The leftovers, Season 2, created by Damon Lindelof, based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (HBO, 2015).
Score: the stakes are up.
***SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1***
The Sudden Departure was not at all evenly distributed: some people lost everyone, some didn’t lose anyone. Jarden, Texas, is the biggest settlement in the world with zero Departures, at almost ten thousand inhabitants and surrounded by a National Park aptly named Miracle. For this reason, it has become the center of a craze, half holy place, half theme park. Prophets, hermits, psychics, priests, hippies, believers and tourists all gather around the miracle, looking for answers and providing them; access is severely restricted and hundreds of people camp outside it for months waiting for an opportunity to visit.
We meet the Murphys: John (Kevin Carroll), a fireman who has a side business of beating up people who are getting too close to believing (or making believe) they are a messiah, because “there are no miracles in Miracle”; Erika (Regina King), his doctor wife, and his two children, Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown). It turns out the Garvey-Dursts have just purchased the house next to theirs, looking for safety and piece. It’s just too bad, because the same night they arrive, Evie goes missing.
If Season 1 focused on grief, Season 2 is all about coping and healing, as I will analyze under the spoiler tag. We are told immediately with the title sequence: the ominous clouds populated with suffering people have been replaced with a jolly country song and 70s-style family photos with one person whose place was taken by a cutout. A mighty shift in tone. Season 2 is also a lot more critical towards organised religion, superstition and mass manipulation, while keeping an introspective and psychological tone in other places. What I really, really love about this season is that it makes every effort, and succeeds, at remaining ambiguous. A lot of weird shit goes down, definitely more than the previous season. All of it can be understood as supernatural, but even though it is never spelled out, it also has a completely reasonable, however unlikely explanation. For extra marks, the supernatural interpretation works perfectly as an allegory. Astonishing coincidences and how we react to them is a big theme. Don’t worry: even when it looks like it is making no sense or stuff will be left unexplained, it does make sense. This is not Lost all over again.
If I have to say something bad about it, the songs are getting out of hand. “Where is my mind?” every time Kevin goes bonkers is bad enough, but the mellow “You’re the one that I want” cover was downright ridiculous. I’ve read a lot of people who love it, because they feel the songs match the mood perfectly, but I must dissent. For a lot of these songs, the title might look like it fits the situation, but then the lyrics just don’t. For instance, “Nothing else matters”, “Bros before hoes” in song form, was used for the G. R. attack at the end of Season 1 and it was really distracting. “Where is my mind?” as a leitmotif for Kevin losing his shit is just too hackneyed, I’m sorry. There is one quite surprising exception to this rule: “Va, pensiero” in “International assassin”. The use of intertext here is just stunning.
I haven’t finished Season 3 yet, but general consensus is each of them is better than the previous one. So if you liked Season 1, you’ll love what comes next, and if you weren’t convinced, maybe Season 2 will compensate Season 1’s faults. I can’t not recommend this, if you’re interested in the topic.
Now, let’s try and dissect the season:
***SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2***
Matt Jamison was offered the oportunity to visit Miracle for a few days but decided to stay indefinitely after his catatonic wife Mary (Janel Moloney) was aware for a few hours and then returned to her previous state. First, Matt repeats everything that they did that day as exactly as he can, hoping he can replicate the conditions that made Mary better; we could call that his rational approach to the issue. When that doesn’t work, he turns to a mystical approach: Jarden is a miraculous place, and he just needs to stay faithful until the Lord sees fit to make Mary better. While in Season 1 he was never doubtful, here he does seem to feel forsaken, though he never admits it openly: he was the only witness to Mary’s few hours of awareness, could he have been delusional about it? Mary is pregnant, so it’s a fact that they did have sex, but did he rape her in a delusion, as implied by the doctor, or did she really wake up randomly and then sink back into catatonia? If so, why?
