The Leftovers Ending Explained: Nora's Comforting Story

When "The Leftovers" began, it was met with mixed reviews. Some of the criticisms were from disgruntled "Lost" fans still mad at Damon Lindelof (showrunner of both shows) for supposedly failing to answer all the mysteries "Lost" set up throughout its six-season run, and others were critical of "The Leftover's" unflinchingly dark, depressing tone. Season 1 had most of its main characters trapped in the darkest period of their lives, buckling under the weight of a mass tragedy that had no explanation. Why did 2% of the world's population suddenly vanish into thin air? Nobody knows, and the show itself had no intentions of telling you. 

Even though Lindelof was clear from the get-go that the show wasn't about solving the mystery of the Great Departure, a lot of viewers of season 1 still saw the show as being about that. It's not hard to understand what gave them that impression, either, as the main characters in "The Leftovers" are in fact very interested in finding out what happened. Nora (Carrie Coon) has a job interviewing friends and relatives of the departed in the hopes of finding some kind of concrete link between them. Her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) is a priest who sees the departure as a test from God, and is frustrated by others' attempts to view the event as the standard rapture. There are a lot of strange, potentially supernatural things happening to protagonist Kevin (Justin Theroux) that seem to be related in some way to what happened on October 14th. For a show that seemingly wasn't interested in explaining its big mystery, it certainly spent a lot of time offering false hope that it would.

A show about ambiguous loss

"The Leftovers" wasn't doing this because of lazy writing, however, nor was it interested in trying to string the viewer along with false promises. Season 1 teased the audience with potential explanations for the departure because the frustration it provoked was exactly what the characters themselves were feeling. Everyone was looking for answers, for some kind of clear reason why something so horrible had happened to them, and as the world refused to give them any, they only spiralled further. 

Nora in particular is someone who consistently struggled for an answer. On top of the head-scratcher of why a random collection of 2% of the population vanished, there's the additional question of why her family in particular was so disproportionately affected. Her husband and both her kids departed, the odds of which were one in 128,000, a statistic Nora herself is happy to mention. 

In season 2's "A Matter of Geography," she's offered the idea that the departure was based in some way on physical location, and that her home was located in an unlucky spot. She sells her home and moves to Jarden, Texas — a town that miraculously had zero reported departures — only for a couple of local kids to seemingly vanish on her first night there. Nora starts to believe she herself is the problem, and that theory's only strengthened when Kevin tells her he's been seeing a ghost, and that this first started happening shortly after he and Nora started seeing each other. 

The need for answers

Although Nora gets over this belief in the season 2 finale, when the supposedly-departed kids reappear and Kevin returns with his ghost problem seemingly solved, her desire for answers is still a core of who she is as a person, a part of her that could easily be exploited by others. When she gets a call in season 3's "Don't Be Ridiculous" that offers her the chance to see her kids again, the question of whether this is a scam or not gnaws at her. The offer comes from scientists who claim they've figured out how to send people to the same plane of existence the departed went to, and the frustration of not knowing whether to believe them sends Nora on a season-long mental spiral. Although she knows full well that agreeing to go into the machine that takes her to the other place could very well kill her (her initial assumption was that these scientists were simply incinerating their clients and taking their money), in the series finale, she's prepared to go through with the decision anyway. She needs to know if this is real, even if it kills her. 

This drive for certainty isn't unique to Nora. When Matt meets a guy who claims to be God, he ends up hitting him with an axe and tying him to a chair just to get him to admit otherwise. Kevin Sr.'s belief that he's the messiah leads him on an absurd quest across Australia to learn a rain song that will stop a great flood. Every major character needs some kind of belief system to cope with the world around them, and they'll cling to it even as it ruins their lives.

Providing potential answers

As much as "The Leftovers" avoided answering its central premise, the show did in fact manage to concretely address most of the other questions it raised. In what might surprise a lot of Lindelof haters, pretty much every question raised in the season 2 premiere, from the random goat slaughter to the disappearance of Evie Murphy, is explained in a fairly satisfying way throughout the next nine episodes. 

But as the show makes clear, having your questions answered doesn't always make you happier. Erica's (Regina King) question of what happened to her daughter is replaced with questions that are even harder to answer: why'd her daughter (played by Jasmin Savoy Brown of "Yellowjackets" fame) join a cult? The realization that her daughter has willingly separated herself from the family, that she'd been pretending to be a normal, happy teenage girl for years, is on some level harder to deal with than the idea that some random supernatural force had blipped her out of existence. 

