Where to start a second season?

Firstly, it’s worth acknowledging what happened in the first season: what went well, and what didn’t.

A whole bunch of viewers were put off by the tone of the show – the unrelenting bleakness, the impenetrable force of the unspeaking Guilty Remnant, the overtly religious doom-and-gloom of the opening title sequence, and the fact that The Leftovers served as a parable for many things: post-9/11 USA, twenty-first century existential inertia, and most significantly, depression.

That depressive tone is pervasive in the first season, particularly in the first few episodes, where it’s clear that – even if an audience was oblivious to the Sudden Departure – something significant has occurred to shake everyone’s emotional cores off their axes, an ‘existential apocalypse‘, effectively. And so while everyone could busy themselves talking about the show in terms of the GR and the departures, and all the other adjacent unrealities that we notice when a story is set in our world but not our world, what the show really traded in with its audience was that emotional dissonance. The feeling that even the most normal, mundane occurrence could become transcendent and unsettling at the same time.

The other limitation to occur, is that the show burned up all its source material in one season. Despite deviations, truncations and some other inventions of the first season (Matt’s storyline, for instance), the season was very faithful to the novel, in the way that faithful adaptations are, without being by-numbers. But suddenly having a second season means everything now is created from the ground up.

But then: several episodes – noticeably the ones with the most invention – were the standouts from Season One: ‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’, ‘Guest’, and ‘The Garveys at Their Best’. They are also the episodes that eschew trying to tell the macro-story of the world and Mapleton, and instead zero in on characters: Matt, Nora, and the Garveys. And it was this structure that carried over into the remainder of The Leftovers, with almost all episodes now limiting themselves to one main character’s point-of-view, with exceptions made for some deviation in season openings and finales.

So the show becomes much more intimate as a result. We are much more intertwined with the fates of the characters, and with their motivations, rather than watching as dread and depression and longing and loss happen at a remove from us. And so rather than just picking up on their depression, we perceive their hope and struggle for hope. This much is evident in the change of title sequence: gone from the black and portentous bass notes of a Rapture-like fresco, we now have a twee folksy pastoral yearning through polaroid-like images of lives now gone, and the refrain to ‘let the mystery be.’ The Leftovers zeroed in on what the show was about and how they wanted the audience to feel, and used that as the starting point for Season Two.

(The story of the opening credits doesn’t just end here. Given that the show ended with three seasons, there would always be a question of what do you do with the third season, after having two wildly different sequences in Seasons One and Two? What they did, and the reasons why, is always a source of endless entertainment for me.)

So, to ask again, where do you start a second season?

Apparently stemming from a joke in the writers’ room, riffing off the idea of ‘Previously on The Leftovers‘, the first episode of Season Two takes previously back millennia, in an almost-silent sequence of cavepeople living and dying and struggling to go on.

It’s astonishing to watch, and hard not to think that it functions not just as a reset for the show in tone, plot and theme, but also a filter for the audience. If anything about the scene is tiresome or asburdly pretentious, then basically the rest of the show isn’t going to work, because that’s all it is. For those put off about those earlier mentioned features of the first season are still going to find them here (no speaking, futility of life, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera), and find reason to switch off. But as a ‘Previously on The Leftovers‘, it works in so many ways.

Yes, this episode is titled ‘Axis Mundi’, the centre of the world, the navel of the world, the wellspring from where life began and life can be sourced back to and controlled and understood and divined. And as Season Two relocates the Garveys from Mapleton to Jarden, a place where no departures happened, the story seeks to present some sense of origin for this. Maybe there are unique places in the world, places of origin where we can see the spectres of long-ago life, infused in the present time. So yes, this is what happened in Jarden a long long time ago, previously.

But also, it shows us a family, who suffer sudden and inexplicable loss. And a parent struggling to hold on to the family that they’re left with, in defiance of everything around them that wants to take it away. And in the end, a new family is found, a new place where life can begin. And if the viewers of Season One took anything from the story, it’s this. The journey of Kevin and Nora and the rest of them in Season One is mirrored in this sequence, and it won’t be the last time we see that emotional and physical journey.

Also, some questions: is the axis mundi the place, or the people? Is this previously just for Jarden, or is it more a lineage for the characters we see in the episode and the ongoing story? Are we being told that despite the global cataclysm of the Sudden Departure, that tragedies like this have happened before (and will happen again)?