Either because he’s guilty of something monstrous or to appease the God who can grant him his miracle, Matt becomes a penitent. Maybe not consciously, at first: when trying to help a father and son on the road, he gets beaten and their wristbands stolen, locking them out of Jarden. John could have helped them back in, but they fall out because John wants Matt to admit that he did rape his wife and Matt wants John to admit that his atheism is a result of trauma and therefore an issue. This scene reinforces both characters’ opposed views. Back in camp, Matt starts his willing penance by doing things that disgust him: he’s offered five hundred dollars for hitting a man with a paddle while screaming “Brian”. Even if, as a very progressive priest, he’s okay with kinky sex, it’s still purposely hurting another human being. Almer shows him to a sewer that could lead he and Mary back to Jarden, but it floods with rain. Nora smuggles Matt and Mary back in Jarden, where they come across the man who stole their wristbands, dead in a car accident. Matt sacrifices himself, giving Mary her wristband back and his own to the man’s son, whom he makes sure is taken care of. It seems that being the martyr is working, so Matt decides to replace the person at the pillory. We later learn there was a trick to leave the pillory empty: refuse to let someone take your place, which says something about the camp’s wicked sense of righteousness. We don’t know whether Matt had figured this out or he just wanted to punish himself longer.
Finally, the first contrived coincidence happens: Mary comes out of catatonia all of a sudden, stays out of it, remembers having consensual sex with her husband and is happy to be a mother after ten years of trying. This reinforces Matt in his belief: Jarden is a miraculous place and Mary absolutely needs to stay there because she owes her health to it. It was possibly Matt’s penance that brought Mary back to health, since he wasn’t guilty of anything: it was one of God’s many tests.
Jill spells out Nora’s motivations to Kevin: she needs to live in Jarden because it makes her feel safe. Finding and adopting Lily has given her a motivation to move on and allow herself to be happy, and Jarden would be the place where she could forget she’s a triple legacy. Three million dollars, which Nora got unexpectedly, are a fair price just to live the miracle. Nora and Kevin are proud to be completely honest to each other: she confesses to hiring prostitutes to shoot her and he confesses to sleepwalking and smoking. She advises Kevin to lie about being at the lake when the girls disappeared and covers for him, but, ironically enough, she can’t bear to know that Kevin feels crippling guilt over Patti’s death; so much so, she prefers cuffing him to the bed rather than admitting he might be in need of psychological help. When he’s finally honest to her about being delusional, she just flees the house. Maybe because she can’t cope with anything so traumatic that happened in Mapleton. Maybe because she thought she could just cut loose, forget all her problems, and have a perfect relationship with Kevin.
Nora wants to forget that all her family Departed, but at the same time she craves a logical explanation. That’s why she kicks the scientist out, because she feels they are picking into her pain, but finally she gives in and wants to know about their hypothesis when a DSD colleague tells her they have a promising line of research: she’s livid when she learns the hypothesis is there’s a demon inside her. That’s also why she smashes the radio: they’re discussing a situation she sympathises a lot with, only to offer prayer and faith as a solution. These sequences dwell on the very interesting topic of pseudoscience: how it tries to disguise itself as legit science, how it tries to come up with answers when science has none yet and how it can confuse people who can’t tell the difference.
After realizing that the G. R. made her so helpless that she couldn’t even try and save her daughter from a fire, Laurie leaves the cult and tries to use her knowledge as a therapist to help other people. Her character explores in this season motifs of former cult members and the view of a cult from someone who was in and then out. We still don’t get much insight on why she turned to the G. R. We do know Patti was her patient and, after the Sudden Departure, Patti convinced Laurie to join the G. R., though she never explicitly says why. Tom infiltrates G. R. communities all over the country and recruits reluctant members for a recovery group that Laurie manages, while she writes a book about her experience.
Laurie thought she was healed, over her experience with the G. R. and in total control of the situation, ready to be a pillar to those who were lured into their claws. When her potential editor asks her for more emotional insight, to actually get naked and vulnerable in front of her readers, Laurie snaps. She’s not healed nor in control; their last recruit just killed herself and her family and it seems what Laurie and Tom are trying to do is not working.
Tom says one of the key lines in this season: the G. R. is giving people something, and Tom and Laurie are taking it away but not replacing it with anything. Laurie never admits it, but that was probably the reason she joined the G. R. in the first place: because they were giving her meaning and purpose in a world that had lost both. Laurie decides they should still recruit people from the cult and having them join a different cult, appropriated from Holy Wayne’s (in one of the most jaw-dropping episode endings I have ever seen), which isn’t actually a cult but a cover for therapy. Laurie’s arc in Season 2 raises a lot of very interesting questions: is it okay to deceive people if it’s for their own good? Why do some people need a different kind of answers from those provided by objectivism and existentialism? What’s the difference between a well-intentioned cult and a scam?
