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’m getting a little bit worried about where this story is going. We’re six episodes in, with only four more to go, and the plot is only the slightest bit further along than it was at the end of the season opener, when Evie and her friends disappeared from a running car. You could argue that last season was similarly character-focused and plot-averse, maybe, except that it had to introduce basically everyone AND explore their own individual breakdowns AND set up the conflict between the town and the Guilty Remnant AND create a whole universe in which everyone and their grandmother was dealing with the Departure in myriad screwed-up ways. The second season has similarly introduced a wealth of new people and new breakdowns, but it almost feels saturated—I’m longing for more Kevin/Jill/Laurie (even Meg, who’s only had a single scene) and less of Miracle and its goat-sacrificing, wedding dress-wearing congregants.
I kept thinking about what you said last week about Matt Jamison and Job, Spencer, and it occurred to me this week that maybe the show is asking Job’s question on a much grander scale: Why do people suffer? If there is a kind and loving God, why does he allow such unquantifiable cruelty and desolation to happen on Earth? My working theory is that everyone on the show is exploring this question to some extent, faced with an inexplicable random act that defies each and all of the paradigms humans have created to try and understand the world. Which is cool and all, but it’s still ultimately a television show with a story to tell, so it’d be nice if they’d get to that part sooner or later.
Still, a number of mysteries from earlier episodes were solved in this episode, “Lens.” The goat man kills his goats because that’s what he did on October 14th. Ditto the woman who tried on her wedding dress. People in Miracle are, to some extent, living some version of an athlete’s pre-game ritual, indulging in superstitions and habits to make themselves feel safe. It’s a miracle (pun intended) that more of them haven’t fallen foul of John, who beat up the scientist from the first episode for hawking $500 bottles of Miracle water, but maybe he cuts his neighbors some slack. Also revealed was why Erika buried a bird in a box in episode one: Her grandmother had told her that the town they lived in was special, a regular “Jarden of Eden,” and that if she buried a bird for three days, she could dig it up and it would fly away, and she could make her wish.
You know who else was buried for three days and came out still breathing? Exactly. The demon Azazel. (Maybe.) Erika’s wish was that her kids would be okay if she left John, which she revealed to Nora while Nora gave her the brand-new, high-tech, Japanese test for fraudulent Departure reports. That scene, much like the dialogue between John and Matt last week, was just phenomenal. The screen was pretty much filled with each woman’s face, capturing their conflict, their shared sense of guilt, and their innate desire to wound each other, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It was presumably the same impulse that made Nora throw a stone through her neighbor’s window at the beginning of the episode, mirrored at the end when Erica returned the favor.
Perhaps Nora is angry at the Murphys for making her doubt her short-lived sense of safety? Perhaps Erica in some way senses Nora might be involved in Evie’s departure? My instinct in the scene though was that both women sensed something in each other that they loathed most about their own thinking. “That’s pathetic,” Nora spat, after Erika seemed to be blaming her wish for what happened to Evie—even though Nora too spent much of the episode considering whether it was her fault. “Terrible things happen in this world and the only comfort we get is that we didn’t cause them.” So who or what did? And why?
Still, the episode was riddled with dark humor, notably in the calm English scientist’s revelation that a plausible-sounding theory about “lenses” (people who somehow magnified the effect of the Departure on those around them) was actually a lizard-people conspiracy about demons on earth being spouted by reasonable-seeming researchers. I loved the scene of the long-haired doctor arriving in Jarden on the bus full of singing tourists, and Nora’s quiet moment of larceny. But if this is going anywhere beyond Miracle falling apart in the wake of the three girls’ disappearance and Kevin’s personal breakdown, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Spencer, what did you think of Erika’s revelations? Where is Tommy? Did Mary look more alive this episode or was it just me?
Kornhaber: I’m with you in wanting more plot movement. But I can’t complain too much because on a moment-to-moment basis this episode was just … excellent. That demon Azazel encounter, for example, might rank as one of my favorite TV moments of the year. Your lizard-person reference is right on, but maybe we could also make comparisons to Ben Carson’s pyramids theory, given that the demon talk sounded like it resulted from a distinctly Judeo-Christian leap of logic? In any case, I won’t soon forget how Nora reacted with a deep, hissing cry-laugh that deserves a couple Emmys.
The Leftovers’s best scenes work like that one did, blending humor, horror, and, most of all, a finely attuned sense of surprise. The intense conversation between Nora and Erika toward the end of the hour was all about that last trait. What seemed at first like a standard HBO-drama heart-to-heart actually became psychological warfare when Nora told Erika that her guilt was “pathetic.” It was a yet-bigger shock when Erika replied by emotionally teleporting the room back to October 14. One more powerful twist came when Nora broke into tears and fled, the first time she’d truly lost her composure in an episode filled with examples of how good she is at masking her distress (and how wonderful Carrie Coon is at portraying that masking).
All of which is to say that Damon Lindelof and the rest of The Leftovers’s team could teach a course in how to craft great scenes that repeatedly subvert viewer expectations. But they should also maybe take lessons in how to, from time to time, reward viewers. I agree that the revelations about the goat sacrifices and the wedding dress were nice to finally hear. And it was a real breakthrough for Kevin to confess his visions to Nora, who for the sake of her sanity had been trying to carry on as if Kevin still had his. But these overdue developments were counteracted by the mysteries that became only thornier, for reasons that mostly feel manipulative.
The big example I’m thinking about regards the fellow in the woods who keeps sending apple pies. In this episode, we learn that he is somehow related to the Murphys and that he gravely wronged them. But how’s he related? What did he do? When? We will find these things out at some point, probably when characters reveal them in conversation. The show could have chosen for that conversation to happen this week, instead of just having Michael and Erika obliquely refer to things that they know about but that viewers still don’t. Leftovers writers, listen: People who’re still watching are hooked on the core premise of the show—artificial micro-mysteries just make it less likely we’ll keep going.
And while I admire the rotating point-of-view structure of the season, it has big drawbacks when it comes to narrative momentum. This week’s episode, from the vantages of Erika and Nora, was fantastic. I could watch a whole series like this. But will the inevitable future episode centered on Jill and Michael be as good, or will it give us a romantic subplot that feels like a detour from the central story? Do I want to see through the sad eyes of Tommy and Laurie again? Can I possibly endure the thought of spending more time with Matt, now that his philosophy about the virtues of suffering have been made so very clear?
For now, I’m glad to have learned more about the fascinating Erika Murphy. We previously saw that she helps out with her husband’s vigilantism, but now we know that she does so from a place of wariness, rational calculation, and empathy. She doesn’t want to be there, with John. But when she told him that he hits people to hit people and not for any greater purpose, she wasn’t necessarily condemning him—she just wanted him to see reality clearly, in the same manner he demands of the rest of the world. And when she confessed about her bird-related superstitions, she did so with extreme self-awareness and hedging. She, in the end, might be the most honest person The Leftovers has: someone who understands the world as it is but who also recognizes her yearning for greater meaning—rather than straining to deny that impulse, as John, Nora, and perhaps a lot of us watching at home do.