have never really been a very good couple.
Nora has up and left Kevin out of the blue before. Kevin has effectively told her to go and kill herself, by telling her to “go and be with her children.” The two were matched in the respect that they were both unhinged, but the relationship itself was a toxic one that seemed better for both parties if it failed, rather than succeeded.
Think of Sawyer and Juliet in the LOST finale. The reason that their flashsideways reunion – upon their recall of who they were – was so emotionally devastating and satisfying was because they worked so well as a couple in their real lives. People adored “Suliet” long before the end of the show.
The same can’t be said about Kevin and Nora. So to base the entire show finale around a relationship that was never that great to begin with seems like a huge mis-step to me, and from the point of hearing that the finale would be called ‘The Book of Nora’, that was always my greatest fear.
Then you have Nora’s answer about what happened to her during the procedure. The editing at the start implied that she might have screamed “stop!” just before being consumed by the metallic water. This led viewers to believe that this was the reason why she was alive in the present.
Nora tells Kevin a different story. She tells of how she actually fully went through with the procedure and how she appeared in the same spot, but without anyone around. She goes on to tell of a mirror world – an Earth 2 if you will – in which only those who departed exist.
This means that everyone we’ve known to depart is there; Nora’s children and their father (who now has a new, pretty partner), the woman that Kevin had the one-off affair with, and even Laurie’s baby (who must surely have died upon being transported and you have to wonder how Laurie took that news, if Nora ever told her about where she went).
This also means that the true answer to that infamous question that Nora had to ask family members of the departed in Season 1 – “do you believe that the departed individual is in a better place?” – was neither “yes” nor “no”, because they were in exactly the same place, which is neither better nor worse.
From the perspective of the departed, living in this mirror world, they were “the leftovers” and everyone else – 98% of the population, which is an astounding amount of people – were the ones who departed. In their world (which is identical to ours), they can no longer run services like flights to other countries, due to a shortage in pilots. It is there that Nora sought out the inventor of the device and got him to create a new one to send her back.
While the idea that those who departed are fine and that “they are the ones who truly lost” is a rather clever notion, I’m not OK with Lindelof and Perrotta giving us an answer as to where the departed went. This is because Lindelof and Perrotta always promised us that they would never answer to this question.
So to have an answer delivered not only makes that promise reneged upon and worth nothing, but it also undermines their reasoning for taking that stance in the first place, which was very sound and intelligent reasoning. This reasoning was put really well by the AV Club in the opening of their interview with Lindelof and Perrotta, which took place after Season 1 had aired:
You’re not going find out what actually happened on October 14. The mysterious event that raptured away 140 million people from Earth, which set the premise for both the book and the TV series, will not be explained. Why not? Because, as the show’s creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta say, the answer is irrelevant. Regardless of what happened to The Departed, what matters to those left behind—literally, the leftovers—is that their loved ones are gone, and now it’s time to heal or scream or join a cult or kill a dog or try to fall in love again.
And if you’d rather hear it from the horse’s mouth, rather than the interviewer, in that very same interview Lindelof said this:
Tom and I are fans of The Walking Dead—I’ve been a huge fan of the comic since [Robert] Kirkman started writing it—and we’d geek out and talk about it when we were first talking about The Leftovers. One of the things the show does incredibly well is, the characters are not interested in figuring out how the zombie apocalypse started. Because it’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is they need to restart society, they need to eat, they need to reproduce, they need to survive. The show is interesting enough just with that. It has no fundamental mystery element whatsoever, whereas that could easily be the line of storytelling. In the first season, obviously, they went to the CDC, but then it was sort of like, “we’ve now dispensed with that.” We asked a question, we got an answer, and the fact of the matter is, who gives a shit? Now we have to live our lives. The idea of not answering a question that is irrelevant to the storytelling is fairly inspired and we use it as a guide for ourselves. Are we that different from The Walking Dead just because we don’t have zombies?
Lindelof also goes on to state that when he first met with Tom Perrotta, he asked Perrotta this:
I want to know why — like if you know, don’t tell me — I just need to know if you know where everybody went and why. He said in the most kind and generous and authentically honest way: I got to be honest with you, man, I’ve never even thought about it. I’m just like, wow.
It was a beautiful and wise approach; to warn viewers ahead of time that they would never get an answer, because the answer itself doesn’t truly matter. To have Lindelof and Perrotta (who also worked on this episode) provide an answer in the finale, then, is somewhat of a slap in the face.
It feels like a manipulation, just like Laurie’s sudden survival did. And just like Laurie’s sudden survival, Lindelof and Perrotta very clearly knew that the audience would feel this way, when they conceived of writing that answer, because they had both given multiple interviews – just like the one above – after Season 1 about how they would never ever give a firm solution.
You might argue: what if Nora’s answer is intended to be ambiguous, in the respect of whether you choose to believe her or not? I think that would soften the blow a little; to have a kind of answer that both is and isn’t true, in a Schrödinger-like fashion. That way, you could choose to believe whichever direction suited you best (or annoyed you the least).
That would be something interesting, if it were positioned in a 50/50 stance, but I think the way that it is presented leans far too heavily on the side of Nora’s answer being true. Nora says it with complete sincerity, for one. Then Kevin says that he believes her.
Additionally, to go back to Lindelof and Perrotta’s first ever meeting, they also said this to one another:
If we do the show together, get prepared to ask that same question 11,000 times. He said, we’ll just tell people in the beginning that we’re never going to answer it. I said, yeah, but then they’ll ask like two weeks later: Are you sure? It’s a continuing TV series, not a novel that just ends. As long as there’s an episode that is coming up, there’s always the potential.
Which to me is like a smoking gun to prove that both Lindelof and Perrotta were never truly 100% sincere when they stated – to fans – that they would never answer this question. Maybe I’m old fashioned in this respect, but I believe in sticking by your word, especially when you’re dealing with the hopes and adoration of your fans.
Unlike the rest of the episode, some small moments like the situation with the goat felt true to the themes of the show. In burdening the goat (a nice call back to the man who was allowed to slaughter goats anywhere that he liked in Season 2) with the beads that represented sins, this caused the goat to become stuck, which afforded Nora the opportunity to free the animal. She then draped the beads over her own neck (after refusing them at the wedding), much like her brother Matt decided to take the place of the man in the stocks in Season 2.
When it comes down to it, this was a beautifully acted finale, but it was something so far removed from what I hoped the ending of this show would be that it really feels like a huge disappointment. When you add to this the deliberate deception around Laurie’s death and providing an outright answer to where the departed went, it really smarts someone like myself, who has had nothing but mountains of adoration and love for this show all along. Even the very final shots – of the birds returning, felt weak and far less than what we deserved from a final moment.
Having a poor finale doesn’t take away from what came before it. I still love this show as much as I always did. Episodes like ‘International Assassin’, ‘I Live Here Now’ and ‘The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)’ are so utterly divine to me that it borders on the me (ironically) viewing them as if they were some kind of bible. Equally, I adore the entire rest of the show.
It’s also true that finales are touchy subjects and that once your high expectations settle, you could look more fondly upon a finale once you view it again. I’ll certainly open to try a rewatch, one my ire has settled, but for now I have to trust my instincts (the same instincts that knew immediately that the above three episode were genius), which is sorely underwhelmed and more than a little injured by this mediocre ending to one of the greatest shows of all time.
Image credits: HBO