Season Two: Episodes 1-6
(SPOILERS) You don’t hear many people talking about The Leftovers, less still raving about it. It would be nigh on a miracle that it was commissioned for a second run, if not for the fact that HBO generally look more kindly on the prospects for fledging fare than the networks (but not John From Cincinnati, alas). The Season Two partial reboot’s change of setting has enabled the continuation of the show’s most vital elements and characters, and indeed introduced new ones just as arresting. If it’s disappointing that some of the first season’s better characters have fallen by the wayside (Kevin’s dad, Dean), this new infusion has generally enriched and layered the show.
A few problem areas continue unabated, of course. Good as Chris Eccleston’s performance is, his accent is less than convincing. And it’s also the case that the very Lindelof focus on a different character(s) each episode has its consequent weaknesses; the Laura-centric episode Off Ramp (2.3) is eventful, engrossing and dramatic, and on its own its very good, but it can’t compete with the prior instalments set in Miracle. Also, not so much a complaint as recognising showrunner baggage, the Matt Jamison No Room at the Inn (2.5) is similarly first rate, but the travails and suffering (and overt referencing of Job) conjure precisely the spectre of the tribulations of another believer, John Locke in Lost.
Damon Lindelof: If you are expecting any answers to specifically as it pertains to the Sudden Departure, you will leave this show immensely frustrated.
The singular question, the elusive one the series appears designed not to answer, of just what the departure is/means remains front and centre, still carrying with it the backwash of a series creator aware that his previous attempts to provide narrative closure have at best floundered (while Season One provides an ending, had there been no second run, it doesn’t provide answers, and when Lindelof admits he’s “someone who I think has struggled with endings” its not simply a matter of closure but one also of basic storytelling mechanics). He answered quite forthrightly “No. We don’t” regarding whether or not he and Perotta had an explanation themselves, which is at least honest in terms of the way you get Lostor Battlestar Galactica fudged their makeshift grand plans, but it does make you wonder that he has the gall to leave these nuggets regarding the Departure lying around if the can’t make sense of them.
Damon Lindelof: We’re never, ever going to tell.
For Lindelof the show is as much about exploring his own nebulous spiritual belief, manifested in a show where, even though something tangibly supernatural occurs, it fails to wrap everything up in a nice bow. Life goes on. As such, he’s more interested in characters living in a world without answers than in providing them. His “emotional apocalypse” is one in which the change inflicted on its characters comes through absence rather than substance (“ambiguous loss”). As such, they run the gamut of responses, which in Season Two are sometimes expressed by new faces, or familiar faces with new gazes attached.
Lindelof has referred to the Departure as the catalyst for his characters journeys, and the conflict of the show (mostly) derives form the different responses they have to the same event. If the show is about the search for meaning on a broader level (Lindelof’s own journey), it also offers a validation that makes its grasp keener than our reductive real world; they are “living in a world with mystery”.
By moving the show to a focus point for all the post-Departure speculation, a town without any Departures, Lindelof and Tom Perrotta can keep their central theme in check without stirring and repeating. The Guilty Remnant are now on the periphery even in the non-Jarden (or Miracle National Park) plotlines, but belief and superstition are given shape in different forms. We see it in the town resident who regularly slaughters a goat, because he did so on the day of the Departure and no one left then, and the young woman he always wears the wedding dress she wore that day. And outside the town limits, since entry is strictly controlled, there is an encampment of organised chaos, a miniature Glastonbury Festival where all manner of Departure devotees have gathered, desperate to get a piece of that Miracle action.
Lindelof sets the importance of the town in stone from the first scene, set many millennia before, as a cavewoman, sans cave after her clan are buried in an avalanche, tends her babe and succumbs to a snakebite. It’s a curious extended sequence (some have compared it to Lindelof going all pre-history in Prometheus), as if he and Perrotta have been mainlining Terence Malick for further entreaties with that cosmic lattice of coincidence. If this is the Jarden of the Stone Age, and this is a person of that epoch’s reaction to a mystifying event of loss and emotional apocalypse, it also provides an affirmation that such an occurrence isn’t the end of everything; her baby survives (like Holy Wayne’s and Christine’s does), taken by a sympathetic surrogate. The sequence runs the danger of feeling pretentious, or portentously grandiose, but that’s nothing overly new to the show.
