The Leftovers: “The Prodigal Son Returns” Season 1 Finale Review

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The Leftovers has been a lot of things since it started what now seems like forever ago. But this finale shows us once more what this show can be when its at its best.

With the Garveys separated, aside from Laurie and Jill, things had to come together by the end. Kevin now has to deal with Patti’s suicide, which could easily get him convicted of murder. Laurie is preparing for the Guilty Remnant’s biggest reminder when Jill walks in ready to join. Tommy travels aimlessly with Christine and her child with Holy Wayne. But by the end of The Prodigal Son Returns, the family crosses paths in a number of important ways define the meaning of this first season without neatly bringing them all back together.

After Jill refuses leave, Laurie has to enact the plans Patti set in motion for the GRs. The clothes laid out several episodes ago have purpose now. Their actions aren’t shown, in the first narratively brilliant decision of the episode. Instead, Nora Durst wakes up in the morning, walks downstairs, and finds three dummies wearing her family’s clothes sitting at her kitchen table.

Everything the GRs have been doing all season has be in preparation for this. As Megan writes down for Kevin much later in the episode, they made everyone remember. We know chaos is coming. We’ve seen a lot of violence toward the GRs in the past, but this action feels like it could lead to a massacre. Then, in the second narratively brilliant decision of the episode, we don’t see Mapleton again until Kevin returns.

But before we get to Kevin’s long journey home, Tommy’s travels with Christine came to a head when they make a pit stop. They had previously been talking about how Holy Wayne might never contact them. Christine abandoning the baby makes sense. I loved how the scene made you think for a split second that there was another Sudden Departure. Instead, she’s just gone and Tommy is left with Holy Wayne’s baby.

Now onto Kevin’s debacle. Matt does seem like the best person to call in this situation, so kudos to Kevin for finally making a decision that will actually help him. Christopher Eccleston played off of Justin Theroux’s paranoia perfectly. Matt’s calm center guided Kevin into not only dealing with the situation but also accepting it. I’m sure the plot thread of Patti’s suicide will come back in a later season, but this was an appropriate way to end her story will bringing Kevin’s forward. This show is, after all, about acceptance.

That said, as many good things I’m going to say about this finale, the dream sequence that followed was cheap television. With the rest of the episode and others that have come before it, we know that The Leftovers is above those cheap thrills. It’s disappointing when a very clearly talented writing staff has to resort to such a gimmick to either kill time or created drama. If it weren’t for this dream sequence, the finale would get a perfect grade.

Then, in a seemingly random but “oh, I guess they never met” scene, Kevin finds Holy Wayne in the bathroom of a diner. His self-inflicted wounds make a mess on the floor that catches Kevin’s eye. In a brief moment before he dies, he asks Kevin to make a wish, claiming that whether he can fulfill it or not would determine whether he was a fraud.

The cops bust in and arrest Kevin, who eventually gets off after Matt tells the police he’s a cop. The officer tells him to get back to Mapleton as if he’s telling him to return to his unique and special place in the world. Kevin responds like he can’t wait to be home. After this journey, who wouldn’t?

Here’s where those narratively brilliant decisions pay off. Mapleton is in flames. Civilians are hunting the GRs openly in the streets. In a clever moment, we see the mother from the opening scene of the series waving around a pistol firing at fleeing white-clothed beings. As Kevin and Matt explore the town, it’s clear the season had to end this way.

The fire department isn’t answering. Police watch as civilians beat the GRs. The mayor stares blankly telling Kevin he was right. Utter chaos. Mapleton is practically under martial law.

We see Laurie getting dragged out of the burning GR headquarters. Kevin manages to save her, allowing Laurie to speak her first spoken words to him since the season started. “JILL!” she screams pointing to the house doused in smoke and flame. For just a moment, no cause or movement was more important than the life of her daughter. It’s Laurie’s character defining moment of the season.

Kevin runs in and manages to save his daughter. But the family is separated again.

The next morning, in the most disturbing scene of the finale, Nora grasps the hands of the dummies the GRs put in her kitchen, staring off into her fake husbands eyes. Her end monologue, intended to be a goodbye letter to Kevin, was the greatest trick The Leftovers ever played on us.

Nora’s voice is heard over the silent unity the Garveys have as they reconnect. As she speaks of failing to move on, Kevin walks hand-in-hand with Jill, meeting up with the dog they kept in the backyard for part of the season. Elsewhere, Tommy finds Laurie staring off into the water.

As the monologue went on, I found myself worried that the show would ruin this near-perfect finale. Nora’s decision mirrors the decision of what The Leftovers is intended to be. The fate of the whole season rests on how this moment lands.

At first, it seems like the show is falling back on the much-criticized tone of overly depressing. From the previous episode, we know that the Garveys hardly had a perfect life before October 14. Their coming together now would have been a fake-out ending that much lesser shows attempt to pull off every year.

Instead, as Nora delivers the letter, she finds something on the porch. She picks up the child of Holy Wayne and Christine and smiles. Kevin and Jill walk up and their eyes all meet. This could be a new family. This could be Nora’s new beginning. The Leftovers doesn’t want to tell you what happened October 14. It probably never should. It wants you to accept that whatever it was it happened and it isn’t going to un-happen. But it also wants you to find what Nora did on the Garvey’s porch: hope. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

 

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