The Brilliant Nihilism of The Leftovers

Might the year's most depressing show be pointing toward a happy ending after all?
HBO

As far as entertainment goes, it's fair to say that The Leftovers isn't easy viewing. Reviewing the pilot, New York's Matt Zoller Seitz called it "all bleakness all the time," while Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz gave up on it altogether after last week's particularly brutal episode, in which Guilty Remnant Gladys was duct-taped to a tree and stoned to death by an invisible horde. "The scene made me feel like I was being punished for something," wrote Maerz, who concluded that the graphic violence in the show is sensationalist and exploitative given how thinly drawn its characters are.

Part of the problem is the timing. Breaking Bad, another summer show that offered up a pervasive sense of moral decay and a string of gruesome murders, did so amid the seasonless backdrop of an arid Albuquerque landscape—a setting that felt more attuned to our sunny sensibilities than The Leftovers' bleak midwinter. But last night's superb episode, "Guest," offered both an in-depth rendering of a fascinating character and a flicker of light in the gloom, albeit a philosophical one.

The Leftovers gives us a universe in which God is dead, to borrow a catchy phrase from Nietzsche. The arbitrary and utterly futile nature of the Departure—a rapture that claimed lifelong sinners like Gary Busey alongside such godly figures as Jennifer Lopez and the Pope—has left humanity scrambling to come to terms with an enforced state of nihilism, and a world that's now totally devoid of meaning. In The Gay Science, published in 1882, Nietzsche concluded, "God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown." The genius of the colossal thought experiment that is The Leftovers is that it fast-forwards us through the necessary millennia of wrestling with religion and jolts us into a present in which all the structures of religion and morality and faith have disintegrated. The question that Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof seem to be occupying themselves with isn't how it happened so much as what happens next? How does humanity respond to a universe in which everything is meaningless?

Once again with “Guest,” the show dedicated an entire episode to a single person: this time Nora (Carrie Coon), who lost her husband and both her children to the Departure. Up until now, Nora's been an elusively loose cannon—a high-functioning professional who has a gun in her purse and hand cream in her glove compartment. She's also practical: When she calls up a prostitute from an ad in the local alt-weekly and asks that prostitute to shoot her in the chest while she's wearing Kevlar, she makes sure there's an inflatable mattress for her to collapse onto so she doesn't get hurt. (The symbolism in this scene is heavy-handed—Nora, winded, takes a gasp of air and comes back to life. The prostitute is called Angel. The thrash metal Nora puts on the stereo to cover the sound of the gunshot is Slayer's "Angel of Death.")

The crux of the episode comes later, when, drunk on who knows how many dirty martinis, Nora starts yelling at the man next to her at the hotel bar who tries to talk to her about the nature of loss and moving on. "What's next?" she screeches. "What's fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!" As small talk with a smarmy stranger goes, it's definitely overkill, but as an encapsulation of the show's main premise, it's quite precise. The universe is empty and meaningless, devoid of lasting significance. All that's left is the present moment, and the acceptance of being content to be left among the living. It's no coincidence that Holy Wayne happens to quote from Ecclesiastes, the Bible's most existentialist book, when he finally draws Nora into his arms: "For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion." The abiding message of Ecclesiastes (oddly, for the Old Testament) is one of futility: life is short and will end in death, so all humans can do is take pleasure in simple things and appreciate its transience.

This theme of acceptance is underscored by the episode's closing scenes, in which Nora shops for food she might actually eat (rather than restocking the sugary cereals her kids loved), agrees to go to dinner with Chief Garvey, and conducts another interview with a grieving victim of the Departed. Earlier in the show, Nora's boss comments on how remarkable it is that all of her interviewees gave an affirmative response to #121, the question of whether they believed their loved one had gone to a better place. This time, the tearful woman Nora talks with says no. Might this sense of finally being able to appreciate being left among the living be moving us towards a happier ending of sorts for the people of Mapleton? For Nora, who's chosen simulations of reality over living in the present moment up till now (the fake food, the non-fatal gunshot, making out with an eerie replica of a man instead of the man himself), the simple fact that she's shopping for rice cakes seems to hint at a more hopeful future. Whether the show's other characters can find the same fragile peace without a hug from Holy Wayne is another question.

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Sophie Gilbert is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees The Atlantic Weekly. She was previously the arts editor at The Washingtonian.

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