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.
Gilbert: I’d posit anyone watching the first ten minutes of this episode had to pause at least once to (a) scratch their head, (b) make sure they were watching the right channel, or (c ) text a friend some arrangement of the letters W, T, and F.
Because this show is all manner of things—experimental, unsettling, audacious, infuriating, bleak, and beautiful—so presumably season two wouldn’t be a nice straightforward narrative cakewalk. But what to make of the opening interlude, with its hope and despair, its biblical imagery, its Verdi arias? My first thought, seeing the half-naked bodies covered in mud curled up inside a cave, was that this was yet another doomsday cult with a flexible approach to hygiene, but as the scene unfurled, it seemed to be the story of an early woman trapped outside by an earthquake and facing the most primal human experiences alone: Giving birth, finding food, protecting her child, and finally succumbing to a snakebite, all while a bird of prey loomed overhead.
But … why? Apart from the earthquake, which returned at the end of the episode with apparently extraordinary consequences, and the lake itself, which the three teenage girls were seen swimming in several thousand (I’m guessing) years later, why pick up the story after almost a year with an extended fantasia about primitive human life? My guess is that it’s pointing to the instinct to survive, and the hardwired impulses all animals have within them to simply go on living—a drive that’s been messed with inordinately by the events of season one.
But what other show makes you think about such existential questions? Or is bold enough to spend almost the entirety of its first hour with an entirely new family in an entirely new locale? Or can get away with a dreamy, filtered scene in which three teenage girls run fully naked through the woods without offering any explanation whatsoever?
The teasers for season two had pointed toward a new setting: Jarden, Texas, now known as Miracle, Texas, because all 9,261 of its residents survived the Departure that promptly and cleanly vanished two percent of the world’s population into thin air. It couldn’t be further removed from the snowy, smoky despair of Mapleton, but it hasn’t been spared the hucksterism and odd behavior taking root across the U.S. (The goat sacrifice in the diner, for example, and the fact that even the National Park Service is getting in on the profiteering.)
The primary focus of “Axis Mundi” (which roughly means the point connecting heaven and earth) was the Murphy family, who started the episode seeming like the perfect nuclear family and ended it anything but. There’s John (Kevin Carroll), the kind of dad who plays baseball with his daughter in their backyard, laughs at her jokes, enacts vigilante justice on old friends, and spent six years in prison for attempted murder. There’s Erika (Regina King), a nurse, who buries birds alive in boxes and then sets them free. There’s Michael (Jovan Adepo), their teenage son, who volunteers for his church, prays with men in the woods, and takes food to a bearded homeless man camped out David Blaine-style on top of a town monument. And there’s Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who sings in her school choir, pitches a ferocious fastball, suffers from epileptic fits, and flirts unsettlingly with one of the doctors taking samples from the lake.
Jarden, in many ways, seems to be like a post-Rapture Lourdes, where visitors are bused in looking for physical and mental healing. Inevitably this creates business opportunities—for the hawkers selling relics in the town center, and for Isaac, a spiritual entrepreneur in the Holy Wayne mold who charges $140 for “readings” conducted via preschool-style paint handprints. But even Isaac’s long friendship with John couldn’t save him from the latter’s vengeance, in the form of a five-alarm fire that burned his house to the ground. Was it Isaac who left the Chekhovian pie outside John’s house that was promptly regifted to the Garveys? Did anyone eat the pie? Only time will tell.
There isn’t much to say about the Garveys at this point other than that everyone looks blissfully happy apart from Kevin, with his unexplained head injury and his habit of staring at things no one else can see. But why was Matt so abruptly interrupted by the pastor? Where are Laurie and Tommy? Maybe some of the questions posed by “Axis Mundi” will be answered as the season unfolds, but as we saw last season, with this show, answers aren’t really the point.
