When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called “the anguish of Abraham.” You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, “Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son.” But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs? A certain mad woman who suffered from hallucinations said that people were telephoning to her, and giving her orders. The doctor asked, “But who is it that speaks to you?” She replied: “He says it is God.” And what, indeed, could prove to her that it was God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can prove that they are really addressed to me?
– Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946)
On October 14th, when the Sudden Departure occurred in the world of The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey was cheating on his wife. The woman he was with seems to have disappeared mid-coitus, as we see Kevin tossing the sheet of their motel bed, confused about what has happened.
This is after his strange encounters with a deer, which were imbued with ambiguity from the get-go. Everything with Kevin is ambiguous. Is the deer a sign—a harbinger—or was this just a strange thing that happened? What about the manhole cover explosion, which also occurred before the Departure?
If Kevin is the lead character in The Leftovers it is to the extent that he responds to the Departure in a way that is just as full of ambiguity as the experience of the show is for the viewer. And, indeed, that same ambiguity transverses “real life”- what is significant and what isn’t? What constitutes a sign? Is there a difference between coincidence and synchronicity? How does one respond to the absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence?
More than any other character on the show, Kevin lives in the space of those questions. He is thus primarily defined by internal tensions and contradictions. These manifest directly in what is either somnambulism or some kind of dissociative disorder, as it becomes clear that he does things he does not recall. Kidnapping Patti and visiting Virgil would be noncontroversial examples of this, but it also seems possible he may have had further encounters with Dean the dog killer that the audience was not privy to.
The dogs themselves symbolize the kind of ambiguity that defines Kevin’s arc: are they not what they seem? Is it true that they aren’t “our dogs” in some kind of metaphysical way? Or is it perhaps the case that they merely lost their owners when the Departure occurred, and have now gone wild? It is not for nothing that Kevin ultimately takes one in as a pet, but keeps it tied up in the backyard.
When Dean comes to visit Kevin in Texas in the third season, it is because he has become convinced that the dogs have gotten smarter and are mimicking human form. They are trying to infiltrate the government, and he offers Kevin a Senator’s half-eaten sandwich to test for canine DNA to prove it.
This is, of course, absurd in the humorous sense (as opposed to philosophical one, which involves an encounter with the limits of knowledge, or meaning) but The Leftovers manages to play with both of those senses of absurdity at the same time. Given our inability to explain the Departure, is Dean’s hypothesis about the dogs truly out of the question? Be honest: did you want Kevin to test that sandwich?
At times Kevin seems to be open to strange possibilities—perhaps only because his life has a way of forcing him to be—while at others, such as the case of Dean and the sandwich, his move is to shut them down. But his uncertainty is on display when, after Dean comes at him and dies from a headshot from Tommy, a dog begins eating the sandwich in question off the ground. The test Dean wanted is no longer possible; its potential results slip into the unknowable.
It was two years after the Departure when Laurie Garvey left Kevin to join the Guilty Remnant. We never see what happened during those two years, but it seems likely that Kevin engaged in more infidelity. It’s also likely that his wife found out about at least some of it, based on what Patti tells him in the cabin shortly before she commits suicide. It seems probable that Kevin thinks that he was in some way responsible for Laurie’s decision to join the GR—because, frankly, how could you not at least be nagged by that possibility?—but at the same time he always seems to understand the allure of the GR a bit better than that. He’s haunted by the Departure even before he is haunted by Patti Levin, and she is not wrong when she says that he understands before she slits her own throat.
Kevin both wishes that he had departed, and doesn’t. He is both suicidal and isn’t. He understands the Guilty Remnant, but cannot accept it as a viable option. Its temptation is like that of suicide—to give up on life and the world—just without the messy business of dying. He tells Nora that he suffocates himself with dry cleaning bags to remind himself that he wants to live, yet he engages in this practice nonetheless.
