This is the story of a little boy.
When I was 5, I was taken to be baptised. Uncertain why it hadn’t happened earlier, but both me and my sisters were all to be baptised not long after settling in the country, having moved here from overseas. I don’t recall how my sisters took it, but something in the focus of the moment, in having all those eyes on me, in the arcane rigidity of the situation made me reject it all, and I ran from the font in tears. It made for an interesting baptismal photo.
A little over eight years later and I was expected to receive my confirmation while at boarding school. My older sister had just two years before, and it was an open topic of conversation that of course I would (the earlier, aborted baptism was deemed to have been sufficiently legitimate, it would appear). Looking back now, I can’t remember anything about why it was happening, or what it meant, just the word. And that it involved church. I didn’t know the significance of it, and nobody had even attempted to explain it to me. It was just an inevitability. But in being at boarding school, to get my across the finish line for my confirmation I still needed to put my name on a sheet of paper and sign up for the thing. Thus, having a small amount of independence meant I avoided it. I remember the disappointment from my parents, but that was all. I don’t remember much talk about why I hadn’t, or what that would mean, perhaps I have imagined away these conversations and they did actually take place. But that’s the thing: this is how I remember it.
My last three years of school – an Anglican school – were part of my growing understanding about religion, about belief, and I wanted no part of it. The mandatory, thrice-weekly church services were a thing to endure, standing silent while all (except other objectors) murmured around, through prayer and psalm and hymn. If this was so important, I was telling myself, if it was so necessary, then why was it forced upon me?
It was only later the whole Aristotelian line about giving up a child until they are seven was introduced to me. A line later adopted by the Jesuits, under the belief that religion could be written into one’s soul before one could critically evaluate and make that choice themselves.
My concern with all of it was, and really this was on the very mild end of conscientious objection to organised religion, is that it took me a long time to separate belief and faith from religion. Why should the church, or any church, have a monopoly on this? Why were children told that there was only one way to believe, as if it wasn’t a fundamental aspect of life already? It’s not that, like Mulder, we want to believe, we already do. That is what is written into our souls. Our capacity to believe. To search for things that we want to believe in. No matter how big or small.
And The Leftovers is all about belief, born in the wreckage of organised religion.
‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ is the episode often cited as the one that grabbed viewers. It’s one episode of only a handful in the season that provided a blueprint for how the story would tell itself in the following seasons, and also the first episode to really depart from the source material to a significant degree, focused as it is on Matt Jamison, who is very much a parenthetical character in the novel.
Because this is very much the story of Matt, who was a boy cured from leukaemia, whose parents died in a fire, and whose wife was rendered into a vegetative state through the chaos of the Sudden Departure. A man who looks constantly over his life and remembers things the way he wants to, the way he needs to, to sustain his belief. To acknowledge the episode’s title, it’s a line from a joke about a man constantly praying for salvation during a flood, rejecting help from the boats and helicopter that come to save him under the certain belief that God will deliver. And in meeting God in the afterlife, asking why he wasn’t saved, God queries why he ignored the boats and helicopters God sent for him.
If we limit our belief to one very narrow view of the world and of humanity, who knows what miracles we miss. What absolute wonders of life are occurring right in front of us. Too many moments of happiness and mysteries of existence are not considered worthy of belief, because they don’t fall into the narrow paradigm of – let’s face it – Western religion.
The Sudden Departure three years ago shook Matt’s faith more profoundly than either his near miss with leukaemia or his parents’ deaths. Here was an event that for all intents and purposes looked like the Rapture. Even the opening credits of this first season of The Leftovers riffs on this, depicting a living fresco of individuals ascending to some sort of heaven. But how could this be, if Matt himself remained? Matt, who had survived so much and led a church? Surely this was a mistake. It wasn’t the Ratpure, the righteous hadn’t ascended to a higher existence, it was wrong. And Matt needs to correct this wrong, by personally investigating these individuals and debunking the story that they are somehow heroes that we should miss and mourn. And so Matt sets himself on a very specific path, one where his confirmation bias sees to rewrite reality to fit his view that he is still heading toward salvation.