This is the threat that hangs over Jarden throughout the first episode.

By some act of luck or fate (already we’re being told not to question the mystery) the town had no departures three years ago. And now the place is treated as place of worship, a tourist destination where locals hawk tokens and souvenirs to represent their good fortune, and share it with visitors, for a price. Outside the town limits, a tent city is set up full of those who want to enter Jarden, but don’t have the requisite money or permits or contacts. For the world that suffered such loss three years ago, Jarden is the place of hope that maybe there’s a way out of it. Maybe, if it happened again, we could be spared if we followed their approach.

And yet all that is shaken in the end, when three teenage girls disappear at the same time as an apparent earthquake that drains the Jarden water hole. Is this a departure? Is Jarden’s status as a place of preservation, a haven from the ills of the world, in danger?

Can we ever find a place of true comfort?

A note on the world-building for Jarden and the second season: there’s an obvious warmth to the location, in not just the weather, but the visual contrast to the sleet-and-snow-encrusted streets of Mapleton in Season One, and it underlines the tonal shift of the show. In addition, other than the scientist taking samples from the water hole, there are local shrines and places of interest dotted around the town, like a perspex-sealed crack in the road; the guided tours around Jarden complete with headphones to listen to recorded guides for the buses of tourists that roll up in the town centre. Then there are the new cults and mystics: a man reading futures in palm prints, a woman watering her garden in a wedding dress, a man in a lookout tower in the centre of town (with Jarden’s unofficial name ‘Miracle’ scraped into his pillar); and then a live bird uncovered in a box, dug under the ground; a goat ritualistically slaughtered in a local cafe, with onlookers seemingly unperturbed.

(Also, Mark Linn-Baker playing himself as the one cast member of Perfect Stranger who didn’t depart, but faked his departure until found hiding out in Mexico.)

And we meet the Murhpy family.

John, who carries himself as the unofficial town leader, scrutinising local cults and undermining any sense of divine intervention at Jarden’s preserved status. ‘He’s selling a lie and folks are buying it’ he claims, as justification for beating up an old friend and torching his house because of his post-Departure status as a palm-reader. John’s laidback manner barely obscures a seething anger at the world, a resentment that the place he lives is now treated as anything more than just a place. He’s someone affronted by a predetermined church reading, thinking it reflects on him, fearful of putting his hand in the garbage disposal, or of a pie left on his doorstep. His anger, it seems, comes from fear.

And then Erika, who is married to John, and cleans up his mess, while showing that she has some unspoken disagreement with his moral grandstanding. Michael, their church-leading son, who spends his day traipsing about town on his bicycle, doing good deeds for others. And finally Evie, seen first in the water hole joyous and playful, then stone-faced serious in the car with her friends; then sharing knowing looks while singing the local anthem about how God spared the town, and running through the woods naked. Here, there’s the most mystery. And when she disappears with her friends at the conclusion of the episode – her car and clothes left behind – the implication is that she departed. Do we let this mystery be, or do we try to find out where it comes from, like John searching for the source of the cricket chirping in his house?

We get just about all of this before any real connection to the first season shows up – firstly with Matt and Mary Jamison at the church service, and then Kevin, Nora, Jill and Lily (the now-adopted baby of Christine and Holy Wayne) who move in next door and are invited over for John’s birthday barbecue. There’s an almost imperceptible level of tension throughout the barbecue scene, despite the smiles and laughter between both families, as if The Leftovers is intent on never letting us settle, even if we are in the safest place in the world now.

When the earthquake happens right at the end, it’s as sudden as the one in the opening scene that brought so much tragedy. John and Michael drive out to find Evie and discover her missing, her car locked but lights on and music playing. And now the water is gone.

For John, this is not just his daughter disappearing, but another threat to his world view. So much is unexplained here, and can’t be explained easily. He can’t just roll up with his friends from the fire station and torch something to make it go away.

There’s so much ground covered in the episode, so many new elements and recontextualising of what was familiar, it’s an astonishing new beginning for a story already started. A story that wants us to feel comfortable in its new form, but also full of trepidation at how easily that comfort can evaporate. And for The Leftovers, which in Season One was almost claustrophobic in how closely it kept to very white, middle class Mapleton, just the simple act of relocating suddenly makes its world seem much larger, and full of potential.

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