“I don’t understand your faith,” the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. “But I understand commitment, and I respect it.” His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: “But we are all of us, no matter how we’ve suffered, still alive.” As if they didn’t know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they’ve cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they’ve chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?
The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorienting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison’s claim that the GR are “already dead” and preemptively calls bullshit.
But it’s not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr’s unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom’s emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it’s faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that’s the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they’re willing to die for it as a demonstration.
That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it’s a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you’re right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.
“Enjoy” is a weird word to use about tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, but it made me think hard about hard things, and I enjoyed it. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.