Content warning: this post discusses suicide in connection with the episode’s story.
This episode always left me cold.
I was never entirely sure what it wanted me to feel, or to do with what it was telling me. While I’m sure it is ultimately meant to be handled on a symbolic level (Kevin as a broken reality trying to find hope in defiance of Patti’s nihilistic world), it’s almost impossible not to look at the literal surface of it and see a man – a policeman – who has tied a woman up against her will, before her suicide.
I think it’s possibly because the actual mechanisms of the episode’s plot don’t hold a lot of water, except as steps to get us toward the season finale. In short, Kevin has an attempt at a pleasant get-to-know-you dinner with Nora and Jill, before having another gap in time black-out, waking up hours away in remote woodland, having apparently beaten up and abducted Patti, with his maybe-real-maybe-not friend Dean along for the ride. The episode then follows Kevin’s struggles to understand why he did what he did, and can he possibly undo it, firstly by getting Dean out of the picture, and then letting Patti go. Kevin eventually does let Patti go, only for her to commit suicide, leaving the entire trajectory of Kevin’s storyline in this episode feel like an effort for him to accept the inevitability of her death?
I’m not sure. It’s a strange one, and not very pleasant. Given the direction the show heads in Seasons 2 and 3, perhaps this is where The Leftovers truly begins to operate only in a metaphorical space, leaving behind its tenuous grasp on realism.
The opening montage shows Kevin and Patti in stages of preparation: Kevin laying a table for dinner with Nora, Jill, and Aimee, and Patti laying out full outfits on a floor according to information in her files on the Mapleton citizens. Why the parallel? It’s handsomely filmed, but perhaps the only real link is that it emphasises how Kevin is trying to set a path toward some form of normality, while the GR are ramping up in readiness for their big act.
Kevin’s dinner doesn’t go to plan though, as Jill continually challenges Nora and her supposed happiness. Every moment Jill has in this episode – first with Nora, then in her argument with Aimee, and with the twins later – is her attempt to grapple with not feeling okay in herself and with the world. It becomes her mission to prove that not only is Nora not okay, but nobody is. So our dinner party portrait of post-Departure new family concludes with the daughter rifling through her surrogate mother figure’s handbag in search of a gun, in order to demonstrate that not only is this mother figure not emotionally capable of being with an emotionally destabilised adoptive father, but nobody is capable.
When Kevin awakes from his black-out in Cairo (not in Egypt, despite that Cairo appearing in the National Geographic from the previous episode), it’s his first acknowledgement of his missing memory. He discovers that kidnapping Patti was his unconscious self’s idea, just as taking the dog home last episode was Kevin’s idea too. He believed he could fix something, with the dog, make it better. And now he wants to do the same thing. The equation here is that the extremely vicious, constantly barking dog tied in Kevin’s backyard is like Patti and the GR: aggressively violent, out of control, and beyond hope. Dean wants to put them all down, but Kevin’s bet with the dog is that he could civilise it. He saw hope, and bet Dean that he could. So now, too, he thinks he can still make it right with Patti, despite the abduction.
Ultimately, if we take this literally, it’s preposterous. There’s nothing that we know about Kevin that suggests he had some latent murderous rage toward Patti or the GR that he was unaware of. Dean suggests it came from Kevin’s hatred at what the GR had done to the town, but also to Kevin, with Laurie leaving and the family eroding. But this doesn’t match with what we’ve seen, and Kevin’s been at peace for a few episodes now with Laurie moving on. It’s a weird contrivance.
Eventually, it doesn’t matter. The story of the season needs the Mapleton-GR relationship to come to a head, and the GR’s vindictive and hollow philosophy to become apparent. This episode finally reveals that Patti orchestrated and participated in Gladys’s murder, as a false flag stunt designed to shore up sympathy for their cause. Patti’s revelation here anticipates her suicide, knowing full well how it will further aid the GR by implicating Kevin and the authority he represents. There is a connection here with scenes from earlier in the season where Patti revealed to Laurie how she constantly felt a call back to her old life, leading to her still leaving an actual bag of shit on her ex-husband’s doorstep. The GR under Patti has become a vehicle for her own rage, her own increasingly unhinged grasp on how to live in the world. She summarises their tenets to Kevin:
“To strip away the false comforts of friendship and love, to await the final days without distractions or illusions…We are living reminders…it won’t be long now.”
