“The Prodigal Son Returns”
Directed by Mimi Leder | Written by Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta | 53 min
All’s well that ends well
By Colin Hart
9.0 / 10
“The Prodigal Son Returns” is a difficult, yet rewarding finale. Part of its problem is the fact that it follows “The Garveys at Their Best,” an intense flashback episode that could have worked at any point in the series’ run. The emotional weight of that episode still lingers into the finale, but it doesn’t truly begin to resonate until about 40 minutes in. You see, there’s a difference between linger and resonate. I’ll explain.
We begin “The Prodigal Son” right where we left off two weeks ago in “Cairo”: Kevin in a cabin in the middle of the woods, Guilty Remnant leader Patti having just committed suicide to try and teach him some twisted lesson. This was already a middling development anyways—anything with the Remnant always turns out to be. After “The Garveys at Their Best” provided a fascinating look into the series’ past, it is almost a slap in the face to be back in the bleak, post-Departure present.
Kevin decides that the only man in Mapleton he can trust is Rev. Matt Jamison. He explains his situation to him, and Matt agrees to help get him out of this mess. But not before Patti is given a proper Christian burial. The Leftovers loves to use biblical imagery, and Kevin’s “baptism” here is no different.
Meanwhile, Jill is attempting to reconnect with her mother by joining the Guilty Remnant. Some may find immense weight in this story, I personally find it to be a bit of a bore. Jill has not been a character I’ve much liked at all, and the Guilty Remnant has been holding The Leftovers back since day one.
I say the memory of “The Garveys at Their Best” lingers over much of “The Prodigal Son Returns” because it suddenly almost feels like a cheat. It was a great standalone, sure, but now season one essentially has one less episode to tell its main story—a slow-moving story, at that.
The first 40 minutes of “The Prodigal Son Returns” give off an uneasy feeling—that perhaps The Leftovers is going to take a Game of Thrones approach, turning the season finale into a meditative anticlimax that subtly points the way toward next season. The problem with this approach is that The Leftovers hasn’t earned it—you can’t have an anticlimax if nothing was brewing to begin with. Throughout its early goings, “The Prodigal Son” sure does take its time, with low stakes.
Luckily, we reach the two-thirds mark and “The Garveys at Their Best” is finally referenced: Kevin, breaking down in tears, recounting to Matt how happy he felt when he ran into the school to find that Tom and Jill hadn’t Departed. It’s a scene that completely turns the tide of the episode, and maybe the season as a whole, as everything is starting to come together. Kevin is at his most broken and bare—a show in which the emotions have sometimes felt forced finally feel genuine and human.
The same is true of the first 40 minutes of the Mapleton storyline. After the rush of “The Garveys at Their Best,” being breached on Guilty Remnant dynamics again is like watching the grass come home. It even trips up your words. Perhaps I was the one who should have Departed.
Even without Patti’s leadership, Laurie gives the order for the GR to go through with their big plan. Bigger than standing outside people’s driveways, bigger than stealing pictures of Departed family members, even bigger than framing Gladys’ death as a hate crime. We’re talking huge, baby.
The GR place life-size human replica dolls in the homes of the Departed, to “make people remember,” according to Meg. The fact that this is made out to be some sort of big reveal severely lessens the impact.
However, the emotion doesn’t resonate until “The Garveys at Their Best” is directly referenced—Nora waking up to find her “family” seated at the table just as they were on that fateful day. We saw what she went through when it actually happened last episode, so we can feel every inch of her pain as she breaks down in the kitchen.
The episode then kicks into high gear. Kevin encounters a dying Holy Wayne in a bathroom, who seems to grant him a wish. We don’t get to hear Kevin’s wish, of course, but based on his moving conversation with Matt and the way the episode finishes, I have a hunch on what it might have been. Which would make Wayne’s powers…real?
After a surreal hallucination (?) involving Kevin Sr., the May 1972 National Geographic magazine (which features a large, detailed map of Cairo, Egypt) and Patti’s ghost, Kevin and Matt return to find their town in shambles. People didn’t take too kindly to the GR’s latest stunt, and have responded with extreme violence.
It’s almost like Kevin, continuing his biblical journey, has returned to a scene from the apocalypse. Houses are on fire, people are screaming, people are running. Completing his season-long journey of transformation, he goes to save the ones he loves.
Perhaps the most moving scene of the episode—and a culmination for Laurie Garvey’s season one arc as a whole—is when Laurie, after Kevin has fought off her attackers, strains her rusty vocal cords to cry “JILL!” while pointing to the burning house. Kevin saves his daughter, and the “prodigal son” of the title can refer to whomever you want. There are many this episode.
So, the final 20 minutes more than make up for the first 40. In fact, those final 20 minutes are so good that the previous 9 hours 40 minutes all seem entirely worthwhile now. It is a perfect way to conclude season one’s self-contained and somewhat erratic story, while also setting up The Leftovers for a new beginning in season two.
Tom returns home to Laurie, Nora finds Christine’s abandoned baby, renewing her sense of purpose and Kevin has finally got (some of) his family back. It is an uncharacteristically upbeat note to end season one of television’s most somber show, but it is an ending that fills the series with promise.
The Leftovers ends season one in a far better position than it started. Actually, it started off pretty well, the middle was where the trouble was. No trouble ahead, though, as seasons two and three are pretty damn close to perfect.
And just like “The Prodigal Son Returns” and the entirety of season one proved, the ending is what counts.
-I like to compare The Leftovers to Halt and Catch Fire, another very good show that had a rough first season before finally figuring things out. Halt’s season one finale, like “The Prodigal Son Returns,” also did a good job at burning the show’s problems down and giving an opportunity for renewal.
-Other than the Guilty Remnant, the biggest problem storytelling-wise in season one was Holy Wayne. He essentially had nothing to do with nobody, making chance encounters with but not really affecting our main characters. Was he a fraud? Was he a god? Did he have anything to do with the Departure? Did he have anything to do with anything on this show? Is his baby gonna do something? We’ll probably never know the answers, and he could go down as the most inconsequential plot device in prestige history.