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?