Caller: We believe the demon Azrael has chosen you as his instrument.
A bigger issue – and I say this as a devotee of such scraps – is, as noted, Lindelof’s desire to poke at the Departure event and assemble some sort of patchwork construction around it. Since he sustained this with Lost, I don’t doubt he can also do so here, but I wonder if there’s going to be an inevitable impasse reached at some point caused by the two opposing dramatic forces, one feeding on the mystery and the other fending it off. Elements like the National Geographic from 1972, a very Lost bit of paraphernalia, and Kevin’s dad (Scott Glenn alas only appearing in the first episode) heading off to Australia, where something is happening, are put of this tug. But it also extends to the essence of the “chosen” status of several of our main characters.
There’s Tom (Chris Zylka), who until Off Ramp has been fairly short-changed by the show but now reveals he too can give hugs (not so much Jill’s undercover brother infiltrating the Remnant, as an ever-loving hugger). There’s Nora (Carrie Coon), who like her boyfriend finds herself identified as special in ways she wants only to escape. For her it’s being identified as a possible lens for others’ departures, and the coincidence (nothing’s a coincidence in Lindelof land) that her neighbour’s daughter vanished the same night she arrived in Miracle.
This strand is particularly vital to 1.6, where she throws a rock through the Murphys’ window, partly in frustration at the refusal by John (Kevin Carroll) to help her brother, but also doubtless because the place she has escaped to, the place she wants to feel safe within, is proving nothing of the sort, and the evidence is right next door. Understandably, when Erika (Regina King) realises who the culprit is, she repays in kind. And then there’s Kevin (Justin Theroux), like his father gifted with voices, or cursed with Patti (the quite fantastic Ann Dowd), who also just wants it all to go away.
Quite striking in these episodes is the attempts of science to divine some sense of meaning from the event, from the MIT guys who buy Nora’s house (“Our guess is it’s a matter of geography”; shades of Lost there) to the way the lens theory permeates both the revised DSD questionnaire and those who believe Nora has been possessed by the demon Azrael (albeit it’s not her fault).
Isaac: Something bad is going to happen to you.
John: Well shit, Isaac. That is not ideal.
The opener, for all that it spends three-quarters of its running time in the company of newcomers the Murphys (and a cavewoman), is superb scene-setter (and, to labour the Lost comparisons, the wrong-footing echoes season openers there, most notably the second and third runs), introducing a family that initially appears to be one of picture postcard happiness but progressively shreds before our eyes.
Dad John is the loving laidback parent. But he can’t let that annoying cricket lie. And then he goes to see high school friend palmist Isaac (Darius McRary), the first of a number of characters we will see with precognitive abilities, who tells him “what I do is real”. The exact nature of John’s dogged desire to stamp out any who attest to the miraculous is not yet unveiled at the 1.6 point, but we know he was imprisoned for attempted murder, and shot father/father-in-law Virgil (The X-Files’ X himself, Steven Williams), who did something nigh unforgivable and who also attests to supernatural goings on and insights.
John’s response is to burn down Isaac’s house, and we don’t really see the sympathetic side to the character of the opening minutes again, only the one looking to scrutinise others and potentially inflict vigilante justice on any who fall foul of his system of merit. He’s Miracle’s very own Witchfinder General, suffered by his wife (“If you were who you said you were, you should have seen it coming” she tells Isaac), who wants to leave him for unspecified reasons (being a violent head case might be enough, but that doesn’t seem like the whole of it; it isn’t like she’s actively trying to talk him out of his mission). It might seem like Kevin, the ex-lawman would be the one to naturally clash with John, but so far it has been true believer Matt, who, following John’s charge that he took advantage of Mary in her catatonic state, pronounces that, when his wife wakes up, “you and I are going to have a little chat”.
Nora: You’re scared that if you answer those questions, everyone’s going to know your daughter didn’t depart.
