The Evil of Meaning: Fragments on The Leftovers


“The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary.”
– Franz Kafka

In Maurice Blanchot’s piece, “Instant of My Death,” the narrator recalls a young man nearly killed in the last days of World War II. A band of soldiers knock on his door in the French countryside and take him outside, where the lieutenant orders the young man’s execution. Before the firing squad can obey their orders, they suddenly move along, distracted by an explosion from some nearby battle. Despite being spared by chance in this moment of near death, a feeling of dread occupies the narrator: “I am alive. No, you are dead.” Jacques Derrida comments succinctly on Blanchot’s short story, “The accident of near death becomes, in the instant the man is released, the accident of a life he no longer possesses.”

There is a similar sense pervading and occupying the characters and the world of The Leftovers. The show, which aired its third and final season from the end of spring and into the summer of 2017, depicts a world navigating post-Departure life. The “Sudden Departure” is the name given the apocalyptic, rapture-like event in which 140 million people vanished without a trace. The rest of the world is left amidst this shattering loss. Most of the characters in The Leftovers witnessed someone (or many) disappearing right before their eyes, and in this way—although they don’t know if the dearly departed are dead or perhaps enjoying some other, heavenly existence—the Departure enacts a sort of global, near-death experience. The characters in The Leftovers don’t seem to belong to themselves any more, living lives they no longer possess. The Departure is omnipresent, felt everywhere, and yet there’s a sense in which the characters are counting down the days until (and praying for) yet another apocalypse—one that would finally put their grief, pain, and questions to rest.

This waiting is felt most especially during the last season of The Leftovers, because the world is counting down to what many fear may be the last day. October 14th, the seven-year Anniversary of The Sudden Departure. Seven. A very biblical number. Will this be the end? Will the Departure happen again? Will there be some sort of second coming? Is Gary Busey coming back? Have these been the years of Trial? Of Tribulation? Will the meaning of all this suffering finally be revealed? How long, O Lord?

Though the Departure is felt throughout the entire show, what I love about The Leftovers—and the reason it won’t let me go, why I can’t stop thinking about it—is that it was never a show about why the Departure happened. Instead, The Leftovers critiques the search for “why” at the intersection of suffering, meaning, and faith.


Kevin Garvey, Jr. (Justin Theroux) is just trying to keep Miracle, Texas under control until the apocalypse blows by. Nora (Carrie Coon), his partner, receives an offer, a chance to see her Departed children again. Despite her skepticism, she can’t seem to resist. Her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a devout priest, believes Kevin is special, a Messiah, and must be in town to fulfill his role in the Divine Plan on the 14th. Together with John and Michael (Kevin Carroll and Jovan Adepo), he’s written a book, a new gospel, testifying to the miracles of Kevin’s life. Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn) is backpacking across Australia in search of Christopher Sunday, an aboriginal rumored to possess the last song Kevin needs to collect, learn, and sing on D-Day to prevent the impending flood. Laurie (Amy Brenneman), former therapist, and Kevin’s ex-wife, just wants everyone back home instead of galavanting off to Australia, but she’ll do what she can along the way.

Laurie despairs because, even though all she wants for those closest to her is safety and health, she knows she can’t rid them of their illusions; the very idea of being safe at home is an illusion in a world where 140 million people can instantaneously disappear for no apparent reason. Pick your poison, choose your fantasy. In the world of those left over, the delusion of a safe and static existence was shattered seven years ago.

Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” tells the story of a man from the country who seeks entry into the law. Before the law sits a gatekeeper, and although the gate is open, he tells the man he cannot grant him entry at the moment, but allows him to sit on a stool in front of the gate. The man sits and waits by the gate for years, doing everything he can to win over the gatekeeper, in order to gain access beyond the gate. But the gatekeeper keeps him waiting. Growing older, he eventually loses his sight. As the man nears his death, he waves the gatekeeper closer, to speak to him one last time:

“What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.”

“Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going to close it.”

At the end of the third season, Nora climbs atop her roof, watching and waiting for something. She’s grown old, and used to living alone, so she’s surprised when Kevin finds her. The last time they’d seen each other they’d argued in a hotel room, before parting ways and leaving the other to their own impossible pursuits: Nora to reunite with her Departed family, and Kevin to fulfill his destiny as the Messiah. Kevin has spent years searching for Nora, and wonders where she’s been.

