If you’ve just watched tonight’s penultimate episode of The Leftovers, you’re probably feeling at least one of three things: Awe, bewilderment, and catharsis. Justin Theroux, whose brilliant double performance forms the bedrock of the episode, said that working on the HBO show has made him feel all three.
“It’s such a wild swing to take,” Theroux told Quartz in an interview. “I’m in awe with what these guys have created.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers takes place in the aftermath of a Rapture-like event in which 2% of the world’s population has inexplicably disappeared. In the show’s stunning third and final season, the world is awaiting the seventh anniversary of this “Great Departure,” and some of its inhabitants believe the apocalypse will soon happen—for everyone this time.
Tonight’s episode, aptly titled “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” follows Theroux’s Kevin Garvey as he travels, once more, into a purgatorial netherworld in order to stave off the end of the real world. Co-written by showrunner Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Craig Zobel, the episode is the spiritual successor to season two’s critically acclaimed “International Assassin,” when Kevin first ventured into this unexplained dimension. Together, the two episodes form brilliant bookends, darkly funny and surreal moments in a series that has been criticized for its lack of levity.
In this purgatory, Garvey has become the president of United States, and in order to authorize a nuclear attack, he must surgically remove a key from behind the heart of his doppelgänger, who’s an assassin sent to kill him.
It’s a ridiculous yet profound conundrum: The president must essentially kill himself in order to access the nuclear arsenal. What better way for him to understand the ramifications of what he’s about to do? The morality play is typical for The Leftovers, a television show that is sometimes absurd but always insightful and beautiful.
Theroux said that the key to bringing this craziness to the screen was mutual trust between the actors and the show’s writers and director.
“What I like about [the episode] is it’s written that he’s constantly not knowing what the hell is going on,” Theroux said. “But my trust level with Damon and the other writers and the directors skyrocketed after our first season. There was no reason to believe they’d let off the gas in any way.”
The climactic scene, when Theroux scalpels the sternum of a body double and extracts the key to launch the nuclear weapons, is The Leftovers at its most effective. The entire thing is an entry into the Theatre of the Absurd—”Waiting for Godot” on steroids. President Kevin and assassin Kevin decide, together, to go through with the operation in order to destroy the purgatory they’re in and return back home, for good, where they’ve screwed things up with the woman they love.
If that doesn’t make any sense to you, just know that it amounts to incredible TV, in no small part due to Theroux’s committed performance. “Every episode and every show we were trying to pick at something that hadn’t been picked at on television before,” he said.
“The Most Dangerous Man in the World” succeeds not because of its uniqueness but rather because, somehow, through all its peculiarities, the episode—and the show as a whole—tells a convincing, universal story of love. When nature suddenly changes its rules, and the world teeters on the brink of destruction, the only place left to put our trust is in the people who care about us.
It’s not surprising then that Theroux called his experience working on The Leftovers “a series of very special moments strung together”—not unlike a blossoming relationship. Next Sunday (June 4), the show will air its series finale, likely to elicit strong reactions in its audience, if not be downright divisive (Lindelof has stated unequivocally that the show won’t answer the mystery of where the departed went).
No matter the response to the final episode, the legacy of The Leftovers is already set in stone in the minds of its biggest fans, just as it is in the actor who helped make it all happen. If there’s one lesson to learn from this expertly unconventional TV episode, at least, it’s to treasure the things you love.
“I’ll never find something like [The Leftovers] again,” Theroux said. “I don’t think anyone will.”