Season One: Part 2
The second half of Season One of The Leftovers evidences a series that has found its feet, and then some. Each episode is a standout in its own way, from Nora’s strange encounters at a departure conference, to Kevin’s mad dad running loose, and his National Geographic fixation (very Lindelof, that), to the stunning encounter with Patti in a cabin in the woods, to the inevitable flashback episode that explains everything and nothing, and on to the finale with its tenuous optimistic note. Doubtless that still point is set to be shattered in 2015; HBO has confirmed Season Two, despite unspectacular ratings.
Patti: It looks like we’re going to be travelling companions. Until then, you should wake the fuck up!
Damon Lindelof’s confidence in this project is such that when he arrives at the penultimate episode he delivers one of his trademark flashback episodes, which, just as with Lost, clarifies very little. Yet it serves to underpin the abiding focus of this series, and that its executive producer wasn’t having us on when he said we wouldn’t find out what happened. What we do learn is how and why (most of) the characters ended up in the messes they are in, and it’s a crucial difference to the narrative posturing of his previous series. It illuminates Lindelof’s increasingly arcane jigsaw, comprising diverse yet intersecting bodies. The Leftovers may well stray into the past again (we’d probably benefit from the back story of Holy Wayne, and the rise and rise of Patti; when characters die in a Lindelof country he has ways and means to resuscitate them) but there isn’t a strong feeling that it must.
Did I say Lindelof said we wouldn’t find out? Well, perhaps he didn’t as such. It would be understandable if he followed the novel’s answer-free course, particularly in light of the way Lost went south, but it appears he and Perotta agreed the answer to where everyone went “did matter and viewers needed to know”. It’s true that Lindelof and Perrotta are pulling off a variety of tricks familiar to the JJ Abrams mystery fridge storytelling formula, but they have thus far resisted succumbing to fever pitch high strangeness and promise of truths untold of Lost. Indeed, the end of the season is refreshingly demure in that sense; those characters that once did express some degree of confidence are now as awash with doubt as everyone else.
The dream sequence in the finale plays like Lindelof is facing his critics head on, directing us into the fine madness of hair-raising twists we expect from him and then pulling back. Especially so since it’s a scene that starts off feeling like a dream sequence and drifts towards a “Maybe it is real after all”. Kevin, sectioned by Matt, finds himself plagued by a further copy of that May 1972 issue of National Geographic and a bleak welcome of his father (“There is no leaving here now”). The sequence plays into the on-going polarities between father and son. Before the event, Kevin Sr was telling him to shape up, to forget any idea of greater purpose beyond his family. Now he is preaching louder than anyone that he has to accept his greater destiny.
And again, there’s the theme of goodness; Kevin does not feel he is a good person, unswayed by Matt’s protestations that he is, while in the dream (where all characters are aspects of us, unless of course they aren’t) his father claims not to be good although his intentions are. In his dream this is the focus of Kevin’s obsession plagued by guilt over Patti’s death. And back in the real world, Kevin realises that he was left behind because he is a bad man; he wanted to be free from his family and so now his life is punishment for this wish. This “Am I a good man?” theme can be endlessly tedious when deposited in a one-note enterprise – in terms of character development – such as the current Doctor Who, but here it resonates because this is exactly the thing anyone and everyone would be dwelling on. Additionally, Kevin’s blindness, that what he feels is some kind of insight (Matt has spent his entire time proving the holes in any such theory), may be taken as a broader warning against anyone who believes they have answers. In a meta-sense one might also construe this failure to understand as Lindelof’s admission of his own inability to fashion stories with proper endings, so now he has given up (or has he?)
Which is why the loopy turn the dream takes is so inimitably Lindelof. Patti, appearing from beyond the grave as the insubstantial presence his father has been talking to all this time, is such a Lost idea we’re actually willing to believe it for a moment (well, I was). And it’s such a wild, giddy moment when she manifests, soon sitting astride Kevin in a queasy not quite come-on, that, even forearmed with the knowledge Lindelof wasn’t going to go there, we’re willing to embrace his standard form; go crazy, with it, the rollercoaster of weirdness has begun! Lindelof’s a master of the reveal; he built a whole series on systematically building to them and then knocking them down. Yet here, the two people in Kevin’s life who act as if they know something are shown only to perceive anything for certain in his aberrant altered state. Yes, it’s always possible that this nightmare is a vision of things to come but if it is Lindelof may find he has unconsciously entered the realm of self-parody.