When Kevin discovers that Matt Jamison has been writing a book about him, he rejects the conceit but is also intrigued by it. He keeps the book, at least until the fight with Nora that explodes in an Australian hotel when he finally burns the thing. But even that fight was largely instigated by Nora’s continual mocking of the book. These things happened to Kevin. We saw them. But, as open and accepting as their relationship was in many ways—looking past her habit of hiring prostitutes to shoot her, Kevin’s sleep-walking, etc.—it is almost certain that he didn’t tell Nora about the things that happened to him.
It seems clear that Kevin died and came back at least two or three times over the course of the show, which does indeed seem like something it would be worth writing a book about. The first time I watched the show, I was actually disappointed with the way that “International Assassin” seemed to lay waste to the ambiguity that I found so central to Kevin’s arc, but these complaints disappeared on a second viewing.
What remains ambiguous is not so much whether Kevin died—though one could strain for ambiguity here by noting that we don’t know what he drank at Virgil’s, or how long he was “dead” in Australia—but the question of where it is that he goes. Is this where everyone goes when they die, as Virgil’s presence in the hotel would seem to indicate, or is it specific to Kevin? Is the Patti there really Patti, or Kevin’s representation of Patti? That latter is the same question that one must ask when it comes to Patti haunting Kevin throughout the second season of the show, and it is not one that receives a definitive answer. In fact, Kevin’s journeys beyond the veil complicate the question more than they resolve it.
First of all, if it were really Patti he was dealing with in “International Assassin,” and killing the young version of her in the other place was what allowed Kevin to be free of her in real life, then how is it that Patti exists again in the other place in the penultimate episode of the series? Trying to work out an answer to that metaphysically seems like a fool’s errand, but if we instead focus on the importance of Patti to Kevin psychologically, it makes perfect sense.
She represents his temptation to withdraw from the world—to do something like join the Guilty Remnant—and, at the same time, his refusal to do so. When she was alive, Kevin was both empathetic in relation to Patti, and utterly against her; it was as though he wanted to shake her out of her commitment to the GR as much as she wanted to pull him into it. Kevin recognizes the absurd but refuses to embrace it, to ignore it, or to leap into faith. How does one live with the ambiguity, distinct from absurdity in that the latter embraces senselessness while the former is not sure—maybe life is meaningful and maybe not. What does one do? Is suicide a solution?
It is interesting how Kevin’s trips beyond the veil show a world in which the GR is politically ascendant. It is tempting to read this as Kevin’s fantasy, in the psychoanalytic sense—not a conscious desire, but an unconscious one manifesting itself through the creation of this alternate reality. After all, we ultimately see a world where Kevin, as a devoted member of the GR, has attained the office of the President of the United States. And when he runs through the security protocols to enter his bunker—hilarious penis scan included—and is asked the name of his Secretary of State, he correctly guesses Patti Levin.
Of course, in this reality, he has an identical twin brother and can switch back and forth between the two Kevins, which gives further credence to the thought that the primary question is his battle with himself. He has to extract the nuclear key from the chest cavity of his other self—to kill himself—in order to carry through the plan of killing the world.
This could be read in multiple ways, but thematically it plays as a showdown between the sides of Kevin he has struggled to reconcile. The two come to agree, after all, and while nuking the world hardly seems like a plan to root for, perhaps this represents Kevin traversing his fantasy and moving beyond the problems that have plagued him. Perhaps what seems to be a metaphysical drama is merely an allegory for his personal drama and his struggle to come to terms with himself.
Yet, then, what is David Burton doing there in “International Assassin”? It would seem that Kevin has never met the man in real life, even if Matt and others ultimately encounter him, alive, some years later. If that was really him, in some sense, and if Virgil was similarly truly himself, then a reading that centers on Kevin’s personal psychology falters.
The themes of the show, however, do not. Figuring out the metaphysics seems largely beside the point. In a meaningful way, David Burton is God in this story—not a God who offers all of the answers, but precisely one who does not. The ambiguities of profane existence are carried over into the domain of the sacred. You can get back to your life if you do some karaoke. Absurd.
