Posts Tagged ‘the leftovers’
“Weird” and “like nothing else on television” are two descriptors that need to be purged from the critical vocabulary immediately. Believe me, I’d be first against the wall were that to happen, because quite frankly a lot of stuff on the air these days is weird and isn’t like anything else on television and at a certain point you have to call it like you see it. But simply saying so sells the work short, even before those descriptions are used to, say, lump an empty-calorie sci-fi and/or superhero and/or horror pastiche like Legion together with the trailblazing surrealist exploration of abuse and exploitation that was (and hopefully will be) Twin Peaks. The best “weird” shows aren’t just zany or confusing — they deliberately mess with your head to sneak difficult ideas in there while your guard is down. Shows that truly are “like nothing else on television” are, by definition, doing something so unique that an equally unique description is warranted.
So without further ado, let us discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which was indeed both weird and like nothing else on television. Let’s talk about the title sequence, which reintroduces the memorable family-photo fade-outs of the previous season but drops the jaunty country-music accompaniment in favor of … the theme song from the cornball ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers? Let’s talk about the credits, which list the writers of the episode as … Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious? Let’s talk about the first thing we see after this disorientingly goofy stuff draws to a close … Jardin’s resident old hermit plummeting to his death?
What we’ve just witnessed is the proprietary blend of utter emotional devastation and madcap audio-visual trolling that has made The Leftovers what it is.
Comedy, tragedy, horror, symbolism: The Leftovers fires them at you one after the other and doesn’t much care whether you’re able to field them. To find another show this confidently manic in its creativity you’d have to turn to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope — minus its emotional ambiguity and gorgeous European pomp and camp, perhaps, but with a relentless focus on grief, trauma, and all-American God and guns and self-improvement schemes that make for a pretty fair trade. For Lindelof (co-writing with Patrick Somerville), a creator who once seemed debilitatingly preoccupied by the reactions of his audience, this show is an absolute breakthrough. For director Mimi Leder, it’s a showcase for a steady hand and keen eye that keep all the disparate parts working as a powerful, often beautiful whole. For its very lucky viewers, it’s a sign from television heaven that rumors of Peak TV’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That crazy frisson you feel while watching the best shows, where you start each episode having no clue what will happen, but every confidence that it will somehow feel right? The Leftovers is one of the chosen few that can give it to you.
We’ll never know what caused the Sudden Departure, the instantaneous disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population at the center of HBO’s critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers. Series co-creator Damon Lindelof has said so, repeatedly, and if anyone knows the danger of promising answers he’s in no position to deliver, it’s the guy who did Lost. It’s a smart move, too. By taking “What happened?” off the table, it leaves the show free to explore a far more open-ended and rewarding question: “What happens next?”
But here’s the thing. We in the audience may know that the Sudden Departure will always be an unsolved mystery, but the people in the world of the show itself sure don’t. Much of The Leftovers is driven by the theories, belief systems, religious doctrines, mystical mumbo-jumbo, and out-and-out nihilism embraced by its various characters to explain the world-changing event and give life meaning afterward. Below, you’ll find the major schools of thought through which the people of The Leftovers attempt to understand their weird world.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)
Kevin is the handsome, brooding, handsome, mentally ill, handsome, dead and resurrected, and last but not least, handsome patriarch of the fractious Garvey family. Kevin served as the chief of police in the sleepy New York suburb of Mapleton, a job he inherited along with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia from his father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn, whose character is currently holed up in Australia). Kevin’s “is it real, is it supernatural, or is it a hallucination?” visions and misadventures have driven much of the show’s action.
At the moment of the Departure, Kevin was cheating on his wife Laurie in an impulsive one-afternoon stand; his lover disappeared from their motel bed. During season one, the increasingly unstable family man and a local gun nut named Dean graduate from shooting stray dogs to kidnapping Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the local leader of the Guilty Remnant cult. When she kills herself in front of him, he covers up her death, comes clean months later, and is told not to sweat it by the government, which in The Leftovers’ world has very little problem at all with the murder of cult members. This is cause for concern, since all three members of the family Kevin had before the Sudden Departure have done time in cults themselves: His ex-wife, Laurie, joined the Guilty Remnant and eventually helped recruit their daughter, Jill, while his adopted son, Tommy, took up with the British healer and harem-keeper known as Holy Wayne.
