The Leftovers is a cosmic story told on an intimate scale, and Mimi Leder’s direction of the series’ final episode brings its paradoxical relationship between the expansive supernatural and the quiet familiar into satisfying harmony.
The series tackled humanity’s perennial, unsolvable-yet-inevitable questions: what happens when we die? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does misfortune strike seemingly at random? How do we get past grief? The Leftovers, thankfully, sidesteps the notion of easy answers. Much of the series explored how protagonist Kevin (Justin Theroux) became a Christ-like figure, potentially immortal and apocalypse-deferring. But Nora (Carrie Coon), his lover and counterpart, becomes the emotional core of the series, and Leder’s direction underscores her ultimate centrality.
Leder shoots most of the finale in either intimate closeups or sparse long shots. After three seasons exploring why 2% of the world’s population disappeared and how this reckoning affected those left behind, the final episode takes a strikingly personal approach.
We’re presented with a series of one-on-one scenes — Nora and her brother Matthew (Christopher Eccleston), Nora and a nun, Nora and a former lover — or we get completely solitary moments as Nora bikes alone, or cooks breakfast in her empty house.
In these scenes, Leder’s framing underscores how we mirror and refract the narratives and emotions of our closest relationships. Nora’s brother has cancer, yet it’s she who is wearing a hospital gown with an IV drip while Matthew’s in regular clothes and comforting her with inside jokes from their childhood. She’s about to embark on an intergalactic quest — either she’ll die, or be reunited with her vaporized family — yet the two are just sitting on lawn chairs, swapping stories about days past and what they’re afraid to face.
At its most foundational, film’s magic lies in its ability to tell stories that push our boundaries. Leder’s powerfully intimate approach to Nora’s story brings us back to these fundamentals. An emotive face and quavering voice are infinitely more compelling than a series of special effects, no matter how finely crafted they might be. There is always more for film to show us, but Leder’s “The Book of Nora” demonstrates the power of restraint.
Julia Lewis is an arts worker, ardent feminist, and general cultural enthusiast living in Toronto after spending a bit too much time in graduate school.