Each week following episodes of season two of The Leftovers, Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss new characters, old visitors, and whether smoking really is the best way to express profound nihilism.
Kornhaber: What a twist: The Leftovers’ second season has a happy ending. The extended Garvey family—estranged wife and son, adopted partner and baby, the near sister-in-law no longer braindead, and all others—greet Kevin after his exceedingly traumatic 24 hours. “You’re home!” Nora says. Cut to black. Aww.
The dose of communal happiness was well-deserved after what the show just put everyone through. The suspense heading into the finale was over what Meg was planning; the truth—she unveiled the girls as GR members, pulled a bigger version of last week’s bus-grenade fakeout, and then stormed the gates of Jarden—felt a bit underwhelming simply because it wasn’t that crazy. But Erika’s silent screaming at the teary but stoic Evangeline, and the thought that they might both be about to blow up, made for supremely taxing TV. Even more stressful: when Nora had her baby snatched, in a sick echo of what happened to her on October 14 four years earlier.
The most harrowing element of the finale, though, was Kevin’s saga. Once John Murphy pulled the trigger and ran out of the kennel, I felt a pang of dread. When Kevin woke up in that overflowing hotel bath, I had the same horrified reaction he did. And when the guy at the bar pointed out that there’s no particular reason for Kevin to escape death, it suddenly seemed clear that The Leftovers had extravagantly killed and brought back its main character only to gain more shock value from axing him an episode later. The lovey-dovey memories flashing through his mind while singing “Homeward Bound” sealed it: Oh my god, Justin Theroux is off the show!
Can you scream in relief? Because that’s what I did upon seeing Kevin’s second resurrection (or perhaps third one, counting when the reservoir drained instead of drowning him). What’s more, the episode denied a feeling of security for about 10 more minutes as Kevin staggered through riot-wrecked Jarden, apparently lacking an appropriate feeling of urgency about his medical condition.
This odyssey all seemed intended to drive home the fact that Kevin finally decided, or realized, that he really does love his family and really does want to be alive. Dying multiple times and being forced to really think about Simon & Garfunkel lyrics will do that to a guy. It might seem too conventional, too uplifting, for The Leftovers to endorse the idea that in order to live you have to want to live and you have to care about other people. But you realize how complicated a moral it is when you step back and see that it’s the same insight that has given Nora, Matt, and the poor cavewoman in the season opener the ability to carry on. And it’s the opposite of the idea preached by the Guilty Remnant, who seem to think that existence is something inflicted upon humanity and the only noble thing is to—per Rust Cohle—deny our programming.
Meg probably thinks she has proved that point spectacularly. She’s completely wrong, as far as I can tell, and before you call that bad writing on the show’s part remember that people make stupid ideological calculations in life all the time. Revealing that the girls had left of their own accord and unleashing the desperate campers upon the town doesn’t prove that Jarden isn’t special. In fact, it affirms that it might be: No one has departed; everyone wants to be there. Plus, the teenagers’ rebellion really seems just that—teenage rebellion, the kind of thing it’s unethical to exploit for your pseudoreligious movement’s publicity. Just imagine what will happen to Miracle’s new residents—even some of the white-coated ones—when the news of authentic recent miracles starts to spread. There’s Kevin, back to life two or three times, as confirmed by members of the locally respected Murphy family. And there’s Mary, talking again, as is apparent to all.
I’m excited to see how this plays out, but part of me is worried that we won’t get a chance to. HBO’s said nothing about a third season so far, and viewership numbers for the show have been relatively small. Bringing the protagonist’s friends and family all together after flinging them apart for two years is a fine-enough series-ending moment, if it needs to be. But there are so many untied threads, and so many possible directions for the plot to take, that I hope Damon Lindelof gets to keep confusing us for a few more seasons, at least. A government conspiracy has been hinted at for a while—remember the disposal of cult-member bodies into a furnace in season one?—but not fully explained. In Australia, there’s a resurrection-related uprising. What’s going on with the dude in the tower of Jarden? And most importantly: Should we take the second appearance of the Marriott Residence Inn: Afterlife to be confirmation that such a place really does exist and isn’t a creation of Kevin’s mind? The title song asks us to let the mystery be, but I’d prefer to do so with the help of these characters that have come to seem real, and with this show’s maddening, often genius storytelling style.
Sophie, how’re you feeling?
