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.
The show follows individuals from two families in fictional Mapleton, New York, months after the Sudden Departure, and all stories are in service to season one’s overall theme: How do people cope after unexplainable loss? The Garvey family, for example, has been split at the seams as wife and mother Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) left to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, a group of chain-smoking prophets who have resigned to life’s meaninglessness and act as reminders of loss for those who try to continue life as it was before the Departure. Laurie’s husband, Kevin Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux), serves as Mapleton’s chief of police and tries to maintain his grip on reality as he experiences hallucinations (visions?) while trying to manage others’ problems. Their kids, Tommy (Chris Zylka) and Jill (Margaret Qualley), are physically and emotionally absent as they seek feeling by various empty means.
In addition to the Garvey family, viewers are also introduced to Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a former reverend trying to maintain meaning in his faith by publicly exposing the sins of those who disappeared, and his sister Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who is infamous throughout Mapleton for having lost her entire family in the Sudden Departure.
Season one’s heavy narrative follows these characters as they navigate the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological wreckage of the post-Departure world. Season two, however, takes a strikingly different approach in tone and storytelling, exploring the process of rebuilding one’s life in search of stability and security in an unpredictable world. It follows the same characters as they journey to Jarden, Texas, a small town where no one disappeared during the Sudden Departure. Jarden, as its name alludes to, has become a type of Eden, a holy place untouched by the devastation found in the rest of the world, and a place of pilgrimage for those all over the world who seek healing and understanding.
While the Sudden Departure lacks the Christian dichotomy of believer/unbeliever, Jarden nonetheless serves as a narrative divider, separating those who are “in” and those who do not belong (or can’t afford to belong). Without spoiling too much, this separation drives one of the primary story arcs of season two: a group of teenage girls who disappear overnight. In an Eden untouched by the Sudden Departure, the missing girls stir fear that a second Rapture-like event will happen again. The story moves The Leftovers thematically from grief to fear: Instead of asking how people cope with unexplainable loss, the showrunners ask, “How do we rebuild our lives when tragedy is just around the corner?”
The Leftovers was critically acclaimed in its second season, with many publications dubbing it the best television drama of the year. It was no longer an unbearable drudge of grief, but a story that looked ahead, with glimpses of hope and restoration amidst fear of what may come to pass—as well as plenty of new mysteries to parse. Writing about this shift, Alissa Wilkinson observed:
Two of the most important questions religion seeks to answer are these: Where did we come from? And where are we going? In a way that’s unlike any other show on television, the events of The Leftovers force every character to confront those questions. There’s no way to sidestep them.
As such, The Leftovers is a religious show through and through. While Lindelof and Perrotta don’t hold up any particular religion as true or right, they wrestle with important questions in a way not often seen on television—they’re comfortable resting in a lack of certainty and closure.
Now in its third and final season, which premiered April 16, The Leftovers picks up three years after the end of season two—and early reviews are already praising it. While it’s unclear if Lindelof and Perrotta will set out to answer the many questions they’ve raised, the uncertainties will surely reach into the depths of the human spirit.
A lot of entertainment functions as means for viewers to escape reality, but The Leftovers encourages us to confront it. Simple solutions and easy conclusions don’t happen much in real life; the mystery of the Sudden Departure can’t eclipse the grief and loss it inflicted. In a world where we can browse past Syrian children suffering on our Facebook newsfeeds, Lindelof and Perrotta beckon viewers to stop and see, to hear and feel what’s broken.
In the months following my friend’s funeral, I scoffed at simple platitudes about him being in a better place and me not knowing God’s plans. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the encouragement in such statements—but those easy words seemed to erase the raw and painful reality of death. It felt like cheap grace, taking comfort in God’s promises without considering the cost of their fulfillment. I wasn’t ready to move on because that meant returning to a world without the joy of my friend; instead, I wanted—and needed—to feel the weight of his death and learn to rest in his absence. There was comfort in the contradiction of the now and not yet.
Similarly, The Leftovers ushers viewers into a transcendental in-between that holds the tension of remembering what’s been lost while fearing to move forward. Lindelof and Perrotta may not offer us the conclusion we need or the ending we’ve already been promised, but they certainly make us pause at the cost of what takes us there.
Note: The Leftovers, were it a movie, would be rated R for nudity, language, and adult situations. We see a fair bit of nudity (both male and female), some of it sexual, most of it not. The world in which these characters live is violent and sometimes shocking. Their language is coarse at times. The feeling of dread is palpable.
Tyler Glodjo is an editorial advisor and writer at Christ and Pop Culture. He earned his MA in intercultural studies at Union University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Jackson, Tennessee, where he teaches ESL and adjuncts at nearby Union University.