Something which will become apparent as the The Leftovers headed into its final few episodes is that it was increasingly rewarding to view the storytelling choices in this show as lessons learned from the storytelling in Lost. There, the fabric of the show was built initially around flashbacks, with a good 30-40% of episode runtime featuring a flashback of the POV character. The problem was, flashbacks are great at context and defining points of origin, they’re not so good as alternative stories when you still have a main narrative to go with.
So with Lost, by late in the second season and definitely early in the third season, the flashbacks became increasingly tedious and irrelevant, distracting from the main story and only really increasing our contextual understanding of characters by fine degrees, if at all. Shows like Orange is the New Black didn’t really learn this lesson, still adhering to flashbacks well into its ending, when really the nature of the show demonstrated that the main narrative was far more compelling.
As a response to Lost, The Leftovers has largely avoided any flashbacks, except for brief flashes here and there, but nothing hugely detailed or developed. And then this episode happens, as the penultimate in the first season, and it works so damn well, even though it is all flashback. The entire narrative focuses on the couple of days right before the Sudden Departure, looking at the various movements of Kevin, Laurie, Tommy, Jill and Nora right up to the moment. There is no literal movement forward of the main Season 1 narrative, and yet everything we see in ‘The Garveys at Their Best’ recontextualises and repositions our understanding of the characters, their motivations and the effect of the Departure on them right before the final episode set piece.
This episode-long flashback begins without warning or set-up, opening with Kevin jogging, as he was at the beginning of the season, and bit by bit we are gently nudged out of anything comfortable and reassuring. First, he grabs a cigarette from a pack he’s stashed covertly under a postbox, like a routine. He spots a deer in the woods beyond the road. He returns home (but not in the large black truck he took ownership of from Dean), swigs from some mouthwash and then walks into a house far nicer than the one we know to be Kevin’s. Everything is clean and tidy and light and ordered, and then in the background an out-of-focus woman appears, talking to Kevin. At this stage, the lack of warning on what we’re seeing could render it a dream, or that we’ve jumped far ahead in time all of a sudden. It’s not until this out-of-focus figure moves into the centre of the frame and we see it’s Laurie does this all lock into a chronological place. It’s also a reminder that we haven’t heard Laurie’s voice all season.
It doesn’t take long for the symbols to hit though, with a crack appearing in the wall in their house.
Kevin and Laurie are making arrangements for a celebration for Kevin Sr., while trying to juggle the other expectations of their lives. Kevin is trying to track down a deer that keeps finding its way into homes and causing damage, Laurie is shopping for a puppy while meeting appointments as a psychiatrist, Jill is putting the finishing touches on a science project for a school fair while dealing with parental disinterist, and Tommy avoids being arrested after turning up drunk on his biological father’s doorstep. It’s a portrait of domesticity in decline, and this is before anything eschatological occurs.
The brief moments with Jill hit hard, if only because of her almost uninfected happiness. She’s laughing at Nyancat, singing along to music on her headphones, shrugging off disappointments like someone who expects to always come back to happiness. The question then is whether her extreme depression in the present timeline is solely because of the Departure and her family’s breakdown, or if the seeds of her detachment and disengagement are already there, even when she reassures Laurie a little too easily that she’s the best mother in the world.
Patti turns up as a very distraught patient of Laurie’s, confirming what was suspected after Laurie’s ‘day-off’ midseason and her time in the diner with Patti. There’s talk of her emotionally abusive marriage to Neil, and how that’s left Patti with the feeling she is undeserving of happiness and joy.
“I think something terrible is going to happen.”
Her therapy with Laurie is infused with portentous vagueness, and Laurie acknowledges that Patti has said these things before. Knowing, as we do, that the Departure will happen soon and cement itself as the ‘something terrible’ in Patti’s mind, we have to tread that line again between ordinary coincidence and mystical omens that The Leftovers trades in. When the Departure happens, and the Guilty Remnant rise in its wake, the movement is then validation of Patti’s unhappiness. She feels undeserving of joy, and the shock of the Sudden Departure means – to Patti – that nobody is. ‘Something is wrong,’ she says to Laurie and us, ‘inside of you.’
And yet just because the Departure happened, when Patti suspected something terrible would happen, does not make her right, but makes her confident in her rightness. Assured that she can lead a group of people to take seemingly false comforts away from everyone so that we can all meet on the level of mass psychogenic depression.