Actually, the closest this series comes to Lost is that series’ title. This is where the main characters are; in some way without their bearings, without being able to deal with just what has happened and what it means if it means anything. Their journeys of discovery draw an elusive map, its points only becoming discernible as they penetrate the gauze of synchronicity. Meaningful coincidence is one of Lindelof’s favoured narrative conceits and for all the areas where he stumbles, this is one he is consistently very good at it; weaving together the cosmic lattice of coincidence (to coin Tracey Walter in Repo Man). Disparate characters’ paths will suddenly intersect at vital moments, often oblivious to the significance of the encounter (and we, as the audience, are encouraged to divine that a universal system or order is in some way responsible, manoeuvring its figures like pawns on what at first appears to be an entirely random chess board).
We see it most clearly in the way our maybe-guru Wayne encounters first Nora and then Kevin, neither of whom are aware of the reputation that precedes him. Such unlikely convergences elicit groans when an average series stages them, but Lindelof makes a virtue out of such odds-against. There are those who suggest that The Leftovers is simply an exploration of grief but, while such an element is obviously significant (and fundamental to Nora’s experience), it’s unhelpfully reductive to propose the narrative as bearing a singular theme. The commonality here is Lindelof’s disposition towards the essential interconnectedness of everything, and the striking sensation when such realisation dawns.
It’s ironic that probably the most Lindelofian (Damonian?) episode of the season, and certainly the one that most recalls Lost in vibe, is the only one where he doesn’t get a writing credit. Cairo, the pre-penultimate instalment, is the kind of episode that gets everyone talking about a series. The reveal of the bound Patti brings to mind The Man from Tallahassee, the Season Three episode in which Locke’s father is shown to be on the island, and also the sinister Cabin Fever with its apparitions and hauntings. Both of those focus on Locke, another individual with unwarranted confidence in the explicability the unknown. Where Locke is ultimately betrayed by hubris resulting from his newfound health, Kevin has no such authority. He’s closer to the eternally sceptical Jack figure, if you will, but where Jack in Lost was a royal pain in the arse, a nominal lead who never became someone to root for or empathise with, Justin Theraux makes Kevin wholly sympathetic, a man slowly losing it while still enabled with a worldliness that enables functionality.
Cairo is the boiling point of Kevin’s blackouts, and finds him yet again accompanied by guardian angel or demon familiar Dean on one of his fugue state excursions. He was there when Kevin rescued the feral hound and he’s here now. It’s shocking enough to discover that Kevin has bound and beaten Patti, not least to Kevin himself; “Why would you do this with me?” he asks Dean. “Well, because we’re friends” Dean replies, regularly granted some of the series’ choicest lines. We also get the answer to what happened to all Kevin’s shirts; that poor laundry man.
Patti: It doesn’t matter what happened. But the difference between you and me is I accept that it did.
The confrontation between Kevin and Patti, with a mesmerising performance from Ann Dowd (as indelible on this season as her show-making turn in the second run of Justified), is the nub of Lindelof and Perotta’s foray into deranged attempts to make sense of the ungraspable. Like all great cultists, Patti is possessed with a sense of supreme purpose, and a sense of difference (as we see of her in the flashback episode). Yet when it comes down to it, her awareness is defined only by the power she has over others. As best we can tell, her perception extends no further than realising there was something afoot before the event; there was no divine edict propelling her every move. She as much as says she has no idea what it’s all about to Kevin. Her new career feeds off the event itself, rather than truly perceiving it.
