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: Tommy’s hug …
… looks an awful lot like a certain kind of shrug …
I would not be surprised if the resemblance is intentional on the show’s part. The shruggie emoji, that expression of “bemused resignation,” and “a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe,” might be The Leftovers’s spirit animal. Tommy is indeed offering a tool to accept chaos, and the showrunner Damon Lindelof is very clearly a fervent consumer of the Internet. So I take the final shot of this episode to be an in-joke about the fact that The Leftovers is, as I’ve said before, itself a joke, with the audience being all of mankind and the punchline being all of existence.
Laughing at that joke tonight, though, was a bit harder than it has been all season. After the mystery, momentum, and sense of play surrounding Jarden, Texas, Lindelof and co. shifted perspectives for the third time in three episodes, picking up with Laurie and Tommy. Geographically and psychologically these characters aren’t quite as far from the traumas of Mapleton as the rest of the Garveys are, and they were interacting with some very sad people all hour.
The saddest of them was Susan, the mother who tried to reenter her old life of domestic normalcy—a son watching Looney Tunes, a husband complaining about coworkers, and her trying to drown out the emptiness of existence with a white-noise machine at night—and ended up attempting (maybe succeeding) to drive her family into a semi-truck. The worst thing was how deliberate, how lucid, she seemed throughout it all. Kevin aside, the story The Leftovers is telling is not really about mental illness—it’s about what happens when you see reality perfectly clearly. Some people decide to end everything. Some people laugh, as we’re meant to when watching Laurie snatch her laptop out of a kid’s hands. Some people embrace the darkness with fabulous irony, like the Guilty Remnant, who punish doubters via blue balls.
And some people capitalize on other peoples’ need for comfort, whether through commoditized hugs or Departure insurance. All episode, Laurie tried to turn her traumatic cult past into something positive, both for society and for her bank account, but the capitalist demand to impose sexy structure upon messy truth became too much for her to handle in her publisher’s office. But it’s con or be conned in this world, as the encounter with her genially sleazy landlord showed. Are Laurie and Tommy’s efforts to destroy the GR really about saving lives, or are they about giving Laurie and Tommy a sense of purpose and an income source? It’s the same question that surrounds virtually all religious conversion efforts—and, fascinatingly, it’s the same question that surrounds Richard Dawkins-style Big Atheism.
This is the genius and the horror of The Leftovers, the way it indicts all moral systems as false and exploitative while also exonerating them as necessary for sanity and happiness. It isn’t blaming anyone for starting micro-religions; it’s explaining why they spring up at all. Maybe, though, there’s a great unifier coming in the form of whoever was resurrected in Australia, the same place that Kevin’s dad wanted to move to, the same place that the watchtower man in Jarden mailed a letter.
As a catch-up episode for some characters we’ve not seen in a while and a exploration of some of the darker parts of the show’s overarching message, “Off Ramp” was about as effective as you could have hoped for. But I’m eager to get back to Texas, where heaps of intrigue have been created in the two opening hours of the season. Maybe Holy Tommy will eventually bring his flock there, though after Susan’s saga this hour, I get queasy at the thought of family reunions. What about you?
Gilbert: Holy shruggie, Batman. And exceptional job piecing the Australia clues together. Maybe season three will move locales once again. Re: Tommy, the show (and Chris Zylka) has done an exceptional job making him seem both sleazy and degraded in his limited screen time so far this season, beginning when he shuffled tipsily into the diner to meet Jill, and culminating in the moment where he stretched his arms out wide to welcome in the whole wounded world. I love the idea that such a messianic gesture is also now so irrevocably associated with an expression of oh well, and that Tommy is accepting the pointlessness of the post-Departure order while also digging in deep as a shuckster of the finest kind.
I agree that Tommy and Laurie almost certainly have personal motives at play, but Laurie in particular seems to really want to help people, which is what makes everything so complicated. She’s a psychiatrist, after all, and who are psychiatrists if not people who make money by helping others? What is religion if not a system of extraordinary practices and beliefs that helps many people find happiness and security while also frequently spurring others to do terrible things? Can you have the benefits without the terrible ramifications? Big fat nope, the show seems to be saying. And that’s one of the things that makes The Leftovers so interesting—that it’s an elaborate thought experiment wondering how batshit crazy the world would get if an unexplained phenomenon really stress-tested all the established systems and structures that evolved over thousands of years into “society.” They’re flawed, definitely. But easily replaceable? Not so much.
It’s also, as we’ve noted ad infinitum, really bravura television that feels like nothing else, even if I found myself thinking about Breaking Bad more than once this episode. (The extended opening sequence with the drum solo, the grisly humor, the indignity of Tommy begging for his life while naked from the waist down.) Laurie, in particular, seems to have more than a touch of Walter White-esque manic arrogance going on, which prompts her to do things that are manifestly crazy—stealing back her laptop, running over two Guilty Remnant members in the street when they won’t get out her way, trying to throttle the publisher who (extremely insensitively) pressed her on how the incident with Jill nearly burning to death made her feel. (Again, let’s note the irony in the fact that pressing people about their feelings used to be Laurie’s job.)
For Laurie, getting back at the Guilty Remnant is partly about trying to save people and partly about revenge and partly about seeking glory and meaning in life, and Amy Brenneman communicates all of those impulses in a way that emphasizes how entangled they are. Which brings us to Meg, who was recruited by Laurie in season one and forced to hack away at a tree in a mission to understand the pointlessness of existence. It almost felt too neat to have her be the one confronting Tommy after his increasingly unsubtle attempts to rescue GR members were thwarted by a girl with a whistle. And why have sex with him? Why threaten to immolate him with the lighter his sister gave his mother? The HBO bio for Meg says “Meg remains in the Guilty Remnant, though it may not be the same cult she joined.” Maybe Meg, like Patti, has been empowered by the group to the point of becoming sadistic (both indeed violate the “no speaking” rule when they feel like it). Surely she feels betrayed by Laurie’s 180. Possibly Liv Tyler was contractually obliged to return given that she’s one of the series’s biggest stars, even though her character at this point is still maddeningly opaque.
Speaking of contractual obligations, there was certainly an element of self-awareness in the scene with the publisher, which felt a lot like how the early pitch meetings for The Leftovers might have gone down. Imagine it this way:
HBO EXEC: We know what the Guilty Remnant does. But what do they believe?
LINDELOF: They believe the world ended.
Over and over again we’re reminded that we’re conditioned to expect answers—in books, in life, in HBO dramas—but answers aren’t the point. As Laurie told Susan’s husband, “Comfort takes some getting used to.” It’s suffering, she seems to suggest, that’s a more natural human state, and certainly one that makes for better television.