“This isn’t my first visit to the other side of the world. Each time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave.” — Pres. Kevin Garvey, The Leftovers
“Of course this is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“Everything is… just comes together.” — Aron Ralston, 127 Hours
The penultimate episode to the fantastic and under-appreciated series, The Leftovers, was the most enlightening, explanatory episode of all three seasons (which is no small feat, considering the majority of it follows Kevin through the world of the dead). It also is, quite possibly, the most explanation we may ever get about anything. Take the Departure, the event the series is born from: 2% of the population of Earth suddenly disappears one day. What the foop?! (As Titus Andronmedon would say.) But the series has never really been about where those people went, but about those left behind. How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? I don’t think we can expect answers to those questions. And, honestly, I don’t really want them–I feel certain that any explanation would be an underwhelming disappointment.
Co-creator of the show, Damon Lindelof, is no stranger to the grand themes explored in The Leftovers, nor to a show that presents mysteries with clearly no intention of ever solving them. This show has so many echoes of his other series, LOST, that it captures both what was great and what was completely infuriating about that series.
But those themes lend themselves quite well to this story, based (kind of loosely) off of a book by the same name, by author (and series co-creator) Tom Perrotta. The show’s protagonists grapple with faith, existentialism, belief, higher purpose….all with a kinda-maybe-sorta mystical science-fiction thing going on. Is the show going to explain how Kevin can die and come back to life? Apparently not. Does this mean that Kevin is important at all? Maybe not. Do random occurrences just happen, with no meaning behind them whatsoever? Probably. Is that infuriating to learn at the end of the series, once you have already theorized online with other people and have a million questions? KIND OF.
Like LOST, The Leftovers has relied on creating intriguing mysteries that, ultimately, really have nothing at all to do with the story. LOST never told us what the Island was. It led us on a series-long path to the god-like character of Jacob, only to take him away almost immediately and show how little he mattered to the whole story. But a show filled with characters who have faith in something that maybe isn’t there is a compelling story to tell. It’s just, when Lindelof tells it, you have to wait until the very end to learn that all of those questions you have? Yeah, they don’t have answers. They’re simply catalysts. Like I said…infuriating.
But he does it so damn well.
The choice of faith.
The Leftovers has presented a dichotomy between choosing to believe in a higher purpose, or choosing to believe in nothing at all. We turn to faith for answers about the world, or we see the events of the world as a random occurrence, and we react accordingly. Following the Departure, Pastor Matt believes even more than he ever did before that he is God’s instrument. Whereas Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie, joins the Guilty Remnant cult, where they believe that nothing matters at all. Matt searches for a reason for the Departure. The Guilty Remnant sees no reason in anything, including being alive.
Nora, whose entire family departed, works for the Department of Sudden Departure, an agency investigating whether there are any links between the people who departed, in order to find any kind of explanation whatsoever. Her job is to visit the homes of people whose loved ones Departed and ask them a series of questions from a questionnaire. She asks questions as seemingly inconsequential as, “To your knowledge, did the departed have any food allergies,” or, “To your knowledge, did the departed enjoy cooking;” questions that suggest a scientific approach, “To your knowledge, did the departed regularly use aerosol hairspray and or deodorant;” and questions that insinuate that a higher power may have had a hand in this, “To your knowledge, did the departed ever attempt suicide,” or, “in your opinion, was the departed a charitable person?”
Nora leans in to her pain. In season one, she puts on a bullet proof vest and regularly hires hookers to shoot her in the chest. And while she investigates fraud following the Departure (people who claim they have some sort of answer), she also participates in it (hugging Holy Wayne of season one, and now entering a machine in season three that claims to Depart people using radiation). But she also only wants to believe it. She’s furious at the world–her job in the Department of Sudden Departure demonstrates how hell-bent she is on exposing fraud, and how offended she is that anyone would try and capitalize on her pain, which she clearly believes she has more of than anyone else.
