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The Leftovers concludes its riveting first season with a heartbreaking and surprisingly hopeful final episode. “The Prodigal Son Returns” is an appropriately ambiguous ending that offers no concrete answers to the many mysteries and oddities of this particular universe while still remaining completely emotionally engaging and somehow satisfying.
Picking up where the show’s present-day storyline dropped off in “Cairo”, the finale unfolds its narrative in unexpected ways. Early on in the episode we get to see glimpses of the Guilty Remnant’s Memorial Day plan, which has been teased in the last few episodes. Seeing Nora’s devastating reaction upon seeing the replicas of her family sitting at the dinner table is incredibly impactful and artfully realized. The lack of sound makes it that much more intense, Carrie Coon’s flawless reaction is everything we need to understand her turmoil as well as the anguish of many others who might be suffering through the same experience. There is no need to go around the town and drop in on other people’s reactions. This choice not only intensifies the experience but also avoids any mawkishness or cloying melodrama, which could have easily been the case.
And instead of showing an immediate aftermath or the build up to the insanity of the episode’s final scenes, it just cuts to Kevin’s story and doesn’t revisit the town until he makes his return. Much like the way the actual series handled the aftermath of the Disappearance, we are left to fill in the blanks in the narration. Once we see the devastation and the utter chaos Mapleton has undergone, it isn’t hard to imagine how exactly things escalated to such a state. Despite not being shown every detail of the escalation, the intensity of the event is fully communicated and hits hard in a visceral way.
It isn’t necessarily frustrating when the episode cuts to Kevin and Matt and follows them for an extended period because by know we are totally invested in each character’s individual story. Let’s face it, Kevin is at the center of the narrative and this finale is as much about him as an individual as it is about the town of Mapleton. We have followed his experience much closer than any other character and have gone through his struggles along with him. Plus it is truly compelling to follow Kevin in his many misadventures, both in his ‘real’ life and his dream state. There is something to be said about how the dream sequence doesn’t feel like a cop out.
It starts out feeling like the events are really happening, we would buy that Matt would turn him in to a hospital and even though the events are bizarre and slightly off, it doesn’t feel entirely out of the realm of possibilities. Even when Patti appears and starts talking to Kevin, it could somehow be happening, whether as a manifestation of Kevin’s insanity or as an actual mystical being (the show has given enough hints or allusions to the possibility of spiritual forces for it to be an actual likelihood). When it turns out to be a dream it is jarring and disorienting for a moment, but it eventually gives way to relief on our part and Kevin’s. And while those events didn’t really take place, they are meaningful and certainly resonate deeply within Kevin. This might have given him the impetus to talk so honestly with Matt and eventually have that connection with Wayne.
In a quintessential Leftovers move, Kevin finds a dying Wayne in the bathroom and; in a way they both give each other the hope the other one needs in that moment. It seems that Wayne is as much in the dark as we are about his alleged ‘abilities’ and asks Kevin to make a wish so he could grant it. Though we are never really told whether or not Wayne was able to ‘hear’ and grant Kevin’s wish, Wayne certainly appeared to have heard it and it made his last few moments alive a semi-pleasant experience. Whether or not he is ‘magical’, has grand delusions concerning his abilities or is simply lying to himself doesn’t really matter. As for Kevin, this encounter seems to have given him some hope or a desire for a new outlook. If we assume that his wish was to have his family back it seems to have been granted by the episode’s closing scene. Sure, it is not exactly his family before the Disappearance, more like a band of misfit toys, but they could make it work somehow.
Season one of The Leftovers has told an impressively tight and cohesive story making for a near perfect season of television. There is a sense of completion to the narrative, the emotional threads seem to be wrapped up, so it is incredibly hard to see or predict where the story will go from here now that we know that there will be a second season. Though this would be a perfect one-season show, I look forward to spending more time with these fascinating characters.
What did you think?