Others imbue the hows and whys of Kevin’s blackouts with specific meaning; a call to destiny, it seems. How much this is merely a product of his fears (the episode 10 dream, in which he is a puppet of the mad ministrations of his father and Patti) and the whisperings of his father in his ear (who appears able to join numerous dots while swatting at invisible flies) may not be answered in any hurry. But, as Kevin is the audience identification figure, we’re encouraged to believe it is not all in his head; that, despite the Jekyll and Hyde undercurrent, he is, as Matt persists, essentially a good man. The possibility persists that those claiming to be able to guide him are pissing in the dark themselves.
When it comes down to it, Patti’s raison d’être is alarmingly mundane, to “strip away the colourful diversions that keep us from remembering”. This includes attachment, fear, love, hate, anger, “until we are erased, until we are a blank slate”; and as such, “living reminders”. Ascetic denial is nothing new, and common to many and various religions (or orders thereof) in their attempts to find oneness, God, divestment of ego or truth (the latter would probably be closest to what Patti considers she has in mind). It’s basically the same-old, same-old, but dressed up in particularly ruthless, single-minded white apparel (the admission of Gladys’ murder is a casual “She was okay with it”). Kevin’s derisory response to Patti’s ethos (“I got to hand it to you, that’s such an impressive line of fucking bullshit”) is very much defensive, as evidenced by his outpouring to Matt in the finale, but it’s also correct. Patti has identified a malaise, but her cure is bad medicine. She gives both Gladys and Laurie purpose (the chilling “And when Laurie’s time comes she will be okay with it too” is so slyly malevolent, planned to broker a lethal response), and she wishes to bestow it upon Kevin in the harshest of fashions.
In one respect Patti is correct; Kevin needs to ‘fess up to the maelstrom in his head. If only he committed to that self-awareness it would be a start. However, if we are to believe Kevin actually did understand her, in spite of his denials, then that admission, the admission Patti is looking for and the one she subscribes to, is as pedestrian as Old Testament punishment; instant karma. She believes he understands why they remained behind, and Kevin sees the explanation as retribution for his wish to be free from his family. This isn’t insight; it’s standard issue guilt. Kevin reasons that the falling apart of his family is all his fault, an actualisation of his inner will, so his state of affairs must be divine justice. At least he hasn’t taken it so personally that he’s killed people to confirm his resolve. So far.
Everything Kevin convinces himself of, and which Patti must also believe if her cryptic gobbledegook is indeed the same at its core, has been roundly denounced as far back as Two Boats and a Helicopter. There Matt, through his spiritual pains to comprehend (like Patti he goes too far on his mission, but the physical traumas are inflicted on him), has established with abundant clarity that those who were whisked off are not all good people. It therefore makes just as little sense to take it to heart that being left behind makes you a bad one. But perhaps all Patti need to do was prick Kevin (“She knew if she did this it would hurt you”) and perhaps through her own ignorant devotion she is furthering the conspiring of circumstances; all unwittingly, even if they think they are witting, play their parts.
If Patti and his dad are haunting Kevin’s dreams, presumably next up will be Holy Wayne. I expect most people assumed, given his previous conversation about losing them with Matt, that Kevin wished for his estranged family back. Apparently, Theroux was told to have in mind a new beginning, rebirth, starting over; hence the materialisation of Nora and a baby at the door in the final moments (“Look what I found”). Why, he’s even got a lovely pooch now. That makes more sense than a simplistic reunification, since Kevin looked decidedly nonplussed at Laurie’s culpability in putting Jill in a burning building. And Laurie looks to be sharing meaningful exchanges with fellow cultee, prodigal returned Tommy, so a splinter unit is formed right there.
Wayne: I think I may be a fraud, but if I’m not I can give you anything you want – and that will mean I was real.
