The Leftovers: Desert Trip

In the third episode of the final season, Kevin Sr. tries to learn a song.


Each week following episodes of the third and final season of The Leftovers, Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss HBO’s drama about the aftermath of two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.

Spencer Kornhaber: Finally, The Leftovers has definitively answered one of the great debates of existence: Yes, Miley Cyrus, cultural appropriation does hurt people. It kills them, in fact. Bumbling through Aboriginal Australia, Kevin Sr. was crasser than any Coachella-goer in his donning of indigenous garb. He was more shameless than Mick Jagger at stealing non-white sounds. And when confronted, he defended himself like Marina Abramovic, his comrade in awkward Aboriginal fetishizing: He knows these people, and he’s trying to help them.

Help them, yeah right. It’d be terrible enough to waste a tribal elder’s time with an extended nonsense story that never explains 1) why he believes the Aboriginal people hold the key to salvation or 2) why they’d need a white man to access it. But then that white man accidentally killed that elder, denying a human his life and a people an irreplaceable bit of their history. Kevin Sr. has voices in his head, yes. But he sounds and acts a lot like saner people who’ve squashed cultures while professing to appreciate them.

Effective as “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” was as an allegorical think piece, as an episode of TV it mostly just re-indulged the sensibility—amuse ‘em, confuse ‘em, abuse ‘em—that makes The Leftovers special and occasionally frustrating. With only six episodes left in this show’s run, did we need to spend an hour with a deranged secondary character in a new setting pursuing goals that seem incidental to both the plot and to reality? Fine: Bravo for gutsiness, Damon Lindelof. But the installment could have accomplished its goals more succinctly and maybe with fewer self-immolations. Full disclosure—I downgrade any episode that doesn’t feature Nora Durst, the best character on TV.

To Lindelof’s team’s credit, they did make a joke of the tediousness of the whole thing. I lost count of the number of times Kevin Sr. passed out; for the final sedation, after being dart-gunned by the matronly posse we saw at the end of last week’s episode, he let out a Gob-ian “C’mon!” Kevin interprets his many obstacles—snake bites, surly paramedics, potent dog medicine, charred Volkswagen drivers—as signs that the universe is trying to stop him from saving the world. We at home might instead taken them as signs of his recklessness and arrogance. He poked that snake. He aggravated that paramedic. He overdosed on those pills. The Volkswagen guy probably was a lost cause, but maybe Kevin Sr. should have stayed mute when this clearly disturbed individual threw a version of the always-disturbing trolley problem at him.

The entire episode was a riff on the human tendency to over-interpret the world by stringing randomness into meaning and placing oneself at the center of narratives that are unfolding on their own. Unlike when The Leftovers has tackled this theme previously, though, I wasn’t left feeling intrigued that the crazy people on display may actually not be crazy. Kevin Sr.’s story to Christopher Sunday wasn’t even about eerie coincidences; it was about a bunch of unrelated things that he decided meant something. I was reminded of when Nora scoffed at Erika in season two’s “Lens”: “ Your logic, I'm sorry, it’s a little all over the place, don't you think?”

I loved, though, how the show teased the viewer when Kevin Sr. mentioned an uncanny vision on his hotel TV after his acid trip. We were expecting him to say he saw his son, providing confirmation that Kevin’s vision of his father in season two’s “International Assassin” wasn’t a mere hallucination. But nope: The TV just had a mystical chicken on it. He later visited that chicken with the same self-aggrandizing request everyone at some point hurls at God and/or farm animals—“I want some fucking purpose!”

The adorable squeaking of Kevin Jr. on the cassette tape was genuinely touching, and the long-ago discussion of ducks dunking but not dying seemed like it could be further foreshadowing of drownings and resurrections. But the better core-character cameo was from Matt Jamison, who in a few phone-call scenes indicated both his domestic unraveling (Mary indeed is not happy) and some other mysteries (why was Matt all wet?) before delivering a cathartic “go fuck yourself” to Kevin Sr. over the destruction of his gospel.

Kevin Sr., absolutely convinced of his own holiness, discarded that gospel out of jealousy and disgust. But he shouldn’t be so dismissive: Just one page of it was powerful enough lure Grace to murder that poor, rude Australian Kevin. Her scene of explaining her story to Kevin Sr. was the kind of tour de force moment that The Leftovers keeps, shockingly, asking of new cast members—see: Mark Linn-Baker—and Lindsay Duncan aptly delivered. In Grace’s narrative of her five kids wandering into the desert and dying after the Departure, The Leftovers found a horrible new permutation of an already horrific event whose possibilities, it might have seemed, the show had exhausted.

