The leftovers, Season 1, created by Damon Lindelof, based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (HBO, 2014).
On October the 11th, 2011, 2% of the world’s population vanishes. They just poof into thin air. The leftovers shows some insight into the lives of the small community of Mapleton, just outside New York City, three years after the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the Chief Officer of the local police, keen on maintaining peace and trying to help out his teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) after his father (Scott Glenn) was commited to a mental institution, his son Tom (Chris Zylka) ran away and joined a cult and his wife and he became estranged. Mapleton, just like the rest of the country, is being slowly taken over by the Guilty Remnant, a cult with a vow of silence and chainsmoking, led by Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) and intent on making everyone remember (and obsess over, if possible) the Sudden Departure. Other important characters are Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), an Episcopalian priest hell-bent on proving that the Sudden Departure was not the Rapture by digging around the morally reproachable things that the Departed did; his sister Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose husband and two children were Departed and now works for the government, and Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a cult leader who claims can take grief away by hugging people.
Even though the setting is similar to shows like Flashforward, The leftovers takes on a very different course: the goal is not to find out why all those people disappeared. It is not about solving the mystery, not even about taking a rational approach to it. Something painful happened with no explanation, and the different characters are seen coping with grief, reflecting on their own spirituality, looking up to an absent god for answers or preying on those who can’t find relief. The tone is successfully set within the first two episodes, through extensive use of religious imagery, from the Christian fresco-inspired opening credits to the repeated apparition of a deer, and by quickly establishing what the conflicts are.
The cinematography is more functional than elegant, the score abuses (not always appropriate) preexistent songs, and the dialogue can be silly at times, but the show is, in general, excellently written, especially on episodes that flesh out a particular character, such as “Two boats and a helicopter” and “Guest”. Probably because it deals with sensitive and powerful topics such as faith, grief and loss, from multiple perspectives. It works very well as an allegory for loss and trauma: the Sudden Departure is what you get when you add up sudden absence, an inability to rationalize what happened and a lack of closure. It works for natural deaths of loved ones, massive accidents, terrorist attacks, even broken homes. This allows the show to explore a different aspect of the topic with each character. Events and causality are not really overexplained, so it can be a demanding show; Kevin’s arc in particular requires piecing together and some patience.
All in all, probably not what you’re looking for if you want mystery and adventure, even though the plot trigger promises both. Once that it is out of the way, I recommend this show for its insight and the psychological depth of its characters.
Under the spoiler tag, I would like to analyse the characters in more depth, since there are some very juicy details.
Let’s start with Matt Jamison. He’s quickly established as a man of faith, but also a proactive man. He works hard to keep his church. He makes efforts to discourage people from joining the G. R., whom he perceives as misguided and noxious, though alluring; he doesn’t try to force people away from them, but instead to gain their trust and build from their virtues instead of exploiting their fears. He believes that God’s ways are inscrutable, but at the same time he tries to figure out what signs He’s sending so he can act the best way possible. That’s why he campaigns by digging in the Departed’s rubbish: he doesn’t know why God made the Sudden Departure happen, but he has reasons to believe it’s not the Rapture and acts on them. His constant search for answers and signs is further illustrated in “Two boats and a hellicopter”, where the title is an allusion to a joke. In this episode, he keeps noticing pigeons, the humble siblings of doves, in turn a symbol for the Holy Spirit, some of them on a particular table at a casino. He needs to make 135 grand by the following day, so he decides to gamble Kevin Garvey Sr.’s money and, more importantly, when he gets mugged, he doesn’t let the proverbial helicopter go and fights back. Only to lose his church to the G. D. for trying to help one of them, which reinforces the idea that, as much as he wants to read God’s signs, His ways are still inscrutable. Thusly, Matt Jamison presents themes of faith in relation with reason, fatalism and moral independence.