So has Kevin forgiven himself? Has Holy Wayne taken away the pain? Is Holy Wayne a sham, “Just another asshole who thought he was God”? A man-sized placebo, whose hugs can will people into thinking they are wholer now? Clearly he has been brought to a place of doubt by the end. By his own saint-sinner inner dichotomy, or some other suggestion that what he thinks he can do doesn’t actually work? Lindelof and Perrota are wilfully non-committal; it’s in the eye of the beholder. Except, in the Lindelof realm, where everything has meaning and little is truly mundane. Like Patti, Wayne isn’t a terribly nice human being who knows he has great influence over others. He uses this to indulge the pleasures of the flesh and manipulate those in awe. The spectre of financial reward looms large over his actions, as does his predatory seeding of adoring young followers. But Wayne has been predicting his imminent demise for a few episodes now, perhaps no great stretch, and borne out in a flourish of men’s room intestines that would make Sean Pertwee in Dog Soldiers proud. I’ve been critical of Paterson Joseph’s performance but there’s no denying he made his presence felt, which was probably the intent. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Wayne, nor of why he might talk to a complete stranger about Russia (up there with the National Geographic for non sequiturs in the season).
Question: In your opinion, do you believe ______ is in a better place?
Obviously, the (literally) show-stopping thing to ask would have been for all the departed to return. There couldn’t have be any doubt as to whether or not Wayne was a fraud in that case. At the time of Guest (Episode Six), I had the idea that Wayne did indeed have an ability but that it was not without its negative consequences, in an equal and opposite, energy must be taken if it is given kind of way. That would be why, for all the apparent release offered to Nora, something else has changed for her. Now, instead of having respondents all reply in the affirmative to the question “Do you feel they have gone to a better place?” she starts to receive “No” answers. In her grief was her need to believe, her emptiness and pain, a cross she bore, a burden that somehow imbued others with hope? In her own small way, she made life for her clients better, without even realising it, through the essential interconnectedness of it all. And Wayne comes along and breaks that. As it turns out, he provides her with only a sticking plaster of relief (the silent scream as she discovers the cadaverous dummies of her family at the breakfast table is a startling moment). Is this what Wayne came to realise at the end? Not that he could not grant release, but that it was only short-term thing? Maybe not; Patrick, the author of What’s Next, appears to have undergone a permanent improvement (or perhaps his grief really wasn’t that deep, as Nora suggests).
The consequence of this would be that a rocky road lies ahead for Kevin’s new beginning, once the lustre of Wayne’s wand waving wears off. Carrie Coon’s performance in Guest, and through the season as a whole, has been phenomenal. She has the presence of a performer with a long and accomplished screen career behind her, even though she has only had a handful of roles (probably all the Steppenwolfing stage work). Okay, she can’t save a line like “I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruins of a dead civilisation” but no one could. It’s the kind of over-written gush Chris Carter would get David Duchovny to somnambulate at the end of an X-Files; a philosophical monologue that becomes more vacuous the more enunciated it is. If you’re writing a heartfelt leaving message you’d do best not to get caught up in your own poetic ego.
We’re right there with Nora in Guest, wondering if maybe she is going mad, mirroring Kevin with his blackouts, before her doppelganger is apprehended. Then there’s the foreshadowing of the replicas; she’s wholly flippant, making out with one rather than its actual owner (who’s a complete jerk) but she is the most affected when confronted by a trio in her kitchen. Coon guides us through the difficult opening sections; the procurement of a call girl to shoot her in the chest (a very different means of ensuring she remembers, through bringing back the pain; presumably it wasn’t a method to Patti’s liking or the Guilty Remnant would have let her be), the hugely insensitive “Fuck her” in response to Kevin demurring heading off with Nora on a quick jaunt and leave his daughter on her own. But by the end we are fully on board; maybe I was alone in this, but I was actively willing her not to let Wayne take her pain, that it wouldn’t be an answer; Episode 10 suggests it wasn’t.
The youth in the show have been better used during the second half of the season, although the weak point has persistently been Tommy’s plotline. Aside from the revelation of a tiny-tot army of baby Waynes, there hasn’t been much to sustain interest. Maybe the character will fare better on home turf. Jill’s teen angst bullshit actually goes to interesting places, though; her encounter with granddad when she’s been locked in a fridge (as if by magic, Scott Glen appears); the breakdown of her friendship with Aimee (hopefully they’ll patch things up; Emily Meade makes an effective, upbeat contrast to Margaret Qualley’s sullen moodiness), and the conclusion of Cairo, where Jill suddenly arrives at the Remnant HQ.
