Warning: contains spoilers for the series finale of “The Leftovers”.
HBO’s “The Leftovers” is in the vanguard of what is currently called “peak TV”, although “peak” does not necessarily mean “good”. Perhaps the phrase simply reflects the fact that we have more TV than ever to watch, all of it available through on-demand streaming services to fill those still, small gaps between extended work hours, helicopter parenting, and mandatory attendance of religious services at the glass-walled Crystal Cathedrals of public exercise. As our modern lives become increasingly leached of any purpose whatsoever, we demand that television serve as a meaning multivitamin, a significance supplement, swallowed once a week so we have something to talk about over the pagan sacrament of overpriced restaurant food.
The standard-bearer for “peak TV” is probably “Game Of Thrones,” that increasingly moronic and banal combination of softcore porn and a Medieval Times restaurant, but there are better and more interesting choices farther down your Netflix list. My long-time readers know how fond I was of David Simon’s Treme, the flawed but heartfelt tribute to New Orleans and its music. It didn’t last very long, unfortunately.
The only things that “The Leftovers” has in common with “Treme” are low ratings and a deliberately truncated run, but I’ve been a fan of the show over the last three seasons and it’s the only television program that I’ve bothered to watch away from my elliptical machine. This past Sunday’s series finale has been lauded for the elegance of its plotting and execution, but what I admired about it was this: the finale was absolutely, unfailingly true to the show’s oft-disguised but never abandoned central concept of narcissistic injury.
The “high concept” behind “The Leftovers” goes like this: One day, two percent of humanity simply disappears into thin air. There is no rhyme or reason to who is “chosen” or why. Old people disappear, adults with Down’s Syndrome disappear, football players disappear, fetuses disappear. The entire cast of the show “Perfect Strangers” disappears with the exception of Mark-Linn Baker, something that is played for laughs several times before becoming the deadly serious key to the series resolution.
This one-in-fifty loss doesn’t throw much of a wrench into human existence; after all, we are already losing about one in one hundred people every year to death by natural and unnatural causes. Rather, it’s the narcissistic injury posed by the “Sudden Departure” that manages to unhinge just about everybody. Faced with an utterly inexplicable phenomenon, most people fill in the blanks with the deranged products of their own ego. The term “heroes” is uncomfortably adapted to refer to the Departed, although there seems to be no common thread of heroism. Faced with the potential of additional Departures, teenagers adjust by cranking up the casual sex and risky behavior. Other people invest in quack “protections” against a future Departure. A cult arises based on the idea that life has zero meaning after the Departure and that the old ideas of family, loyalty, and love have become worthless. But virtually every human being on earth seems to take the event quite personally.
The brilliance of “The Leftovers” is that it never drifts from that personal focus. The major issues of the Departure are never addressed, any more than “Forrest Gump” attempts to address the causes of the Vietnam war. Early in the third season, in the “cold open” of one episode, a mentally ill fanatic manages to hijack a nuclear submarine and launch its missiles. Finally, the viewer thinks, things are going to get serious. Instead, we find out that the net effect of a nuclear detonation in the Pacific Ocean has been… to cancel a flight for one of the characters.
Most of that third season is spent building up to whatever catastrophe will happen on the seventh anniversary of the Departure, but when the fated day comes it turns out that precisely nothing happens. Instead, the show kicks a few decades into the future so we can find out what happened to the show’s main characters… and find out what happened to the people who Departed all those years ago.
There were two easy choices for the show’s writers at this point. They could have Explained It All. (It was aliens! It was God!) Or they could have done what the producers of “The Sopranos” did and simply ended the show with no further explanation. Thankfully, they did neither. Instead, we get a long monologue from one of the primary characters about what happened to her on the seventh anniversary of the Departure.
The character of Nora Durst, played with heartfelt and convincing anguish by Gone Girl co-star Carrie Coon, lost her two children and husband in the Sudden Departure. In the first season, she’s a grief-stricken suicidal ideator who clutches at a relationship with her town’s police chief. In the second season, we find her moving heaven and earth (almost literally) to protect herself against the next Departure whenever it arrives. But in the third season, Mark Linn-Baker arrives and presents her with a curious deus ex machina; her children can’t come back, but there’s a physicist who says that he can send her after them.
We are well-prepared for this machine to be yet another fraud or misdirection, just like everything else we’ve seen in the first two seasons, and when we see Nora scream just as the machine is about to “send her away” at the beginning of the season finale we assume that she’s changed her mind and chickened out. Fast-forward a few decades, and we find Nora Durst living in rural Australia, so we are absolutely certain that she chickened out. But then she tells a story: The machine was real. She used it. She went to where her kids were. They were in the two percent world.
At that moment, the viewer realizes that he’s been playing a game of three-card monte with the show’s producers and losing badly. For thirty-some episodes, we’ve fallen into that same narcissistic trap as everybody in the show. We assumed that the Departed went somewhere, just because that’s how it looked to the protagonists. But Nora explains that there was actually a split of sorts. Ninety-eight percent of humanity went one way, and two percent went another.
“They don’t have planes over there any more,” Nora says, and in that brief phrase we glimpse an idea of how hellish it must have been to have ninety-eight percent of humanity disappear from around you. If you were on a commercial flight, or on the freeway, or on the operating table, chances are that you didn’t make it. Who brought in the crops? Who kept the nuclear plants from melting down?
The two percent world moves slowly, and it’s mostly overgrown by plants, but Nora Durst went to see her family. They didn’t need her. They’d moved on. She’d spent seven years obsessing over them, but they were “the lucky ones”, having transferred to the two percent world together. (Presumably, the cast of “Perfect Strangers” was also feeling good about what had happened.) There is a strong suggestion in Nora’s monologue that the people in the two percent world, who suffered an authentic and unimaginable tragedy, are holding it together better than the people in the ninety-eight percent world.
Nora explains that got the physicist, who had gone before her, to send her back to the ninety-eight percent world. And right there we have a neat and tidy little lesson from the three-season run of “The Leftovers”: Get over yourself. No matter what has happened to you, other people have survived worse. Not everything requires the maximum possible emotional and/or dramatic response.
It’s so compelling, and so well-argued, that I once again fell for the three-card monte game and assumed that Nora’s story was true. But as several critics have pointed out, in the distinctly non-magical world of “The Leftovers” it is far more likely that she made the whole thing up. We know that Nora is a definite borderline personality and that she is prone to obsessive and deceptive behavior. Why should this be any different?
Perhaps to hammer home that point, the series finale opens with the second season theme song: “Let The Mystery Be”. Is there really a two percent world? We will never know.
Away from the show, however, I think it is useful to adopt the idea of the Two Percent World. Most of us are conditioned by upbringing or habit to take personal offense at pretty much everything. It’s a miserable way to live and rarely does it reflect objective reality. None of us is that important. So the next time I suffer a narcissistic injury at the hands of a fellow driver, airline passenger, or restaurant-goer, I’m going to say “Two Percent World” to myself under my breath. Chances are that the situation is not really about me and that I’ll feel better if I just let my aggravation fade away. I won’t always be successful in doing so, but take a note from “The Leftovers”: even a small percentage can make a difference.