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: Kids these days. Yik Yaking and Snapchatting and Slendermanning and vanishing so as to serve as an invisible living reminder that life is meaningless and no one should feel any sort of warmth toward anyone else. I’m tempted to read tonight’s episode-ending revelation that Evie and her friends had run away to join the Guilty Remnant as a commentary on Millennial idealism, though the ideal at issue is the opposite of hope-changeiness. You could alternately argue that it’s utterly un-stereotypical for 2015 teenagers to rebel like this: They had to leave their iPhones in the car!
Either way, it’s a good twist, one that I didn’t see coming but that makes total sense in retrospect. The Leftovers this season has largely let viewers forget the extreme measures and ambition of the Guilty Remnant: The corpse manipulation, the self-stoning, and the assorted harassments that made up much of the first season’s action are foggy memories by now. The glimpse into Tommy and Laurie’s anti-Remnant efforts in the third episode almost mostly made you sympathize with the white-shirts; the nattering of ghost-Patti increasingly seemed like a personal expression of pain or Kevin’s psychosis rather than a tactic of an organization hellbent on expunging optimism from Earth. So from a viewer’s perspective, Meg is right when she tells Matt that Jarden doesn’t feel like somewhere the Remnant would go. But think about it for a sec and it becomes clear that it’s where the Remnant must go to complete its mission.
Back when the season premiere aired, I wrote that Evie’s “mischievous eye glint and quietly confident demeanor makes me hope she hasn’t capital-D Departed.” Now we know what some of that confidence was about and can make better educated guesses about why the three girls were seen running naked through the woods—practicing their escape, maybe? In any case, the philosophical implications of their con are multi-layered. By pretending to Depart, they’ve sent the message that Miracle isn’t special. But the fact that they didn’t actually Depart means that Miracle may be just as special as everyone else thinks. And the fact that their disappearance coincided with a river-draining earthquake means that—unless the GR possess yet-unrevealed geotechnical engineering skills—we’ve got another possibly divine coincidence to puzzle over. It’s a statement of nihilism that may actually endorse the opposite. It’s the knock-knock joke about pointlessness, writ large.
Which brings us to Meg. At first, her descent into radicalism seemed a little arbitrary: The show needs a Remnant member to turn terroristic for plot reasons, I thought, and Liv Tyler’s character just happened to have nothing to do this year. But then I remembered how brutal her first-season arc was. The aggressive tactics of the GR in Mapleton got her to leave her fiancé; she finally fully committed to the cause once Gladys was stoned; she seemed to relish getting a beatdown from townsfolk in the finale. And tonight’s opening flashback revealed that she was the kind of woman who needed cocaine in order to stomach small talk with her mom, which is to say that she never much enjoyed the polite order of civilization to begin with. So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that with some cult influence, following the apparent apocalypse, she’d go full havoc-causer.
Tyler is great at portraying defiance and rage through soft-spoken words and small eye movements. I loved how she alternated between disdainful skepticism and wounded hope in her scene with Isaac, whose mention of walnuts might be the most clearest evidence of the supernatural we’ve yet seen—besides, of course, Kevin’s resurrection. I also loved Meg’s sassy interactions with the Guilty Remnant authorities who told her not to target children—an admonition that we now know has been spectacularly defied in Jarden. “Explanations are useless,” the main chainsmoker said, to which Meg offered a reply that Leftovers viewers can cheer for: “Don’t give me that mysterious bullshit.”
Tommy, meanwhile, doesn’t have the inner conviction to react so strongly to the global trauma of the Departure. He is, at heart, a follower, as we saw all throughout his season one storyline with Holy Wayne. Which explains why he couldn’t pull off his hug-giving scheme for long—though even in that scheme, he was a follower of his mom—and why he becomes so fascinated with Meg, despite everything she’s done and all the horror he’s seen the GR cause. For a moment, it seemed like he might intervene in the stoning of the guy who stumbled into the barn. But of course he didn’t.
Sophie, what do you think Meg has planned for the bridge in the finale? How will John Murphy react if he finds out what’s become of his daughter? Is the final miracle of the season going to be that Tommy really is pregnant?