As with many a cult, once its ways and means are revealed it becomes less fascinating. Particularly with activities that are only slightly above distasteful frat house jokes. Amy Brenneman has probably the most difficult character in the series to pull off. Laurie is the one who has the hardest time to elicit sympathy as she tries her best to make out that she has turned the lights off. She does a fine subtle job with the internal tug of war between doing the Remnants’ thing and her maternal longings. Ultimately, however, it’s the cheating husband we sympathise with, not the wife who is willing to stone her friend to death. The Garveys at Their Best only goes so far in redressing the balance; we see her as the one in control, Patti as her subordinate.
Laurie is a therapist, the rationalist rejecting Patti’s intimations just as Kevin will later (“I’m sorry Patti. That’s just not me. There’s nothing wrong with me”). But again, even though her husband is a hopeless case, she’s presented as stiff and judgemental. Notably too, just before Kevin runs off to fuck a stranger he tells her “I smoked and I don’t want a dog”; later it is flipped. She rejects all and smokes, while he wants a dog. Kevin finds comfort and connection wherever he can. The departure is interestingly dealt with, as no one appears to see anyone else disappear (and we hear from no one who claims to have done, to my recollection). Laurie’s experience is both a peerless reveal and a twisted parting shot (bordering on farcical; it’s a fine line); a there one moment, gone the next, ultrasound foetus. Thus far, though, Laurie hasn’t coalesced into a relatable character; both her and her son have their work cut out for them.
Megan: We made them remember.
The rioting of the finale is played out in a suitably apocalyptic fashion (all that is missing are some Gremlins), and you wonder whether the Remnants have much mileage left in them. New recruit Megan (Liv Tyler) has shown little sign hitherto of getting on board with their discipline, perpetually angry and distracted. But now she appears fortified with new resolve. She beats Matt a few episodes before, screaming wildly at him, but is now content to be beaten herself; “She wants to be fucking hurt” notes Kevin to Matt as he attempts to assist her.
It seems like it’s a rarity these days to have a sympathetic Jesus freak in a series, particularly a place like HBO. Not that there isn’t good reason to complain, but it becomes a bit tiresome and one-note after a while (particularly seven seasons of the same on True Blood). Matt is, if you like, the balanced cultee, the old school one, bang in the middle of the poles of Wayne and Patti. He’s moderate in most things (barring his obsession with proving his point re the departure), peaceful (except when someone tries to take his winnings), turns the other cheek (except when someone tries to take his winnings), and has seemingly endless reserves of empathy for others. Yes, he has the perennial problem of quoting scriptures at the drop of a hat, and his blinkeredness vision leads him into hot water (attempting to manipulate his sister into lending him money, being frequently set upon by the irate bereaved he has offended) and Eccleston gives him a very wobbly accent, but he means well and Eccles instils an awkward sincerity that makes him likeable. The actual underpinnings of how the Christian church is now faring aren’t really interrogated, but it’s interesting that Matt is so engaged with proving this is not the rapture, or some act of divine reaping of the worthy. Because he wasn’t taken? Or because he can smell a rat, having surrounded himself for long enough with those partaking in make believe?
Either way, outside of his early showcase episode, Matt often seems like the most balanced character in any given scene, by remaining true to his views in spite of being surrounded by problems (a catatonic wife, his own brushes with illness). He also displays a winning disregard for the laws of man, be it helping Kevin Sr when he goes AWOL or then aiding Kevin himself with the small problem of a body. His high point comes giving Kevin a passage from the Book of Job to read (Chapter 23, of course; this is Lindelof we’re talking about) and it unlocks the law man’s emotional floodgates. Job, the man deserted by God, who did not desert God himself (all for a wager with old Nick, a highly non-benevolent way to go about things). It clearly affects Kevin deeply, but one has to think this is also how Matt sees himself, and it makes him stronger. He is tested by God in all this, and he is determined to prove himself worthy.