By the start of season two, all three have left their cults, but only Jill remains with Kevin. They’re joined by Lily, the infant daughter of Holy Wayne and one of his many ersatz wives, a young woman named Christine, left on the family doorstep by Tommy. Together with his new girlfriend Nora Durst, whose loss during the Sudden Departure was catastrophic, they move to the town of Jarden (see above). While there, his dissociative sleepwalking episodes lead him to attempt suicide in the same water where three local teens disappear that very night. Guilt-ridden and cracking up, he’s also literally haunted by Patti, who is either a hallucination or an actual ghost. (The Leftovers isn’t big on answering such questions.)
In order to purge himself of Patti, Kevin poisons himself with the help of a local shaman (more on him later) and travels to a purgatorial “other place” — a luxury hotel where, in the guise of an international assassin, he stalks and kills an alternate version of Patti who’s running for president. He then learns that her “real” self in this world is a little girl, whom he pushes down a well before falling in himself to finish the job. Once resurrected in the real world, he winds up getting shot by the father of the disappeared girl (again, more on him later), travels back to the hotel purgatory, and escapes by singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at karaoke. Season two ends with Kevin and his whole big crazy extended family reunited.
Foremost among those achievements: the fucking acting. By the time he hit that first chorus in “Homeward Bound,” the Simon & Garfunkel song that enabled Kevin Garvey’s escape from his return to the afterlife after getting gutshot by John Murphy, Justin Theroux had already paid off two seasons of work with just a minute of facial expressions and passable Paul Simon. His portrayal of Kevin has long been an inversion of his archetypal tall dark and handsome good looks; unlike Jon Hamm, whose transitions between Don Draper’s strong, suave side and his insecure, guilt-ridden shadow were distinct and dramatic, Theroux always plays Kevin as guy with a godlike body, an incandescent stare, and the loosest of grips on both his emotions and reality itself. Here he really got to crack, not in his usual freak-out mode but as a man so moved by the meaning of the song he’s singing he can barely get the words out without breaking down in tears. It’s somehow both restrained and totally vulnerable, a bravura combination. The scene is for him what “The Suitcase” was for Hamm on Mad Men or what “Crawl Space” was for Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. Shot in a series of tight, spotlight-illuminated closeups by Leder, it gives you nothing but a face and a voice, and gets more out of them than you could have imagined.
But the most entertaining thing about this mightily entertaining episode (if you find dark shit entertaining, which, if you don’t, why are you watching this show) is simply its context in the series. This season, The Leftovers has proven itself to be a carnival ride through humanity’s grimmest emotions. A new family of main characters, a sudden switch to old ones we’d all but forgotten, seamless shifts backward through time to events we thought we’d seen the last of, an entire episode taking place in a hallucinated dreamworld, in-depth grappling with cult deprogramming and reprogramming, one-on-one conversations as intense as any action sequence—each new installment has the potential to do something entirely different than its predecessors. In an era where prestige drama has a tendency to be consistent from episode to episode, perhaps to a fault, The Leftovers mixes it up while remaining true to its core thematic and emotional obsessions each time. It’s impressive, risk-taking work—doubly so given Lindelof’s oft-stated preoccupation with the reactions of his audience. What will happen in the finale next week, then? To paraphrase Megan, I’m guessing it’s gonna be pretty fucking amazing, what they’re gonna do.
What does it all mean?
I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean: that we’ve now been given all the tools we need to determine if Kevin’s visions are the product of the supernatural or psychosis. I believe co-creator Damon Lindelof when he insists this show will never deliver The Answers to the Great Departure, and I believe that studied agnosticism extends way on down the line to every seemingly supernatural happening on the show. Maybe Kevin really did mystically travel to the other side, where he underwent a series of trials and defeated his adversary, bringing himself back to life. Or maybe he’s a schizophrenic who drank poison provided by a suicidal pederast, had a hallucinatory paranoiac nightmare while he was out in which he processed his grief and guilt and trauma, and woke up before he suffocated. The results are the same either way. What difference does it make?
I reviewed last night’s extremely divisive episode of The Leftovers for Decider. I thought it was a hoot! Funny, creepy, and very bold. It’s only infuriating if you’re determined to read it in a certain way. Everything you like about the show was still there under the surface.
And then there’s the sorcerer himself. “Who are you?” Kevin asks Virgil, awestruck. “I’m just someone who once had an adversary of his own,” the man replies by way of self-description. “One that made me do terrible things. And for those things I was shot in the chest, in the belly”—and here’s where it gets unpleasant—“and in that foul machinery below the waist, which transgressed the laws of man.” At this point it’s not hard to guess why John shot him, though the identity of the victim isn’t clear until Kevin brings up the shooting himself. “I hurt him,” Virgil says, referring to John. “I hurt him a long time ago. And then he hurt me back, and he freed me.” Now we have our explanation for John Murphy’s anti-magic vigilantism: If your abuser claimed he was cured of his desire to molest children by an otherworldly encounter with his supernatural adversary on the other side, you’d be pretty fed up with the miracle shit, too. Combining the old man’s mysticism with the all too real horror of pedophilia is dark fantasy at its grimmest, a conception of the genre in which magic isn’t simply a deus ex machina, but a force in human affairs with as powerful an impact and as complex a moral cost as sex and violence.
