G'Day Lady Doomfiyah,
Thank you. So, so glad you asked this question as it finally gave me a chance to write about The Leftovers and prompted me to rewatch the final five episodes today to best answer your question about the ending. In Board Question #91291 I gave a quick description about the show's premise, which I'll include again here for those unfamiliar with The Leftovers (2014-2017).
The Leftovers (HBO): On October 14, 2011, two percent of the world's population simultaneously and instantaneously disappears without explanation. The show is about those left behind stuck dealing with the fallout. This show tracks how different people respond to religion, logic, and science failing us collectively. It's about the all-consuming nature of grief and limits of faith. The show is made by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame and stars Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Christopher Eccleston, Liv Tyler, Amy Brenneman, and many other greats in more limited roles. Based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name, the author of which is heavily involved in the show as well. Top five favorite TV show of all time for me.
The only thing I'd add to my own blurb is that the show tracks not only how people respond to the limits of religion, logic, and science, but also the precarious nature of stability and sanity as well. Those are the broad, broad strokes. More specifically it tracks a handful of people in a small New York town dealing with life after the "Sudden Departure," the name given to the rapture-like disappearance of 2% of the world. What is so tricky about the Departure is that there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to who got disappeared. Good people, like the reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) remained behind while known bad people were included in those who vanished. The Departure is such a great metaphor for mental illness because it doesn't care who you are or what you did; it just shows up one day and you better learn how to live with it.
My thoughts, opinions, and feelings about this show are inseparably intertwined with my own experiences with less than ideal mental health and a personal faith crisis. It wasn't long after watching season 1 in 2015 that I was belatedly diagnosed with clinical depression and was by then years into my faith spiral. Season 1 is essentially a 10-episode attempt by the showrunners to simulate depression in the viewer. (A move, which worked like gangbusters on me, that was later acknowledged by Damon Lindelof to be perhaps too big an ask of casual viewers, which is one of the reasons why this show has had such a small cultural footprint so far.) So, you can imagine a show touching on so many topics so close to my exposed nerve endings would move me from a receptive and critical watching position to one where I'm easier to move/manipulate emotionally. (See also any mother with young kids dying of cancer story like Finding Neverland, Terms of Endearment, and even Guardians of the Galaxy. And if you want to really get into a serious feelings talk with me let's talk why mother! was my favorite film of 2017.)
What makes The Leftovers so special is that even though my objectivity is essentially shot with this show, The Leftovers is still considered by many, many invested TV viewers to be among the best shows made in recent history. Every year the website Uproxx (and previously HitFix) polls professional TV critics on their favorite shows. In season 1 (2014) it was voted #10, in season 2 (2015) it was voted #7, and in season 3 (2017) it was voted #1 and by a wide margin. And generally speaking those TV critics poll results track with the show's increasing quality season to season, though I do slightly favor season 2 over 3 and enjoy season 1 more than many critics did.
As a viewer I'm not so far pulled into the "omg this is meeeee" space that I still can't recognize and appreciate the impeccable and jaw-dropping directing, acting, and writing all over this show. When you rewatch it you notice that thing where important lines or story beats have multiple meanings, layers, or echos to the bigger narrative in the same satisfying way that Mad Men did. Like Lindelof did with Lost, starting in season 1, and perfected in seasons 2 and 3, The Leftovers would focus in on one character's storyline for the length of the episode. Occasionally a season or episode will start by dropping us in someplace far away in time and space from the main cast to present an arty vignette that provides a thematic taste for the episode or season to come. For everyone involved, on both sides of the camera, it is the best thing they've ever done. To mix a few metaphors, this show takes the biggest swings I've ever seen a TV show take and it hits pay dirt almost every time.
Ok. So now lets get into answering your questions and move into spoiler territory so Lady Doomfiyah and I can start talking specifics.