For all the self-sacrificing sentiment in her words, and the depiction of the GR as passive reminders, all her actions with them have seemingly come from the desire for aggressive, in-your-face spitefulness. Her most passive moments came in the ruse about Gladys’s death, leading Kevin to a false sense of progress in relating to Patti and her group.
This conflict between what the GR says it is and how it operates plays out in Patti’s absence. Laurie takes up leadership, but finds herself in abrasive moments with Meg, who rails against even basic tenets like not talking, wanting to punish others, to act out their beliefs and anger at the world. Laurie needs the GR to be what it pretends to be. She needs it as a redemptive, purposeful force for her life.
This, no doubt, is the reason for her shock when Meg arrives at the GR compound. It’s not just that Meg is there, but that to Laurie, the GR is inextricably linked with her need to escape and create something new, and she can’t fathom how Jill could come to need the same thing.
Jill emerges quite clearly as someone with depression in this episode. What previously had come across as late adolescent disengagement and rebellion, coupled with the existential weirdness of of the Sudden Departure, now appears far more typically – and tragically – as someone incapable of seeing hope and happiness. Her argument with Aimee in the park immediately turns to a mocking exchange of ‘are you okay?’, which is ultimately the question every character on the show needs to ask of themselves and try to answer with sincerity.
Patti, Meg, Laurie, Jill, Nora and Kevin are all living out aspects of depression, to the point where the show’s world has taken on the subjective appearance of this state of mind. No wonder the reality of how Kevin came to be in Cairo with Patti doesn’t matter. In fact, Kevin tries to muster the fortitude to get through this situation by repeatedly telling himself ‘everything is okay’, as if this denial of his depression will somehow make it so. He’s become conscious in his mania – seeing his missing work shirts nailed to trees in the woods – and he’s woken up in the place he’s been denying for the whole season. He’s not okay, it is all bad, and he feels like he put himself there.
(This device of the show, where it takes the symbolic or the metaphorical and makes it literal, is something that Damon Lindelof has referred to as a technique when writing Watchmen, but also something that has patently been there since the days of Lost. It’s a fascinating way of taking the character’s psyche and projecting it onto the world of the story.)
So too for Jill, when she discovers Nora’s gun hidden in one of her departed children’s board games under their long unused, but still-made bed. There is no triumph here for Jill in discovering that Nora is not coping as much as she makes out. Nora doesn’t carry the gun around anymore, but it’s still there, hidden with the things she tries to forget. All Jill’s managed to do is come face to face with her own unhappiness, and potential suicidal ideation.
So this leads to her arrival at the compound. And if this is her next step, is it salvation she’s looking for, a way of avoiding despair – like Laurie? Or is it an acceptance of her despair she needs, an acceptance that feeling like life is over has a place with the GR. In other words, is she there for Laurie’s reasons, or Patti’s?
So yes, the GR are gearing up for some big climactic event, and Kevin is seemingly the only one aware and wanting to do something about it. But that tangible conflict is the surface, when really the thing at stake is Jill. Will she go the way of Patti, or can Kevin – in all his denial – find a way to get to her?
Strangely enough, the solution for Kevin is there in front of him. Firstly from Patti:
“It doesn’t matter what happened. But the difference between you and me, is that I accept that it did. I want you to say you understand, what’s happening to me, and to you.”
Patti wants Kevin to view the Sudden Departure not as a defining moment that they need to somehow escape and avoid, but as a proof of concept of how to live now. So far, he’s tried denial. She wants him to try acceptance.
But then, from Nora:
“It’ll get better.”
“I don’t know. But it will.”
Importantly, this exchange is about his relationship with Jill. But despite how incidental the moment might seem (it occurs right near the beginning of the episode), it is hopeful. Despite the bleakness, the moments of absurd horror and latent trauma, the first season of The Leftovers is one that builds to a statement of hope. It’s depressing, and it feels like the story in the first season lives in a state of depression, but it’s one where the characters – and viewers – are seemingly dragged toward optimism.