All throughout the episode we also get little moments of connection between Kevin’s storyline and Nora’s, most notably with her interview with the mayor-to-be, and subsequent conversation with Kevin Sr. It could just be passed off as cute little nods – again akin to the random connections between characters that Lost’s flashbacks used to be littered with – but there’s also the suggestion that their connection was going to happen, their paths were wending their way together. If so, the episode then suggests its boldest claim, which is that the Sudden Departure is not a sign of the end of things. The characters we have, the leftovers, are not the debris after a storm. Even though the season has so far assumed the feeling of picking up the pieces after everything has happened, it’s now offering us hope. Hope that the Departure was just a beginning. A place to start anew.
It’s a suggestion that a global catastrophe that leaves nobody unharmed can be the place to start a new story.
Nora’s storyline is brief glimpses into her frustrations at being housebound and unstimulated as a mother, trying to rise above her husband’s backhanded compliment that she might get a job. That she might dare to be something other than a housewife. She’s the person crying out for just something, a small moment for herself, something she can keep that is just hers. And then the tragedy is she gets an entire life to herself.
She grabs the last piece of paper towel in the kitchen to mop up her daughter’s spilled juice, before it destroys her phone while it rings with a job offer. And then they all disappear. She gets the job, she gets the life, it’s all for her. And we know that for years she won’t refill that paper towel, uncertain if she can give herself permission to be okay with this.
Kevin is focused on saving this out-of-control deer, lest it get found by other cops and killed. There’s obvious echoes here with the dogs and Dean and Kevin at first joining Dean on these hunts, but then wanting to civilise the dog. To house it, and look after it. And perhaps the deer is the chance the season needed to address what it was really doing with the dogs, and land the symbolism that they haven’t quite locked down just yet.
Is Kevin the deer?
It traps itself inside buildings – homes – unable to find a way out without it hurting itself and others. The Garvey’s family appears doomed in this episode, and the Departure only really catalyses their end. There are lies, mistrust, and the pretense of keeping surfaces looking shiny so that what’s underneath can be ignored. He intervenes for Tommy, wanting to defend his adopted son, but in doing so seemingly ignores the real trauma that is going on with the kid, struggling to understand why he was abandoned by his biological father. Kevin is clinging on to all the pieces of his family as they threaten to drift away, out of the belief that he can hold the family together. Even something as small as maintaining the surprise for his dad’s party, when Kevin Sr. already knows.
Kevin believes in his dad, who built his own life. He views this with awe, though with Kevin Sr.’s current state of mind, does Kevin lose that belief, post-Departure? Does he think that building your own life and your own family is now bullshit, or is this a belief he needs to rediscover? Rediscover that he can make his new world how he wants? This godlike existence we have over our own lives, to not be the subject but the author. That we can be the prophets of our own creation.
“You have no greater purpose, because it is enough.”
There’s the sense that this pre-Departure version of Kevin – and the rest of them – is not the right version. It’s the ur-Kevin, the unfinished copy that hasn’t discovered itself yet. Despite the fact that the Departure threatens to arrest their development as functioning adults, the season has shown us how they are all struggling in their way toward a new, hopeful existence.
Kevin stops on another jog and encounters a car full of people, smiling and laughing, on their way somewhere. “Are you ready?” they ask him, before seeing his confusion. “I’m sorry,” they say, “I thought you were someone else.”
Jill talks to Tommy moments before the Departure and they think that Kevin is the one who’ll leave, that life with Laurie is too hard for him. And yet he is the one who stays. But is this the right thing? The marriage isn’t working, none of them are as happy as the surfaces show, and the breakdown appears inevitable. Kevin needs to accept this, and find hope in it.
The final moments also reveal the Garveys at the moment of the Departure: Tommy and Jill holding hands with students at the science fair, before they find their hands empty; Laurie at an ultrasound for a baby she seemingly didn’t expect or want with Kevin; and Kevin having a spontaneous affair with a nameless woman, before she leaves him alone with his failure.
The idea that we slowly evolve and grow into ourselves is a fanciful lie. And it’s one that can cause irreparable damage when encountering something traumatic, like the Departure. Instead, we are in a constant state of remaking ourselves, forging new identities out of some belief that who we are or were is fault and needs fixing. Our identities are forever reborn, turtles all the way down, living a thousand lives in one lifetime, depending on need, and want, and circumstance. But also, most importantly, choice.