So Nora, the skeptic, tells Kevin a very tall tale. An incredible story. Her final, engrossing monologue illustrates how even the most cynical among us have a story we use to make sense of the world. The realist might not be so different from the believer. Of course Kevin believes Nora’s story; he’s no stranger to the fantastical. Whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter, because it’s real to Nora.

But let’s consider the content of Nora’s testimony for a moment. Let’s assume it’s true that Nora passed through the gates to the other side, to the place that would offer answers to all of her insatiable questions. On the other side, she finds a world very much like our own, only emptier. “Here on our side we lost some of them, but over there, they lost all of us.” Nora recounts an incredible adventure in which she improbably finds her children and husband happy with another woman, having stitched together what fragments were left to them to create a new life. They lost but they kept on living. Norah traveled there to find wholeness, but instead finds another world full of loss, not so different from her own. The site of Ultimate Truth is revealed to be empty—it’s just as afflicted with loss as the world she came from, perhaps even more so.

The man from the country is granted access to the law, the site of Ultimate Truth, and finds the same world he came from, only emptier.


A List of Things I Heard at 12:15 PM, November 14, 2016:

An afternoon breeze
Music from the radio
The roar and hum of my car on a state route
The brisk wind of rural Ohio
The screech of slamming breaks
The blare of a car horn, a semi horn
The explosion of metal-on-metal
Car doors shutting
Footfalls sprinting, pattering on concrete
Shouting: “Go check on that one!”
Hissing from a car engine
My own voice: “Are you hurt?”
Shattering glass, being stepped on
“Could I have my glasses?” from the teenager in a crumpled car
A ringtone
A voice from the phone: “Don’t try to get him out.”
“Could I have my glasses?”
The sound of still air—the sound of the spaces in between
A stranger: “Lady in the minivan—she was gone before any of us got to her”
“Could I have my glasses?”
Sirens of ambulances and police cars, even the violent whirring of landing helicopter blades
“Teenagers lookin’ too much at their damn phones.”
“People go so fast on this road. It’s difficult to get into our driveway. So many accidents.”
My own silence

One Thing I Saw:

A pair of glasses on the side of the road amidst broken glass, after I’d given the police an obligatory eyewitness statement. Because the ambulances had already ferried the teenager away, I took them.

About two weeks later, I found Jeremiah Burden on Facebook. I’d seen his name in an online news report. I told him I’d found his glasses the day of his car accident, November 14th, 2016, and asked him if he wanted me to return them. I figured I should, especially since he’d kept asking for them that day, but for some reason I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep them. They’d become strangely, and embarrassingly, special to me.

Although I never put on Jeremiah’s glasses, they allowed me to see how truly attached we are to our own traumas. We like to carry our suffering with us, to keep it close, to wrap it around us like a favored blanket, because our traumas define who we are more than our conscious desires—indeed, it’s often our trauma, our wounds and losses that give shape to those very desires. To experience trauma—to lose something—sets us on a path toward regaining or redeeming whatever it is we’ve lost, and we assume that the redemption is what we desire, when in fact it was the trauma that set us down that path in the first place. So we end up making a dear friend out of our suffering, because who would we be without it?

The Leftovers builds on this idea in a scene where the doctor confronts Nora about shutting a car door on her own arm, in order to break it. “Now why on earth would I do that?” she asks—even though she had, in fact, broken her own arm to cover up embarrassing tattoos. Later, in one of the (most overtly-symbolic) scenes from the final episode, Nora frees a literal scapegoat from bondage by taking the binds and placing them around her own neck. She is tied to the past, and works hard to keep it this way. And she’s not the only one keeping her pain close. Matt loves inhabiting the spot of the suffering servant, sacrificing everything to fulfill his purpose. Kevin tells Laurie he’s “never felt so alive” as when he’s allowed to occupy the role of a Messiah who must die, in order to hold off the apocalypse.

We love to suffer, because suffering helps us make sense of the world. We like to imagine that we suffer for a reason, that there’s some Divine Plan behind it all. So we often find ourselves sitting before the law our whole lives, never gaining entry but waiting nonetheless. What we, as well as those left over, struggle or refuse to see is that there may be no reason at all for our suffering.

