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: Is everyone okay, after watching that episode in which people kept talking about whether they’re okay? Count ‘em: Tom said “nobody’s okay,” but sister Jill insisted—smiling through tears, not the first time someone did so this hour—the new Garveys really are fine; Nora and Kevin told each other they were okay with each other’s insane secrets about buried bodies and prostitute markswomen; Kevin told Nora he felt totally okay, just tired, after the birthday BBQ. Of course, seconds later he threw a tantrum about the fixer-upper they purchased for $3 million, and hours later, he woke up in a riverbed with a cinderblock tied to his foot. Not okay.
What does “okay” mean anyway, in a world like The Leftovers’? At first, Nora seemed to think it’d be enough to try and embrace new life after tragedy, which is no small task in itself. But when the MIT research team showed up at her house and suggested the Departure may happen again—“why wouldn’t it?”—she looked shattered. On some level she probably realized that the world could re-end, but until little Lily showed up that possibility wasn’t even worth worrying about—she had nothing left to lose. Now though, told that safety might simply be—like the atheist adage says about religion— “a matter of geography,” she expensively, enthusiastically committed herself to what’s supposedly the safest place on earth. Of course, as Kevin pointed out to Jill, Jarden’s safety may just be a wristband-assisted illusion.
The situation with Kevin’s okayness is yet more complicated. When a dead lady keeps taunting you, when you black out and do catastrophic things, when your ex-wife and missing son are hanging out (and leaving burgers uneaten!) without telling you, happiness is not something you can simply opt into. Still, Kevin, bless him, is trying to get better. By digging up Patti and cutting off a cop, it felt as though he was asking for absolution through justice. But the rest of the world cares about his emotional need to be punished just as much as he cared about his interrogating officer’s eye patch. That she said good riddance to Patti and let Kevin walk free might have been a commentary on real-world establishment attitudes toward disempowered people; it also, though, further suggested a government conspiracy to kill the cults before the cults kill everyone.
Last week, I wrote that I hoped the show wouldn’t rely too much on Kevin’s hallucinations and amnesia for its drama this season. Split-personality disorder and psychosis are powerful metaphors, theoretically, but they make for unrelatable storylines that increasingly feel clichéd (I compared Kevin to Mr. Robot’s Elliot already, but jeez: Both of these shows have now winked at their Fight Club influence by featuring the Pixies song most associated with modern Jekyll & Hyde stories). Alas, though, Kevin hasn’t found mental stability; he hasn’t even made like his dad and found a way to fake it.
Still, it’s nice that Ann Dowd’s deliciously judgmental scowl will remain a staple of the show. And while Lindelof has said The Leftovers will never answer the question of what happened to the vanished two percent, I do hope to find out whether the Garvey men are really loco or actually do have a Sixth Sense. That random guy at the Visitor’s Center (last seen praying with the assistant pastor Michael Murphy) saying he’d help Kevin with his “situation” seemed to hint at the supernatural. Then again, so did the looks in the eyes of the various characters with epilepsy and paralysis—and The Leftovers, thus far, has mainly been about the human tendency to read meaning into the meaningless.
One thing that’s clear is that the showrunners are working on a high level, from a pure competency standpoint. I loved the efficiency with which this hour’s story unfolded: the way that the Garveys’ decision to start a new life was explained in a few bold, brief scenes, and the way that the script and direction constantly juxtaposed the optimism that accompanies a new beginning with the dread that accompanies dark memories. I also was mostly impressed by the use of diegetic music, with Kevin’s clamorous playlists simultaneously drowning out his fears and amping tensions in the narrative. Every scene manages to make Jarden feel more recognizable and more mysterious, and the puzzle at the end of the first episode gained a nice, cliffhangery complication with the reveal of Kevin in the riverbed. All in all, very nice setup. For what?
