‘The Leftovers’ Wisely Flashes Back to Reel Us in Going Forward

The season's penultimate episode went back to the days before the Sudden Departure and gave us some welcome backstory.

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Maybe the biggest problem The Leftovers has is that it couldn’t air an episode like “The Garveys at Their Best” earlier in the season. It has to have built up our appreciation and fascination with its ensemble to land the punch of a flashback episode. This is the show’s ninth episode, and the penultimate of its first season (it’ll be back next year). It did a pretty solid job landing that punch to the jaw, as we see Nora losing her family to the Departure, some of the reasoning behind Laurie’s deep well of loss, and Kevin’s struggle to find purpose even before his life collapsed around his ears.

I’d say this episode would have functioned even better if not for some of the missteps of The Leftovers’ first season. There’s a power to seeing these events, and seeing the Garveys as a family that we know is going to get blown apart, before the Departure happened. And there’s a curiosity factor to our sightings of Patti, or Matt’s wife, or Gladys, all walking and talking, before the wave hits. But the season has been so sloppy, and our exhaustion with some characters (most notably Kevin) is so total, that not everything worked as much as I wanted it to. But “The Garveys at Their Best” still felt like the right call by co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta.

After the disjointed misery of the last couple of weeks (which ended, if you forget, with Patti bleeding out in Kevin’s arms at her own hand), we needed some respite, and we needed renewed grounding to remind us why the world is spiraling into misery and insanity post-Departure. That is not to say we were presented with some idyll that was disrupted by the Rapture; just the usual jumbled, complicated, boring lives of mundane people that was suddenly given huge and inexplicable significance.

That’s the evil, ironic magic of the Sudden Departure. Kevin had a naked woman, not his wife, in his arms who suddenly vanished right before he could cheat on his wife. Laurie was looking at an ultrasound that went blank. The kids were taking part in some science fair demonstration. Nora yelled at her daughter for spilling orange juice on her phone. Did any of this matter? Did some of it? None of it? Who was good, who was bad, who is more culpable in anything? It’s such a brilliant concept for a show about existential malaise, depression, and the confusion that surrounds people living mundane American life. It’s why I keep coming back to The Leftovers despite all its flaws.

For Kevin, we see that he’s had his rescue complex/dad issues for quite a long time; it’s also a good backgrounder on why Kevin struggles as a character. Watching him run around after animals and grit his teeth as Scott Glenn, I was just reminded of Jack from Lost and a hundred other similar types we’ve run through over and over again on prestige U.S. television. There was less catharsis watching him kill the deer, or treat his wife so poorly. It felt more like automatic storytelling, and of course we’ve spent so much time with Kevin already, so his angst is already so accessible.

But seeing Laurie talking actually had a real impact, even more than the first time Patti opened her mouth a few weeks back. Watching her talk to Patti in her former role as therapist, and understanding that Patti was once one of her clients who went on about the end of the world, was a brilliant twist and a hell of a sucker-punch. The Leftovers needs more sucker punches like that, but it does just as well with the punches you see coming: Laurie’s ultrasound (perhaps the most confusing philosophical and religious wrinkle in the physics of the Departure yet), or Nora’s final day with her family.

The problem is the future. The past of these characters is interesting enough, but I keep coming back to Patti lying in a pool of her own blood last week. Whatever The Leftovers’ fascinating premise and set-up, where can it go from here? I don’t think there’s been a season finale I’ve anticipated with this much trepidation in a long time. Of course, we’re going to have to wait two weeks to get it because of Labor Day Weekend.

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