Erika’s own story doesn’t come into focus until 2.6, in a particularly blinding two-hander scene between King and Coon. Nora, attempting to offload her own doubts and fears, belittles those of Erika, who has been taking out birds and burying them in a box in the woods (if they survive three days, which she knows as a nurse is scientifically, impossible she makes a wish); when one survived she wished for daughter Evangeline (Jasmin Savoy Brown) to be okay if she left her husband. As Nora progresses through the questionnaire, her worst fears begin to be realised, evidencing that the answers are exactly those of a departee case, and her own fears are rekindled after being doused by the Azrael accusers. As she says “Our only comfort is that we didn’t cause them”.
But, aside from the supernatural element, the makeshift family unit of Kevin and Nora arriving could be seen to simply cast a light on one with fault lines ripping through it. After all, the death of the family is one of the themes Lindelof is nursing. We don’t know exactly what was going on with Evangeline. Indeed, we don’t reallyknow that she and her friends are departed; they might have been abducted (the scene with the Dr Goodheart at the spring is the kind of offhand thing True Detective capitalised on; perhaps that’s Lindelof’s intentional misdirection, as a fan of that show) or faked their own disappearances. The scene of them running and running naked (and free? Dazed? Concerned? Evangeline raises her arm as if in rapture, contrasting with the sly mockery of church choir practice) through the (early morning?), if it is intended to be connected to their disappearance (a natural inference) suggests an aftermath, despite the empty car left running.
On the other hand, Kevin was there, with a cinder block round his ankle, and the spring was drained. As some kind of lens himself, he might have attracted a minor departure event. Patti, his beyond the grave advisor/tormentor, insists they vanished (“Then, poof, gone”), so if for whatever reason there is a corporeal explanation it would cast doubt on her own status as anything beyond a figment of Kevin’s mind.
Then there’s Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo) the son with faith, who intentionally or not impugns his father’s actions (“See to it that no one repays evil with evil for anyone”) and offers forgiveness to Virgil against his parents’ wishes. He doesn’t go looking for his sister because she “isn’t here any more”. He highlights the battle between those who embrace (Matt, Virgil) and those who reject (John, Kevin, Nora), typified by the waste disposal scene (John full of fear, probably piqued by Isaac, while Michael sticks his hand in there and retrieves the spoon; in this case the thing to remember is that there is a spoon). Matt’s actually something of an exception in the main characters, since the young and old seem most attuned to adjusting to the Departure event. Of course, his road is as rocky in its own way as John’s.
Matt: I can’t understand why you went away again.
We aren’t offered a flashback or footage testifying that Mary (Janel Molony) woke up on the night she conceived, so there might always be a sliver of doubt in the viewer’s mind (certainly, it’s clear no one else is going to believe him unhesitantly), but Matt’s unfaltering faith and ready responsiveness don’t suggest the kind of man who would do such a thing, and we see him diligently pouring over footage and rehearsing events just as they were when she awoke (on the other hand, the most devoted are liable to convince themselves of truths).
The Book of Job is here again, as in the first season, and No Room at the Inn is like a condensed version, as Matt is progressively ruined and dispossessed (including a highly bizarre sequence where he beats a guy with an oar for $500), only to have his faith reconfirmed such that he takes to the stocks in the encampment at the end, giving his entry bracelet to the child whose now expired father stole from Matt in the first place, and in so doing giving even John pause.
One of the fun things in the episode is when Lindelof’s supernatural markers appear, and they are very much a signature that extends from Lost. There are those with uncanny perceptions, repeating the similar experience of Kevin in the previous episode, presenting themselves as confirmation that Matt’s experience is not pure make believe (“She said, if you don’t get her back inside, she will die”) and echoing his bloodied vision of Mary calling to him from earlier (“Please honey, get us back in”). Perhaps the greatest testament to Matt is that he cannot keep quiet just to get what he wants; John is all set to get him back in to Miracle as a favour to Kevin, but Matt can’t let it lie (“What happened to you? You were like this before”).
There are some fine scenes in Off Ramp, but it’s definitely the least of the first six episodes. The idea of Laurie (Amy Brennan) holding a Remnants survivor’s clinic is quite neat, as is the notion she’s still unhinged enough to allow her son to imperil himself with the Guilty Remnant (including a bit of rough sex when Liv Tyler’s Meg forces herself on him in the back of a van).
