'The Leftovers' saves its best for last

Carrie Coon in 'The Leftovers'

(CNN)The following contains spoilers about "The Leftovers" series finale.

After all the program's surreal moments and strange flights of fancy, "The Leftovers" got back to basics with its series finale -- a deeply romantic look at two people brought together through unspeakable grief.
Weaving in elements of spirituality and faith, it was the near-perfect end to a less-than-perfect series, one that HBO renewed for this third and final season as much to mollify critics as due to its commercial credentials. After reprising an elaborate fantasy in the show's penultimate hour, this was a case where less felt like more.
For producer Damon Lindelof, the finale also carried an element of redemption. Beyond the praise showered on the show, its finish bore similar hallmarks to his earlier co-creation "Lost," but here the pieces fit together more neatly as opposed to feeling like a letdown.
    Granted, those expecting answers regarding the central mystery in Tom Perrotta's novel -- what made 2% of the world's population disappear, and where did they go? -- will have to ponder that on their own, along with a host of lesser questions. Instead, the finale centered on Nora (Carrie Coon) and Kevin (Justin Theroux) in what amounted to a two-character piece, coming back together after years spent apart.
    Having lost her entire family, Nora had left to pursue the slim chance that snake-oil peddling physicists might actually find a way to reunite her with them. Kevin finally tracked her down in remote Australia, where she shared a fantastic tale about having crossed over to wherever the missing had gone, only to realize she didn't belong there and returned.
    Did she really? That brings us back to faith. Kevin, for his part, chose to believe her or pretend that he did, leaving behind a warming ray of hope in their reunion that was scarce in a show characterized by its deep sense of melancholy.
    "The Leftovers" often reveled in unconventional storytelling, including its detours into the past -- depicting the fate of a pregnant cave woman or 19th-century pioneers.
    Yet while the series allowed viewers to be drawn into such peculiar moments, at its core -- and arguably its best -- it was always about these characters. Coon's Nora, in particular, was a mass of fascinating contradictions -- tough and loving, but so deeply wounded that she kept seeking some sort of closure, to the point of abandoning those she loved and braving death.
    "I needed to be with my kids," she said simply in her riveting, award-worthy closing monologue.
    The time lapse in the finale inevitably meant subplots will be left dangling, other than the details Kevin provided about supporting characters as he caught Nora up on what she'd missed.
    "The Leftovers" always faced a structural hurdle, inasmuch as the series was set in motion by an event it couldn't really explain. The show's perspective and venue kept shifting, with characters seeking the strength to move on as they looked for meaning, often in all the wrong places.
    What was frequently unclear, and occasionally frustrating, is where the story was heading. Small wonder that a relatively small audience will mourn the show's disappearance, despite abundant critical adulation.
    Those who did hang around for all 28 hours, though, were rewarded with a sendoff possessing levels of clarity, grace and satisfaction that, frankly, seemed unlikely. As series finales go, that's definitely better than being left hanging in limbo.