The Power of Love and White Costuming on ‘The Leftovers’

The Leftovers. HBO

The Leftovers is a love story. This was something co-creator Damon Lindelof told Vulture a few weeks ago and this sentiment has stuck with me while watching this final season, even as Nora and Kevin pushed each other away, leaning into bad habits and the toxic elements of their relationship. They relied on the pull of the familiar in their choice of work and the comforts of a uniform, covering pain with tattoos and ignoring an itch with fleeting moments of intimacy.

As the seventh anniversary of the Departure was drawing near I wrote about how these characters – particularly Nora and Kevin – were the kings and queens of denial through their choice of “I’m fine” clothing; they even had the crowns to match. A trip to Australia changed everything and an argument that reached down into the depths of the most hurtful things a person can say to their significant other ended this coupling. Setting Nora on a path to return to her kids and Kevin toward his so-called destiny.

In last week’s penultimate episode, Kevin ventured to the other side; the place he goes when he dies and faces a variety of curious tests. This time he didn’t get to pick his vocation from of a closet of uniforms or sing for survival. Instead he loses his newly rediscovered gray sweats for the old International Assassin suit he picked on his first trip to this alt-universe. Not only that, but a version of Kevin is the President of the United States and he also happens to be the leader of the Guilty Remnant. All white ensemble ahoy, but instead of the shabbier end of the white pile he’s in a slick white suit, silk tie and matching boots. An outfit that will be wrecked by the other Kevin’s blood by the end of “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).”

White has been used sparingly when it comes to The Leftovers costuming aside from the mandatory GR clothing because it would lessen its visual impact. That isn’t to say there is an entire absence outside of the cult as it would be hard to eradicate such a ubiquitous clothing choice and most people don’t wear an entire outfit in this hue unless it is for a very special occasion. Kevin’s Mapleton police shirts that had a habit of disappearing and the classic tees he had a penchant for wearing were white. There is also the Miracle bride and Nora’s hotel robe earlier this season, which leaned toward GR because of the smoking.

A white robe is also the last piece of clothing Nora wears before stepping into the machine that will take her to her children, but she’s given her cigarettes to Laurie as therapy payment so there is something a lot more serene about this final moment with her brother Matt. The GR wear white so people remember and Nora is doing just that in the most extreme way. And while I’m talking about the GR a few weeks ago we saw the exact moment Laurie went from therapist to cult member. Right down to changing out of her black expensive ensemble into something far less extravagant.

The Leftovers is a love story and in Nora’s final costume of the series all I can think about is the sweater Billy Crystal wears in When Harry Met Sally. If only Kevin was in Meg Ryan’s red, but then that wouldn’t be very Kevin Garvey. It is unlikely that Leftovers costume designer Rudolph Mance was channeling this rom-com classic, but as I’ve been thinking about this show in terms of its grand romantic story it is hard to not see the similarity here. She goes to smoke, but stops on the account of Kevin’s heart and there is nothing remotely GR feeling about this scene. Where that cult was about tearing people apart, this last scene is all about unity.  

Before it becomes clear as to where or when we are, this place has a similar feel to Kevin’s trips to the other side as it is somewhat disorientating and familiar. Everything looks like the world we know, but something else is a little off. Here it is because Nora is being called Sarah and she’s a lot of older; the end of the season 3 premiere gave us a glimpse of this moment and at the time I was convinced it was a flashforward. As the season progressed and the device to the land of the departed was introduced this feeling of certainty wavered and part of me was sure we were instead seeing Nora’s version of the alt-world. When Kevin showed up saying he only knew her briefly and that their school dance meet cute never became anything more I spent half this last outing certain this was the case.

What makes The Leftovers so good and this finale so satisfying is the answer is equal parts simple and complicated. Yes this is the future and not an alt-universe where Nora has to complete a mission to get home, but Kevin thinks he has to wipe the slate clean in order to win her back so he fake Eternal Sunshine’s their past in order to win the girl. But you don’t win the bravest girl in the world by lying to her.  

