‘The Leftovers:’ How the main characters are stages of grief

“The Leftovers,” which aired its series finale on Sunday, was a show about a lot of things, but most notably it was a show about grief. In a world where 140 million people, 3 percent of the Earth’s population, suddenly vanish without a trace, it’s suddenly less distressing to witness a loved one die than it is to not know what happened to them, or where they are.

When Laurie and John are pretending that John has psychic abilities to talk to the dead, they never agree to talk to the Departed. As Laurie tells Nora in S3, Ep. 6, “death is easy. People just want finality, an end to their grief. But with departures, there is no end. And if we indicated otherwise by saying we were able to communicate with those individuals, it made their loved ones very angry, because they didn’t want closure.”

In the world of “The Leftovers,” grief is never-ending. People “don’t want closure” because that would indicate that what happened to their loved ones is definitive or explainable, like death. But grief comes in many forms, and the show’s third and final season shined a light on five of its main characters in a way that is reminiscent to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kevin Garvey, Sr. — Bargaining (Ep. 3: Crazy Whitefella Thinking) Kevin Garvey, Sr. spent the first season in a mental institution because he was seeing and hearing voices that weren’t there, something his son Kevin would later experience. In the second season, he is released and tells Kevin that he is heading to Australia. It’s not until the third season that we actually get a glimpse of what Sr. has been up to. He is convinced that the apocalypse is coming on the seventh anniversary of the Departure, and has spent three years learning the songs of the natives in order to prevent an apocalyptic flood.

He only needs one more song to “save the world” from a man named Christopher Sunday and he goes to great lengths to find him, only for Sunday to be killed in a freak accident. But then Sr. meets a woman named Grace, who is convinced that a police chief named Kevin is the second coming of Christ and can talk to her dead children, and then it clicks.

Sr. is willing to make the ultimate bargain — his son’s life, possibly — if it means saving the world. For Sr., he believes whole-heartedly that Kevin will be able to talk to Sunday on the other side and come back. But out of all the stages of grief, his desperation can only be perceived as bargaining.

All of the characters show some sense of desperation, and they all make their own bargains — and take their own drastic chances at happiness — in one way or another throughout the series. But Kevin Sr. might be the only character who’s not going to the extremes he does for himself, or his immediate loved ones. He’s trying to save the world, and when he slams a shovel over a suspecting police officer’s head, he doesn’t care; while he’s rotting away in a prison cell, he’ll know he was responsible for preventing the apocalypse.

Matt Jamison — Acceptance (Ep 5: It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World) It may be odd to say that Matt Jamison represents acceptance, as he spends the majority of the series not only caring for his vegetative wife, but taking desperate measures because he refuses to believe that she will remain that way forever. But in the case of Matt, a certain degree of denial is required for acceptance (as you’ll see below, the opposite could be said of his sister).

Matt’s caring for his wife is obviously noble and the right thing to do. But he takes it a step further in the second season when he comes to a town known as “Miracle” because nobody from their community vanished during the Departure. He believes that by bringing her there, his wife, Mary, will wake up. And she does.

It could also be argued that Matt is actually bargaining, but his desperation is trumped by his faith. As a priest, he accepts God. He accepts that the Departure not only took good people but the bad, as seen in the first season when he spent his time handing out flyers proving as such (and got some black eyes in the process). And at the end of the series, he accepts that his cancer has come back, and that he will die. Nora, his sister, calls it suicide because he refuses to see a doctor, and all Matt can say is “I deserved that.” If that’s not acceptance, I don’t know what is.

Laurie Garvey — Depression (Ep. 6: Certified) When we first meet Laurie Garvey, Kevin’s now ex-wife, in season 1, she is a member of a cult called the Guilty Remnant. They don’t speak. They wear all white, always. They chain smoke. And their primary mission is to be a constant reminder of the Departure. Laurie joined them because she felt she had nowhere else to turn to. In Sn. 3, Ep. 6, in the opening flashback sequence, it’s revealed that she tried to kill herself. In a last minute reverse decision, she pukes the pills back up, dons all white and joins the Remnant.