Gilbert: After reading what you said last week about this show and comedy, Spencer, it’s pretty much all I can see now. The scene where Kevin confessed to Nora that he’d been sleepwalking, which had led to his kidnapping Patti, which had led to her killing herself and Kevin and Matt burying her without anyone else knowing was hysterical, especially the coda: “And I smoke.” Followed by Nora’s admission that she hires prostitutes to shoot her, and Jill’s baffled reply: “Do I have to say something crazy now?” LOL.
And I agree totally on the competency part—returning to this show after True Detective makes you appreciate a thousand times more how tight everything is, and how controlled. After the first episode moved so swiftly away from Mapleton, I’d almost forgotten about Laurie and Tommy and Lily and the Guilty Remnant, so it was an unexpected pleasure to go back to town, and back to the very end of the first season, when Nora found the baby by Kevin’s front door. Then came the unspooling of what happened in the months between Jill almost burning to death in the Remnant house and the newly minted family moving to Miracle: the efforts to adopt Lily; Nora’s comical, “I’m sorry, no, we’re good,” when the gruff family-services official asked her if she wanted another baby as well (it apparently being adopt-one-get-one-free week); Jill’s meeting with Tommy while Laurie stayed in the car; the MIT researchers; Kevin; Patti.
More on Kevin and Patti in a moment, but first Jill, who seems to be possessed of an inordinate amount of optimism and composure for a kid who last season ran away to join her mother’s nonverbal smoking cult just to be close to her. Yes, she tore up the letter from Laurie that Tommy passed to her while a silent tear rolled down her cheek, but she also seemed totally unfazed by Miracle and all its manifold weirdnesses: the godlike figure in the town square, the loudspeakers, the beyond-creepy welcome videos. To me, it felt absolutely terrifying—a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and a visualization of life at the Mexican border wall President Trump’s going to build. The buses! The wristbands! The scores and scores of hippies and families and religious people and smiling-but-fierce security guards. Jill’s obviously savvy enough to realize what this means to Nora—that it’s a place where she can feel safe with her new family—but maybe also traumatized enough by what happened in Mapleton that she can appreciate the stability of being with Kevin, Nora, and Lily in what feels (at least at this point) like a prison.
But presumably it won’t always be this simple, and Jill being the straight arrow to Kevin’s spinning wheel of crazy is just a necessity at this point given that they can’t all fall apart this early on in the season. I’m with you, Spencer, in feeling a little burned out by Kevin’s off-the-wall antics, but obviously it would be too much to expect the happy ending of season one/the beginning of this episode to last for the Garveys. It’s in Kevin’s blood, after all: “I’ve watched you for years yelling at shit that wasn’t there,” he told his father. But the best part of the show is that it makes us, the audience, complicit in Kevin’s visions, and doubt along with him that what he sees is as simple as a hallucination. When Kevin hit his head on the gas stove, it certainly looked like someone else was there slamming his forehead into it. So does that mean Patti’s real? (Off topic, I had the same sense of foreboding when Kevin held his head over the stove that I did last week when John Murphy held his hand above the garbage disposal. Lovely symmetry.)
It’s also becoming apparent that geography is going to be important this season, given the MIT researchers’ interest in Nora’s house, the statistical anomaly that is Miracle, and whatever happened to Evie and her friends down by the lake. And maybe this echoes back to the title of last week’s episode, “Axis Mundi,” meaning the place where heaven and earth intersect. Humans have believed in (and fought over) sacred places for millennia, so the idea that location could have significance when it comes to the Departure isn’t totally out of left field.
All in all it’s a reminder that the storytelling in this show is never straightforward. Repeating the events of episode one from the Garveys’ perspective could have felt exhausting, but in the end only a few key scenes and objects intersected: the pie (we still have no clue whether anyone ate it), Evie’s epileptic episode, the man from the cabin in the woods, the fish flopping in the bottom of the lake, the disappearing girls. “Very interesting family, those Murphys,” Patti said. “Hard to tell if they’re part of your story or if you’re part of theirs.” At this point in season two, I couldn’t agree more.