There is simply too much about this show to unpack in one essay. And this particular essay is about the episode, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).” Like I said, this episode provided answers. For three seasons, we’ve been following Kevin Garvey through his seeming psychosis, consistently speaking with a dead person tethered to him (the inimitable Anne Dowd, as Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant). Through Kevin’s character arc, we are exposed to many of the mysteries of the show. In season one, we see him black out for long periods of time, not knowing what happened to him, and not knowing what is and isn’t real. In season two, we see him take increasingly more dangerous measures to rid himself of the dead Patti, culminating in his death and rebirth. And in season three, we see a Kevin who seems to have it together on the outside, but is also duct-taping a bag to his head when he’s alone in his bedroom.
And we see him come to the conviction that he has a Messiah-like purpose; a mission, a reason.
“Why does it matter?”
And that’s where we open in “The Most Powerful Man in the World.” Kevin, who told Laurie an episode earlier, that he had never felt more alive than when he had died the last time, is convinced he must drown, return to the other world he visited to rid himself of Patti in season two, and learn a song that will stop a flood that may or may not be coming to destroy the world. Kevin feels a sense of importance, ready to drown with a series of tasks that he goes over before submerging–find Evie and tell her she was loved (the message from John), find Faith’s children and ask them where their shoes went when they died, and most importantly, find Christopher Sunday, the aboriginal Kevin Sr. sought out, and learn the song that will stop the rain. And so, with these missions and a staunch dedication to a purpose he believes he has, Kevin allows himself to be drowned.
And now we’re seeing a sequel, of sorts, to the season two episode in which Kevin dies the first time, “International Assassin.” Post-death, he emerges from the ocean on a secluded beach in Australia. Once again, no clothes (which we’re all okay with). Immediately, a Russian man tries to kill him. He is saved by, lo and behold, good-old dog-killer Dean, who takes him to a hut a ways down the beach and gives him his assignment–he must assassinate the President of the United States. But first, he must destroy all reflective surfaces, as that is how “they found him” at all to begin with (“they” being the enemy we haven’t been introduced to yet). Shoving an earpiece in Kevin’s ear, we hear the voice of “God,” AKA David Burton, the man mauled by a lion two episodes prior to this, and the man who met Kevin on the afterlife bridge right before he pushed Patti into the well.
And guess what? We finally learn what he whispered in Kevin’s ear on that bridge! He whispered, “You’re the most powerful man in the world.” You’ll also remember that he told Kevin on that bridge that what was happening was more real than Kevin even knew. This is an important piece of the puzzle.
There’s also a typewriter in the room with him, where Kevin is apparently writing a romance novel. Dean reads out loud the line, “He stood on the bow of The Merciful. The water endlessly stretching to the infinite horizon as he contemplated the impossible distance between them but he would not stop until he found her.” More on this later.
Kevin notices a scar on his chest as he is informed that his target is getting ready to launch a nuclear attack that will destroy the world, and he must put a stop to it. But Kevin demands something in exchange–he needs to talk to Evie, Faith’s children, and Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia in this world. Cue God in Kevin’s earpiece: Look into the shard of the mirror that Dean smashed.
Kevin does, and we cut to a clean-shaven Kevin, standing at a podium in a white suit, addressing a cheering crowd. With teleprompters feeding him a speech, Kevin realizes that he is the President, and that he speaks on behalf of The Guilty Remnant. And there, in the front row, are Faith’s children, dressed in white, ready to perform a skit they prepared on the futility and pointlessness of the family. None of them are wearing shoes.
So Kevin, ready to accomplish his first important mission, asks them why they aren’t wearing shoes. And one of the children, a boy, responds, “Why does it matter?” And because in this world, Faith’s kids are in the Guilty Remnant, nothing matters, especially a family member who wanted to know. Here is the first crack in Kevin’s belief that he is important–his first mission doesn’t have a reason. Or an answer.
Time for crack two.
“That was just a pickup line.”
Evie appears in the crowd, in a red shirt that says, “I remember.” She is singing Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” into a megaphone. As Kevin is whisked away by secret service, he ensures Evie gets in the car with him, so he can complete his second important mission. He tells Evie that her father wanted her to know that she was loved. But in this world, Evie’s entire family was blown up by the Guilty Remnant, not the other way around. She doesn’t know what the hell Kevin is talking about. There is no closure here, no meaning behind Kevin’s delivering of her message, no point to the Evie mission. On to crack three.