It only becomes apparent that we are in the world we have always been, when Kevin admits the truth because there are no obvious indicators to suggest a futuristic time period. People still dress pretty much like they do right now and there’s not a whole lot of tech to suggest this is THE FUTURE. Instead Nora rides a bicycle as she did in Texas and her style has evolved to match the environment she lives in; she looks after birds and her clothing is pretty functional. Kevin looks like Kevin albeit older; his suit at the wedding is International Assassin adjacent switching out his crisp white unbuttoned shirt for a grey buttoned to the top version.

Even when Laurie makes an appearance via phone – there are still phone booths in the future – it isn’t clear where or when we are because we never found out whether Laurie resurfaced from her dive. By the end of the finale it is clear she did and not only is she still with John, but she’s also pretty damn amazing at keeping a promise and not breaking the therapist/patient code.  

Kevin has asked Nora to a dance neglecting to tell her it is actually a wedding, not that her shirt and work pants are entirely indicative of dance attire and she looks far removed from the woman sat on the floor by her old locker when she first met Kevin. Again it doesn’t seem like she has much occasion for formal wear in the life she has made for herself alone out here.

The Leftovers is a love story and this finale cements this notion by focusing on Nora and Kevin finding each other again despite all the obstacles in their way. Faith in each other is a force to be reckoned with and Nora went to the other side – or at least by her accounts she did – and found her family, but she was a ghost in a world that she wasn’t meant to be a part of.

Is this something that really happened? In Nora’s mind it did and Kevin believes her; that’s all that matters. That and that fact that she is here. This show was never concerned with explaining the why of the Departure and it sure as hell doesn’t have to explain whether Kevin was really immortal (for a time). In the same respect it doesn’t need to give us an answer regarding Nora’s experience. We know her husband was having an affair at the time of the Departure and he is now happy in this other world with another woman. This also happens to be a detail Nora told Kevin when they first met and he revealed his own infidelity. Truth is important to the foundations of any relationship and Nora and Kevin were surprisingly honest with each other even in this initial meet cute.

Nora was a ghost in the land of the Departed and she’s a ghost in her current location. She keeps to herself and it doesn’t appear that anyone in the close knit town aside from the nun know who she is. She doesn’t even know about the wedding taking place even though her birds are the ones used for the love note facade. Her cap conceals her face and this was in part to initially hide her identity at the end of the first episode this season, but it works two-fold in keeping her from the world.

In an instant Kevin is part of the comminity getting an invite to the wedding and sharing a rapport with the bride. Everything about this wedding is designed to keep us guessing about the reality of this world as Kevin keeps up his story about their one brief interaction and the candle he has held for her despite never knowing her. There are truths scattered among the lies, but he is always truthful about his Nora Durst loving heart.  

Rituals at this wedding include putting beads on a goat to get rid of your sins, wiping the slate clean. The last time a goat appeared on this show it was part of a sacrifice and Nora brings up this specific event to test Kevin and he keeps up the charade. Only letting down his guard as they dance to Otis Redding and their faces crumple to reveal shared pain. This is a good time to point out that the Emmys definitely need to recognize Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux’s incredible performances both in this episode and all season long.

The spell is broken and Nora flees because one of them needs to be running. Kevin confronted his mistakes by cutting out his heart and recognizing his cowardice; now he has undergone an actual heart operation and despite being told the contrary he was certain Nora was out there.

The Leftovers is a love story and reinvention in both appearance and lifestyle is one way to deal with a break-up. It is also a method used to win someone back and Kevin rids himself of past relationship sins by pretending they never happened. But in the context of the sins versus mistakes definition, Kevin only committed the latter recognizing he had fucked up with Nora while he cut out his own heart in his alt-universe. To win her back he needs to tell the truth and this is when Nora and Kevin are at their strongest; admitting how fucked up they are.

These beads also provide one final challenge for Nora after she flies off her bike due to some lying in the road. The cause of this is because of the poor scapegoat has been shedding them and is now stuck in fence as a result of bearing this symbol of sin. After scaling the very steep hill, Nora takes those beads and puts them on herself freeing the goat and herself in the process. Now she is open to hearing Kevin’s explanation and sharing her own.   

The Leftovers is a love story and in a world where white clothing was co-opted by a cult, in the finale it becomes the symbol of love from the classic interpretation of a wedding dress to the sweater Nora wears in this final scene. A burden has been lifted and maybe, just maybe the most powerful man in the world and the bravest girl (now woman) in the world stand a chance of making it.