Jill and Aimee were in their early teenage years when the Sudden Departure happened, and we can see how the turmoil in their formative years has clearly affected them, especially in contrast with the cheerful and optimistic Jill in “The Garveys at their best”. Jill is particularly nihilistic and brooding, but all the kids her age are too, to some degree. They play a disturbing variant of Spin the bottle which includes the commands “burn” and “choke”, they are regularly seen smoking joints and have little regard for rules and institutions, as shown in their stealing and defilement of the Baby Jesus from the public manger and their trespassing on Nora’s house. They kill time by getting one of them into an old fridge and see how long they can stay inside. If their elders have lost hope and cannot even agree on which institutions are respectable and which are not, why wouldn’t the kids do the same? Jill and the rest of teenagers represent those who are completely broken by tragedy and succumb to despair; they were the weakest group, since the Sudden Departure happened while their worldviews were still forming and suffered neglect from their grieving parents and elders.
Nora is the lone survivor. We learn later that her family life was far from ideal, but she still loses the three people she had been devoting her life to all at the same time. She is the epitome of lack of closure: she keeps buying the food her family would have consumed, probably in case they come back as unexpectedly as they left. She even openly admits she doesn’t want to forget them, and she would feel guilty doing so. We don’t know whether Nora is a believer, but her constant tension about whether she’s ever going to see her family again has something in common with the inability to move on some widows and widowers have: what will I say to my spouse, when we reunite in Heaven, about this other person I met? Is falling in love again a betrayal? Another thing she does is hire prostitutes to have her shot. She never explains why; maybe as punishment, maybe as a desperate try to feel something again. “Guest” shows some insight into what her life could have been like if she had been able to have a more satisfying professional life (and a husband who was less of a dipshit, I must say); at the end of the day, a hug from Holy Wayne couldn’t relieve her of her burden. It was only finding Lily, someone to care for and who would give purpuse to her life, that put her on the way to recovery.
Cults play an important role in any big enough catastrophe, and we have our share of cults in The leftovers. The G. R. are the one we see the most: they’re ominous for their stubborn silence and their chainsmoking. They target people they feel are vulnerable to their tactics and have been compared to the Baptist Church of Wesboro for their aggressive proselytizing and general nastiness. We don’t get to see much of what they believe in, because that’s not really the point: you ritualize stuff, give everything a halo of mystery and transcendence and people in vulnerable situations will give in, especially if you target them. Through discipline, they give meaning to people who can’t find it anywhere, and we don’t really know to what purpuse, since we don’t get to see the people on top of the hierarchy.
Holy Wayne’s cult is the other flavour of cult: he makes simple promises and takes as much advantage of the situation as possible. We’re not sure whether he believes he’s the real deal or not, but it’s thoroughly clear that he will use people to the point that people will die for him. His whole manner of healing is quite exotic, with his hugging and his voodoo-like cleansing, and he’s very aptly played by a black man in an otherwise pretty much white-washed cast.
Last but not least, Kevin is contradiction and the dual nature of the self. He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s the executing arm of law, and he tries very hard to administer justice as he perceives it: mostly by keeping peace between the G. R. and the rest of Mapleton. He’s associated with a deer, a symbol of piety, devotion and God taking care of his children in Christian tradition. He keeps finding strange scenarios when he wakes up in the morning, until we find out he’s been sleepwalking, and his sleepwalking self is much less civil: he might or might not have thrashed the kitchen, instead of a deer; he might or might not have slept with Aimee; but he definitely abducted Patti and woke up before he could finish the deed. Note that his other self is not always vicious: it was his other self who took in the wild dog and bet Dean that he could tame it. Kevin hides from Laurie the fact that he still smokes: not because she cares at all, but because he’s ashamed of it; thus, the smoking can symbolyze his not admitting to himself that sometimes he’s a bad person. That’s precisely what the stranger asks him the day of the Sudden Departure: is he a good person? He wants to think he is, and he’s too afraid to find out that he’s not. Dean defines himself as a guardian angel, which would make Patti the devil sitting on Kevin’s other shoulder. Awake Kevin is willing to sacrifice anything to remain a good person and thusly spares Patti. To his horror, it’s much too late to fix what he has done.