This understanding is why "The Leftovers" smartly chooses to let the viewer come up with their own explanations. In season 2, when Kevin spends an episode in an alternate world where he's not allowed to drink the water or he won't be able to leave, the question of whether this is the afterlife or a fever dream is never fully confirmed. If you're a skeptic, you can believe it's all a complex hallucination going on in Kevin's head. You can also choose to believe this is all real. Either way, the episode works.

"The Book of Nora"

The final episode of "The Leftovers" follows Nora as she decides to go into the machine that'll take her to the other place, even though she knows it can very well kill her. As the machine fills up with water she panics and starts to yell something, but we don't hear what. The episode suddenly cuts to a blue sky, and we find ourselves watching an older Nora as she lives a quiet, solitary life in a house somewhere in rural Australia. 

For a solid ten minutes or so, we don't know what to make of this. Was the machine successful? Is this an alternate version of Nora? Is Nora living in an alternate universe? Things get more confusing when an older Kevin knocks on her door, and he doesn't seem to remember his relationship with her. 

The episode lingers in this sense of confusion until Nora makes a phone call to Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who's revealed to still be alive after a previous episode ("Certified") left her fate ambiguous. Laurie's also confused as to why Kevin's pretending not to remember Nora, and it becomes clear that Nora's still living on the same Earth the rest of the show took place on. Kevin invites her to a nearby wedding where he fills Nora (and the audience) in on all the stuff that's happened in the time jump: Matt has died of cancer, both of Kevin's kids are doing okay, and Kevin has apparently spent his time hoping he'd get to meet Nora again.

Even as their past feelings for each other start to rekindle, Nora doesn't believe Kevin when he says he doesn't remember their relationship. Finally, Kevin comes clean: he'd spent every vacation in the past 15 years travelling around Australia and looking for her. "But I didn't know what to say," he says about when he first saw her again, "So I just thought, 'Oh, f**k it. I'll erase it. Just erase it all and maybe that would give us another chance.' But you were right. It's not true. That's how I found you, Nora. I ... I refused to believe you were gone."

Nora's story

Now that Kevin's told the truth, Nora's ready to tell hers. She explains how the machine worked, and how she ended up in a world where instead of 2% of the population disappearing, the other 98% disappeared instead. She managed to find her kids and husband, although kids were now much older and her husband had fallen in love with another woman. Nora explains, "I understood that here in this place, they were the lucky ones. In a world full of orphans, they still had each other, and I was a ghost. I was a ghost who had no place there."

She then decided to go back to her own world, which took years to do. "I came back through. I came back here. Did I ... think about you? Did I want to call you? Did I wanna be with you, Kevin? Of course I did. But so much time had passed. It was too late. And I knew that if I told you what happened ... that you would never believe me."

But Kevin does believe her, as it turns out, and Nora's relieved and happy to hear him say it. The show ends with them smiling at each other and holding hands, finally reunited and reconciled.

Was she lying?

The case for Nora telling the truth is fairly convincing: her story is reasonably detailed and thought-out, and it certainly helps explain why she's been away for so long. Considering that one episode prior, Kevin journeyed to a quasi-afterlife and had to cut open his identical twin's chest in order to find a key that would set off a bunch of nuclear missiles, Nora's story isn't that hard to swallow. 

The case against Nora telling the truth is also strong, though: the audience never gets to see any of what she claims happened, and we know from past events (her lying to Jill about her gun in season 1, lying about breaking her arm in season 3), that Nora's not above stretching the truth. 

In the end, the viewer gets to decide. If you think that Nora's story kills the show's sense of mystery, you can believe she's lying. If you think her story provides much-needed closure to her character arc, you can believe she's telling the truth. Either ending works for different people. 

In the end, "The Leftovers" has always been a story about the things people choose to believe in order to cope with the world around them. At first glance that sounds cynical, but the show doesn't claim that all of these coping mechanisms are inherently false, that the only way to be happy is to ignore reality. Rather, when it comes to all the sources of mysticism throughout the show — Matt's religion, Kevin's "afterlife," Nora's story — the show never fully denies their legitimacy. Maybe all this supernatural stuff is real, or maybe it's just a comforting story to help us cope with cold reality. Either way, as Kevin and Nora are reunited, the show argues it's okay to believe in them.