This is the hardest episode of The Leftovers. It’s the least likeable, focusing mostly on the Guilty Remnant and an act of visually awful brutality, and giving the audience no real opportunity to feel some release from this. It’s also a very difficult episode to discuss without later revelations, to the point where this episode’s obliqueness and violence saw a bunch of people switch off in the first season and not return.

So while I have typically tried to keep to the show’s chronology and not discuss later revelations, for this episode at least I’ll break with that.

The opening scene refamiliarises us with Gladys, a member of the GR, doing her rounds (following people, smoking, silence), before being tied to a tree and stoned to death. It’s utterly awful.

In the novel, there is no parallel to this scene, but to write it off as prestige TV ramping up the brutal violence (as many did at the time, given that this was airing alongside Game of Thrones), but it seems rather it’s ramping up the symbolism, more than anything. The novel takes its time revealing information about the GR, but toward the concluding scenes, it shows us that the cult’s direction for its members is to eventually pair off, go to a less central residence where the pair can relax a bit more than the rigid rules would normally allow, and then finally have one of the pair kill the other in a conspicuous way, before disappearing. The goal is to gain attention and sympathy for the GR’s presence, portraying them as victims under attack for their peaceful, if bleak, message.

The show has taken this and shifted the moment earlier, even though the false-flag revelations about Gladys’s death don’t come until a few episodes down the track. The opening scene – played out in silence – between Patti and Gladys is essentially Gladys’s commitment to the cause, and understanding that this will happen to her. Not only that, a shooting from the novel is turned into a prolonged stoning. The biblical connotations are clear, so is the later justification for labelling this a hate-crime, in the post-Departure world of The Leftovers. The GR are but one of a number of cults styling themselves as religions in the episode (not to mention the one Tom assumed the guise of last episode). So why now? Why do we play this beat out now, mid-season, divorced from its climactic role in the novel?

Coming as it did after the production break, and with the introduction of Mimi Leder into the directing team (and who then later became one of the executive producers), it’s possible that there was some recalibration over the ending of the season. Or perhaps this was already in place, but likely linked to the fact that the season’s climax is an invention of the show, and this story moment could be repurposed elsewhere for greater tension.

I’m not sure if the tension works, at least in terms of drawing out who killed Gladys and why, and the episode isn’t too concerned with answering that. Or even teasing it. Immediately Kevin decides that a curfew is a solution to this, though that seems a wildly ill-considered move and it doesn’t really spring organically from the story’s reality. What problem would it solve? Nevertheless, it does lead to a scene of a community meeting where the authorities are pleading with everyone to stay home so that protection can be afforded to everyone, and angry townsfolk rail against this curfew for feeling like their liberties are being punished. Why should they stay inside if they did nothing wrong? This aired six years ago.

So as it stands, Gladys’s death is a mid-season chance to evaluate the GR: as an organisation, as a religion, as an entity demanding attention. That her death is part of the GR’s attempt to cultivate top-down sympathy and cooperation from the establishment suggests that they are as image-conscious as every other organised religion. For all their nihilisim, it’s a marketing package, designed to attract as many people as possible. To what end?

There’s a remarkable scene with Patti and Laurie in a diner. Given a 24 hours away from the GR after suffering an anxiety attack, Patti makes Laurie sojourn at a motel, where she can sleep in a room on her own, wear clothes that aren’t white, and even talk (though Laurie refuses to). Patti speaks of the pull back to the old life, the yearning to break free of the GR’s tenets, the constant urge to speak and make contact with others. She admits she feels a connection to her past life, and this is reminiscent of many individuals given over to a life of faith (see just about every film on the topic). But this pull is doubt, Patti says, doubt that the GR’s way is the true way.

Doubt is fire, and fire is going to burn you up until you are but ash.

But this isn’t doubt. This is denial. Devotion to faith in this manner rests on the denial of life. The GR may see themselves as living reminders of how life is broken, how there’s no going back, we can only move forward to the annihilation that awaits us all. But they ignore these very real connections to their lived pasts. Even Patti can’t give it up, leaving her bag of shit on her ex-husband’s front porch. This, in its way, becomes an act of love for what she has wilfully given up.

How does that leave Gladys, then?

In the end, her body is shipped off by the ATF, tagged and processed, and consigned to fire and ash. And yet she was utterly devoted to the faith. Is the episode suggesting the GR are hypocrites? Ultimately flawed?

If so, this episode should mark their decline. Even though there’s a way to go with them yet, I’m unsure whether this deflates Patti’s adherence to the GR or not. On one hand, the episode seems to be saying that if we believe devotion to our lives is fiery temptation, but we’re burned anyway, then why give it all up? Why not fight for what’s important?

But then Gladys’s cremation is cut alongside Kevin breaking down, finally telling his daughter that he loves her, while acknowledging that he and Laurie are getting a divorce. This seemingly solidifies Laurie’s choices to joining the GR, and she confirms this with her rejection of Matt’s eulogy for Gladys, blowing the panic whistle in his face.

It’s worth acknowledging Kevin’s unreliability here as well. It was present in the first couple of episodes, but has taken a backseat until now. But we get details of alarms turned off without cause, shirts going missing, the damage in his kitchen (seen here only as indentations on the fridge), and now the truck he drives which was not his but left in his driveway. We have periods of certainty with Kevin that makes us feel like we’re on sure footing, but then these tiny little reminders that not everything is explained. But they’re left without pause, and they take on the feeling of dream-logic, where we just accept the gaps in his story because it’s too terrifying to consider what’s in those gaps. Something is wrong. Do we ignore the flickering doubt in the corner of our eye, and keep pretending it’s okay? In some ways our reliance on Kevin as the central protagonist in this story is as problematic as thinking that world can be normal again. We can cling to the flotsam that reminds us of our past life, or acknowledge the water lapping at our feet.

Maybe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Denying your existence, denying that which matters to you out of fear that we’ll die alone and forgotten, but then assuring that you will. Maybe this is true on the part of Patti: there’s an anger that drives her belief, a retaliation to her past. Whereas Laurie seems different. Her anxiety attack at the beginning leads us down this path, and her response to Matt is compared with Patti failing to act. Laurie needs the GR, not out of anger or retaliation, but seemingly because she needs something. There is a great big hole, and she needs to fill it with meaning.

The episode is difficult to parse. I don’t think we’re meant to be sympathetic to the ATF, disappearing cult members into thin air so that they can be cremated and nullified. But neither are we meant to be sympathetic to Pattie and the GR (particularly given what is revealed later about Gladys’s death). So maybe we’re like Laurie, finding ourselves incapable of being who we were, but suddenly uncertain who we have latched ourselves on to. It’s telling that she shows more commitment to the GR than Patti in this episode, but maybe that’s it. Laurie unleashing on the whistle in Matt’s face is the only word she can bring forward. A piercing wail that doesn’t make sense yet, but demands to be heard.

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