There’s a pervasive air of the uncanny to The Leftovers, but lurking in the background; bubbling beneath the surface. There are no invisible polar bears or smoke monsters; besides the event itself, supernatural events aren’t littering each episode. Yet the intention is clear; to suggest a skewed world where even the most literal-minded materialist types find it impossible to ignore what is staring them in the face. Yes, there’s a chance that the reverberations could all be in everyone’s heads, be it psychosis or mass hysteria. So shut the cranks in a home like Kevin Sr, or shoot those that don’t abide by the rules down like feral dogs or false prophets.
Kevin Sr: This is your invitation. This is your purpose. This is what you fucking accept.
Does Kevin’s dad hold insights? Are the voices just voices? Is the National Geographic May 1972 (whose cover depicts a Yellowstone bear and promises the article “Cairo Troubled capital of the Arab World” inside, which at least clues us to the title of Episode 8 if nothing else about it) just Lindelof’s latest tantalising mystery with not the remotest chance of a meaningful answer (like the numbers that need to be punched in down the hatch)? More than likely. Scott Glenn is great in the ageing mad sage role. Except of course, he isn’t insane. Is he? There’s a yawning gap regarding what happened to Kevin Sr that needs to be explored, but it’s telling that on both sides of the padded cell walls he is telling his son to accept his destiny. In the flashback episode he advises Kevin to accept that his family is the answer, “You have no greater purpose. Because it is enough. So cut all the shit, okay?” In Solace for Tired Feet, when he escapes the hospital, he is even more insistent to his son about what he needs to do. For whatever reason Kevin’s services are being requested. Is it a generational thing? Is Kevin’s resistance to the pull of destiny what is triggering the blackouts? Or is Kevin Sr just mad as hell, as the end of his impassioned plea to his son suggests; “Don’t wake up! Don’t anybody wake up! Go back to fucking sleep!” Either way, his advisory note “They’re not going to let you off that easy, son” proves more than accurate.
For his part, Kevin opines that his father left him when he most needed him. But it appears that harbingers and guides are all around, he just doesn’t want to recognise them. Or he’s understandably wary of whatever they may mean. There’s the deer he tries to save in Episode 9, first identified as “a monster”, with which he empathises; “It’s confused. It keeps trapping itself inside of buildings”. Saving the deer is not the point (he doesn’t); rather it leads him to the cumulative events that set him off down a path to wherever he must go. The deer, an animal spirit guide, sets the wheels in motion. It embodies Kevin’s disturbed feelings and nudges him to commit adultery and from thence… It’s Lindelof again; everything is connected. Everything is part of a bigger picture; if only we could see it, grasp it.
As for Dean, the up-for-it slaughterer of dogs who makes one elliptical half of an odd couple with Kevin. Who he is? What he does eludes even Patti (“No driver’s licence, no records, no anything. He’s a ghost”). And what to make of her response to Dean’s comment that he prefers to think of himself as Kevin’s guardian angel; “Well, shit. I think I just heard a bell ring”? Is Dean there to encourage Kevin to embrace a Luciferian path? Dean is perhaps the most cryptic character in the series; even Wayne and Patti are given doubts or pre-history. While we’re with the offbeat shit that just happens, what to make of the car that stops for Kevin in The Garveys at their Best? It isn’t so much the “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else” that lingers as the initial “Are you ready?” Which Kevin really hasn’t been throughout the season.
But ready for what? Presumably, the resistance that was useless will form a greater chunk of Season Two’s focus. Kevin isn’t going to merely content himself making happy families with Nora; he has a purpose, even if that purpose is deranged. One certainly has to wonder what his other self has been up to; on the one hand intent on saving (a dog), on the other determined to follow his rage as far as it leads (Patti). Understandably, Kevin doesn’t want to go the same way as his dad but it may be too late.
A word for Max Richter’s wonderful, expansive score, sublimely moving and revelatory and yet deceptively simple. It’s the best TV scoring since… well, Lost actually. Knowing how Lindelof likes to tease things out, I’ll give The Leftovers a good season more before the cracks really start to show, but I’m more than happy to take the doomed ride. This the best new series on right now, and HBO would have been mental not to renew it.
Rating below is for episodes 6-10 (season as a whole gets four-and-a-half stars)