This week Lost creator Damon Lindelof finished Season 2 of his redemption project, The Leftovers, in ways deeply resonant with the finale of Lost. If Lindelof has spent the last few years in purgatory paying for the latter's dissatisfying ending, many will argue penance has been made through Season 2 of The Leftovers. Spoilers ahead!
Like Lost, The Leftovers is not about gods or God, not about worship, nor even truth. It's not about what happened, but how human beings reckon with what happens all the time. In essence, The Leftovers is about why we do and do not do religion. If Lost spent five seasons building toward an origin story, then The Leftovers has spent the last two living from a departure story. What do we do when the unexplainable happens? Where do we go when nothing seems secure? Why do we feel the need to render ordinary the extraordinary departure of 140 million people (or 14 in an office building in San Bernardino, or 26 in an elementary school in Connecticut)?
As its disciples know, this season The Leftovers took us to Jarden, a paradise with no departures and thus rendered a modern day sacred space, America's axis mundi. Jarden was spared from the Departure, and now it is holy ground. Most of the season is spent amid the tension of whether or not there are miracles in Miracle (the state park surrounding Jarden). Is it a safe place--a place the philosopher Jacques Derrida might call "unscathed" by the wounds and tragedies inflicted on all other human places?
Nora would like to think so. After having her two children and husband depart, she is desperate to ensure it won't happen again (even New Yorkers don't pay 3 million for houses like that). When Kevin begins sleep walking, she secures him to the bed. In the process, she rejects any and all hints that there may be more departures, and refuses to entertain both natural and supernatural explanations of the Departure.
For Nora, Jarden is the place to cover over the wound of the sudden, the unexpected, the devastating. She wants nothing more than the assurance of being spared, even if she refuses to attribute such sparing to the divine. By contrast, the residents of Jarden have bought into the myth of their garden wholeheartedly. They re-enact the rituals that they now believe kept spared them from the Departure--rituals as arbitrary as wearing the same wedding dress every day to one's as carnal as sacrificing an animal in public spaces. Nothing symbolizes this more than Michael Murphy's steadfast faith, one strong enough to transform the dour Jill Garvey into a seeming well-balanced, smiling teenager.
For others, like Kevin, Jarden is enchanted but in all the wrong ways. Kevin's not a believer, but he's the only one of the main characters who talks to spirits. Whether he ventured to Purgatory or just went on a bad trip, we'll never know. And that's the point. The issue is not what happened, but how Kevin deals with it, and how we as the audience interpret it. From his perspective, Jarden is not a safe place, but a haunted one--a place of battle more than a sanctuary. Like the gang from Lost, Kevin and his family have made it to paradise but it's not turned out to be what they hoped for.
And just as Lost had its Big Bad in the Man in Black, The Leftovers has Meg. If Lost's Smoke Monster reminded us that the sacred is not always the good, then sometimes encounters with a violent and ascetic cult remind you that the sacred is not always the secure. The Guilty Remnant are diabolical, but they provide an essential component to the show's logic: when the unexplainable happens, both enthusiastically religious and vehemently anti-religious reactions often serve to conceal, rather than honor, memorialize, or sanctify the losses we've endured and the helplessness wrought by the unexplainable. As it turns out, much of the time we do religion and refuse religion for the same reasons: in order to forget, rather than remember; to hide rather than confront; to attempt misguidedly to secure ourselves from the insecurable rather than do the hard work of giving thanks, living aware of both the devastating pain and overwhelming joy of human life, and most of all, trying as hard as we can to make gardens (or homes) with those we love.
In this light, perhaps Evy's departure to the Guilty Remnant isn't so surprising, even if it remains hard to watch. Her full name is Evangeline, which is the Anglicized word for Gospel from Greek. In some perverted, nihilistic way, Evy returns to Jarden to deliver the Good News: Pretending that we are safe, or spared, or that we have answers to the unanswerable, is just as nauseating and cowardly as giving up on life altogether (which is what the Guilty Remnant have done). Unwavering certainty, along with hapless surrender, are both masks for nihilism.
Lindelof seems to have learned his lesson. Unlike the end of Lost, tonight's finale provided more questions than answers, even if he took us back to purgatory (anyone who has endured karaoke that bad can relate and even if we had a nice ending with the whole clan huddled together in their dark, imperfect home). And in doing so I wonder if he hasn't created a helpful vehicle whereby believers and non-believers might relate to each other. If The Leftovers teaches us anything, it's that there are no secure human gardens--no places where we are not vulnerable and where we won't have to confront the unexplainable. Even if we react differently to such situations, we share the temptation of reducing the extraordinary to something ordinary--of letting rituals like presidential speeches, announcements from law enforcement, and images of grieving loved ones prevent us from sanctifying, remembering, and honoring the departed by doing the hard work of creating better, if always imperfect gardens.