Gilbert: It seems kind of ironic that a show so intent on putting its viewers through so much has now rewarded them with not one but two happy endings. Last season, things wrapped up with Kevin and Jill walking home from the Guilty Remnant inferno and finding Nora and baby Lily on the porch—a newly minted family to replace the one they’d all lost. Now, even Tommy and Laurie are back, Mary’s awake, Matt’s safe in Jarden, and if Kevin doesn’t expire a fourth time from blood loss it seems like he has a burgeoning bestie thing going on with the man next door (who shot and killed him, but no hard feelings).
About that: I too hope we get a third season because I still don’t fully understand what’s going on with the Murphys. John shot Kevin after Kevin suggested that maybe Evie didn’t love her family enough to come back. Which: seemed to be true? Chekhov’s birthday present was finally opened, and it turned out to be … a dead cricket, but not the one plaguing John in the first episode. The scene in which the girls left their families was extraordinary in the contrast between the happy, smiling, vibrant teenagers waving goodbye and the sullen silence after they drove off, with Evie’s friend silently crying and Evie reaching forward to turn off the music, and writing “DON’T” on her notepad. What could compel them to join Meg’s rebel Remnant chapter? Erika might understand, as Evie spelled out in block letters on the bridge, but I sure don’t.
The implication certainly seems to be that their happy family is a lie—that John is clearly unstable, and that when he went away to jail (a different kind of departure), he left his kids bereft, as Michael described in church. In Evie’s first meeting with Meg last week, she seemed to share her father’s cynicism when it comes to Miracle, saying, “I’m sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for here. No one ever does.” But as you said, the show has stacked the scales heavily in terms of showing that Jarden really is special. Kevin has now cheated death three times. Mary’s woken up, maybe for good. No one (still) has departed. It’s hard to leave season two without really interpreting that this place is miraculous.
I want to talk about Meg for a minute, because like you, I found her grand plan a little underwhelming. Essentially the girls pretended to disappear, then they reappeared out of a trailer that Meg said was filled with plastic explosive, then a huge timer counted down one hour, and the bomb didn’t go off, and a surprising number of people at the camp put on white Guilty Remnant clothes and stormed the town. Maybe the non-bomb was supposed to remind people how vulnerable they are? But really it just seems like Meg wanted to ruin Jarden—to #disrupt the equilibrium of life in what was essentially an idyllic gated community by setting up camp in the former park headquarters, and then … singing at Kevin, with Evie in glorious alto harmony.
I don’t understand Meg’s plan because I don’t understand Meg’s philosophy. “Family is everything,” she told Tommy, after he uttered some Remnant-mandated lines about family not existing and being meaningless. She might have meant that family is everything she wants to destroy, but her pep talk seemed to have the opposite effect on Tommy than was intended, spurring him to glance around guiltily a lot and then rescue Nora. That scene was extraordinarily effective, I thought, in terms of expressing the unique distilled panic and fear that people must have felt after the Departure. How appropriate that Tommy, who essentially gave up the baby a year or so ago, would be the one to help save Lily.
Plot aside, everything in the way this episode was crafted was remarkable. All season, the show’s played with uncertainty, offering sounds without images (Meg snorting cocaine in the restaurant, the music at the beginning of this episode) and images without sounds (Erika screaming at Evie on the bridge, their communication in sign language), letting viewers first interpret what they think is happening before anything is elucidated. It’s also deftly kept things suspenseful while using a circuitous way to tell the central story. Plus, the acting has been flawless across the board. I worried during the Matt-centric episode that things might get too bleak again, but for the most part, the balance between dark humor and horror has (I imagine) made this season much more palatable for many viewers than the first. Plus, as stated, we’re left with a happy ending, or at least the happiest one I could imagine for this show.
And singing! Kevin coming back to earth via a shaky karaoke performance was totally bizarre, but his song was oddly moving. (I loved how all the songs on the spinwheel had supernatural themes: “Like a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Angel of the Morning.”) Is Kevin in some way special, as the season’s suggested? Why do all the earthquakes keep happening? Are they cosmically significant, or just the result of fracking, like the Miracle tour suggested? I think the nice thing about this show is that we, as viewers, can choose. Jarden can be a statistical anomaly or a mystic portal between heaven and earth—the “axis mundi” of the first episode this season. Kevin can be the chosen one or just a really, really determined guy. We probably won’t get the answers, because matters of heaven and earth aren’t typically clear cut. But I have my interpretation of what happened this season, and I’m guessing you do, too.