At times it can be difficult to get on the exact emotional wavelength of some of these characters, because they inhabit a world with one major difference from our own: the Sudden Departure, and the indisputably supernatural event it represents. This doesn’t necessarily mean the involvement of God, or any kind of deity or demon or magic or religion whatsoever, mind you—a physical phenomenon beyond the reach of current science serves just as well. Whatever it was, it happened, and it’s been impossible to explain nonetheless. This can make the unyielding skepticism of characters like John, who insists there are no miracles in Miracle, difficult to swallow. (Nora, at least, has a self-evident psychological need to see the Departure as both random and one-time-only; perhaps we’ll eventually get a similarly illuminating backstory for her vigilante neighbor.)
But an episode like this helps illustrate the continuity between skeptics and believers, between those who think they may have played a role in sparing people from it Departure and those who fear they’re to blame for it: Each approach offers its proponents a sense of control amid the chaos. Nora rejects the concept of lensing or the possibility of further Departures to stave off guilt and fear, the only way she can keep going. Perhaps for John, fighting for a world without miracles is a small price to pay for a world without curses as well.
Yet a sense of safety is also why the townsfolk have embraced the eccentrics who slaughter goats or wear bridal gowns every day simply because that’s what they did on the day Jarden was spared, or why people are paying $500 per milliliter for the town’s water: Belief offers them emotional protection against the terror that it could happen again. On the flipside, Erika blames herself for her daughter’s disappearance for basically the same reason the town gives Jerry the goatslayer credit for preventing the disappearances: Knowing the cause makes the effect less frightening, whether that effect is good or bad. You don’t need to have experienced the Sudden Departure to recognize the universal tendency of human beings to look for heroes and villains, and, if no one else fits the bill, to self-destructively settle on themselves.
The Leftovers gives you a lot to chew on with no guarantee you’ll like the taste, and “No Room at the Inn,” last night’s episode, was even more of a mouthful than most. It focused on Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), who last season was the star of what was, for my money, one of the worst episodes of prestige television ever aired. This new spotlight ep strings together a series of trials and tribulations in which Matt drops his phone in a toilet, learns his brain-dead wife is pregnant with a baby whose conception no one will believe she consented to, gets his head bashed in and his hand stomped on by a mugger who steals his ID bracelet and sabotages his car, pushes a wheelchair for over five miles in the Texas sun, loses a fight with a man in a wedding tuxedo, gets detained, gets thrown out of town, is forced to knock a stranger unconscious with an oar for cash, nearly drowns in a flash flood, loses his wife’s wheelchair, gets smuggled back into town in the trunk of a car, gives up his recovered bracelet to the son of the guy who mugged him after the guy dies in a car wreck the kid somehow survives, and voluntarily has himself locked up full-frontally nude in a pillory—and just in case you didn’t get what’s going on, says his favorite book in the Bible is Job. By rights this shouldn’t be any more successful than the first go-round. Instead it winds up being one of the series’ finest hours to date.
At the end of the episode, Nora handcuffs herself to Kevin. It’s her attempt to provide security for his sleepwalking, and to ensure that she never wakes up to an empty bed again. But given what we’ve learned of their quiet desperation, it reads like the jail sentence it probably is. Thus The Leftovers reduces another moment of human connection to illusion and panic. This kind of thing makes it a hard show to watch, and a harder show to turn away from.
The persecution of cults by the government has stealthily become the series’ most disturbing theme: Seen both as dangerous and, just as importantly,repulsive, these fringe movements are treated like free targets for government agents and pissed-off citizens alike. The thing is, though, that they are both dangerous and repulsive. Holy Wayne was a creep and a kook, irrespective of the inexplicable coincidences surrounding him. The Guilty Remnant are unforgivably cruel to the grieving and physically abusive to their own members. Laurie and Tommy are now peddling pure snake oil. The Leftovers doesn’t give them a pass, or act like their crimes are mere doctrinal disputes. It does, however, force us to examine who we consider a part of our tribe, the tribe of American society, and what we consider acceptable losses among those we cast out. That’s gutsy, and I’m grateful, because hey, someone’s gotta do it.
Judging from the season premiere’s largely positive reception, The Leftovers was smart to roll out the welcome wagon for a family full of new characters in a Texas town far, far away (after first introducing us to cavepeople a long time ago). So it took the show a curious kind of confidence to cut away from the newly established setting and take us back to where it all began at the first chance it got.
