illustration by Tony Stella
In the face of apocalypse, priorities change. Or, don’t change so much as crystallize into their truest forms. This makes sense—apocalypse derives its name from a Greek term: “an uncovering.” Impending cataclysm strips away routine to expose what matters most underneath. It makes you think, what is essential? replaceable? expendable?
We’ve thus far averted the kind of apocalypse that dominated the Cold War imagination—total nuclear annihilation, an entire planet decimated—and as a result, contemporary understandings of the end of the world are often less about surviving a singular apocalypse than living with a constant one. Today we exist against a backdrop of ongoing and inexorable loss, precipitated by wars, climate change, pandemics. In principle, apocalypse might imply a clean, sudden ending, but in practice, it’s a drawn-out and uneven descent.
I can think of few works of art that understand this better than HBO’s The Leftovers. The three-season series begins with an apocalyptic event in which 2% of the world’s population disappears—poof, gone. Some interpret this event, called the Departure, as a kind of rapture, but this attempt at meaning-making struggles to hold up against the seemingly random assortment of “the Departed,” which includes babies, politicians, the Pope, and Gary Busey. Equally inexplicable is the uneven distribution of loss. In Mapleton, New York, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) counts herself as a statistical anomaly: her husband and two children all vanish in the Departure, leaving her behind, alone and grief-stricken. Across town, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) must not only safeguard a community in distress but also confront newfound rifts in his own family, as his wife, plunged into existential crisis by the Departure, deserted him and their teenage daughter.
Nora and Kevin are both technically spared, but the world as they knew it has ended; in its place, a more frightening one has been exposed—uncovered—and they must now live in it, desultory and powerless, subject to cosmic whims. There’s no recourse to the Departure. One can only mourn and carry on, harboring the fear that, at any moment, it could happen again. The Leftovers is ostensibly about this mass disappearance and its ramifications, but co-creator Damon Lindelof sees the Departure more as the show’s setting than its subject. “This is really just a love story between Kevin and Nora,” he said of The Leftovers in a 2017 interview. Over the course of 17 years and two continents, Kevin and Nora find, love, lose, forgive, and reclaim each other.
Their beginnings are unassuming: they first speak at the Mapleton Christmas Ball, a quaint community dance held at their local high school. Nora is sitting in the hallway by her old locker when Kevin, walking past, stops to ask if she’s “all danced out.” “Just taking a break,” she replies, “before my stunning finale.” To call the relationship that eventually blossoms between them romantic feels reductive; the care and connection between them is too profound, too visceral. As charming as their meet-cute is, the true depth of their partnership is revealed once that partnership implodes.
The implosion takes place halfway through the series’ final season. It’s been seven years since the Departure, and adherents to a specific Biblical interpretation are predicting that on the Departure’s seventh anniversary, an apocalyptic flood will decimate the earth. Meanwhile, Nora is investigating a mysterious Australian organization, which claims to have invented a machine that can transport you to wherever it is that those who departed went. One night Kevin and Nora have it out over her obsession with the rumored machine.
“How long, Nora?” Kevin asks. “How long before you move past it?”
“Move past what?” She knows the answer; she just wants him to say it out loud.
“That you lost your kids.”
“I did not lose them,” she cries. “My kids are not dead. They are gone. They are just gone.”
“Then you should go be with them,” he spits at her, his voice sodden with cruelty.
It’s an unforgivable slight, but, after so many years spent in mourning, an irresistible proposition. Nora deserts Kevin to find the makers of the machine and attempts to reunite with her family. She understands the risk but can’t live with the grief and uncertainty any longer; she has to go. Her attempt will probably be fruitless, maybe even fatal. She does it anyway—at least she’ll have tried.
We join Nora when finally she enters the machine. She’s naked and alone as she squeezes herself into a glass chamber, assuming a fetal position inside the womb-shaped vessel. An operator’s voice echoes overhead, accompanied by a bright, white light: “We’re going to begin, Nora.” Then a cold beeping sound, the whir of machinery, and a rush of clear liquid filling the chamber, engulfing Nora slowly. It’s at her ankles, then her elbows, now her shoulder. About to reach her chin. She tilts her head up and opens her mouth—to hold her breath, to scream, to ask the operator to stop? We never find out. A smash cut keeps us from learning what happens next.
We do, however, learn the outcome of the predicted apocalypse: the flood doesn’t come. The seventh anniversary passes uneventfully. Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” plays as Kevin, now abandoned by Nora, looks out onto dry land the morning after: “Why does the sun go on shining? / Why does the sea rush to shore? / Don’t they know it’s the end of the world? / ‘Cause you don’t love me any more.” The sun is out and sea contained, but the world—Kevin’s world—has still ended. Apocalypse doesn’t always mean global annihilation; emotional annihilation is a small apocalypse too.
Often I engage in what I’d call apocalyptic thinking—living each day, as they say, like it is the last. I turn to apocalyptic thinking not to condone debauchery, but rather to excuse my more undignified emotional impulses. I think, what good is a grudge when the world is ending? Why choke back all the love I feel, just to prove a point? So I chase the ones who don’t care for me, take back the ones who have hurt me, over and over, because I see no reason to deny myself a good feeling in the present to avoid imminent pain. No sense in taking preventative measures when there’s no future to prevent.