Duncan’s controlled performance put a brave face on a shattered soul, and it’s only when one considers the full weight of her tragedy—a tragedy worse, even, than Nora Durst’s—that you can understand why she’d draw so much from a sheet of paper she found on a raggedy old man. The tragedy also explained the subtle, awed change on her face when that raggedy old man told her that she just had the wrong Kevin. For traumatized people especially, the desire to believe in something will survive almost anything, as Kevin Sr. has amply demonstrated.

Sophie, what did you think of Scott Glen’s performance? What was Grace doing with all those tiny shoes when her house guest woke up? Have you ever changed the weather with “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”?

Sophie Gilbert: I have not, but I do want to take a moment to consider weather as an element of this season so far. More often than not it seems to promise divine intervention—remember in the opening interlude with the devout Millerite, when she climbed on the roof the final time and it started to pour with rain? Kevin Sr. seemed similarly surprised when the elements (twice) descended upon him out in the Australian bush, both times after he cursed the universe. Is it coincidence? Sod’s law? Or just a nod to how, when you’re attuned to any kind of sign from the universe, everything can start to seem like a message from God?

Like you, I was hoping that Kevin Sr. would remember more about his two-week acid trip on God’s tongue, and his parlay with Kevin Jr. in the purgatorial hotel. But: If you go back and revisit that particular episode, Kevin Sr. specifically mentioned “God’s tongue” when he was communicating with Kevin Jr. through the television. He might not remember seeing his son (and that entire period seems to be a blackout), but from our perspective as viewers, it lines up.

I also thought the episode dragged a little, and I feel slightly disappointed with how mundane Australia seems to be after the promises last season of a Jarden-like place with spiritual powers (especially since the sign in the Aboriginal area clearly read “Sacred Site”). But one thing I particularly enjoyed was its humor. Kevin Sr.’s pow-wow with Sharon was straight out of Muriel’s Wedding: Sharon told Kevin he was stealing sacred rites from the Aborigines. Kevin told Sharon her government had done the same thing to Aboriginal children for generations. Sharon, furious: “WE APOLOGIZED FOR THAT!”

As for Grace, what an extraordinary monologue from Lindsay Duncan, who somehow managed to confess in enviable deadpan that she’d killed a man and then, just a minute later, explain in heartbreaking fashion how her children died. Her story seems to echo the thread running through this final season, and through the show, that people are so desperate for meaning that they’ll do ludicrous things just because they think the universe is telling them to. For Kevin Sr., it’s driving through the outback and stealing sacred Aboriginal rituals to stave off a biblical flood he thinks is coming because a chicken pecked at his tapedeck. For Grace, it’s killing a man named Kevin because of a fragment of paper she found clutched in a dying man’s hand.

Can we also agree that Kevin Sr. is an asshole? At first, when he broke down in tears because the rain had ruined his tape player, I thought he was crying because he’d lost a precious memory of his son, but really it was just because of this grandiose idea he has that he, not Kevin Jr., is the savior of mankind. Talk about an Oedipus complex. Not to mention challenging the paramedic to treat him with respect because he’s a tribal elder. Has a man ever been more worthy of being thrown out of an ambulance? (Another very funny visual moment.) Still, it was interesting that his “I just want some fucking purpose” rant echoed Mark Linn-Baker’s “I want to take some fucking control.”

I have so many questions that probably will never be answered. Who was the Russian in the outback with the vintage VW and why was he stepping into the obvious minefield of ethical questions involving babies? Why’d he have so much vodka in his car? Why are there always snakes in this show? What was Kevin Sr. trying to write in his red pen on the page Grace found in his hand? Why were there bicycle wheels on the cross? What of the small town where everyone died apart from the gestating chicken, Tony? Is The Leftovers trying to tell us that coincidences are exactly that? Are arthritis pills for dogs really that effective? Why did Grace have a page from Isaiah 41 in her freezer? (“See, they are all false! / Their deeds amount to nothing; / their images are but wind and confusion” is actually a pretty good summation of this episode, TBH.)

Also, we’ve been in Australia for two episodes now and I still haven’t heard a word about Future Nora. What gives? Given that Garvey men don’t follow directions because they’re too free-spirited, is it plausible that she got lost in the desert at some point and just found a new career involving doves?