Returning to the New York suburban setting and climactic time frame of its Season One finale before slowly catching up to the events of the episode that preceded it, the appropriately titled “A Matter of Geography” was all over the map. That’s a good thing. Compared to the first season’s sophomore ep, which was when the series’ intriguing premise hit the prestige-TV-by-numbers pavement, there’s almost nothing formulaic about this one. It continuously went bigger, brighter, stranger, and further than expected.
The big question: Is this overhaul a good idea? I’m sure HBO thinks so. The cheerier credits alone bring it much more in line with the network’s other fare, and a diversified cast makes artistic, ethical, and financial sense. ButThe Leftovers stumbled real fucking hard out of the gate the first time around (that cornball Rev. Matt spotlight episode is one of the worst-written episodes of prestige TV ever), and it took most of the season to firmly reestablish its footing. Once it did, it never looked back—by its final two episodes in particular it was utterly ruthless in its exploration of depression, grief, and loss, gutsy subjects for a TV climate that’s still more attuned to power struggles than internal ones. It was also a real star turn for Coon, whose Nora was the quietly shattered heart of the show.
Now it’s gotten a heart transplant. The Murphy family dynamic has the ingredients to be interesting, at least. And the worldbuilding done so far with Jarden—the hermits and goat-sacrificers, the ID bracelets visitors have to wear, the impression that trespassers are ejected with extreme prejudice, John’s vigilante crew, the earthquakes, the mysterious and perhaps only metaphorical connection to the cavewomen and the baby—is definitely intriguing.
But since Season One got it all so right in the end, does starting over again bode well or ill? The Leftovers got very good indeed, but it took a whole lot of huffing and puffing to get there; tight storytelling that doesn’t overstate its emotional case is not exactly Lindelof’s strong suit. A show this dark can’t be puffy without tipping over into melodrama, and starting over could duplicate the problem. For now, as the song says, I guess we’ll let the mystery be.
Here I am talking about The Leftovers, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex with Ricky Camilleri, Drew Grant, and Matthew Jacobs on the debut episode of Spoiler Alert, HuffPost Live’s new talk show about TV. Hooray!
I’ll be talking The Leftovers, Boardwalk Empire, and so forth on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert show, tonight at 5:30pm. This link will take you right to the show when it airs. Hope to be seen by you then!
“I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization,” Nora Durst writes as she prepares to leave everyone she’s ever known. “I want to believe that it’s still possible to get close to someone.” But even if it’s possible, she’s chosen not to try. The pain is too much to bear, as actor Carrie Coon’s almost unwatchable silent scream upon being confronted with grotesque simulations of her vanished family made clear. Here in the real world, with uncanny echoes of The Leftovers‘ breathtakingly paced season finale — “The Prodigal Son” — all around us, it’s easy to agree with her.
Look back, if you can stomach it, at the long horrendous summer we just suffered through. A berserk and benighted subset of the video game community targeted prominent women critics and creators with a campaign of trolling, harassment, and threats so severe that one victim had to flee her home. An apparent ring of hackers specializing in stealing female celebrities’ nude selfies began releasing them to the public en masse. Police in Ferguson, Missouri responded to citizen protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown – his body exposed in the street for four hours – by essentially staging a days-long blue riot, aiming loaded weapons at civilians, arresting journalists, and firing teargas and rubber bullets seemingly indiscriminately.
Now look at The Leftovers. Trolling-as-religion is one of its central plot points, with two separate denominations – the Guilty Remnant, with their callous performance art, and Rev. Matt, with his muckraking flyers – deliberately being assholes to make a point. Stealing photographs in order to turn private moments into a public spectacle was a core component of the cult’s master plan involving replicas of Departure victims. And law-enforcement complicity, even participation, in violence against the civilian population has been a constant: the Heroes Day riot, the brutal assault on Holy Wayne’s compound, the Feds’ black-ops methodology in destroying cults and incinerating members’ bodies, Kevin’s assault and kidnapping of Patti, and, tonight, the Mapleton P.D.’s half-assed efforts to stop the townsfolk from retaliating against the G.R. The show’s sociopolitical prescience is almost freakish.
Here’s the beginning of my review of the season finale of The Leftovers for Rolling Stone, which ultimately makes the case that as impressive as the show’s resonance with current events may be, it actually goes even deeper, laying out the cost of living when life is fundamentally meaningless and the struggle by which can attempt to eke some kind of purpose out of it anyway. This was really, really good television and I’m glad I was paid to stick with it to the end or I’d have missed it.