In one of the G. R. branches he infiltrates, Tom gets caught and Meg pays him a visit, consisting of raping him in a van while two thugs watch. In order to subdue him, humiliate him and prove her dominance. When he’s disgruntled about lying to people and taking their money, it’s not really surprising that he runs to Meg. She tells him she fucked him to make him pregnant, which is a brilliant way to put it. Traditionally, if a young girl is made pregnant, she is not only subdued and humiliated, but also considered the man’s property in some way, due to marry, obey and serve him. And this is exactly the way Tom feels towards Meg. He’s infatuated only on a superficial level, deep down he’s dependent on her, craves her approval; after his biological dad abandoned him and his mom left the family to join a cult, his self-esteem is practically nonexistent. That’s why he followed and obeyed Holy Wayne and why he’s subservient with Meg.
Kevin is the incarnation of guilt and regret in Season 2. He’s also the one who has the most supernatural-that-also-have-a-reasonable-explanation things happen to him. Despite he tried to spare Patti after abducting her, his dark self, the one he doesn’t want to admit exists, hated Patti’s guts. She was a sad, pathetic woman married to a coprophiliac bully and took Laurie away to a cult; on top of that, it was Kevin’s duty to protect her when the cult insisted on being obnoxious to the grieving people of Mapleton. He hated her so much that he abducted her and wanted to kill her, only he regretted it later.
At the end of Season 1, he’s willing to take his punishment; such punishment never comes, as it seems that law enforcement hated Patti just about as much as he did and doesn’t investigate her death further when Kevin claims Patti killed herself. So, he starts seeing Patti. If Dean said he was a guardian angel, Patti is clearly the little demon sitting on Kevin’s shoulder. You can interpret Patti two ways: you can see her as an actual ghost or spirit, in which case, the fact that Kevin Garvey Sr. is cured looks suspiciously like a case of transferred powers; personally, I find it much more interesting, if more prosaic, that Kevin is psychotic because of family history and triggered by the guilt over Patti’s death. Laurie points it out explicitly but you can tell before she does: Patti never tells Kevin anything he didn’t already know. He knew about Patti’s history with Neil because Laurie told him (like, the gossip was too juicy to not tell your husband) and she only tells him that he tried to kill himself when he actually remembers on his own. Also, she’s too focused on the things that worry Kevin for being Patti. They were never close at all when she was alive.
Kevin finally remembers that he tried to kill himself after Virgil told him he had to confront Patti in death, and that one of the multiple earthquakes on Miracle drained the water from the lake and saved him: second contrived coincidence. Laurie tells him that he’s psychotic and should get medical help, but Kevin is the kind of person to face his demons alone. So he goes to visit Virgil again. Same as before: you can read this section at face value: Kevin dies, goes to the afterlife, kills Patti and resurrects. But nothing keeps you from giving everything a realistic explanation.
Virgil prepares a concoction he tells Kevin it’s poison that will kill him and then bring him back to life. Kevin foams at the mouth and collapses and Virgil takes out a gun and kills himself because of reasons. Michael comes, finds Kevin looking dead and buries him. Eight hours later, Kevin rises from his grave and startles the shit out of Michael. We don’t know what’s in the concoction, but it could very well be something that makes you look dead, have a near-death experience, but not kill you. Like a highly concentrated dose of hallucinogen. A typical LSD trip lasts about eight hours, the time that Kevin was dead (though another question is how he managed to not suffocate while being buried; maybe Michael had just finished burying him when he woke up or made a shallow tomb); furthermore, people who have taken hallucinogens such as LSD describe an experience called “ego death”. Third contrived coincidence.
Whatever your take is on what happened to Kevin, he wakes up naked in the bathtub of a hotel room. He’s asked to dress accordingly to what he feels he is. We can see priest robes and his old Mapleton Police uniform, but he chooses an elegant suit. He finds out, much to his surprise, that the suit means he is an international assassin; might as well, he came to kill Patti. The leitmotif for this episode is “Va, pensiero”, from Verdi’s Nabucco, also known as “Chorus of the Hebrew slaves”, in which they lament being away from their homeland and sing their longing to come back. The same way, Kevin is away from home and longing to come back to life. The actual chorus is seldom heard, the episode repeats the instrumental opening, ominous, powerful and majestic.
