‘The Leftovers’ Final Season Is Truly Awesome

The Leftovers, the show that smiles through the Apocalypse, returns for its third and final season on HBO on Sunday. I’m not a person who tosses around the word “awesome” the way it’s usually used today — which is to say as a synonym for “very good” or “cool.” No, when I say The Leftovers is awesome, this is what I mean: It fills me with awe.

Beginning a few years after the last season, The Leftovers finds Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey having resumed his law-enforcement job as sheriff in Jardin, Texas. The world in which 2 percent of the population has inexplicably vanished is now approaching the seventh anniversary of that mass disappearance, dubbed the Departure. Kevin has his hands full maintaining law and order between two factions: those who believe the anniversary may touch off a new round of departures, if not a downright Apocalypse; and those who think the religious fervor that has accumulated around the original disappearance is a lot of hooey. The Leftovers continues to be a show about humanity’s never-ending yearning for a messiah. It’s also a new season that arrived, for critics, with a plea from creator Damon Lindelof to avoid spoilers — something I believe I should heed, because I want you to be as surprised and happily perplexed as I am.

Here’s what I will say: Kevin is still in a relationship with Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who is now a government investigator into Departure claims. Also prominent early on in the season is the Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), Nora’s brother and a man of deep religious conviction, who takes the Departure as a message from God. At a certain point, all three will, for different reasons, pick up and go to Australia, where viewers will find characters both new and familiar, such as Kevin’s father, played with grizzled zest by Scott Glenn.

The Leftovers is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, with Perrotta and writer-producer Damon Lindelof (Lost) overseeing the wondrous proceedings. Television has never before contained that with which The Leftovers overflows: Distinctive, original mixtures of mystery and loss, earthiness and the supernatural, loneliness and community. One thing I prize about the show is the sense of humor that rumbles beneath each hour, no matter how high the stakes are in matters of life and death. There’s a clever use of pop songs on the soundtrack, and a realistic awareness that, even in the midst of tumultuous events, these characters are still influenced by pop culture — TV shows, movies, music — in ways that affect their behavior.

Theroux gives a performance that is at once closed off — his face often assumes a hard stare — and open-hearted. Carrie Coon is constantly amazing: She makes Nora strong, stubborn, blunt, bitter, and hilariously sarcastic. Smaller roles, such as one taken up by Brett Butler, are beautifully detailed and precise.

I told people when FX’s Legion was airing that on any given week, I understood about 70 percent of what was going on, and I was content to be confused because the imagery of the show and its acting were so engrossing. Now, having watched the first five of The Leftovers‘ eight final episodes, I understand about 75 percent of what’s going on, and I chalk up the extra 5 percent to the fact that I’ve had two seasons more of The Leftovers to mull over than I’ve had of Legion. The mysteries of this show, however, are different from those of Legion, which grappled with the quiddities of identity. The obsession of The Leftovers is its pursuit of a magnificently humanistic point of view that swirls around its religious mysticism.

The Leftovers airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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