***Spoilers ahead for seasons 1-3 of The Leftovers***
My favorite episodes are most definitely the reverend Matt Jamison episodes. You don't have to personally connect to the religious themes of Matt Jamison's spotlights to appreciate how each season Christopher Eccleston gets a chance to showcase his electric ability to pull you in and feel what he feels via those baby blues. It was Matt's first episodes, "Two Boats and a Helicopter," that first got under my skin and woke me up to the special nature of this show. Each of the Matt episodes are seeped in desperation, struggle, emotion, rationalization, and longing. Season after season we see Matt's struggle to believe become more strained, more precarious. Each season he doubles down and each season he loses more ground. He doesn't exactly abandon his faith entirely by the end, but he does essentially punch God in the face and acknowledge he can no longer in good faith tell anyone how they should live their lives. (Is my faith crises showing?) Matt's final line of season 3's "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" is maybe my single favorite moment of the series.
Other favorite episodes are "International Assassin" and "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)," a.k.a. both times Kevin goes to the other side. I mean. C'mon. Those episodes are such a trip. I also deeply adore Carrie Coon's Nora Durst spotlight episodes and series arc. Favorite moments elsewhere in the series are the Erika/Nora questionnaire, the season 3 cold open, anytime Evie sings, all the glorious beards in season 3, and Kevin asking the koala for directions. Also I have got to shout out the achingly beautiful Max Richter score and many perfect needle drops in the series, especially "God Only Knows" in season 3.
The ending. What do I think of the ending? Oh boy. THE ENDING. Honestly, the first time I watched I had no idea how to feel about it. I took that uncertainty as a negative and have been sitting with that general sour emotion since last June when the finale aired. But watching it again this afternoon, and especially watching the back half of season 3 immediately beforehand, I can better appreciate the ambiguity of the ending. The ending of the series is entirely wrapped up in Nora's motivations and emotions. We see her struggle so hard to put to an end to all the lies, tricks, hucksters, and frauds around her throughout the series. I think the key to understanding the finale are two exchanges of dialogue in season 3: one between Nora, Matt, and Laurie at the end of "Certified" and the other between Nora and the shagging nun in "The Book of Nora."
Do you remember when we were kids after Mom and Dad died, when everyone at the church wouldn't take
their eyes off us? And they'd take us to the movies and bowling and putt-putt just to keep us busy?
Of course I do.
And this one time, they brought us to a baseball game, and I was too young to get the rules. So I...I watched these people
in the other section hitting a beach ball. And the whole stadium was getting into it. And when the ball came over to our seats,
you stood up and you just whacked it. It was the first time I'd seen you smile in forever. But then the ball went into the
aisle and this usher ran down and grabbed it and he picked it up, and he just squeezed the air out of it. And then everyone
started booing. Not just the people in our section, but the whole stadium, booing. He just ruined it for all of them. They just
wanted to hit the ball. Why would he wanna do that job? Why would anyone?
Because if he doesn't that ball is gonna go onto the field and it would be f***ing chaos.
Nora's job investigating fraud was essentially squeezing the air out of the white lies and out-and-out lies alike people peddled to make sense of the Sudden Departure. She couldn't stand the idea that there were people out there making light of or profit of the the thing that had devastated her and hollowed her out emotionally. Many of the lies and frauds we see in the series, like the Guilty Remnant, deserved to be exposed by people like Nora. However, even some of the lighter fibs play out to show how, indeed, chaos reigns when truth is displaced for comfort.
And now for the exchange from "The Book of Nora" between the nun and Nora. This exchange happens when Nora is looking for her flock of white doves she rents out to wedding parties and the like where often people attach notes of loves to the doves to carry out into the world, but the notes are shown to be merely discarded by Nora whenever the doves come back to her farm.
Those birds are trained to do one thing, just one thing, and that's to come home, so you must've done something different.
Maybe they're delivering the messages of love.
It's great that your newlyweds believe that a bird with a range of 50 miles is gonna carry their stupid poetry to Timbuktu,
but don't sell that bull***t to me
I'm not trying to sell you anything. Maybe it's just a nicer story.