Virgil is at the hotel as the concierge and tells him two things: that he mustn’t drink any water while he’s there and that he should take Patti to the well. He’s also given instructions on how to meet Senator Patti Levin and that there’s a gun hidden inside the toilet tank (“like in The Godfather”). Let’s not forget that Virgil was the Latin poet, whom Dante made his mentor and guide in Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Also, the whole water motif seems lifted from the Classic legend of the Lethe, one of the five rivers of the Underworld, where the dead were required to drink and forget their past lives. Later in the episode, Virgil forgets about Kevin and admits he drank the water because he was very thirsty. This might symbolize Virgil actually dying and not just being unconscious like Kevin.
While waiting to meet Senator Levin, Kevin saves a little girl from drowning in the hotel swimming pool. After much fidgeting, Kevin manages to get the gun out of the toilet, kill the Senator’s assistants and point it at Levin: she says she’s actually a body double, not the real Patti, but Kevin thinks it’s a ruse and kills her anyway. Since he doesn’t wake up, Kevin supposes that Patti is still alive somewhere; he finds out she’s the little girl he rescued from the pool because he comes across Neil locked out of his room; doesn’t count as contrived coincidence because this is a dream, at the very least.
Kevin needs to push a child version of Patti into a well to come to terms with what he did. While he hates and holds a grudge against her, he won’t be able to let go; he needs to see her as a helpless, innocent being. He needs to see her as a human being, and feel sorry for her. He needs to forgive her to be allowed to forgive himself. That moment arrives at the well, as Kevin chokes up when child Patti says she deserves being pushed to her death. He doesn’t feel it’s true anymore. At the bottom of the well, Patti confesses that she won enough money at Jeopardy to leave Neil, but she didn’t. She was so broken that she stayed with her abuser.
Kevin gets to die one more time after he tries to convince John that Evie faked her Departure and that his handprint has nothing to do with all that. This time, he chooses the police officer uniform and the afterlife he visits is much more benevolent. He’s only asked to sing a song and he does, even if the whole thing looks like bait and switch. It turns out the bullet went through him but didn’t touch any vital organs. Fourth contrived coincidence; Kevin is in very good physical shape and people surviving that kind of wounds is not unheard of, though unlikely.
John Murphy is the hardcore skeptic, if only in appearance. In the first episode of Season 2, Isaac predicts that something bad is going to happen to him. For the rest of the episode, John is wary of everything that might bring that bad thing. He gives the pie to the Garvey-Dursts in case there is something wrong with it, which is a dick move unless he’s trying to convince himself that the pie is perfectly fine: he wouldn’t give it to his neighbours if he had any real reason to suspect it was poisoned. Later, he’s reluctant to reach into the garbage disposal to retrieve a spoon. This is the night that Evie goes missing. I’m not saying Isaac knew anything at all about Evie’s disappearance or that he’s actually a psychic. He just said something vague to John, as a psychic would.
Isaac (Darius McCrary) represents here superstition and the business of (fraudulent) psychics. He uses many techniques that psychics use to make their clients believe they have real powers. He’s really ambiguous with John: something bad could be anything from bumping his little toe to Evie disappearing. John would have found something wrong to happen to him in the following days because he was already biased towards it. In the same way, Patti had a constant feeling of dread, probably a symptom of anxiety, but then the Sudden Departure happened, she felt justified in her belief and the rest is history. He also fishes for information from his clients to make it look like he actually senses stuff. It’s called cold reading and they teach you how to do it here. It even explains his encounter with Meg, who ultimately wasn’t convinced and the rest is history.
I once met a woman who said she preferred visiting an astrologist than a therapist because the astrologist was more expensive but at least told her what she wanted to hear. There is a whole industry on Jarden built around charging people for telling them what they want to hear, something that will comfort them when in dire times. We also see it in the season premiere: Michael is selling vials with water from the lake, which has a huge sign that forbids it. Two visitors are anxious to know if the water will protect them. His father being who he is, Michael quickly says it’s just a souvenir. It ties with Laurie’s arc: why do some people respond to therapy and some others seek psychics or astrologers, sometimes even if they don’t believe their powers are real? Season 3 premiere continues this arc with a sweet twist I won’t spoil here.
