So, The Leftovers just ended and I feel like a hollow shell of myself.
The finale brimmed over the edge with symbolic imagery. While Nora’s arc came to a fairly straight-forward end, there’s much more to discern under the surface. Floods, doves, beads, and goats – what does it all mean?
Let’s break it down.
They Weren’t Wrong About the Flood, After All… At Least, Not Completely
The initial hook for this season was Matt’s prediction that something big would happen on the 7-year anniversary of the Departure, further complimented by Kevin Senior’s insistence that a flood was coming. Of course, the flood never came, and they were all left waiting on the roof for answers.
Or did it?
On the day of the anniversary, Nora committed to crossing over to find her children. Stripped to her most vulnerable, she locked herself in a chamber and waited for deliverance while it flooded with sci-fi water. This is the flood they’ve been building up to all season, and a moment that will be debated among fans for years to come.
This is later alluded to in a seemingly pointless scene, where Nora takes a bath and finds herself locked in the bathroom. Was this a reference to how trapped she felt in the radiation chamber? Did she yell for them to stop, and drown for a moment until the door opened? Or was the point that it wasn’t the breakthrough she needed? If that’s the case, could the same be said for Laurie and Kevin?
It’s interesting to note that our three main characters are left underwater before the jump to the future – Laurie diving, Kevin drowned in a tub, and Nora in the chamber.
Flood. Noah. Norah? Norah’s Arc. Ha.
Nora’s Arc of Lies and Stories
Nora has always been the most honest character on this show, to the point of practically vomiting her feelings to get them out. She was public and candid in dealing with losing her family, which rose her to infamy. In the first season, she happily handed Jill her purse over the dinner table to search for a gun, and announced to a stranger in a hallway that her departed husband had cheated on her. Valuing the truth is a core facet of her character.
This conclusion to her arc was set up meticulously in Don’t Be Ridiculous. After Miracle’s tower man fell to his death, his wife and Matt covered it up and told people he had departed. Nora simply couldn’t abide the horse-shit of all that, and went out of her way to dispel the illusion in the most gruesome way imaginable.
Don’t Be Ridiculous also set up that Matt is perfectly willing and capable of covering for someone to honor their legacy and wishes. Should Nora have changed her mind in the radiation chamber, it’s plausible that Matt would return to Jarden keeping her secret if she asked him to.
It’s hinted that her resolve has crumbled when the scientists continually insist that she doesn’t really want to use the machine. They call her a liar. The audacity of such an accusation enrages her so much that she chases them down to make them let her do it. Almost as if she’s more interested in proving them wrong, in maintaining her integrity, than in any actual interest in reuniting with her children.
As she approaches the chamber, she has flashbacks to the last moments with her children. They’re screaming, loud, out of control. These are not loving memories that a mother would recall on a walk like this. Not memories of the beach, that she so longingly shared in her first scene on the show. This is trepidation.
What it boils down to is that the line for Nora’s honesty is drawn at the loss of her children. When her family departed, it was a relief. She was craving independence, knew that her husband was cheating on her, found motherhood overwhelming. She wished them away, turned around, and they were gone.
This drove her to feel a tremendous amount of guilt, which could only be expressed as grief without bringing the world down on her. She’s been paying penance for the feelings she cannot share: asking hookers to shoot her, hiring a holy man to hug her pain away, or trying to start over by becoming a mother to Lily. Only to find, once again, she’s really not meant to be a mother. This inner battle only spiraled due to her resistance to lying, and explains a lot of her erratic behavior.
Nora found peace in running away, in starting a new life where she didn’t have to be the mother who lost her family. That peace shattered when Kevin arrived, representing Mapleton and the lies she ran away from. To face him was to face putting on a mask again, and she doesn’t want to lie any more.
That all changes when she confronts the nun for lying about her affair with the pastor. The nun explains, simply, “It makes for a nicer story.”
Nora’s known that she’s been telling a story the whole time, one of unending grief and loss. But she realizes it’s the wrong story to tell.
So she changes it. She tells Kevin that she went to the other side, found her family, and realized how happy they were. How lucky they were, to be one of the few who only lost one person. They weren’t her family any more, and she came back. Just like that, she no longer needs to pretend she grieves the loss of her family. She’s happy for them. If everyone else is satisfied with her story, she can finally move on. It’s a nicer story.
Doves of Peace, Sinful Beads (But Not the Kind From the Ferry)
In the wedding ceremony, they wore beads to represent their sins and placed them on a “scapegoat” to send into the wild. When Nora arrives, she firmly declines wearing any beads, and does not partake of the ceremony.
This ties in with her feelings of guilt for being relieved that her family had gone. That is her greatest sin, one that she ran away to Australia to avoid taking on, and one that she will not burden on anyone else. At this point, she’s simply refusing to acknowledge it exists.
At the end of the ceremony, they release the doves with notes of love to deliver to the world, and send the goat off. Of course, the doves are a pretty lie. They are trained to return to Nora, for her to dispose of the lies (in that way she’s always done) and send them off again. She doesn’t partake in the ceremony, just as she would not partake in the happy storytelling people have done for comfort since the departure.