A few days later, I rang Jeremiah Burden’s doorbell. We chatted awkwardly, and when I handed him the glasses he said they weren’t his. Apparently they were just another pair of glasses along the side of the road. He asked if I wanted to keep them, but they lost all meaning and significance to me in that moment. I told him to throw them away, and left. As far as I know Jeremiah never found his glasses.


Although The Leftovers critiques many answers to the problem of pain, I can’t help but sense an undercurrent of faith beneath the show. While many of us might fail to notice if God showed up on our doorstep, The Leftovers gives us Matt Jamison, who opens the door and wrestles God to the ground.

Matt transforms before our eyes, from a man putting the world on trial to a man putting God on trial. Matt was convinced that those who disappeared must have Departed for a reason—namely, hidden sinful behavior—and sought to proselytize this truth by exposing the moral failings of the Departed. In season three, he ties a man who claims to be God down to a wheelchair, interrogating him on behalf of the world for his sins against humanity. He subsequently experiences the death of God twice: (1) upon realizing his faith, work, and suffering were all gestures in benefit of his own eternal self-interest, and encountering the impotence and powerlessness of his God, and (2) upon witnessing a lion, with a religious cult following, maul the man who claims to be God.

Although his reason for living, his sense of ultimate meaning, crumbles, there remains within Matt a faith that I admire. It takes a certain faith to interrogate your God, or to continue on when life-as-you-know-it is shattered by an event that renders it life-as-you-knew-it. Sometimes, it takes a certain faith just to wake up and get out of bed in the morning.

The man from the country sat before the law and eventually went blind, but when Matt’s God is lying dead before him, he’s finally able to take a clear and honest look around. He no longer sees pawns in a Divine Plan, but rather a sister who is hurting and running away, neighbors who will follow anyone who provides some kind of answer, and himself: cancer-stricken, sick, chasing significance so fervently that his wife has taken their only child and left. But then a strange and wonderful thing happens. Without the burden of ultimate meaning, or his suffering, Matt is finally able to commit to those around him. Abandoning his pursuit, Matt chooses to be with his sister as she embarks on her own journey to the other side.

This commitment—this care for another—is a faith worth pointing toward.

So, what is this show trying to say? All metanarratives are evil? Faith inevitably breeds fools? Religion is the antagonist? Institutions and snake-oil salesmen (the Holy Wayne’s) of the world will always prey on the weak? What, exactly, is the lesson here? Just go ahead and subscribe to whatever works for you? Give up on meaning? God is dead? God is unconscious? Despair? Nihilism?

If The Leftovers critiques man’s search for meaning, isn’t seeking the “meaning” of The Leftovers ultimately failing to grasp it (or to let it grasp you)?


The philosopher Walter Benjamin tells his own version of a well-known Jewish parable concerning the Kingdom of the Messiah:

“The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

How can the “Kingdom of the Messiah”—that is to say, a better, more perfect world—be just as it is now, while also being “just a little different”? The Leftovers’ final scene provides us with a glimpse of this. Nora has shared her story, her testimony, and once again, just as in the hotel room all those years ago, Kevin and Nora are face to face with the other’s pursuit of ultimate meaning.

But this time, instead of pushing her away, Kevin says he believes her. Each bear the scars of all they’ve lost. Neither accomplishes any act that redeems the other. Nora’s revelations from beyond don’t change anything. In fact, nothing changes at all. There is only an acceptance of what is, and accepting each other in their brokenness. This takes faith—not the kind grounded in one’s own pursuit of meaning, but rather in commitment to the other. No more running away. They can traverse alternate realities, die and resurrect several times over to try and find the Truth, to make whole what was lost. Despite these fantastical gestures, Kevin and Nora once again find themselves in a room, faced with the most difficult task of all: loving the other in their lack and irreparability.

We tell ourselves that finding the Kingdom of the Messiah, if it’s possible at all, must be difficult, must take some great amount of suffering. It’s easier to love our suffering than to love one another. It’s easier to pursue meaning in the “out-there-somewhere” that might redeem me than to continue on with life here—when in fact the most difficult task of all might be to imagine that the Kingdom of the Messiah isn’t that far away.

This is the journey of The Leftovers: ending up back where we’ve always been. Everything is just as it is. Just a little different.