Many other neighbours of Jarden are superstitious: the woman who was trying on a wedding dress, the man who keeps killing goats because that’s what he did the day of the Sudden Departure. Before the three girls disappeared, this wasn’t questioned, as evidenced by Erika’s meltdown at the fundraiser. Superstition was nothing to be ashamed of, because Jarden was spared and nobody knows why. Might as well be the wedding dress. Furthermore, it brought money, tourism and prosperity. We’ll come back to that later.
John has a zero-tolerance policy towards would-be messiahs on Miracle: if people want to believe in stuff even after they’re told it’s fake, that’s their problem, but anyone who tries to claim they’re a legit psychic gets their house burnt down, in a very neat reference to Bradbury’s Montag. He’s furious at Matt for suggesting his skepticism is actually a flaw of character, a sign that he’s broken inside. He can be borderline obsessive, as illustrated by the scenes about the cricket. And for all his skepticism and crusade against scams, he can be very oblivious of things he doesn’t want to confront, namely his deteriorating relationship with his wife and daughter. You could even say that he takes such a belligerent approach to finding his daughter because he doesn’t want to face the truth after all.
Erika’s arc has no new themes: it’s guilt and superstition over again. She feels guilty that Erika disappeared right after she wished upon a bird buried in a box, and keeps burying birds and wishing for her to come back. I don’t know much about the demography of the State of New York but Mapleton was mostly populated by white people and all the main characters are white. Season 2 introduces the Murphys but only John has his own arc: all the others are either foils or instrumental. Erika is a foil for Nora, Michael is a foil for Jill and instrumental for Kevin, Virgil is instrumental for Kevin and Evie is instrumental for Meg. I love the show, but do interesting things only happen to white people?
Last but not least, Jarden itself is a many-faceted symbol, as evidenced by the finale. We are tricked into believing that Meg’s plan was to bomb Jarden, or the bridge, but all she does is prove to all the people at the camp that they have the upper hand: they could have walked into Miracle long ago because there aren’t enough guards to help it. They only needed to do it all at the same time. Meg’s own motivation is a separate matter: the Sudden Departure robbed her of grieving her mother. She was also a drug user stuck in a loveless relationship and, like many others, she found meaning and purpose in the G. R. If she can’t have Jarden, that is, redemption, nobody else can. She targeted and destroyed a symbol, as flawed as it was.
And Jarden was really flawed as a haven. One of its facets as a symbol is the touristic destination dying under the weight of its own success. Jarden is Venice, Thailand, Machu Picchu and any place that has been defiled by mass tourism. It’s all those cities where everyday life has become impossible because the tourists request the bland, typical and inauthentic experience. And they bring money.
But Jarden is also the sheltered life of the rich and privileged. Due to demand, it’s insanely expensive to live there: even before Nora went all in, people were bidding over a million dollars for a house that is in shambles. They are neatly separated from those that want in and will wait for months until they do: refugees. As evidenced by the season finale, there was no objective reason why they should stay outside, other than a guard telling them to. Access to Jarden depends only on income and influence: wealthy people with day passes or work permits can waltz right in, while poorer people wait outside for days until tickets are available to them.
Nevertheless, there is a further separation: Jarden is civilization, while the camp is the mindless mass. The camp denizens are quite trashy and sleazy. They do drugs and get involved in illegal activities, but they are also up to meaner, pettier activities. They put someone up on the pillory and we never know why. Matt was paid five hundred dollars for breaking an oar con a guy’s back and everyone looked pretty much interested in the whole ordeal. The most brutal example happens on the finale: a woman keeps making racist remarks to Nora and Lily. For some reason, Nora can’t have a mixed race baby because she’s white. The woman keeps insisting on this until, amid the chaos, she takes Lily from Nora and runs, only to drop her on the bridge, where she is in great danger. The camp is really a sample of the worst that human beings are capable of, conveniently separate from those who were luckier, but at the same time, living right next door.
And these are all related: mass tourism is largely poorer people selling an exotic experience to wealthier people, while risking their economy, means of production, environment and the future of their communities because the money is simply too good to pass on. Inequity segregates and separates people, to the point where it breeds hate, intolerance and brutality.
We are all seeking peace, redemption and love, killing each other in the process.