The Leftovers: Why the end of “Certified” is brilliant


Last Sunday, The Leftovers season 3 aired its finest hour yet. We discuss the tragic conclusion of “Certified” and what it means.

The Leftovers has a knack for endings. From the dog massacre in the pilot to Kevin and Nora’s breakup in “G’Day Melbourne”, each episode builds to a spectacular climax that leaves viewers shell-shocked (and, in some cases, flabbergasted).

With “Certified”, the show somehow outdid itself. Nearly a week later, I still can’t stop thinking about that final scene. On the surface, it’s subdued, almost serene. Yet, every aspect of it – the way Max Richter’s piano score gives way to silence, Amy Brenneman’s smile before she puts on the scuba mask, the trembling close-ups – brims with exquisite emotion.

Of course, it works because the rest of the episode sets the stage.

Suicidal tendencies

If you ranked Leftovers characters according to their likelihood of committing suicide, Laurie would probably land near the bottom. She’s a shrink, after all; she is supposed to be rational, the person who explains to others that suicide isn’t the answer. Whatever problems she has, at least she doesn’t cope by asphyxiating herself with a plastic bag.

But “Certified” foreshadows her fate from the beginning. It opens two years after the Sudden Departure. After a particularly futile session with a patient, Laurie swallows a bunch of pills and lies on her office couch. The image recalls Nora lying on a bed of packing peanuts in “G’Day Melbourne” – another woman preparing to die. Laurie, it turns out, isn’t ready; she throws up on the bathroom floor. Instead, she finds a different way out: joining the Guilty Remnant.

That’s suicide, too. The Guilty Remnant requires members to discard their possessions and sever preexisting bonds – in other words, to renounce their identities. They become ghosts. As Laurie dons her white clothes, she blends into the white walls around her. Eventually, she fades away, a shapeless blur.

In the present, Laurie appears to be in a good place; she has left the Guilty Remnant, reconciled with her family, and married John. However, her conversation with Nora in the van exposes scars. For example, she still has the cigarette lighter that Jill gave her for Christmas, even though she no longer smokes. “It’s an incredibly self-destructive habit,” she explains.

At first, you assume she keeps the lighter out of love for her daughter. But Laurie’s subsequent actions hint at a darker, less sentimental motive. Maybe she isn’t clinging to Jill, but the Guilty Remnant, the self-destructive impulse that drove her to become a “living reminder”. The words engraved on the lighter – “Don’t forget me” – could easily be the G.R.’s motto.

Leap of faith

Right when we see Laurie on the boat, we know what’s going to happen. Jill’s phone call tricks us into momentarily believing otherwise. This is fiction; of course, Laurie will remember that she is loved, and that will be her reason to stay alive. But this is The Leftovers; love doesn’t cure all. So, she takes a breath and falls back into the water.

The image is what haunts you. After Laurie disappears, the camera lingers on the boat, filming the empty ocean. I dissected the show’s use of negative space earlier. Here, though, it evokes not a void, blank and unfathomable, but possibility – a world. You can see all the way to the horizon, where ships float, poised between heaven and earth. Somewhere beneath the sloshing waves is Laurie, looking for a way to die. Even in her absence, her presence can be felt.

Like so much in The Leftovers, it’s a paradox: a mystery and a certainty. We don’t see Laurie die, but we have no doubt she did. It wouldn’t be her first time. And perhaps, it’s not her last.

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The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.