Kevin begins to throw up water, and is briefly pulled back into the world of the living, as the ranch is flooding. He lets John know that he delivered his message to Evie (but leaves out the part where it didn’t mean anything). He also tells Faith that her kids had no answer about their shoes (but leaves out the part where they don’t care about family at all). As Kevin is carried inside, John and Michael start to question whether they’re taking this too far. Kevin Sr. locks them all out of the bathroom, fills the tub, and drowns his son.
And it’s back to the world of the dead, with Kevin as President. The secret service takes Kevin to a secret bunker that only he can access. Unless, of course, he has “an identical twin brother, which would be ridiculous,” as his chief of staff quips. Haha. Kevin knows he’s the assassin that is coming to kill himself, the President.
In order to enter the bunker, Kevin has to have his face scanned, and his penis scanned (more on that later), and he has to answer three security questions, the final one being, “Who is your Secretary of Defense?” Kevin thinks. He chooses here. He names…”Patti Levin.”
Enter: Patti Levin. Dressed in her white Guilty Remnant garb, the politician that she was in “International Assassin.” She informs Kevin of the mission that he is to carry out: He needs to launch a nuclear missile at Russia, who will retaliate with a nuke of their own, and then that will be the end of the world. Patti says that this is the ultimate purpose of the Guilty Remnant: “We give the people what they’re too chicken-shit to do themselves, what they elected us for. We give them what they want. And they want to die.”
BUT before any of this Armageddon can go down, they will need to follow what is called, “The Fisher Protocol,” an ethical deterrent where the nuclear launch key was surgically embedded into the heart of a volunteer, so the President has to murder that volunteer himself in order to launch the nuke. We learn this because the Vice President arrives to tell us, and it is Liv Tyler’s Meg, the one who inherited the Guilty Remnant from Patti and who, I think we can all agree, was a total bitch. And whose heart is the key in? Someone who discovered a scar on his chest in a hut on the beach. And he’s 15 minutes away!
Kevin looks at his reflection in Patti’s glasses and we’re back to International Assassin Kevin, who passes the security measures with flying colors, being identical in every way to himself.
Turns out, Meg is on Kevin (and God’s) side; she’s here to help. She tells Kevin that she is in love with the most wonderful man, and that man is…God. Kevin then shoots Meg, killing her. God, on his earpiece, asked what the noise was. Kevin says that he should know, if he’s God. David Burton replies, “That was just a pick up line.” While it seemed pretty clear that David Burton wasn’t really God, it’s nice to have this overt confirmation that he is a fraud. Kevin then removes his earpiece and destroys it; no Meg and no “God”–now he’s on his own.
Kevin is now hell-bent on finishing mission three (this one HAS to be important, right?): talking to Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia here, remember. He video chats Sunday, who is aware that they are dead. International Assassin Kevin tells Christopher that he needs to learn the song. Christopher informs him that he already told Kevin’s father that his song brings the rain, it won’t stop a flood. Furthermore, he asks Kevin if he truly believes that his father can sing a song that will stop a flood coming to destroy the world. And you know what? Kevin actually doesn’t believe that. Crack three. Chicka-plao! (Just gotta throw in a Hamilton reference there, sorry not sorry.)
So, if Kevin isn’t here to tell Evie she was loved, or learn from Faith’s kids where their shoes are, and if he absolutely isn’t here to learn a song then, as Christopher Sunday asks Kevin: why is he here? At this point, Kevin is attacked by security. He looks at himself in the computer screen and now he’s back as Kevin the President, with Patti pressuring him to launch the nuclear missiles. But Kevin says all he wants to do is go home, to which Patti replies, “Do you? Because you keep coming back here.” And now here is the crux of the episode: Why is Kevin back here? What does he really want?
The bow of The Merciful
Enter International Assassin Kevin, brought in as a prisoner with a bag on his head. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, the two Kevin’s finally come face-to-face.
Both Kevin’s say they don’t want anything to do with the removal of the key. Patti pulls out Kevin’s untitled romance novel, a page of which was on the typewriter back at the hut on the beach. Both Kevin’s insist they didn’t write it, but Patti suggests that both of them wrote it. As Kevin reads aloud the last page, he begins to cry. The ending of his book has Kevin on a ship, alone, sailing and thinking of a woman he lost, who he drove away. It is filled with tragedy, and doubt, and fear. And it ends with the woman being alone, far away from Kevin, and because she is far from him, all is well. Kevin finishes reading and stands up and says, through tears, “Take the thing out of me… so we can’t ever come back here ever again.”