Kornhaber: The opening sequence indeed inflicted a major “WTF?” on the audience, but it’s worth noting the way it resembles the “WTF?” that the universe of the show has inflicted on its characters. When two percent of the population vanishes, the cause-and-effect rules previously established both by science and religion vanish, too; into the gap flood wild theories, inexplicable superstitions, and unnameable gut feelings. The same principal holds for when a TV show’s new season opens with a prehistoric vignette that has no clear relation to the previously established narrative. At the moment—and maybe forever—we can only ask, not answer, the question of why we were shown this cave lady, and no particular guess is really more outlandish than any other.
Maybe you’re right, Sophie, that the theme of survivalism in the face of random tragedy is the point. Or maybe we’ll eventually find out that the crying infant grew up to be the Miracle-watchtower Methuselah eating the Murphys’ leftovers (!!) from a bucket. Why not?
There’s a clearer meaning to some of the other new developments in season two, though. With the Texas sun and the newly twee title sequence, The Leftovers now stands less susceptible to the criticism that it’s simply too depressing to enjoy. Damon Lindelof recently admitted he made the original 10 episodes during a bout of depression, after visiting post-massacre Sandy Hook for inspiration. The results, appropriately, went deep into the question of how grief works, largely through Nora’s character. When she met with Holy Wayne and basically decided not to be so sad anymore, it was either a profound statement about the power of will or a convenient escape route for a show mired by its own heaviness. Either way, I’m glad that season two, set in a place without Departures, may move on from mourning as well.
But I will miss the old title sequence, a cartoon of anguish in a nu-Sistine Chapel. Its outrageousness made plain that this show was fundamentally a comedy, meant to poke fun at all of humankind. The joke does continue into the new season, with the premiere repeatedly evoking the gag that hooked me on this show in the first place: the saga of Kevin’s missing bagel, a breakfast carb that became the means by which our hero decided whether or not he’d lost his sanity. Now, we see John Murphy playing similar mind games with himself, but about an elusive chirping bug and an InSinkErator. (Contender for shot of the year: the camera tilting from sideways to level as he lowered his hand into the maw.) This guy clearly thinks he’s too smart for religion and is possibly paid to prevent cult formation, and yet even he battles twinges of irrationality. Meanwhile, his son preaches Christianity, his wife keeps a secret bird box, and his daughter runs Pagan-like through the forest and has now either been Raptured or swallowed by the Earth—making good on Isaac’s unfalsifiable prophecy that something bad was about to happen. LOL, right?
The show’s appeal isn’t all in snarking on futile attempts to understand reality, though. The best thing about The Leftovers all along has been its world-building, the way its sumptuous camerawork, casting, and performances convincingly posit what American life would look like with a few variables changed. My hope is that this season relies on that foundation for its story—that it spends more time gaming out how civilization might react to the inexplicable, instead of lengthily documenting Kevin Garvey’s hallucinations/visions like it did last summer (besides, Mr. Robot is now filling TV’s demand for unbearably handsome guys with split personalities, thanks very much).
So I was excited that there was only one reference to Kevin’s sixth sense in this episode, in the moment when he stares too long at the Murphys’ couch. The real intrigue of the hour came from the fact that John appears to be part of the brutal government conspiracy—hinted at throughout season one—to prevent upstart spiritual leaders from unraveling order. The tall fences and floodlights surrounding Miracle, and the way the park rangers turn from friendly greeters in daylight to militarized guards wielding tasers against anyone caught without a wristband at night, hint that the larger political tale here can’t be avoided for much longer. There might also be a public-health story going on—Evie’s epileptic, Erika’s deaf, and no one’s supposed to drink the water.
Then again, I may not even need too much big-picture plotting to be hooked on the season. John aside, the Murphys seem like nice people to spend time with; how wonderful, how real-seeming, was that scene where the mom and kids started stacking items on the sleepy dad to wake him up? (Make a note of the book subjects on display: Lenin and Mandela.) And if the prospect of romance between Michael and Jill wasn’t exactly communicated subtly, it at least has the potential to be charming. But the early contender for best character is Evie, whose mischievous eye glint and quietly confident demeanor makes me hope she hasn’t capital-D Departed. I suspect over the course of this season we’ll frequently refer back to her knock-knock joke about the broken pencil, a reminder that even pointlessness has a point.