“The Leftovers” creator asked critics not to binge the new season, but it was too good not to

Sitting on top of the world.
Sitting on top of the world.
Image: Ben King/HBO
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof had a message for TV critics who were given advance copies of the HBO show’s final episodes: Try not to binge it.

The implication was that some television stories need time to breathe, to be considered, reflected on. Their images, and the ideas they convey, need time to marinate, like a fine steak bathing in spices. You can’t just throw the flavors on top and expect the meat to absorb them all at once.

I agree: Binge-watching turns the joy of TV viewing into a chore, a mission to be accomplished rather than a work of art to be examined. So I tried to heed Lindelof’s advice. I really did. But if he didn’t want critics to binge the third (and final) season of The Leftovers, then he shouldn’t have made such a stunning and audacious season of television.

Unlike with his previous show, Lost, the desire—the compulsion—to binge-watch The Leftovers comes not from needing the answers to ongoing mysteries, but from wondering how on Earth the show can continue to one-up itself creatively again and again. The series, about the aftermath of an apocalyptic event in which 2% of the world’s population disappears, is never, ever complacent about its own storytelling. Each episode is a reawakening, a daring reorientation of characters or setting, and they’re all building towards something world-changing.

Or, they’re not. That’s the central paradox of The Leftovers, that all mysterious phenomena have two possible explanations: either a religious one or a scientific one (or, a third option—there’s no explanation at all).

Because of the Rapture-esque nature of the plot, and the constant allusions to the Bible, The Leftovers has wrongly been called a “religious” show. But it’s decidedly, frustratingly agnostic. It doesn’t claim to have the answers. It merely shows how real people might wrestle with extraordinary, inexplicable things. It’s a show about religion, how people come to believe what they believe, and why they continue to do so despite all available evidence leading them in another direction.

That idea is the through line of the show’s final season, which follows the tormented police chief Kevin Garvey as he attempts to reconcile the fact that, apparently, he cannot die. Some of those around him think he’s literally the second coming of Jesus Christ. Others think he’s recovering from a psychotic episode. He’s not sure what to believe, but the show finds a clever way to get him—and those he loves—to Australia, where he may find the answers he seeks.

As the final season begins, the world is just two weeks away from the seventh anniversary of “The Sudden Departure,” when 140 million people inexplicably vanished into thin air. The show crackles with the anxious energy of something big about to happen—perhaps another departure, perhaps the return of those lost, perhaps the world ending for good this time. Or, again, maybe it’ll be nothing.

I’m not sure how it’ll all end—critics did not receive the eighth and final episode of the series—but it’s hard to overstate the fearlessness of the seven episodes leading up to the conclusion. The performances, as always, are singularly outstanding, particularly from Justin Theroux (Garvey), Carrie Coon (grieving mother Nora Durst), Amy Brenneman (Garvey’s ex-wife and a recuperating cult member), and Christopher Eccleston (a reverend, and Nora’s brother).

The biggest treat of all, though, is veteran Scott Glenn (Kevin’s father), who gets an episode all to himself and I suspect will be on many Emmy voters’ short lists come awards season. He gives the finest 50 minutes of acting I’ve seen on television since Mad Men and Breaking Bad went off the air.

If you’ve seen the first two seasons of the show, you know that good performances are a given. What’s more surprising is how The Leftovers subverts the conventions of final seasons and becomes more episodic in its stretch run. Normally, you’d expect a show building toward its conclusion to be extremely plot-heavy at the expense of further developing characters. The Leftovers does the opposite. Most episodes highlight one or two characters in particular, and only through their journeys, their evolution, does the plot march carefully on. Lindelof might not be able to prevent us from binge-watching, but his show forces us to meditate on it by virtue of its structure.

I’ve tried to think of a close TV analog to The Leftovers, but it defies comparison. It shares some thematic DNA with Lost, but the similarities end there. This final season borders on the Kafkaesque and the Ballardian, a disorienting, uncanny fever dream that thrills as much as it confounds. The best parallel might actually be The Twilight Zone.

And that brings me back to binge-watching. The Twilight Zone was one of the first shows I ever truly binged—as in, devoured as fast as I could. But those were standalone stories, and each episode had no bearing on the next. The Leftovers floats somewhere in the limbo between the fully serial and the episodic, which will please critics who want shows to stop trying to be 10-hour movies and start putting more value in standalone, unique episodes. The brilliance of The Leftovers is that it does both.

There has been much speculation about what HBO will do now that its crown jewel, Game of Thrones, is ending next year. But I’m far more curious about what the channel’s life post-The Leftovers. There will be another genre mega-hit to take the place of Thrones on Sunday nights (HBO might have already found it in Westworld). But there will never be another show like The Leftovers.

Luckily, the series has prepared us well for confronting life’s mysteries. I don’t know what Damon Lindelof will do next—I just know that I’m excited to find out.