This scene puts Laurie’s past in perspective and it acknowledges something we knew but may not have known the extent of. Laurie, like everyone else, is not okay, and she was willing to kill herself because of it. As a former therapist, and someone whose husband and kids didn’t disappear in the Departure, this acknowledgement is even more jarring. Laurie, at least after she quit the cult, always seemed like she had the most sensible head on her shoulders out of anyone on this list. Aside from her sudden bursts of anger, she was routinely someone others could rely on. That makes what was bubbling beneath all the more tragic.

The sixth episode ends with her scuba diving, a callback to a conversation with Nora earlier in the episode that foreshadowed Laurie would drown herself but make it look like an accident. In the series finale, it’s subtly revealed that she must not have gone through with it, and came back to her now-husband John and kids. It’s a happy ending for the character, all things considered, for a character who always helped others who were feeling just as lost and confused as she was.

Kevin Garvey — Anger (Ep. 7: The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother)) It’s no secret that Kevin Garvey is an emotional character, and his most prolific emotion is probably anger. Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture wrote a brilliant review of the series finale where he also analyzes this penultimate episode focusing on Kevin, as he is thrusted into another action-spy thriller of his own manifestation after being drowned.

Seitz calls this “other side” Kevin goes to “an externalized version of an internal conflict that’s always driven Kevin, though it’s not always easy to see because he’s such a reactive, emotionally constipated character.” He notes that the apocalypse that ends this episode may signal the end of Kevin’s potential for happiness.

Kevin was always angry — angry at Laurie, angry at Nora, angry at the world — and every step he took towards happiness would be countered by two steps back. When season 3 begins, it appears that the characters are in a state of happiness. Kevin, for instance, has been reunited with his family and is a police chief again. But he is also asphyxiating himself every night. Kevin was constantly self-destructive, so it makes sense that in this world, he would manifest a scenario in which he destroys the world with nuclear weapons.

But, as Seitz points out, there was another side of Kevin (his “identical twin brother” in this scenario) that knew his own habits were destructive (the anger, the smoking, the drinking, etc.), and knew he must be stopped. These dual identities battle each other in this episode, a visual representation of Kevin’s internal struggle with himself.

Nora Durst — Denial (Ep. 8: The Book of Nora) It’s appropriate that the series would end on denial, rather than acceptance, because the show was never exactly about giving all the answers, hence season 2’s theme song that reminded us to “let the mystery be.” Despite that, though, the audience still gets closure to an extent, and the finale is a perfect ambiguous send-off to a series that was routinely ambiguous.

In the final scene of this episode, and the series, Nora tells Kevin that she went to where the Departed went. In this mirror reality, the Departed aren’t the Departed at all…they’re the ones who stayed. Meaning in this world, rather than 3 percent of the population vanishing, 97 percent of it did. That means that traveling is nearly impossible — there aren’t even enough people on the planet to have fully functioning airports. This seemingly accounts for the time jump in the finale, since it took Nora so long to find her family and then get back to her reality.

Nora says that when she finally finds her family, “they’re the lucky ones.” In Nora’s world, she lost her husband and two kids. But in this mirror world, they only lost her. And then she realized that she wasn’t meant to be their. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Nora was telling the truth. I’m not going to get into the specifics of why she may be lying (it’s open to interpretation: if you want it to be true, it’s true; if you don’t believe it, then you don’t). Rather, I’m going to specify how Nora represents denial.

First, Nora on several occasions denies her own capacity to lie. We’ve seen her lie again and again throughout the series, whether it’s less obvious lies like how she’s feeling on any given day, or more obvious ones like breaking her own arm. And in the series finale, she lies about being a liar (after calling out the nun for lying).

Also, Nora is always on the run — the ultimate form of denial. Whether it’s running from her past or running from loved ones, Nora pushes people away just as easily as she pulls them close. She runs from Kevin when he reveals that he’s been hallucinating and seeing a dead person. And if Nora’s final story is a lie, it means she isolated herself from everyone she knew out of guilt or embarrassment. It also means she denied herself a chance to possibly be reunited with her family out of fear. So she ran so she wouldn’t have to face others, and therefore her own decisions. The fact that Kevin believes her story in the end seems to give her peace of mind, something she wasn’t certain she’d find.

In the end, at least we as an audience found peace of mind with a stunning finale.

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