To hear Vice President Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) describe it, the “ethical deterrent” known as the Fisher Protocol resembles the question Drs. Eden and Bekker pose to Nora in “G’Day Melbourne.” In order to annihilate the human race, Kevin (Justin Theroux) must annihilate himself, or a version thereof; the key to the nuclear football is buried behind his lookalike’s heart, and its removal is sure to be murder. If the earlier episode frames Nora’s choice in different terms, pitting the death of a child against the cure for cancer, both scenarios confront the characters with the same calculation: Does one life weigh more or less than the others combined, and how might one go about measuring? Each case, of course, is a thought experiment—no one dies, at least not yet—but the theme’s repetition in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” seems as significant now as the presentiments of disaster in “The Garveys at Their Best.” Repurposing the cold, aloof, knowing invention of “International Assassin” to set the table for the series’ end, tonight’s episode emerges, finally, as a poignant treatment of regret.
It’s also raucously funny, a clear through line in The Leftovers’ final season: The code Meg offers to Kevin in the episode’s action-adventure netherworld is 6969 (nice), and he accesses the bunker where he meets Secretary of Defense Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) by offering his dick print (a winking reference, I suspect, to Season One’s gray sweatpants). This almost farcical aspect distinguishes “The Most Powerful Man in the World” from the more solemn “International Assassin”—a canny decision, since the setting itself no longer enjoys the element of surprise—even before Kevin slips underwater; his conversation with Nora (Carrie Coon), when Lily was still in their care, comprises cremation, taxidermy, and her playful suggestion that he should grow a beard. From the destruction of Patti’s glasses to the insults she lobs at Meg (“I couldn’t enlighten you with a fuckin’ thousand-watt bulb,” she snarls), the episode bristles with black humor, as if it were the gag one cracks in the midst of mourning to keep oneself from crying.
After the shattering conclusion of “Certified,” this counts as a respite, though “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is as consumed as Laurie is by the onrush of the past. As in “The Garveys at Their Best,” which pores over the eve of the Sudden Departure for clues as to what was coming, The Leftovers’ penultimate hour sifts through three seasons of loss in search of closure, only to reaffirm that the end of grief depends not on the dead, but on those of us who survive. Its allusions to the series’ annals are legion—the first season’s fearful theme accompanies the opening credits; a teleprompter refers to the title of “G’Day Melbourne”; the voice in Kevin’s earpiece is both the man of the karaoke bar in “International Assassin” and Matt Jamison’s stand-in for “God”—but “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is, first and foremost, a Book of the Dead: Dean (Michael Gaston), Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Meg, Patti, Christopher Sunday (David Gulpilil), Kevin Yarborough (David Garvey), Grace Playford’s kids—a crowded ledger of those, from “Cairo” to “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” that the living were unable to save.
To their mothers and fathers, their enemies and supplicants, their neighbors and friends, the weight of one death, or five, is more than that of all of the others—not because a particular life is worth more, but because grief, like gravity, is a function of proximity, a force that tugs harder the closer we get. What distinguishes Kevin from his followers—John (Kevin Carroll), comforted by the confirmation that Evie received his message; Grace (Lindsay Duncan), still unable to explain her children’s missing shoes—is the fact that his regret is more formless, his reason for returning to “the other side of the world” the result of another force. As Kevin prepares to sink beneath the surface again, urged on by Kevin, Sr. (Scott Glenn), Michael (Jovan Adepo) wonders why he bears the risk, and the flash of Nora’s face in this moment is his, and our, answer: It is love that propels him, the love of Captain and Tennille, of the Beach Boys, of Patty Duke, love that is by turns hopeful and haunting, bright and bereft, run through with the knowledge that it might already be forever lost.
And so, as “The Most Powerful Man in the World” approaches its conclusion, the onrush of the past—the dread montage of disaster that constitutes Kevin’s post-Departure life—changes, by degrees, into the coda’s uncertain future. It’s of a piece with The Leftovers’ audacious construction that the end of the world should also signal a new beginning, and the image of Patti and Kevin clasping hands as the bombs streak across the sky is gorgeous and tragic in equal measure. Her reminder that he’s spent seven years desperate to escape from life, echoed by the text of that untitled romance, brings Kevin to the reckoning once promised in “The Prodigal Son Returns” and “I Live Here Now,” only this time he will not relinquish it: “Take this thing out of me,” he says to himself after reading the passage, “so we can’t come back here again.”
If The Leftovers has a message for us, it’s most assuredly this: There is no running from regret, no closing off grief, no forgetting love, no escaping life, not if one chooses it over complete annihilation. Despite the pain of Nora’s absence, then, the gnawing lack of Duke’s tune, Kevin’s awakening in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” cast in sunlight and set to the chirping of birds, might be the series’ most telling gesture. In Kevin, Sr.’s open-ended question — “Now what?” — there is the echo of Nora screaming, “What’s next?” in “Guest,” only it’s softer now, gentler, as if to note that the end of the world has already come and gone. If “The Garveys at Their Best” is, as I wrote at the time, a portrait of the moment “before” becomes “after,” at which point there’s no going back, “The Most Powerful Man in the World” turns this sentiment in the opposite direction.
“Every time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave,” Kevin says to the crowd when he arrives in the netherworld, but his fateful choice—and, as we know, Nora’s—is to re-enter life, not to escape it. He moves forward, even as the “now,” the “next,” the “after” remain as impossible to predict as the past is to recover.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.