'The Leftovers' Recap: Christmas in July

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As if The Leftovers wasn't already an often-jarring viewing experience, last night it made the unusual decision of airing a Christmas episode in July. And I don't mean just an episode set at Christmas, this was an honest-to-goodness Christmas episode, about family and community and all that jazz, with a "missing baby Jesus doll!" B-plot to boot, which must have been used in an episode of 7th Heaven at some point. After the gripping left turn of last week's Reverend Matt-centric adventure, "B.J. and the A.C." felt like a serious comedown, but had enough weird imagery and unsettling moments to keep me wriggling on the line.

"B.J. and the A.C." was evidence of just how slowly things are moving, since the main plotlines were Kevin's estrangement from Laurie since she joined the Guilty Remnant, and Tom's confusion over Christine's importance to Holy Wayne's cult and whether she's the real deal. This is stuff that maybe could have been covered in the first episode. But it's only now that we're getting some actual plot detail on Kevin and Laurie's split—turns out Tom is a kid from a previous relationship, that Kevin cheated at some unspecified time, that Laurie abruptly left six months ago but doesn't hold him responsible, and that she's just now asking for a divorce.

The silent Guilty Remnant act might get tiresome at some point, but four episodes in it's still pretty powerful and creepy to watch Kevin have one-way conversations with Laurie (whose divorce request he rejects) and Patti (Ann Dowd, who's exuding exactly the kind of bored, detached confidence you expect from this kind of character). Still, Damon Lindelof knows we need a little development on the whole silence end, and after three weeks of generally being a hard-ass, Laurie gets a moment of humanity as she struggles to retrieve a personalized lighter her daughter gave her for Christmas, which she threw in a storm drain to make a point for still-on-the-fence Meg.

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It's a really cheesy moment, but The Leftovers can be so bleak, I'm happy to get a few cheesy moments. And it was a much better one to end the episode on than Kevin retrieving the baby Jesus and presenting it happily to the crowd to some scattered claps. The episode began with a mass-production montage emphasizing what a hollow, meaningless symbol the baby doll is, but ended with rebellious Jill unable to set the doll on fire with her dumb teen friends (the dumb teens are probably my least favorite aspect of this show so far—Lindelof really struggles to make their apathy remotely engaging).

So Kevin gets to present the recovered doll to the Christmas crowd at the local school, which the mayor said would be a big win for him, but they're both grasping at straws here. His decision to arrest the gathered Guilty Remnant outside is proved to be similarly empty—he only nabs a few, while the rest are all over down breaking into people's houses and stealing family photos. After weeks of just standing there smoking, I liked watching the GR raise the stakes a little—the pamphlet they handed to Tom on the west coast, emblazoned with "Everything that matters about you" (it's blank inside) was similarly clever.

What's going on with Tom and Christine, on the run in California? I'm having more trouble grasping this plot, which is leaning on Lindelof's pseudo-fantasy tendencies, with vague mentions of visions and dreams that kinda come true but could also just be dismissed as weird coincidence. Holy Wayne has deemed Christine (who, it turns out, is pregnant) as important, and Tom is there to protect her, but they're both trying to figure out why. This is another Christmas analogue (is she pregnant with the son of God?) but the reason behind a lot of the action really escaped me. There's so many cults and ranting weirdoes and so much strange iconography on this show, and it's still hard to separate it all out.

This was probably the weakest Leftovers so far—HBO didn't even send this episode out to critics—but there were little pockets that really stuck out. Kevin's first interaction with Nora (I smell a romance) saw them discuss infidelity with appealing frankness (she asks why he cheated; he says "Is there a good answer to that question?"; she replies, "I think I just heard it"). Tom and Christine's encounter with the spilled tub of plastic corpses, built to comfort those that lost their loved ones in the Departure, was stark and unsettling, although the obvious callback to the plastic baby Jesus was certainly on the nose. That's The Leftovers so far—either bafflingly obscure or totally on-the-nose. But it's still a heady enough mix to stand out in the vast desert of quality summer TV.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.