But the doves don’t come back this time, as they have every other time that Nora’s felt at peace. Now that Kevin is there, her peace is disturbed. She must, once again, become the Nora that lost her whole family. She must face her own lies.
The common interpretation of the stuck goat scene is that the goat is Kevin, and she’s taking on his burdens. I don’t think it has anything to do with Kevin. It really is a scapegoat, and Nora has avoided dealing with it the whole series. When she frees the goat and takes on the beads, she’s finally, finally allowing herself to accept that she’s happy her family is gone and is ready to move on. She takes on the sins that have weighed her down.
When she returns home with the beads, she takes them off and drops them on a paper towel holder. This is a callback to Guest in season one, where she’s regularly restocking the kitchen for her departed family. The empty paper towel holder was her punishment – a constant reminder of the anger she felt toward them at the moment they departed.
The towel holder now full, she lays her sins upon them and washes herself clean.
Now that she’s bore her sins and laid them to rest, she’s able to appreciate the pretty lies wished away on her doves. And she’s ready to sit down with Kevin to tell him her new story. He believes her, and she never has to return to it. She’s at peace.
The doves return, and the goat leaves.
Laurie Lives and it’s the Most Bullshit Thing in The Leftovers
What would otherwise have been an incredible finale was derailed for me by the retconning of this season’s most powerful moment: Laurie’s suicide. Certified hit me hard. The emotions it inflicted on me, for a character I hadn’t cared much about one way or another, were overwhelming. If ever I had seen a graceful suicide – that was it.
Now here she is, answering flip phones, holding babies, and playing therapist. After an entire episode about Laurie letting go of trying to explain everything and just letting people be. What was the point? Not only did they back out of her suicide, but they backed out of her entire arc.
For the remainder of the episode, I desperately tried to justify an afterlife theory to account for her phone answering self and clung to anything that supported it. I felt pretty sure of myself, until reading the slew of end-of-series interviews with Damon Lindelof which basically confirm that:
- This isn’t another world
- Laurie didn’t kill herself
- Nora is lying
And I wish he wouldn’t have, because the finale is ambiguous enough for these interpretations. I really want to love it, but the fake out with Laurie cheapens the entire experience for me. What further angers me is that when they filmed the episode, she did kill herself. It wasn’t until editing and writing the final two episodes that they changed their minds. (Seriously read that article, though. Fascinating look into behind the scenes of the finale.)
I don’t know why it pisses me off so much, because I never cared much about Laurie in the first place. But I can’t let go of it, and it tarnishes an otherwise perfect finale.
The Afterlife Theory
If you are to ignore the multiple Lindelof interviews debunking it, you could easily interpret everything after the chamber as Nora’s afterlife experience.
After Nora’s submersion, you hear many tales about what’s happened to the main cast, but the only ones you actually see are Nora, Kevin, and Laurie. At our last point of seeing them:
- Nora was willingly drowning/vaporizing herself
- Kevin was willingly drowning himself
- Laurie was scuba diving, presumably to drown herself
Again, with the water/flood/drowning theme going on here. The point is, all three of them were in potentially suicidal situations. We’ve already established the possibility of alternate worlds with Kevin’s past experiences, so it isn’t far-fetched to believe that they’ve found their selves in an afterlife. In fact, Kevin’s “big heart attack” and scar could have been his ending in the hotel world, where he dug a key out of his chest to end any further revivals.
Every other theory still works, and Nora could still be lying. Or she could be telling the truth. Perhaps she crossed to the other side, but couldn’t come back. Either way, Laurie’s episode is not in anyway cheapened. Certified was a huge moment for me, and I think this is what I’ll choose to believe, despite the interviews saying otherwise.
“I’m Not Trying to Sell You Anything, It Just Makes for a Nicer Story”
It’s been covered that The Leftovers continually breaks one of the first rules of writing, and that is telling, rather than showing. They are happy to film a ten minute monologue instead of shooting a real flashback, and they get away with it every time. Patty tells the story about her cheating husband who likes to get pooped on. Nora breaks our heart with a beach ball at a stadium. Kevin Garvey Senior explains his journey in Australia.
It’s not about the details of the story or whether or not any of the details are true. It’s about what the story means to them.
Crazy shit happens, and our the strongest human inclination is to give those things meaning, regardless of the facts. Sometimes we need a nicer meaning than the truth. Your relative died because God needed them. You got fired from your job, because you’re meant for a different line of work. We don’t know where we came from, so God created us with a purpose. Matt needed to keep believing in God, so he moved to Miracle. They all needed something to believe in, so Kevin became the Messiah, or Holy Wayne hugged the pain away.
You needed an answer for the departure, so you believe Nora’s story.
You didn’t want an answer for the departure, so Nora is lying.
As I painstakingly structured this afterlife scenario to maintain my interpretation of Laurie’s episode, it struck me that I’m doing exactly what this whole series is about. That’s what all of us are doing, we who’ve finished the series and will be discussing it for years. We are giving our experience with the show meaning, and sharing it with each other.
That’s what made this show so beautiful.