This majority of this episode takes place largely over the course of one day, during which he encounters first one pigeon outside his church, two disturbing a roulette game at the casino, and then three perched on a traffic light. There are myriad readings into the symbolism of a pigeon (some of which The Leftovers will get to in a distant place and time) but it doesn’t matter here. The episode isn’t interested in exploring what the pigeons mean, other than they mean something to Matt. They confirm his belief that he is on the path, one guided by the world around him. Anything contrary to this is routinely ignored, like the man dismissing the boats and the helicopter because he will be saved by unexpected means.
Matt ignores phone calls from the bank, even though this would have got him a head start on dealing with his financial instability. He goes to visit a girl in hospital only to discover she has recovered and checked out – ‘this morning, my congregation, we prayed for her’ – except that she recovered last night before any such prayers occurred. His church is floundering, nobody is attending his services, because the world is struggling to find reason to believe in what they once did. But Matt conducts a secret baptism (because the mother doesn’t agree with all this anymore) and then interprets it as a sign that things are changing.
Matt struggling to keep his church is not just a plot device, it’s Matt struggling to keep his faith. To justify the existence of his faith. He claims Nora doesn’t get to talk about god because she doesn’t believe, but her entire life is full of people talking about her husband, her children.
‘Do you know where my husband went? Do you know what it was?’
‘It was a test.’
A test for what comes now. Matt has cast himself as Job, as the eternally tested. He has a painting of Job in his house, which keeps him awake at night. This is what he looks to for guidance, the understanding that suffering in life is not meaningless, is not random, it is a test of our faith. And the only way to salvation is through suffering. In his medically-induced dream toward the end of the episode, Matt’s wife asks him why he persists. This is not a compliment to his hard work, to his championing of those that need assistance, or to his unwavering faith. It is a direct question: why?
Why does Matt wish he had departed?
Why would he be willing to forgo his life for that which is unknown? To leave everyone else behind?
He follows the pigeons to the casino (which he only knew about because he was investigating someone who departed), and gambles $40,000 on a roulette table other pigeons lighted on, and walks out with $160,000. A sign.
And then he nearly loses it all, but for his own retaliating violence. And then he nearly loses it all again, only to rise three days later and find the money still there. Yet he still wants to spend it on the church, only to find he can’t anymore. It’s gone. Bought out from under him by the Guilty Remnant.
Nora, Matt’s sister, reminds Matt earlier that the church wasn’t left to them by their parents, he decided that was what happened. And saw it as his life’s mission. He’s chosen to view his life his way, to believe what he wants to believe, but now he’s run to the edge of the map, he’s reached the limitations of that belief. The world doesn’t care, it is indifferent to his suffering. It just is. A commerical on TV reminds us that this is a world where individuals can order a mannequin made to look like their departed loved one, to create their own way of mourning.
In looking back at this TV show, it’s clear how intent they were to show us that the old world and its old champions were rendered meaningless by the Sudden Departure. That a cataclysmic event, even one felt more existentially than physically by the world’s inhabitants, can give the world an opportunity to start anew. And clinging on to our old relics is to cast ourselves as a Job left behind, suffering for the sake of suffering because we choose to live this way.
The episodes featuring Matt as the central point of view were rare, even though this first one is the model that The Leftovers adopted. Here, we are given a character who refuses to let go, insists on persisting, shakes off the punches and kicks and financial suffering he receives as a result, because he believes. And then the story gives him a chance to reconsider. To examine his belief, scrutinise it, and do better.
Was the Sudden Departure a symbolic event? Or was it random? Was there a reason certain people left and others didn’t? Will we find out where they went, or did they all die? Is it a huge, global metaphor or is it a test?
Or, as this episode puts it, is Matt a man who has suffered so much and who now tragically misses out on saving his church and his life’s work? Or is he a man who ignored the miracles of his existence, the suffering of his sister, the life of his wife who did not depart but has now been cast as a symbol in his life rather than a person? A man who is given multiple opportunities to escape his burdens (even being gifted $160,000) but only sees this as another burden?
Does our belief lead to hope, or suffering?