The audio cues in the series are often majestic – as they were with Lost – from the insistent, rousing strings of the main theme to the use of pop songs (and sound coming both in and going out, from Kevin’s using headphones to shut out the cries of the baby to Erica’s deafness, to the ominous soundtrack whenever someone’s world is going a bit crazy), here a piano version of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind (which turned up in the previous episode in its original form), indicative that all is not smooth sailing.
Those Laurie attempts to help aren’t helping she realises, via Tom, because “we have nothing to put back in their place”. Her most of all, as she attacks her potential publisher, who loves her novel but wants her to put some feeling into it (earlier she has been told by the woman who subsequently drives her family into an oncoming truck that she is angry, which she denies). Characters only differ in how much they are aware of what they aren’t aware of, and in The Leftovers those are usually the ones who are accepting. Off Ramp has some great sequencs; Laurie driving at Remnants who bounce over her bonnet, or stealing her laptop back, but I don’t find myself invested in her or Tom. Whereas I’m very keen to know is going on in John’s head. It must be partly the alchemy of performer and plot, but I can say unhesitantly that any scene with Kevin or Nora has me all eyes.
Virgil: I can help you with your situation. Come and see me any time.
A Matter of Geography(2.2) reintroduces us to the Garveys, recapping their departure from Mapleton, and its no surprise that Kevin is as fucked up as ever. The new hope held out at the end of the first season would inevitably be dashed, and the non-corporeal embodiment of that (although it appears she can actually hit him) is Patti, along for the ride and ensuring that even though Kevin’s might be the most fucked up situation of all the fucked up situations, it’s by far the funniest. If his dad’s departure is of good cheer (“Try not to drive her into a fucking cult”) she also arrives to crack wise, sing Rick Astley, warn him against John (“Don’t get in that car, Kevin”) and before long is sprinkling in meta remarks (I don’t care if Lindelof doesn’t like the word, it’s him what done it); “Very interesting family. Hard to tell if they’re part of your story or you’re part of theirs”.
She also is prone to expressing our own bewilderment (“What the fuck was that?” after Kevin disinters her and confesses to the police). It seems Kevin’s problem is one his father has come to terms with (“I just started doing what they told me”), but he just wants to exorcise Patti. Fortunately he has a replacement for the much-missed Michael Gaston’s Dean in Virgil. It isn’t until 2.6 that Kevin lets Nora know about Patti (but at least he does…), and one can only guess that her frayed-condition response will not be a positive one. By the end of Orange Sticker (2.4) he and Patti are disagreeing on his suicidal tendencies but “I’m just glad we’re finally talking”. Most acutely, she instructs him of his relationship with Nora, “What you’ve got isn’t love, it’s damage control”. And as much as we’re invested in these two it’s difficult to disagree.
Carrie Coon’s is still the series most captivating of a welter of captivating performances. I could watch her emote all day, I suspect. Nora’s headstrong desire to get into Miracle, putting down $3m for a house when they were only planning to rent (“Guess that’s why they call it a leap of fate”) is as maladjusted as Kevin’s state of denial regarding Patti, and it takes little to light the blue touch paper of incipient terror (the scene in which they confess to each other is very funny, though); “Did it happen again?” she asks desperately, having called 911 post-earth tremor and Kevin’s disappearance.
Also notable (and funny) are Kevin’s eyebrow raising responses to her illegal practicality, be it stealing questionnaires or refusing him to go to the police (“Tell them what? You don’t remember anything before you woke up in the exact same spot where your neighbour’s daughter and friends went missing?”) The final scene of 2.6 begins on a misconception (“I’ve been seeing someone”), as if confessing infidelity, but it underlines that Nora has been so preoccupied she hasn’t taken much notice of those aspects Kevin is beside himself over, such as talking to himself, being handcuffed to the bed, and leaving their tot in the car.
It’s a great episode ending (“She’s saying I never should have told you about her and that I just made a big mistake”) The fist half-plus of Season Two has been exceptional (although the redone titles are an over-literal error), exceeding Season One in quality at the same point, but its certainly true what Lindelof says, that it isn’t going to win any new converts. People do pretty much love or hate The Leftovers, and even then in small numbers, and one wonders if two will be the limit for HBO.