The Leftovers has been described by critics as a nihilistic series, and the sense that nothing matters is indeed baked into the premise: if at any time those you love can just disappear, what’s the use in building relationships? Emotional investment feels pointless with no promise of payoff. Relationships also require hard work, compromise and concession—is that how you want to spend what could be your precious little time on earth? And yet the constant threat of disappearance also makes forgiveness all the more paramount. If at any time a relationship can end, shouldn’t you do all you can to ensure it’s on the best possible terms? Why am I withholding forgiveness, I think, if this person could vanish tomorrow? The philosophy of The Leftovers lands somewhere in the middle. The show concurs that life has no inherent meaning, so fuck it—join a cult, move to a new town, take a sex cruise, go scuba diving. But it also makes two competing claims: that other people are mostly what gives life meaning; and that, despite guaranteed loss, we have to invest in them anyway.
The series finale of The Leftovers takes place 10 years after Kevin and Nora’s blowout fight. Nora, nearly unrecognizable, is living under a different name in a remote Australian town. Her life is small and quiet until one day Kevin shows up at her door. He appears to suffer some kind of amnesia: he doesn’t remember their romance or separation, only their first encounter. He recognizes her as an old neighbor, nothing more. He’s on vacation here, he says, and he saw her on her bike. He invites her to a dance in town.
One facet of apocalyptic thinking is the conviction that you’ll regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do. That, when the world and/or your life come to an end, you won’t be able to forgive the opportunities missed and chances untaken. As he nears the final stretch of his life, Kevin adopts this same outlook. At Nora’s door in Australia, he delivers a gentle entreaty:
I don’t know if you remember me…We don’t know each other really well. We only talked a couple times, really. There was this dance, a Christmas dance at the high school. We just had a really nice conversation in the hallway. I don’t expect you to remember…I saw that they were having a dance in town tonight. And when I saw you riding your bike, it reminded me—how I had always wished I had asked you to dance. Anyway, I know it sounds crazy, but I felt a connection. So, you know, here we are in the middle of nowhere bumping into each other, and I’m only here for the night, and I figured, you know, if I didn’t ask you to dance tonight—I’ll never forgive myself.
Reluctantly, she goes. The gathering turns out to be a wedding. Kevin and Nora dance under strings of golden lights, her face in his neck, his face in her hair, their eyes closed and cheeks pressed together. They sway to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” that warm, crackly voice crooning overhead: “Dream one day, I wanted to be with you / But you were so far away, an airplane couldn’t reach you / But I dreamed that you got the message.” She asks him again how he found her. He repeats the same story: he’s on vacation in Australia, he saw her on her bike. Suddenly she flees the dance floor, overwhelmed by the knowledge that this moment they’re sharing, unhindered by the past—“It’s not true.”
The next day, Kevin finds Nora and drops the amnestic act—he remembers, of course he remembers. “When I saw you, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “But I didn’t know what to say, or where to start, and so I just thought, Oh fuck it, I’ll erase it. Just erase it all and maybe that would give us another chance. But you were right. It’s not true.” He explains: he’s used up all his vacation days every year for a decade coming to “fucking Australia” to look for her because “I was so sure you were still alive, even though everyone else in the world said that you were fucking dead.” He resents not only her abandonment but her silence in the interim.
Nora calmly invites him in for tea, over which he asks what happened when she entered the machine all those years ago. She tells him: She crossed over to the parallel dimension where all of the departed now live. “Over here, we lost some of them,” she explains. “But over there, they lost all of us.” She recounts her journey: a boat ride from Australia to New York, the discovery of her family, and the realization that she had been replaced by another woman. ”I understood that here in this place, they were the lucky ones,” she says. “In a world full of orphans, they still had each other.” So she left, finding a physicist to build a machine to return her safely to the other side.
By now, Nora and Kevin have each taken extreme measures to recover the loved ones they’ve lost: Nora risked her life to find her family, who were ripped from her, and Kevin dedicated a decade to finding Nora, who chose to leave him. (Which is better: having someone ripped away or knowing someone left by choice? One makes the world seem cruel and indifferent; the other makes other people seem cruel and indifferent. Both are largely but not perpetually true.) I struggle to pinpoint where exactly recovery efforts cross over from romantic to pathetic, but I know Nora and Kevin’s individual journeys are both extraordinarily romantic. Maybe this is because they know that they could never forgive themselves if they did not, at the very least, try. That if everything ended tomorrow, they’d know they did their best.
One drawback to this kind of apocalyptic thinking is that the world doesn’t actually end. There is and has always been, at least at the time of this writing, a tomorrow to wake up to, where the consequences of yesterday’s decisions reveal themselves. The sun goes on shining, the sea rushes to shore. Sometimes I wish I’d been more prophylactic about avoiding pain: that I didn’t send that text, didn’t make that call, didn’t get that drink, didn’t put myself repeatedly into situations that felt good in the moment and caused pain thereafter. But other times I see my apocalyptic thinking is prophylactic in a different sense, as a way to prevent regret.
As Nora recounts her story over tea, the camera stays tight on her face, no flashbacks or cutaways to illustrate her words. Without evidence, should we believe her? How can we?
“Did I wanna be with you Kevin?” she finally says. “Of course I did. But so much time had passed. It was too late. And I knew that if I told you what happened that you would never believe me.”
“I believe you,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.”He takes her hand and a decade’s worth of distance and indignation dissipates. Her shame, his anger, their mutual regret—all of it, gone. He takes her at her word. Why wouldn’t I believe you? It’s the ultimate act of forgiveness, a declaration that the past is only relevant insofar as it needs to be. The present moment, 10 years in the making, is all that can matter in the face of so much lost time. From across the table, they join hands and smile. Pan out and fade to black. A stunning finale.