Gilbert: I think unless the mention of Meg ordering plastic explosive was a diversion, the season might well come to another fiery end. Perhaps she’s going to blow up the camp outside Jarden? It’s impossible to envision her getting any kind of device into the town given the security infrastructure in place, although maybe that’s part of the plan for the girls—if they surprise everyone enough with their return, possibly people won’t notice the bomb vests they’re wearing?
When Tommy was prising open the door to the caravan, in fact, I was convinced he’d open it and find some kind of elaborate IED. But no, it was Evie, doubling (or tripling) down on the season-long punchline in her response to Tommy asking who she was: It doesn’t matter (it’s pointless). So Evie’s knock-knock joke was more than a joke! It was an expression of nihilist disaffection with the reality of post-Departure life! But … why? The whole point of the GR is that they appeal to people who are broken and whose lives have been distorted by loss. What about them might appeal to Evie and her friends? Yes, teenagers are inherently rebellious and cynical, and Evie’s home life obviously isn’t as happy as it appeared in the first episode, but I’m still eager to find out what might have drawn her to Meg beyond a disaffection with the false hope of Jarden and a mutual love of baby carrots.
But I have to counter that I find Meg’s evolution totally implausible. She’s a completely different person, with a different name, even (I don’t remember anyone calling her Megan last season, but it was pretty much the only name used in this episode). Sure, grief can make you cruel, but it doesn’t totally erode your humanity. It doesn’t make you petrify children by throwing grenades onto their school bus, or order random trespassers to be stoned to death, or want to put out your cigarette in someone’s eye just to make them feel as crappy as you do. Meg last season seemed like someone suffering from a classic case of post-Departure existential crisis (and pre-wedding jitters) but she was essentially kind and empathetic, encouraging Laurie to keep the lighter Jill gave her, presumably because she was thinking a little of her own mother. I remember her sitting on the sidewalk shaking in the finale after the GR conflagration, but I don’t buy that even the most vicious backlash from the people of Mapleton could turn her into such a palpably cruel, manipulative, and brutal person.
It seems more like the show wanted a new Big Bad after Kevin wrestled (metaphorically) with Patti on a spiritual plane, and so Meg was drafted to fill the void. But it feels cheap. Throwing in a classically snippy mom (“ladies don’t say ‘pee’”) and a possible cocaine habit as backstory doesn’t do much to illuminate her character, and if anything Liv Tyler is too good in the role—she really fills out Meg with a kind of radiant menace, and the result is that she seems fairly unrecognizable from season one.
So I’m edging toward disappointed when it comes to the obvious setup of a season-finale conflict between the Guilty Remnant and the good people of Jarden. For one thing, it’s exactly what happened last season. For another, the whole point of Jarden was that it offered new threats and new mysteries and new antagonists. The local GR chapter might look like a rebel militia (they’re more into camo and work boots than white K-Mart sweaters) but they’re essentially there with the same intent—to #disrupt the people intent on moving on from the Departure and returning to their daily lives. In Jarden, where as Meg put it, the place is safe, and people “just aren’t suffering like the rest of us are,” the temptation to shake up the town’s sense of security and “corrupt its exceptional properties” must be even more acute. But it still feels a little like a letdown.
That said, I loved the scene with Isaac, not just because he seemed to enhance his standing as a psychic by knowing about the walnuts, but because once again the show seemed to be pointing at itself and its viewers in a sweetly mocking way. Isaac’s right—whatever he tells Meg about what her mom was going to say, she’s going to be disappointed. So too with the Departure. There’s no explanation that could live up to the mystery, so perhaps it’s best simply to accept it as is and focus on more pressing and gratifying matters.
Like all the things on the agenda for next week: John’s confrontation with Kevin about his handprint (maybe Evie can return and help defuse that one), Kevin’s possible reunion with Nora, Tommy’s possible reunion with his not-so-happy family, an update on the status of Mary and her unborn baby, whatever Meg has planned for Jarden, however Michael and Kevin want to spin Virgil’s death. You’re dead right about Tommy, Spencer. He seems much happier when he’s following a charismatic (if morally defunct) spiritual leader than when he’s sleeping on park benches and guzzling 40s for breakfast. Some people just don’t want to be free. In that sense, he’s yet another reminder of how enticing authoritarian structures (religious or otherwise) can be, at least when the choice is between hugging people in an American Legion office with your mom or doing shots of whiskey in a honky tonk with evil Arwen Undómiel.