The Leftovers first aired in 2014. Initial reviews were concerned about the show’s bleakness, and about the preponderance of mysteries, particularly in light of Damon Lindelof’s previous outing, Lost, which had concluded only four years earlier. For some, Lost still suffered under the apprehension to its finale, despite that ending itself being relatively well received critically, and recognised with awards. The dialogue about the show and the showrunner was that it bit off more than it could chew, and failed to give audiences what they wanted (read: answers to mysteries). Furthermore, there was a concern that The Leftovers, at least initially, was skewing too heavily toward the maudlin, and without the scifi action-adventure levity of Lost to break up the mood, we might be faced with a descent into an oubliette of unanswered narrative mysteries laced with depression.
For myself, that at least was the critical impression, and partly why I didn’t get to this season until after it had aired, and so I subsequently missed much of the first season discussion. It’s also possibly why the first half of the season, and the first two episodes in particular, were so hard to commit to.
It begins with our one glimpse at the inciting incident that leads to the trauma that runs through the entire show. And the trauma is as domestically banal as could be: a woman burdened with chores and work and a crying baby, until the baby disappears. And then pulling back we realise that it’s not just her baby – a shopping trolley meanders away into the rear of a car, jettisoned from its now-gone owner. In the background, a car travels out of control into another, the world losing control of itself in one instant. All the while, Max Richter’s rippling, cascading gentle deluge of a theme brings us to a collection of emergency calls, echoing none-too-subtly the memories of September 11. This is also the conceit of Tom Perrotta’s novel, looking at how one mass event can mushroom outwards into a state of collective trauma. How do we move on, after something so damaging? And not just move on, but move on together?
More importantly, what does ‘together’ even mean anymore, when children and parents and friends and loved ones can just disappear? How fragile is the connective tissue between us all when it takes something so small to sever it so irreparably?
Aside from this opening scene, The Leftovers is primarily concerned with the after. Not the why? but the what now? We’re in Mapleton, NY, with Chief of Police Kevin Garvey on his morning jog, hearing the annual remembrances of those who disappeared from around the world. This is The Leftovers’ greatest strength, something the show would perfect over the three seasons, and Lindelof would continue in Watchmen: effortless worldbuilding. How do you show the effects of a world where 2% of the population have disappeared without explanation? A man shoots a dog and drives away, right in front of Kevin. Later, the owner doesn’t really even care, as loss really doesn’t mean what it used to. An optional prayer in a school classroom to remember the departed, while students mock the moment with literal gallows humour. It is, perversely, the perfect story for the world right now. How quickly the strange, the surreal, the science-fiction, becomes commonplace. Because life needs to move on. We still need groceries, need work to occupy the days and provide purpose, need the comforts of the banal lest we lose ourselves in the trauma. Later, we find out that entire professions are created to justify this event, to reduce it down to a manageable moment, that we can somehow explain and rationalise with policies and proformas and KPIs.
What we don’t realise, at least for a while in this episode, is that we’re also getting the portrait of a family. None of the Garveys departed three years ago, but they’re all severed from one another. Kevin, trying to maintain a semblance of control over his job and the Heroes’ Day parade, is stuck as the last to realise how little connection he has with his daughter, Jill. Tom, her brother, has quit college and now does legwork for Holy Wayne, one of gurus who found a hole they could fill in a world looking for meaning. And Laurie, Kevin’s wife, has joined the Guilty Remnant, the white-clad, chain-smoking, group-living cult who practice aggressive, confrontational silence. Is this family still a family, three years after the Sudden Departure, and with it the unshakeable certainty in our cultural institutions? Nora Durst, the guest speaker at Heroes’ Day who lost everyone in her family but herself three years ago, can say ‘whatever the fuck she wants to’ because who’s going to stop her? We’re past the understandable, past the logical, past the reality that we can comprehend and through to the other side now; we can make our own rules and say whatever the fuck we want.
Everyone is looking for meaning. If the idea of family is gone, seemingly for good, then what do we now believe in? This, perhaps, is what frustrated viewers and critics of the first season. With Lost and Lindelof fielding complaints that the earlier show didn’t answer all the mysteries, how do we handle this new story that makes the real, ordinary world into one great big mystery? But here’s the problem both viewers and characters needed to face with The Leftovers: finding meaning isn’t the same as finding answers.
Tom drives a congressman blindfolded to meet Holy Wayne, in search of relief from his burden. What could Wayne possibly offer to take away his trauma? What secret could he have that could bring about an end to this unhappiness? What is the answer to all our sorrow? Wayne sits in his chair, smiles, and…what? The answer, for now, is elusive, but the meaning for the congressman is clear. He is unburdened.
The Guilty Remnant offer their meaning as well, which is seemingly about slapping everyone in the face with the reminder that nothing has meaning, anymore. Even if they get slapped in the face as a consequence, as happens to Laurie when following around her target, Meg. Meg’s conversation with her fiancée could just as easily be happening today: trying to muster up enthusiasm and energy and confidence in the procedural aspect of a wedding when everything around it has collapsed away. The mayor wants everyone to get back to feeling normal, but it’s not possible, is it? You can’t just have a cry and move on. These characters are the ones left behind. Something happened, and they’re left with everything else. When Kevin confronts Laurie at the Guilty Remant’s compound, he claims he just wants to talk to his wife, he wants her to come home. But for Laurie, being a wife, and the idea of home just don’t hold anymore. They’re gone, drifted off to some unreachable void. Kevin is asking for normality in a not-normal world.
Jill and the twins leave a party to go bury a dog in a random spot. Not because they have to, not because there’s any attachment to the dog. It’s not even theirs. Jill opened the boot of her car and found it there, left for her. But now they bury it, Richter’s score coding the moment with significance, a token gesture toward burying something, in the hope that it might still mean something real. The dog disappeared from its owner three years ago, running wild in the wake of the Departure. None of the 140 million who departed can be buried, but this dog can. It’s an opportunity.
There are small changes between the novel and this pilot (Kevin is an affable if distant mayor rather than the prickly, more narratively energetic chief he is here) but it’s actually staggering how faithful this episode and the first season are. The changes, which come later on, are indicative of the direction The Leftovers moves in, where they found the rhythm for telling this story and where it could go beyond its source material.
So much of the pilot could just pass as another small-town drama, so understated is it at times (Kevin and Laurie’s moment together at the riot the most indicative of this). It’s just these tiny details we hold onto, these unsettling moments that something is wrong, and no amount of well-intentioned public memorials can atone for this. It may not be the way the Guilty Remnant have it, but the façade of domesticity in The Leftovers present in this episode already feels like it is at breaking point. The conflict at Heroes’ Day is not a breaking point, but indication of the almost-present future.
The question, then, is do we try to hold onto things? Do we try to hold the centre? Or give in – to nihilism, to exploitation, to violence or decadence? Or do we find something new? If we can’t go back, what can we work towards, instead?
(In a final addition to just how timely rewatching this show is right now, Tom Perrotta spoke recently about the parallels between his portrayal of a post-traumatic world, and the one we’re currently living.)