This article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of HBO’s The Leftovers.
A few years ago, a close friend of mine—a youth minister on his way home from a mission trip—died in a tragic car accident. His wasn’t a martyr’s death, nor a long-fought battle against illness. It was swift. The call to pray for him came at 11 that night, and a couple of hours later came news of his passing. My prayers (or lack thereof) felt meaningless, his death purposeless. My friend was gone, and I’d been left behind.
For the Christian, death is never final. Paul himself euphemizes the death of saints as “falling asleep,” and death is filled with purpose as those in Christ await resurrection on the Last Day. Such hope and truth, however, may be difficult to believe for the friends and family left in the wake of death’s throes. It is the tension of the now and not yet, of knowing spiritual truth but wrestling to believe it—a whisper of doubt that asks, “What if there is no purpose in loss?”
Such is the case in the HBO series The Leftovers, created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (the latter of whom also penned a novel by the same name). Now in its third season, The Leftovers is about a Rapture-like event in which two percent of the world’s population disappears. This “Sudden Departure” happens swiftly, and is a seemingly random, meaningless event void of the spiritual significance found in popular Christian accounts of a Rapture. There is no logical or spiritual reasoning that can make sense of the disappearances. Children and parents, sinners and saints—all disappear, with no discrimination based on morality or innocence.
The premise may seem like a scoff and mockery of the popularized Christian end-times narrative—a Rapture with no God?—but the show also explores the depth of our shared humanity in strikingly powerful ways. After an inexplicable tragedy on a global scale, the characters grasp for purpose. They fight for and against life while simultaneously asking, “Why was I left here?”
One might think the Sudden Departure becomes a mysterious enigma that beckons audience sleuthing for answers, similar to Lindelof’s previous show, Lost. The Leftovers, however, goes in a completely different direction. The Sudden Departure is not the focal point; it occurs at the beginning of the pilot episode and quickly becomes background context. Instead, Lindelof and Perrotta are much more concerned with those “left behind.” The Leftovers, in other words, isn’t an exploration of how or why the disappearances happen, but a meditation on the wreckage that unexplainable loss can leave in its wake. Cults, prophets, suicides; faiths, doubts, insecurities; reckless abandon, promiscuity, psychosis—there is a place for everything under the sun in a world weighted with insufferable grief.
And insufferable The Leftovers was, at least for some. While the first season received fairly positive critical acclaim, it proved to be divisive. Each episode carried the weight of grief and depression so heavily that some viewers found it unbearable to watch. Personally, though, I welcomed such heaviness. The first season of The Leftovers premiered in 2014, the same summer my friend died in the car accident. I had felt the sting and emptiness of unexplainable loss, and The Leftovershelped me walk through grief, depression, and doubt. Max Richter’s melancholic score even became the soundtrack to my worship.