Some production backstory for this episode:
In episode four, we did a Tom and Christine story where they encountered this soldier who was returning from this war in Yemen, that is happening in the book. And essentially the story was weighted towards the soldier…
But the story was just a bust from the word go. And it was literally half the episode. And so meanwhile the A-story in Mapleton was that the Baby Jesus had been stolen from the manger which was obviously not a hugely pyrotechnic amazing story, but we liked that story and felt that Theroux gave a really strong performance in it. But overall, I thought that if we put this fourth episode on, people will stop watching the show.
We reshot half of the fourth episode, and that”s the first time that I’ve ever done that. And what was amazing about it was we saw the cut for episode four. We felt like we had made a huge storytelling mistake and we shared it with HBO and said, “We would like to fix this.” And they agreed and then they allowed us to take the time to basically figure out how to fix it without getting behind on all the scripts that were piling up in the pipeline. But we also wanted just to kind of hone the production in New York. It was a really rough winter that year, and we started shooting the last week of January. So for a show where most of the crew base and actors were living in Manhattan but was shooting in Nyack and Hastings and all those places, we were losing almost two hours a day just getting people to and from the set each way. So we had to tighten the screws there.
It’s no secret that this episode is possibly one of the weakest of The Leftovers. The fact that it works to any degree is testament to the performances, and the groundwork already put into the story. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s bleak and occasionally monotone. And yet it has some of the most memorable moments in the whole season.
It’s no secret as well that The Leftovers was finding its feet in the first season, balancing between the novel’s original story and the narrative that would work best for TV. Immediately following the production break in this episode, Mimi Leder came on board as director for Episode 5, and with her came the visual and tonal cohesion the show had been longing for. So despite the episode’s shortcomings, it’s a worthwhile moment in the show to look at, as the story grapples with getting its best version out to the audience, and the revisions they bring in – in this case to Tom’s section of the story – help sharpen our focus in what the overall narrative goal of The Leftovers is.
The opening sequence lays the metaphor out plain as day. From a toy factory producing baby dolls to a department store, to someone’s purchase of a doll, taking it home and swaddling it and laying it out in a nativity display. But then the baby disappears. This symbol of people’s faith, the tradition that – certainly for a lot of America – brings comfort in its regularity, even if it’s manufactured out of latex and cotton and sold in mimicry of life.
I thought about this, and a bit more, in the scene that follows, where Kevin attempts to talk to Patti Levin, the leader of the local group of the Guilty Remnant. He mentions the new library and assumes that she, and the GR, wouldn’t care much for it. What stories would the new library bring to Mapleton? What would we read, after something like the Sudden Departure had occurred? Already now we’re wondering about the art we’ll consume when all this is over, wondering whether the shape and flavour of our contemporary fictions will need to adapt to this global event. What place for fiction in a departed world? Would there be sci-fi fantasties written about the 2 per cent, about where they went? Would people lose their tastes for escapism and instead bury themselves in facts? Or, do facts become meaningless in such a world, and we need to create new narratives to make some sense of everything?
Is she right? Other than the depressing tone, the other main take from Season 1 was that audiences loathed the GR. I’m not entirely sure why, as they seem entirely plausible in the world of The Leftovers. Perhaps its their belligerence, the bluntness of their message – I don’t really know. But I don’t think the show is making the case that the GR’s methods and philosophy are the way forward. It seems more that they’re a spur for the other characters to examine their own problems and priorities. Is there no family? Kevin’s fighting hard to deny this from his reality, and undoubtedly for many wrong reasons. But maybe that’s kind of it. If everything is up for grabs, if all meaning has gone, then we need to fight hard for what we want back again. If Kevin is so intent on preserving his sense of family, then he’s going to have to create it from the ground up.
Tom is still on the road with Christine, and despite the haphazardness of their storyline, it draws attention to the main conceit of The Leftovers. Just as in our world right now there’s a percentage of people crafting their own alternate take on what is happening, the same would be here. If two per cent of the population disappeared, there’s still ninety-eight per cent who have to go to work, make dinner, pay the bills. It becomes harder and harder to deny normality, even in the presence of that two per cent. So maybe the man who accosts Christine saw her in his dreams and she will bring about death, even if we’re ninety-eight per cent sure he’s having some kind of psychotic break. Maybe Christine is carrying the child that will save the world, even if we’re ninety-eight per cent sure that’s total bullshit. Do we believe in the mystery? Or does it even matter?
Tom initially rejects the offer of someone to paint a bullseye on his head, even if that means God won’t find him, but later adopts it, knowing it will help him and Christine. In Mapleton, Jill can’t quite bring herself to burn the baby Jesus doll, because maybe there’s a small part of her that thinks it might mean something if she did. We can’t help but place our faith and trust in meaninglessness, in order to create meaning.
Tom can’t help but bring some truth to his fiction. When asked how he got to join the cult, who he has only pretended to in order to avoid suspicion, he answers that his father abandoned him. Later, we discover that Kevin isn’t Tom’s biological father, reinforcing not only Tom’s yearning for something to believe in, but also Kevin’s ability and desire to craft a family where one didn’t exist before, at least for him. So far, The Leftovers has shown us how the world is struggling to move on in the absence of those who departed, yet the Garveys’ struggles as a fractured family exist almost separate to this. They are all still there, and yet that doesn’t make things any easier.
Because they can’t escape. Tom and Christine run into the back of a spillage on the highway, only the spillage is dozens of fake bodies, made to look like people who departed, en route to be delivered to the grieving individuals who ordered them. And in this, it seems like maybe the dream about Christine and the dead bodies was real. Maybe the apocalypse is coming, the reckoning. Maybe the Sudden Departure was merely the beginning, and there are more signs and wonders to be read in the world, showing that the end times are coming.
Or maybe they’re just latex dolls.
Kevin later tries to reassure some of the community that he has personally recovered the baby Jesus and will be restoring it to the nativity scene, having been given the order by the mayor that this is important for everyone. He doesn’t believe it is, and only went after the doll because he knew Jill was involved. And yet here, parroting that he cares about the doll’s significance, he can’t help but be let down that nobody seems to care. The title of the episode itself seems to draw parallels between this toy doll and Christine’s pregnancy (baby Jesus and the antichrist, if you will), wanting us to speculate whether these archaic symbols mean anything anymore.
‘It’s not real’, Kevin says, meaning the baby, in his meet-cute with Nora. Whether the show knew this in production, or whether this was happenstance emerging from the performances and the shifting nature of the adaptation, but this scene is where the show finds its heart. She reminisces about going to school with her husband, who cheated on her during their marriage, and then he and her two children departed. Kevin is holding a fake baby, trying to restore something to the community even if he doesn’t believe in it, trying to hold on to his family that is growing further and further apart. And yet the two find an emotional common ground. They recognise the same in each other, despite the huge differences. It’s immediate, and playful, with an undercurrent of staring bluntly at the darkness. It’s the most honest Kevin’s been all season, and – in the brief glimpses of Nora we’ve had – the happiest she’s seemed.
Maybe we can make new stories out of the rubble, and they can be hopeful ones. Kevin throws the baby Jesus out the car door, while Laurie goes back to find Jill’s present she threw away. Maybe we get to choose what we keep, and what we give up.