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: “God can be funny,” Regina Spektor sings over this week’s episode-closing montage. There it is—confirmation of what I’ve been saying all along, that The Leftovers is a comedy! Then again, most of her song is about the times when God isn’t funny, and for basically all of this insane, wrenching episode it was impossible to laugh—even when Matt dropped his phone in the toilet, even when he was forced to spank a burly man while screaming, “Brian!”
Even without the hijinks and the swindling and extreme displays of devotion this episode, Matt’s situation is about as tough to watch as TV gets. It almost felt like an act of emotional violence against the viewer for the show to open with a loop of his daily routine (review tapes of Mary sleeping, care for her, feed her, get ignored at church, tuck her into bed, kiss her and hope she wakes up, do it all again to the sound of the Bellamy Brothers). But you could argue that the show’s also being brave in going this route. Matt’s life is familiar in one way or another to many real-world caretakers, and usually pop culture’s impulse is to look away.
The repetitious, punishing nature of the opening also reinforced the fact that The Leftovers itself is often repetitious and punishing. Three episodes into the first season, viewers spent an hour with Matt, seeing him do many of the same sorts of things he did in this episode, with the takeaway being that the guy is extremely faithful and extremely gullible. (There was even a predictable and awful violent encounter with a desperate motorist in each episode.) When, this time out, Matt said that his favorite bible story is Job’s, I nearly groaned. We get it. Someone’s already written a blog post called “10 Ways Rev. Jamison Resembles Job.”
Which is not to say this episode didn’t advance the show’s larger themes or plot at all. The encampment outside of Jarden is a bit Mad Max and a bit Burning Man, but amid all the junkyard opportunism and libertine behavior were people obsessed with the idea of self-punishment. I took the “Brian!” guy and the man in the stocks to be on similar spiritual missions, atoning for nebulous crimes by denying themselves freedom, comfort, dignity. Matt, obviously, has the same martyrdom impulse, choosing to put strip naked and enter bondage at episode’s end. But if you think about it, the rest of the show is also full of people punishing themselves in one way or another; what’s the Guilty Remnant about, if not that? (Kevin and Norah have of late tried to move past the cycle of self-flagellation, but it’s not resulted in any great spiritual gains so far.)
Mary’s not-quite-immaculate conception certainly shall pose a new conundrum to the television-think-piece industrial complex (guilty!) that evaluates depictions of rape. Matt, from all indications, genuinely did believe she woke up and that their sex was consensual. I want to believe, too. Janel Moloney does an excellent job imbuing Mary’s vegetative state with the slightest flicker of what might be consciousness—or maybe she doesn’t and I, like Matt, am too quick to see signs where there aren’t any. Maybe Mary’s really gone, or maybe her mind is off in another dimension, where people connected to the Departure communicate through mediums and visions and sassy ghosts like Patti. But as with all seeming-supernatural phenomena on this show, there’s an equally compelling case to be made for drab reality and delusions being to blame.
In any case, when Mary starts to show her pregnancy—as the ever-more-vindictive atheist John predicts—people are going to start looking at Matt with skepticism, and then perhaps horror. If they judge him a rapist instead of a prophet, the question will become what they can inflict on him that he himself and God haven’t already. Sophie, how’d you feel about the episode? Redundant or revelatory?
Gilbert: Neither? But I did find it really, really, really hard to watch in a way that recalled the earlier episodes of season one, when lots of people swore publicly off the show forever, citing excessive bleakness. I’m glad you mentioned the first Matt-centric episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” which followed Matt as he desperately tried to find the money to save his church from foreclosure. Then, as now, he seemed thwarted at every turn by his own naivete and by some kind of sick cosmic humor: He won the money he needed against all odds at the roulette table after seeing a “sign” to bet on red; was almost robbed by two drifters he initially trusted but then savagely beat one of them (maybe to death) and got his money back; then he stopped to help a Guilty Remnant member on the way back and was hit by a stone, which knocked him out for three days. By the time he woke up, his money didn’t matter—the GR had bought his church.
But in that episode (which like this one was written by Damon Lindelof and Jacqueline Hoyt), Matt also talked a little bit about his belief that suffering is sent from God: He got leukemia as a child because he was jealous of the attention his baby sister was getting from their parents, he’s convinced all the people who disappeared were taken because they were sinners. Hence his decision to volunteer to take the place of the broken soul in the stocks—by suffering, he can be redeemed. Maybe if he endures enough, Mary and the baby will be okay.
My instinct is that he’s very wrong, because the God of The Leftovers (if there is one) does seem to be in the capricious, vengeful, Old Testament mold. But what to make of the messages strangers in Miracle keep communicating? Like the man who told Matt that he needed to get Mary inside or “he will die,” much as Virgil told Nora last week he was sorry for everything she’d suffered, and told Kevin he could help him with his problem? These people aren’t psychics in the hucksterish, read your palm kind of way—they really seem to intuit things in a way that makes no sense.
Just to briefly note the irony of Matt trying to find shelter for a pregnant woman named Mary and being thwarted at every turn—the episode is indeed called “No Room at the Inn.” It was infuriating at first to see Matt continue to put his faith in other people, when it was so obvious that they were going to take advantage of him. The man by the broken-down car knocked him out and broke his hand to steal his and Mary’s wristbands; the Swedish hipster (“Excuse me ladies, I’m looking for a tall man with a samurai bun”) took his $900 and led him to a pipe that went nowhere. But by the end, I had to respect his total commitment to his integrity. His first scene with John was exasperating, making you wish he could bite his tongue just for a minute; the second, in which he handed over the orphaned child after debating a crueler option for a second, seemed to impress even the renegade firefighter. Matt suffers from sins of pride, yes, but he’s fundamentally a good man who refuses to compromise his faith. Or maybe he just really believes that like Job, he’ll eventually be rewarded.
What in hell is this sink of iniquity outside Jarden? When Kevin, Nora, and Jill first arrived, the place seemed like a nightmare designed to explicitly comment on the absurdity of modern-day immigration laws, even if the Garveys didn’t notice it. That sense of underlying menace and authoritarianism gone wild was echoed when the teenagers were Tasered right by Matt’s car, when he was thwarted by bureaucracy in his attempts to get his and Mary’s wristbands replaced, and when he debated ripping his own band off a bereaved child’s shaking wrist. The show has certainly explained why people are so desperate to get into Jarden—perhaps the man who robbed Matt was analogous to Nora, only with fewer resources, and one child left whom he fiercely wanted to protect.
But what about the Mother Courage-style encampment that’s flourishing outside, where everyone seems intent on having their own personal fetishes gratified? (Being walked all over in high heels, hugging a life-size doll close, being beaten with an oar.) What do those people want from Jarden? If it’s just about suffering, why not go home and do it there? The camp to me feels way too contrived, created to hammer home how nuts people are after the Departure. Much more interesting, and infinitely more subtle, are the smaller details—the lingering shot of the child’s wristband, which bears the word “Sanctuary”; the fact that Matt’s ringtone is the Hallelujah chorus; the “goddamn goats.”
So it was tough viewing, indeed—perhaps we’re supposed to suffer right alongside Matt, which isn’t always what I feel like doing on a Sunday night. But the episode was redeemed (lol) by tremendous acting: Christopher Eccleston as Matt, Janel Moloney (Donna!) as Mary, and Kevin Carroll as John. Carroll, in particular, is just spectacular, playing a ticking briefcase of a character who’s both charismatic and extraordinarily menacing. I have no idea what happened to John, as Matt asked, but my first hope is that we find out. My second is that Holy Tommy and the good Mr. Murphy never come face to face, because you know whatever happens won’t go in Tommy’s favor.