Have You Watched “The Leftovers”?

What if, in the blink of an eye, 2% of the world’ population disappeared?

That’s the question posed by The Leftovers, an HBO show that has been my go-to entertainment over the last 2 weeks (it is NOT, as I originally thought, a reality show about leftover food). The Leftovers aired for 3 seasons, completed its story arc, and signed off for good earlier this year.

I’d like to talk about the show a little bit, but some of the things I’ll discuss are thematic spoilers (not plot spoilers). If you’re curious about the show, I’ll say that it’s a very interesting concept to explore. The acting and writing are excellent, and it ends up answering the right questions even though it doesn’t explain a lot of random stuff that happens throughout the 29 episodes. It’s a solid show that is worth your time.

***spoilers below***

At its heart, I believe that The Leftovers is about what happens when people try to assign meaning to something that has no meaning. This makes sense: If 2% of the world’s population disappeared into thin air tomorrow, people would spend a long, long time trying to figure out what it means.

I think this is both the show’s greatest achievement and its greatest failure. There are a myriad of characters and organizations who assign different reasons–religious and scientific–to the “departure.” It’s fascinating to watch, and ultimately the point is that there is no greater reason or meaning. It just is.

But the problem is that over and over again the show has us spend time with people who are absolutely convinced that they know something everyone else doesn’t know. Because they’re characters in a show, we believe them. We suspect that one or more of them must be right–otherwise, why did the writers of the show share these theories with us?

I guess what I’m saying is that if the point was that some things are random and have no meaning, did the show really need to spend 3 seasons telling us that over and over? Did we really need to have all the completely unexplained mystical stuff? And why did we spend 5 episodes in what amounted to dream sequences? I loathe dream sequences, as they’re overwrought with symbolism and don’t advance the story.

However, I still love the message (along with the characters and willingness to completely change locations each season) that when we assign meaning to meaningless things, we can really end up hurting each other. Nothing exemplifies this better than the goat in the very last episode. At a wedding, people place beads on a goat–a “scapegoat”–to symbolically unburden themselves before shooing the goat out into the night. A harmless little act, right?

Not so much. An hour or so later, a character finds the goat in great distress, as the beads have caught on a fence post. The goat is panicking as it starts to choke.

This…this is the type of symbolism I love. It has a powerful message, it impacts a main character, and it advances the story in real time. It says, “Pay attention to the things you assign greater meaning to, no matter how harmless they may seem, as they might end up hurting people instead of helping.”


If you watch The Leftovers, I’d love to know what you think, even if your interpretation of the show vastly differs from mine. You’re also welcome to share your thoughts on the above even if you haven’t watched the show!

11 thoughts on “Have You Watched “The Leftovers”?”

  1. Well, this is not going to be as thorough. But I’ll try!

    Your view of what The Leftovers is about is subtly different from mine, but I think that really changes the framework of how you view the show and what meaning you derive from different scenes.

    If you think the show is about “What happens when people try to assign meaning to something that has no meaning,” you’ll probably be disappointed because that’s not a compelling thing to watch – it sets them up for failure because there’s nothing to find! And because of that, it makes the characters not very active and doesn’t really allow growth.

    For me, the show is about, “What happens when people try to create meaning in a world that has none.” This is a more active approach because it sets some characters to fail and others to succeed. Ultimately, I think the show is about how to griev and cope with loss.

    What’s interesting about these two perspectives is that yours is usally the first step towards mine. Matt is a perfect example of this. Matt spends the first two and a half season using religion as a way to give meaning to the Sudden Departure. God gives him strength to cope with his wife and God is the reason for her recovery and his child. He is assigning a biblical meaning to this event. However, we see that fail over and over again, and ultimately, he loses his faith and finds meaning in his sister, Nora.

    The Guilty Remnant actually want people to find meaning in this catastrophe, and that’s why they exist and thrive. They don’t want people to find meaning in themselves or in the world, they want to focus on this event because they don’t want people to move on from it.

    This is why I view Kevin’s dreams as something that’s really important. They’re symbolic, yes, but they show his thought process. Kevin isn’t trying to find meaning in the Sudden Departure; he’s trying to find meaning within himself. He has to kill people in his past and destroy parts of himself to move on and ultimately be able to cope and learn to love Nora. The dreams could have easily been conversations with other real life characters and the beats could have played out.

    Finally, there’s this scene between Aimee and Jill, which is a favorite of mine: (https://youtu.be/xscxEfujcsI). Aimee is doing exactly what you say! She is assigning so much meaning to something insignificant, and it destroys this friendship. There is so much pain, anger, guilt, and grief in this conversation, but it’s all mostly subtext. In an attempt to find meaning in this world, people are putting meaning into these meaningless thoughts and ideas and become obsessed with them. The series wants us to know that that is unhealthy and unsuccessful.

    This is the second time I’m writing this, and I may have missed some points, and it’s definitely not as clear or as concise as the first one, but I hope it makes sense!

    • Steve: Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. It’s interesting that even though we view the show through different lens, one of our favorite conclusions is the same. You sum it up well here: “In an attempt to find meaning in this world, people are putting meaning into these meaningless thoughts and ideas and become obsessed with them. The series wants us to know that that is unhealthy and unsuccessful.”

  2. Watched it all as it aired and really enjoyed it…. the acting is truly spectacular, my favorite is Christopher Eccleston, his performance should win all the Emmys.
    I try not to get too hung up on really high concept material like this, I just try to let it wash over me and appreciate the little bits that catch my particular attention.
    I did really appreciate the full spectrum of ways people deal with grief that the show offered. We’ve all faced grief of some kind, so it was interesting to see bits of either our own causes of grief or our own responses to it reflected in the story.
    Were you as surprised as I was when they offered not really a reason for the departure, but an answer to where they went? Assuming you take everything Nora says as truth, that was much more than I was expecting from Lindelof on the topic.
    Those are some random, off the top of my pretty sleepy head thoughts for you. Maybe I’ll come up with a way to expand on them before seeing you in Indy in a few days. 🙂

    • Joshua: Perhaps I missed something important, because I didn’t see where they gave a reason for the departure. I really liked Nora’s story about where they went, though.

      • Sorry, poor phrasing “not really a reason but an answer to where they went.” So… same. Wasn’t really concerned about getting any answers at all so the “other world” thing really got me.

  3. I’ve tried to watch the first episode a few times. The first 10 minutes really hook me, but then I get bored and end up playing Candy Crush through the 2nd half of the show. How many episodes do I need to really push through to get into it?

  4. We finally finished that season 3. 🙂 I think the show is great – feels like a David Lynch movie where if you want to find the hidden, interwoven layers, you have to dig. I agree with you that some of it probably exists just to advance the idea “sometimes there are no answers,” but I think most of it has a connection to the Departure.


Leave a Reply

Discover more from jameystegmaier.com

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading