This episode begins with Tom and an atonal injection of action, as the Holy Wayne’s compound is stormed, people are shot, and he escapes with one of Wayne’s favoured acolytes, Christine. It has the odd effect of cutting right to the literal chase with his story line, getting him on the road after very little set up. Later, Wayne tells Tom that ‘this girl is everything’, and if this was some other kind of story, some other show with a typical, mystical hero’s narrative, then maybe we’d believe him. But The Leftovers gives us situations like this where we have every reason to doubt – Wayne is a grifting healer with a thing for young women, or Wayne is an actual mystic holding the secrets to happiness – and yet the show wants us to confront our willingness to believe. Tom, like us, is caught in this middle ground: is Wayne full of shit or do we drop everything and follow this journey to salvation?
In the end, The Leftovers asks, does it matter? For now, Tom is going with it. This is something the story will grapple with constantly: the want for answers against the experience of not knowing. Elsewhere in the episode, a character describes the Guilty Remnant as ghosts, and that leaving their world – rational, explained, traumatised – to go and live with the GR is akin to the Sudden Departure. All the characters in The Leftovers feel like they are surrounded by ghosts that refuse to give up their mysteries, and they can’t bear it. So either we create a false narrative to find our way through it, or try to pretend the ghosts aren’t there.
Mark Strand, the poet, gave an interview many years before The Leftovers was on TV, and indeed many years before the novel was written:
We live with mystery, but we don’t like the feeling. I think we should get used to it. We feel we have to know what things mean, to be on top of this and that. I don’t think it’s human, you know, to be that competent at life…the reality of the poem is a very ghostly one. It doesn’t try for the kind of concreteness that fiction tries for. It doesn’t ask you to imagine a place in detail; it suggests, it suggests, it suggests again.
Increasingly, The Leftovers will come to embody this approach to storytelling. Early reviews noted how little the show seemed interested in explaining the logistics of the plot, instead trying to give the audience an emotional terrain to move through, so that it was the feelings of the characters that we followed, rather than where they came from. This episode, oddly titled as it is, starts us along that journey.
It’s also clear in this episode that there’s a bit of time between when the pilot was filmed and when the main run was picked up; large tracts of snow line the suburban streets, everyone is rugged up for the winter. Previously, they were out jogging and playing hockey. The show is settling in for the cold, and it’s no wonder the bleak and depressive tone of the show was so overt (and such a barrier for new audiences).
Kevin’s dream is probably the least impressive moment. The heavy flirtations between him and Jill’s friend, Aimee feel like they belong to a different show, even if it is indicative of the changed world. Here the three – Kevin, Jill, her friend – cohabit almost as housemates, and the parenting of Jill, and concern for her, come from Kevin and Aimee. Even when the family has ceased to exist, we recreate it in other ways.
Regardless, Jill is on her own unsure path. She watches Nora Durst in the cafe, carrying a gun in her handbag and breaking a mug on purpose. It’s worth mentioning Carrie Coon’s performance, and the strength that comes out in unexpected ways. The strength to not apologise on top of the waiter’s apology, to acknowledge that it might have been her mistake. It’s one thing to want to break something, it’s another to brazenly acknowledge this by not even apologising for it, or giving people the comfortable out by pretending it was an accident. Her character is fascinating for how Nora tests out transgressions. What other boundaries can be crossed? Where else can she go, now that she’s experienced the worst?
Nora now works for the Department of Sudden Departure, establishing whether applicants are eligible for Departure benefits. The questions she asks the applicants about their son who departed are almost trivial in nature (did he have any allergies? did he ever travel to Brazil? did he speak more than one language?) The the assessment is bureaucratic in nature, formal to a fault, and yet it’s understandable. The Departure was the enormous big blank area on the map, something clouded and unseen. These questions are an attempt to colour in the edges, find some boundaries to the thing. Test its limits and see if we can contain it into a body of knowledge. But, of course, it seems like these questions and their answers lead nowhere. There is no discernible connection between them.
Laurie is now indoctrinating Meg into the GR, and the scenes with the tree-chopping on the surface seem to carry a fair amount of obvious symbolism just on their own. But in thinking about the GR, they don’t necessarily trade in obvious symbolism. Sometimes it’s just a tree. But as Laurie shows Meg, the GR isn’t about wilful nihilism. It’s not just smoking and silence and hating on everyone. Laurie hasn’t given it up, she just knows it’s not enough. She needs something else. Something more. Like all of the characters in The Leftovers, Laurie and the GR are in search of something to make it all okay. Meg’s return to the tree, and with us cued by the score, is not for any sense of futility, or the meaninglessness of life, or anything else. It’s so she can feel. And so we can. In the early stages of the show, Richter’s score would cue these emotional releases almost too much, despite how powerful they were. But these characters are living in a world where their emotions don’t make sense anymore, and for now they can only release them separate to their every day lives. Eventually, hopefully, their lives and their emotions can be joined again. Until then, we all need a tree.
Last week characters were burying a dog because they could, because here was loss that could be mourned. But this week Kevin realises the limitations of that. The bagel is an obvious metaphor for the Sudden Departure (where did it go? why would it disappear?) and his obsessive refusal to move on is indicative of its symbolism. But finding it doesn’t bring relief. It can’t bring them back. There’s only so much you can control before you’re infantilising reality. Finding a lost bagel can never equate to soothing the pains of the Sudden Departure.
The missing bagel occurs almost as an afterthought, disappearing in a scene that has nothing to do with it. But suddenly Kevin’s anger and frustration boils over, lifting the industrial toaster on its end and slamming it into the bench. This is played as evidence of Kevin’s disturbed state, watched on by another officer – everyone is wary of Kevin, preferring to remain in the background of his increasingly erratic behaviour. And yet, is it erratic? What would be better: to carry on, business as usual? What is the roadmap for our behaviour after trauma? Is normality (and behaving normally) aberrant? If so, Kevin isn’t so much railing against the unexplained, but against the refusal of everyone who is able to move on seemingly without interruption. In that case, is he so different from the Guilty Remnant, despite his opposition to them? (And is that opposition purely because of Laurie’s own departure from their family, rather than a philosophical one?) This is the initial question for the show’s characterisation of Kevin: what is he fighting for? He bounces between wanting to keep the peace while knowing that’s impossible with the GR around, and wanting his life to go back to the way it was while also realising that business-as-usual is not a compatible way of living in a post-Sudden Departure world.
It’s almost as if having a clear ideas of who you are and what you want are impossible after a traumatic incident. We’re allowed to flail. We’re allowed to transgress and regress. If life is a straight line before trauma, it fractures into a series of broken whorls and distortions afterwards, without a clear direction.
In some ways, the GR is like the departure, to Kevin. He can’t understand it (if only because it’s where his wife went), and to him they might as well have mystically disappeared. Why would someone do this? Why would they leave it all behind? When Meg’s fiancee talks to Kevin, he may as well be talking to himself.
‘Maybe she’s still on the fence. I think you could still convince her to come home.’
‘Why would I do that?’
‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because she needs you right now.’
Would we take the Departed back, if we could? Would we return the world to how it was before? It’s like the title of probably the greatest Orange is the New Black episode, ‘Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again’. No wishing, no hope, no medicine or religion or self-help book or personal philosophy can make it undone. It is. And yet.
(Postscript: the Perfect Strangers gag is one for all time, and rewards infinitely as the show goes on.)