[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “The Leftovers” finale — Season 3, Episode 8, “The Book of Nora.”]
“The Leftovers” is a series that tackles the dilemma of ambiguity head-on, with an emphasis placed on faith. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s HBO drama has always been about finding peace without knowing all the answers because, unless you’re actually the second-coming of Christ, none of us will know for certain what happens after we die.
So like anyone deeply invested in “The Leftovers,” I’m not looking for answers. I don’t want to know where 2 percent of the world’s population went on October 14. I don’t want to know if Kevin (Justin Theroux) actually visited the afterlife or if Matt (Christopher Eccleston) really spoke to God.
And, after the series finale, I don’t want to know if Nora was telling the truth — a choice some viewers didn’t even realize was up for debate.
In the final scene of the series, Nora (Carrie Coon) sits down across from Kevin and tells him an extraordinary tale: She used a machine to travel to the other side, where everyone who disappeared on October 14 ended up, and visited her departed family. Then, after realizing she didn’t belong there, she tracked down the scientist who built the machine and had him construct another one that would send her back. When she arrived, she decides to live the rest of her life in Australia, alone — until Kevin finds her.
The scene is captured entirely from Nora’s perspective with Coon telling the story herself. In what has been an important theme of Season 3, there aren’t any flashbacks or cutaways to illustrate her story. The power comes from how Nora tells it, as well as Coon’s extraordinary performance, but more so it comes from a simple question; a question Kevin answered, but the audience must answer for themselves.
Is Nora telling the truth?
“There is an interpretation out there that Nora is not telling him the truth,” Damon Lindelof said in an interview with IndieWire, just a day after the finale screened for Emmys voters in New York. Lindelof was on hand for a post-screening panel discussion along with Perrotta, director and executive producer Mimi Leder, as well as members of the cast.
“The first question that Matt Seitz asked us as a moderator after we screened the finale was, ‘Why didn’t you show flashbacks of Nora’s story as she was telling it?'” Lindelof said “I was so surprised by his question because it wasn’t even [considering the possibility] that this story wasn’t true.”
Lindelof did, however, answer the great Mr. Seitz‘s question as best he could.
“This entire series and particularly this season has been about incredible actors telling incredible stories that are very least true to them,” Lindelof said. “Whether or not they’re actually true to anyone else is all a matter of belief, and belief is an incredibly powerful aspect that the show has been playing with since it began.”
“[But] we also have to entertain the possibility that we didn’t show flashes of it because it didn’t happen,” he said. “When I said that, people in the audience gasped like they hadn’t even considered that Nora wasn’t telling the truth as a possibility. I was just like, ‘That’s just perfect. That’s exactly the way that it should play.'”
But I had a different question — or so I thought. Initially, it didn’t seem like my question would conflict with such pointedly ambiguous storytelling decisions, but, similar to Mr. Seitz’s, it’s a question rooted in one perspective.
It’s about Nora’s decision not to tell Kevin that she came back. After all, Nora’s reasoning as to why she didn’t contact Kevin when she came back from wherever she went — “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.” — seemed pertinent not only to their relationship, but to the time jump within the finale. He had been waiting so long and gone through so much himself:
IW: Why wouldn’t he believe her? Why would she think that?
“For me to unpack the question that you ask would almost verify the truthfulness of Nora’s story, right?” Lindelof said. “If I’m giving you some sort of ‘here’s why she didn’t [tell him]’ after she went through the ladder and went on the entire journey she went on — maybe spending some time with Gary Busey and Bronson Pinchot before coming back — if I start to unpack that, it will seem to suggest that I’m verifying that her story is true. Obviously, I don’t want to do that.”
IW: I think that speaks to the passion that people have for their attachment to the show. They’re going to have their own very specific interpretation of what’s been going on this entire time. I think Seitz’s question and the audience gasping at your response is actually where where my question was coming from, too. Even though I can acknowledge that there is another way to look at it, I’m seeing it my way. I love my ending, and I’ll hold onto it.
“And I want you to hold onto it!” Lindelof said. “If we’re fortunate enough that 10 or 15 years from now people are still watching ‘The Leftovers,’ they’re just going to watch it. They’re not going to Google all of the think pieces that were being written at the time that it aired. They’re just going to watch it. That’s why what you said, I think, is of tantamount importance: You get to just basically have whatever you want to believe.”
Yet the beauty of the series’ ambiguity, in the ending and overall, is that no matter what you choose to believe, viewers can clearly see why the characters make the choices they do — including in that final scene.
“What I would say is if Kevin says to Nora, ‘Of course I believe you. Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here’ — that’s certainly where we want the audience to be. If that’s where Kevin is, that’s where the audience should be.”
From all the early reactions, it sure sounds like we were. So firm was the belief in these two characters, we were willing to believe just about anything — even spending time in an alternate reality with Gary Busey.
But if we learned anything from three years with “The Leftovers,” it’s that some questions shouldn’t be answered by anyone but yourself.