You never forget where you were when it happened. They say it’s true of all tragedies, and they may be right. The Leftovers, it turns out, is not going to take any chances. Tonight’s thoroughly harrowing episode — titled, with cruel irony, “The Garveys at Their Best” — is an hour-long flashback covering approximately one 24-hour period in October, three years ago: from the morning of the day before the Sudden Departure to the first moments after it happens. And as an act of storytelling, it’s tear-down-the-sky shit. We never actually watch anyone Depart – the camera is always pointed elsewhere – but that is the show’s sole nod to modesty. From the moment you hear Nora Durst’s children say “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” to our discovery of just how catastrophically the Departure hit Kevin and Laurie Garvey, every ounce of grief, fear and sadness will be left exposed.
But it’s not just the actual life-or-death stakes of Patti’s plight that [director Michelle] MacLaren wrings for every ounce of tension and pathos. Jill Garvey grilling Nora Durst about her gun over dinner. Meg needling Laurie while breaking her vow of silence. Jill and her friend Aimee getting meaner and meaner to each other in a game of emotional chicken that Aimee eventually loses. The wordless sequences in which the Guilty Remnant prepare their big Memorial Day stunt. The climactic moment where Jill reunites with her mother in order to join her cult. “Cairo” was all about turning the screw until someone, anyone yelled “Jesus Christ, enough!”
Which is to say, yeah, it’s a pretty grim hour of television. A woman gives a lengthy monologue about how love has to be left behind, then slits her own throat – how could it not be dark? But it’s by no means a humorless, bleakness-über-alles episode. The twin bros played by Max and Charlie Carver remain 2014’s great casting coup; everything you need to know about them you could learn from the way the one dude finds a bulletproof vest and says “Jackpot!” Little moments of worldbuilding also break the tension, like the increasingly obvious fact that in the post-Departure universe, marijuana is legal enough to smoke in a public park full of frolicking kids. Even Patti gets in a few good one-liners, like the one where she responds to Dean’s pompous proclamation that he’s a “guardian angel” with “Well, shit, I think I just heard a bell ring.”
It’s also pretty profoundly insightful about how people process pain, or don’t. The after-dinner exchange Kevin and Nora have about Jill (“It’ll get better.” “How?” “I don’t know. But it will.”) is basically the mantra of anyone clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that things are shitty, but optimistic enough to believe they won’t stay that way forever. Later, Aimee takes this philosophy and weaponizes it, taunting her sad-sack, soon-to-be former friend by sarcastically saying “Just so you know, it is possible for some people to be okay.”
Elsewhere, if Meg’s berserk reaction to his flyers about her late mother wasn’t already indication enough, Reverend Matt clearly has her number. “Her grief was hijacked,” he says, and that’s a good way to understand the Guilty Remnant: If the Sudden Departure stole everyone’s ability to really focus their pain, they’re stealing it back. “I think about it every fucking waking moment,” Patti says of humanity’s greatest trauma. “I mean, come on. What else is there to think about.” The GR are forcing everyone to think about it, as directly and obnoxiously as possible. It’s trolling as religion.
The Leftovers has gotten consistent and creative, and last night’s episode was no exception. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.
Putting prurient interests aside, the now-physical relationship between Chief Kevin Garvey and local survivor-celebrity Nora Durst deserves top billing. After all, it’s the softest plot thread in the show’s narrative tapestry, a rare display of human connection and kindness that’s not undermined by grief and guilt, or corrupted by attempts to harness those emotions to some grand ideological purpose. You want these two crazy mixed-up kids to fall for each other, because after what they’ve been through, they deserve it.
The show fuels our attachment to their attachment several times. Nora’s given the episode’s most purely cathartic moment when she turns the garden hose on the Guilty Remnant, in particular Liv Tyler’s sanctimonious new convert Meg. (Meg is rejected a second time when she narcs on the tryst to Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, who seems just as turned off by her nosing around as we are.) And after an episode spent hiding or denying his mental deterioration, Kevin reveals his fear that he’s following in his schizophrenic father’s footsteps as part of pillow talk. Their actual sex may have been edited in an arrhythmic fashion that suggested Kevin viewed it as some kind of out-of-body experience, but afterwards, he’s comfortable enough with Nora to share his darkest secret. Forget Kevin Sr.’s cryptic messages – that intimacy and ability to connect with someone once more is the sign Kevin Jr. should pay attention to.
I really like good sex scenes on TV dramas; watching beautiful people do convincingly hot things with each other is one of the medium’s great pleasures. I wrote about that and a lot of other little things that made last night’s episode of The Leftovers pretty good for Rolling Stone.