I’ve gone back and forth on HBO’s The Leftovers throughout its first season, which always felt like two shows forcefully pressed up against one another.
A lot of that has to stem from the two showrunners, Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, one a delicate writer fascinated by human emotion and the other a divisive bigwig famed for ambitious and baffling television. The Leftovers tried to deliver all the intrigue of Lost combined with the devastating impact of something like Rectify. Was it successful? Occasionally.
At its best, the show was able to balance the two styles, resulting in some truly incredible hours (my favorite is likely still “Guest”), but it wasn’t always an easy watch. I’m still bitter about “Gladys,” a punishing episode (I can never unsee that brutal death by stoning, but no satisfying reason has been given as to why such a shocking scene was important) with few redeeming qualities that likely cemented The Leftovers‘ reputation as the best feel-bad show on TV. And many of the season’s mysteries proved more frustrating than exciting.
Here we are, though, with “The Prodigal Son Returns,” a season finale with which I’m surprisingly satisfied. No, it doesn’t resolve all (or really any) of the big mysteries at the heart of this show. The National Geographic, whether Dean (totally AWOL here) is real, the dogs, Kevin’s sanity, the truth about Holy Wayne, the cause of the Sudden Departure – predictably, none of it gets explained. Lindelof and Perrotta even throw in one more mystery – Patti, dead by her own hand at the end of “Cairo,” is now apparently haunting Kevin’s dreams. Don’t expect answers anytime soon. Interestingly, though, at the end of this finale, all of those enigmas have never felt less important.
What “The Prodigal Son Returns” mostly manages to communicate is that The Leftovers is not about solving its essential mysteries. At its core, this is a show about grief, depression and how people keep on keeping on, even in times when the very fundamentals of living have been called into question. Mapleton, and what the Sudden Departure did to its citizens, is the real beating heart of The Leftovers.