Over the course of two seasons of The Leftovers, the only show on television that could be mistaken for a very elaborate grief counseling instructional video (albeit, one written by the guy from Lost), Kevin Garvey has been poisoned, buried, drowned, shot in the chest point blank, and forced to sing karaoke in a fantastical realm that was either a hallucination, purgatory, or the secret assassins club from John Wick. But even having survived all those experiences, Kevin insists to his three would-be apostles (Reverend Matt Jamison, John and Michael Murphy)—who have just informed him that they're writing a new gospel based on his life, no pressure—that he's no Jesus. "I'm not saying you are," Matt responds. "But the beard looks good on you."

It's just a small moment of levity (as Nora says in next week's episode, "If we can't have a sense of humor about you being the messiah, we're gonna have a problem"), but it's the kind of understated humor that goes a long way when you're dealing with a show as thematically heavy as The Leftovers, whose third and final season premiered last night on HBO. The show has always been a deeply moving exploration of grief in all its forms, a proudly (and profoundly) weird show that demands your attention and time. Which seems only appropriate for a show that features so many people in deep pain lashing out at an indifferent universe—you either find yourself entranced by its particular storytelling gambits, or...it's just not for you.

And it's understandable if you fall into the later category. I found the first season of The Leftovers, which picked up three years after two percent of the population inexplicably disappeared across the globe, hard to get through. I admired its exploration of spirituality, the emotional grounding, and the deep wells of empathy for the bereaved. But it was also punishingly depressing (which is understandable in hindsight), with one too many plots vying for attention every week. Thankfully, the writers tweaked things for season two, throwing out the weaker plot lines, minimizing the amount of time spent with the Guilty Remnant (a fascinating idea, but a terrible group to hang with), and doubling down on the more fantastical elements ("Homeward Bound").

It was still a show primarily about dealing with the confusion that follows loss, but it was more ambitious in execution, more focused on its central characters, and most importantly, more hopeful than anyone could have expected. Season two ended up being one of the greatest seasons of an HBO drama ever, comparable with Deadwood season two, The Sopranos season five (or one, or the final season), Six Feet Under season five, and The Wire season four (or three, or two, or one... that show was pretty great).

And the new season, which happens to be its funniest yet (the tribute to Gary Busey should give that away), might top it yet. Season three picks up with the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure just two weeks away, and many believing another apocalyptic event may come with it. The chaos that swept through Jarden, Texas (aka Miracle—the only place where no one departed) at the end of season two is now the norm. We get a chance to check-in with almost the entire blended Garvey/Murphy clan: Kevin is back to being sheriff (he's also secretly casually suffocating himself), adopted son Tommy is an officer, Nora (Carrie Coon deserves all the awards, all of them!) is still working for the Department of Sudden Departures (but adopted daughter Lily is mysteriously absent), John Murphy is now in a relationship with Kevin's ex Laurie (the new couple have taken over the therapeutic handprint con), and Matt is now preaching the Gospel Of Kevin (and his wife and son are about to leave him). We also run into Dean, the guy Kevin shot dogs with in season one, who is a living reminder that Kevin's mind is still more fragile than not (not that Dean survives that long).

To show they aren't messing around in the final season, we are treated to no less than four different time periods: the episode starts with a dialogue-free sequence set in the 19th century in which the congregation of a Christian sect called the Millerites diminishes rapidly as incorrect rapture dates pile up. Showrunner Damon Lindelof explained the symbolism to Vulture:

"And so when in the episode we literally pivot off of that woman after the third time and she’s been shunned by her family, and you pan across their white bodies, then you’re suddenly on the Guilty Remnant — the parable is perhaps a little too on the nose. But at the end of the day it’s called The Leftovers! The characters are dealing with apocalypse fever. Do they feel the world’s going to end on the seventh anniversary? Do they feel there’s going to be another departure?"

In the second time shift, we learn that (presumably) most of the Guilty Remnant members (including Liv Tyler's rage-filled Meg Abbott and Evie, John's daughter with the conspicuously absent Erika) were wiped out by authorities after invading the town at the end of season two. The third time period is the present, but the fourth, only coming up in the final sequence of the episode, is the biggest shocker: we encounter "Sarah" collecting doves, which turns out to be Nora sometime in the future.

After the episode ended, I was left with my chin on the floor. They really did it: they threw in a flash-forward. The guy who created Lost had the balls to go back to the flash-forward well even after all that! (Funny enough, he also went back to the literal well last season, when Kevin dealt with Patti in the purgatory world.) But it also makes total sense, because The Leftovers has turned out to be a more-than-worthy successor to that other entrancing, frustrating, and thrilling show. It shows a maturation of the same themes, especially the pursuit of connection and community. As Maureen Ryan wrote for Variety, "The Leftovers is essential viewing because it understands that popular culture and organized religion are both collections of attempts to find meaning, patterns, community, and coherence in a frighteningly random universe."

As with season two, things splinter off episode-by-episode after the initial catchup in the premiere. We get episode spotlights on the likes of Nora, Kevin Garvey Sr., Matt and more; multiple characters end up colliding in Australia. There are Wu-Tang tattoos, mysterious boxes, and trampoline montages. The musical cues are better than ever ("Take on Me" has rarely been used this well). There's also an epic payoff to the ongoing Perfect Strangers/Mark Linn Baker joke.

"It's all just a story I told myself," one character says in an upcoming episode. "It's just a stupid, silly story, and I believed it because I've gone a bit crazy, haven't I?" That could be the mantra of just about everyone on the show. But it's also a sentiment that anyone who has been affected by grief, or has struggled to find meaning in the vast confusion of existence, will immediately feel in their bones. The Leftovers was never a show meant for mass appeal—but it's one that anyone could see themselves reflected in. What's truly miraculous is how it turned what could have been 'depression porn' into a thoroughly compelling, addictive story.