So President Kevin cuts himself, International Assassin Kevin, open, and digs around in his heart until he extracts the key. And the International Assassin bleeds out and dies, but not before telling Kevin, “We fucked up with Nora.” Kevin takes the key, launches the missiles, and stands hand-in-hand with Patti as they watch them fly across the sky.
The world ends.
Kevin wakes up back in the world of the living, covered in a sheet, outside on the church that was being built on Faith’s farm. He is calm. His agony seems to have dissipated. John and Michael are asleep and his father is on the roof of the house (which harkens back to the opening scene of the season, where we see a woman in a cult continue to stand on top of her house, awaiting God, and God continues to never show up). Kevin Sr. tells Kevin Jr. that he thought that he had lost him (it seems they had covered him in the sheet believing he wouldn’t be coming back to life this time around). And that now he doesn’t know what to do. “Now what?” he asks. And Kevin smiles, a face of hope.
In this episode, we have here a group of characters who believe they are working towards a higher purpose, only for them to discover that they are not. A tale as old as time, when you consider the cult woman on the roof all those years ago. Kevin, especially, believes he is important on a grand scale. And can you blame him? He did die and come back to life, after all. David Burton told him that he was the most powerful man in the world; he told him that all of it was real even when Kevin doubted it.
At this point, there is no disputing that Kevin has died and come back to life. He’s done it four times. But the things Kevin encounters on the other side are simply versions of things Kevin has already experienced, in the world of the living. The people on the other side are people Kevin knows or has met–Patti, Meg, Dean, David Burton. They are just playing different roles than their living roles. This other side is a Kevin-specific other side. And Kevin chose his role. The first time Kevin dies, when he emerges naked from the tub in the hotel room in “International Assassin” and opens his closet to grab clothes, a note tells him,
“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”
Kevin passed over his police uniform, which was also hanging in the closet, and donned a suit. He chose International Assassin. Which means Kevin sees himself as some harbinger of justice, revenge. He’s powerful, skilled. James Bond. And when he returns to the other side in “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” he is the International Assassin again, and the President of the United States. Double power and importance!
One by one, Kevin’s belief in his importance and his higher purpose is systematically torn down. As Faith’s son says to him, “Why does it matter?” It doesn’t. Kevin is not as important as he thinks he is. The whole thing where he has to pull out his penis and have it scanned to get into the bunker? What a display of ego! Every part of this world puts Kevin at the center of his own greatness, his superior skills, his savior-complex.
But maybe there is nothing important about Kevin. When David Burton told Matt that he was God, he also said that nothing mattered, and he didn’t even care about Matt, who spent his life trying to get God’s attention. Why is Meg the Vice President in Kevin’s dead world? Why does it matter? Why is Evie’s whole family dead from a bomb? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. Even Kevin doesn’t believe that a song his father sings will stop a flood. Why is it that Kevin can die and come back to life? It doesn’t matter! He’s not the only one able to do so–David Burton has done it several times as well, and Evie’s grandfather. Who knows why. But he’s not special.
Kevin’s death trips to the other side have served one purpose and one purpose only: For Kevin to rid himself of something. He died and released himself from Patti’s hold on his life. And then as President, he brings her back to help him release the part of himself that feels guilt and fear, that pushes other people away, that can’t be satisfied, that sails off on The Merciful in the end of his romance novel, without Nora. He tears that man’s heart out, he takes the key, and he blows up the whole goddamn world to make sure that part of him is gone forever.
And now, Kevin seems to finally be at peace. He destroyed the world that allowed him to die and come back to life; he doesn’t need it anymore. But Kevin Sr. isn’t ready to let go yet, he’s not ready to come down from the roof yet, to accept that he has no grand purpose. Kevin Sr. asks, “Now what?”
Next week, we’ll find out. Or not, it’s Damon Lindelof so who knows. But I think what we should all prepare for, just in case, is the show’s Departure, of sorts: How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? Because that might be what The Leftovers leaves us with–questions with absolutely no answers. Adorn yourself accordingly.