Burton tells Matt that Jesus wasn’t resurrected but had an identical twin brother people mistakenly thought to be him. Kevin, who it seems did die and resurrect more than once, encounters his own “identical twin” in the penultimate episode (when he is “dead”). This inverts Burton’s story. How does one read this?
Damon Lindelof is on record saying that The Leftovers is a love story, and, indeed, it ends with Kevin and Nora, some 15 years after the events that form the bulk of the series. Apparently Kevin kept going back to Australia, year after year, in order to look for her, unable to accept that the last time they saw each other was when they fought in that hotel room.
She tells him that her attempt to go where the departed had gone worked, but that she was like a ghost there. He says he believes her but it would seem that there are many who do not. We never see this other world where 98% of the population disappeared, after all, but only hear Nora’s account, and moreover there is something strange about the idea of traveling through two such realities. Many worlds theory doesn’t even quite do the job here; it is as though October 14th created some kind of split that neither world would have pre-existed.
This, however, does not strike me as the important question. Rather, it is Kevin’s inability to believe that the moment in the hotel room was the end of his relationship with Nora that seems to be to be the important thing. There are these moments in life that we can’t take back: things that we did and regret, or feel shame about; things that keep us up at night; that instant when, in a flash of rage, you ruined it.
Some scenes in The Leftovers are clearly Kevin’s dreams; could this last one be that as well? Instead of wondering whether Nora was lying, should we perhaps be wondering whether this is Kevin’s dream, with Nora’s words representing a kind of wish fulfillment?
I don’t think so, but it is hard to deny the extent to which this gives Kevin what he most deeply wants with regard to Nora. He doesn’t ask her if she thought about him, for example, she asks herself, and answers affirmatively. She says it was too late, which he must also have felt; their relationship really was wrecked that night in the hotel room, with all of its internal tensions boiling over and exploding. And things were said that cannot be taken back.
If you’ve had a moment like this, you know how it leaves you. It’s not the kind of thing that goes away, but also not something you feel you can rectify. Thus the way that Kevin shows up to Nora feigning a kind of amnesia makes perfect sense; he wants to start over. But so, too, does her resistance to that: you can’t pretend the past didn’t happen.
And so, when he finally comes back to her and offers a mea culpa, she offers him some tea. This is perfect. This is how things go. You get caught up in your own head trying to figure out why she hasn’t reached out to you, playing over all of these times when maybe you said something wrong, and trying to figure the whole thing out. You worry and work through possible conversations to get back to where things were OK, and struggle to find a path, and you think it is going to be this complicated thing. You work out lines of dialogue, and maybe just decide to pretend like things never happened because it all seems so fraught. You send her a text that just says, “Hey. How are you?” But the past is there, anyway, and the breakthrough tends to be something just like this, which bears no direct relation to all of the shit but instead cuts through it: “would you like a cup of tea?”
I have no idea how personal, or how gendered, that reflection might be, but the scene connected with my own experience in a deep way. As Kevin tells himself in the penultimate episode of the series, he fucked up with Nora. He lashed out, and even if one can understand why, that does very little when it comes to how things like this linger with you.
From an external point of view, some might think that Kevin and Nora’s relationship was problematic, but it did seem as though they were touchingly accepting of each other’s faults, at least until things fell apart. He accepted that she used to hire prostitutes to shoot her; she accepted that he would suffocate himself with a dry cleaning bag. If the ideal of love is the absolute, this gets close to that: to love one another unconditionally, even if some things were withheld.
On the one hand, Kevin’s arc ends when he comes back from the other place, after nuking it, and sits on the roof with his dad. It is here that he has come back to himself, or reconciled himself to the absurd. On the other hand, it is only in the final scene with Nora that Kevin’s story comes to a conclusion. But this is not thematically separate. The Departure forces an encounter with the absurd. Death is absurd. Life is absurd. But so too is love; there is no reason for it.
One might question Nora’s story as a viewer, but when Kevin says, “I believe you,” it is an expression of faith—not in God, or anything like that, but in love.