EXCLUSIVE: Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon Break Down the Final Moments of 'The Leftovers'
By Stacy Lambe
“Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.”
That’s the official synopsis for The Leftovers series finale (“The Book of Nora”) -- and it’s quite accurate to what played out in the show’s final chapter on Sunday evening.
Launched with a mystery -- the sudden departure of two percent of the world’s population -- The Leftovers always had one big question looming over the entire series: Where did those people go? But from the very beginning, co-creator Damon Lindelof said the point of the series was not to answer that question. The Leftovers was always about those left behind and how they moved forward with their lives.
In fact, it’s a disaster movie that starts at the end, after the Titanic has sunk. “We begin our series clutching to that piece of wood,”Justin Theroux tells ET, referring to the scene with Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in James Cameron’s 1997 film.
Instead of answering questions of why or how, The Leftovers' finale was largely spent on the emotional journey -- Lindelof has also said that at the core of the seriesis a love story -- of the show’s central couple: Kevin Garvey Jr. (Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who went their separate ways halfway through the third season, as their journeys led them down different paths. Kevin, still unsure if he’s the second coming of Jesus Christ, was tasked with returning to the underworld to get answers for those who were still living; and Nora, consumed with the possibility of being reunited with her departed, chased down the machine that would take her there.
In two separate conversations with Theroux and Coon, who both admit to not knowing the ending until shortly before filming the finale, the actors break down the episode’s biggest revelations and most emotional moments.
[WARNING: Spoilers for the series finale. Do not read if you have not watched or do not want to be spoiled.]
Nora and the Machine
After saying her final goodbye to her brother Matt (played beautifully by Christopher Eccleston), a naked Nora walks down the corridor of the machine and sits down in the orb, ready for whatever comes next. Would the machine reunite her with her husband and kids or would it destroy her? “I think she hoped the machine would take her,” Coon says, adding that it didn’t matter for Nora if she was annihilated. “She’s been flirting with death the whole time we’ve known her.”
Just as Nora takes her final breath before the liquid fills the orb, the show briefly cuts to black.
No matter what, Coon says, this “is end of the pain of unknowing either way.”
While opening the episode, the moment inside the orb was also the last thing Coon filmed for the series. “My last scene of work on The Leftovers was me, naked, surrounded by a crew full of men, while in a vat of water,” she says with a laugh, adding that while the decision to appear fully nude did not come lightly, “it makes people pay attention in a way.”
For Theroux, his final scene on set happened to be the moment Kevin and Nora are in the bathtub as they discuss what they want to happen to them after they die. "Read into that whatever you will," he says dryly. "It was nice to end [The Leftovers] in a warm bathtub."
Though it appeared in the previous episode, it was filmed just prior to scenes inside the machine, making the actress the final “leftover” on set. “It felt very ritualistic to be alone with Nora in that way,” Coon says of the experience.
Soon after the opening scene, the show cuts to an aging Nora in a remote area of Australia; she is reunited with (an aging) Kevin, who arrives at her doorstep. After seeing Nora biking through town, he felt compelled to say hello, offering a revision of the past three seasons: Instead of getting together in Mapleton and everything that followed, Kevin implies none of it ever happened. This meeting is pure chance.
Eventually the two end up at a wedding taking place on the main street of town, where Kevin continues to tell her a story about what happened after she left. Ultimately, it’s a charade, but “[Nora] really doesn’t know if he’s crazy,” Coon says. Yet the game -- a “flirtation” as Theroux describes it -- knowingly continues as the two share a tear-filled dance together. “In the course of the scene, in the act of discovery, he’s really messing with her and she doesn’t know what to think of it,” Coon says.
The whole thing plays out like The Leftovers’ version of a rom-com, the actress adds. “There was something so simple and romantic about it… We’re dancing alone on this beautiful set, during this beautiful night, and your brain doesn’t know the difference.”
“It was very emotional,” Theroux says, pointing to a line Kevin says about holding a candle to Nora. “I -- just in the read -- welled up in that. If you love anyone, you can understand that sentiment.”
“Justin and I aren’t romantic,” Coon concludes. “We’re good friends and we love acting together, but as a person, it was a beautiful thing to experience.”
After Kevin’s façade is revealed, it’s clear that time has jumped forward from the moment we saw Nora in the machine. (The seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure was indeed not the end of the world that so much of the first half season was seemingly building up to.) In the decades since, Kevin has been searching for her, returning to Australia during intermittent vacations to ask if anyone’s seen Nora. And it was during this trip, that her picture finally registered on someone’s face. Kevin lied, he says, because he thought if he erased it all it would give them another chance to be together.
So, what happened to Nora in the machine? In an emotional conclusion to the episode it’s Nora’s turn to come clean. While sitting across from Kevin at the kitchen table, she reveals her journey to the other side, where the departed were living. “I went through,” Nora says.
There she eventually made her way back to Mapleton to find her kids, now teenagers, and husband, who is with a new woman. They -- just like Nora and Kevin had on The Leftovers -- seemingly moved forward with their lives. Soon Nora realized “she was the departed,” Theroux says, a ghost from the past. Devastated and knowing she didn’t belong, Nora found the inventor of the original machine and had him make another one so she could return. She remained in Australia to live out her grief alone, unsure anyone would believe her.
During the “white knuckler” of speech, Coon says it was just her goal to get through it once without messing up. “It’s really scary,” she says, ultimately treating it like a one-act play. “On stage you don’t get to stop and start. You have to get through the whole thing no matter what. I had to think of it as a play I was in with Justin. And Justin is a reliable scene partner and he’s always right there.”
“It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful piece of writing,” Theroux says of Nora’s monologue. Essentially acting as the viewer in the scene, the actor says he “had the pleasure of sitting a few feet across from her” as her story unfolded.
In the end Kevin does believe Nora, but the actress reveals that it was debated on set whether or not she was telling the truth. “In some ways it doesn’t matter. If you tell a story enough times you start to believe it,” Coon says, adding: “I’ll never say what I think out loud because I want [people] to have their own experience and own discovery.”
While offering a vague answer to one of the show’s bigger questions about what happened to the departed, Nora's final speech remains ambiguous, especially if one doubts her reliability as a narrator.
In fact, the only questions Lindelof felt like he and the writers had to answer were: Can these people find a way to feel better? Can they be with each other? And can we lead the audience to a place where they’re fine leaving them here? “Those are the things we had to nail,” he previously told ET ahead of season three, adding that the show will have a finite conclusion.
“That was super important,” Lindelof said of its final moments, while not necessarily clearing up all the mythology. “I can't say to the audience what the takeaway from this is going to be. The Leftovers has always lived in a very ambiguous space that has been very comfortable not resolving the central mystery of the show.”
And for Coon and Theroux, that doesn’t matter. Neither of them walked away from The Leftovers yearning to know more about the show. “One of the reasons I did this project is that I am comfortable with ambiguity, so there wasn’t anything I was expecting,” Coon says, while Theroux adds that it’s human nature to want to know what happened to everyone.
“I’d also like to know, as Justin, where some of my relatives have gone. I would like to know where my lifelong dog, when she passed away, went. I'd like to know why that happened. I’d like to know why people in my life died,” Theroux says. “If anything, that’s what makes our show interesting.”