This exchange plays into my read on the actual ending, but it also is useful in other spots like the business with the goat. The goat in the series finale is presented at the wedding reception to be a nice little gesture to commit to living a better, sin-free life. However, we see this seemingly innocent "nicer story" later lead to chaos for the goat and Nora both, resulting in fear, confusion, and pain and requires Nora to get her hands dirty to rescue the goat.
My personal take on the ending is Nora calls for the radiation machine to be shut off at the last moment as she realizes how far she got pulled into the nicer story Drs. Eden and Bekker are telling. Then Nora forces herself into exile, continuing to despise the lies we tell to make life easier or more pleasant. When Kevin shows up offering another nicer story to make things easier for them to reconcile, Nora, once again, gets pulled in, again almost going with the nicer story. But she knows it isn't true and has to reject it just like I believe she did with the Departure machine.
When Kevin shows up at her house the morning after the wedding reception he comes clean to Nora and admits he was trying to give them a chance to sidestep the pain of complete reconciliation and penitence. I believe, as Kevin is monologuing about the justification for the nicer story he was selling, Nora has an epiphany. She remembers the positive aspects of these nicer stories, remembers the pain of watching that usher squeeze the life out of the beach ball, remembers her demanding to know what kind of person would want a job taking away joy like that. How could an act that finally returned a smile to Matt's face be all that bad? She holds in each hand the truth that lies can generate both chaos and comfort and accepts the paradox. I think Nora believes she and Kevin have grown enough that they wouldn't slip into a toxic, co-dependent relationship again and that maybe a smile could return to her face if there was a nicer story that allowed Nora and Kevin to reunite. So Nora invites Kevin inside for tea prepared to tell him the explanation/story she'd spent years constructing and telling herself for moments of fleeting comfort.
That is a lot of disparate dot connecting on my part, I know. But I also think there are elements in the finale episode that support this read. For one, when Nora is telling the story of what happened when she went to the other side we see two flashbacks to her getting into the machine, but once in the story the machine is activated the flashbacks stop, possibly hinting it didn't happen because there is nothing to flash back to. But for me the biggest indicator of my read being possible is if Nora had gone through the cathartic journey she recounts to Kevin why is she living a life in exile with seemingly all the same emotional constipation she had before she stepped into the Departure machine? You could argue her feeling Kevin coming back into her life and finally seeing him as upsetting her enough to explain Nora's curtness in the episode. That still leaves unexplained her continued bezerker button of impatience for hypocrisy—like a nun getting busy with a motorcycle man. I think that if Nora had really truly gone to the other side and back and experienced what she claimed she'd be changed in a way the episode shows us she hasn't.
I think she tells that nicer story to Kevin, and believes it herself, so that they can bounce around a metaphorical beach ball of their relationship again and smile again; it's a lie agreed upon (h/t Deadwood). Chaos in some form will certainly be brought into the world because of this lie. Nora decides she can deal with that because, at long last, the potential for love has returned to her life as symbolized by the last shot of the series showing the white doves finally returning to her farm as the sun rises on a new day.
With the exception of Sudden Departure itself or Kevin's death trips to wherever he goes, The Leftovers takes great care to expose the spectacular to be fraudulent or a misdirect. Examples: Evie showing up Melbourne, the divinity of David Burton, the existence of a song to stop the rain, the specialness of Jarden, Evie's disappearance in Jarden, the Guilty Remnant's answers, and on and on and on. That's what makes the ending so twisted. That are few enough exceptions to the unspectacular norm of The Leftovers world that Nora's final story could be true. But then again the show has trained us to poke holes and be wary of the spectacular meaning Nora's final story could be false. Ugh. I hate it and I love it.
The Leftovers is good and great and we should all watch it together wearing only white clothes and holding up signs that say "YOUR PAIN DOESN'T MATTER."