The Leftovers: Among the Sea Lions

Matt, Laurie, and the Murphys find a love boat.


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 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.

Sophie Gilbert: Well. Matt Jamison’s God is surely a vengeful God. When David Burton was being savaged by a lion, and everyone around looked truly horror-struck, Matt calmly said, “That’s the guy I was telling you about.” And he could have been talking about David, sure, who—for unclear reasons—threw a man to his death off a boat. But he could also have been talking about God, his God, who punishes the guilty and rewards the worthy. David/Jahweh killed a man, and so he must die. But he also seemed to rob Matt of his faith with just a simple “Tada!”

This was, I think, my favorite episode of the third series so far, from the bravura opening sequence on the French nuclear submarine to the lion orgy to the final confrontation between Matt and a man calling himself God. (I listened and listened and could not decipher the whispering over the opening credits beyond the words “bombe nucleaire,” but surely Reddit has a transcript by now.) Like the two other Matt-centric episodes of previous seasons, Matt went on a mission, and his faith was tested. Only this time, at the end, he seemed beaten. His cancer is back, and he no longer seems to believe in The Book of Kevin. His wife and child have left. Matt has given God everything, and what has God given him in return? The smiting of a former Olympian at the hands of a lion, but not much else.

This wasn’t the first time David Burton has come up in the show. In season two, there was some discussion of a man in Australia who came out of a cave claiming he was immortal. Curiously enough, as we learned in this episode, that was three years ago, right around the same time Kevin was also failing to die. Once again, we’re left to wonder if it’s mere coincidence, and whether the lion actually killed David, and why David threw that man off the top deck in the first place.

Clearly, the approaching seventh anniversary of the Final Departure has people feeling antsy, what with the lion orgies they’re organizing, and the cargo planes they’re appropriating, and the nuclear bombs they’re detonating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So that was the big event that had Melbourne in panic mode at the end of the last episode. Either way, this show is really finding ways to subvert the premium-cable mandate for nudity and group sex scenes, having the French sailor run naked through the submarine (I’m not entirely sure why he needed to be nude to trigger the bomb), and having the orgy be populated by normals dressed as lions rather than, say perfectly engineered robots.

The whole cult of Frasier the sensual lion (a real lion, because of course he is) seemed design to poke fun at Matt’s conviction that Kevin is somehow holy, and that he needs to bring him back to Jarden for the seventh anniversary. Because what’s more rational—worshipping a scrawny, fleabitten rescue from Tijuana who’s somehow the lion equivalent of Rod Stewart, or believing your brother-in-law might be the son of God? The trick for the audience, though, is that we’ve seen proof of Kevin’s miracles, and his mysterious trips into purgatory. Michael and John believe that Kevin is special because they both saw him survive death in person. But why does Matt believe?

David had some ideas. “Everything you’ve done, you’ve done because you thought I was watching,” he told Matt. “Because you thought I was judging. But I wasn’t. I’m not. You’ve never done anything for me. You did it for yourself.” Matt’s faith, and his constant struggles in service of it, have been to make meaning out of Matt Jamison, and he doesn’t entirely know who he is without it.This doesn’t make him any worse than anyone else who survived the Departure, but it does make you wonder what’ll be left of Matt without his steadfast beliefs. At least he has his unexpectedly filthy jokes. The hardest I’ve ever laughed in this show was at Michael and John’s faces after Matt dropped his punchline about pimples and priests.

Spencer, what did you make of this episode? What will Matt do now? Are you sold on the cult of Frasier? (Let no man speak his name, lest that man become him.)

Kornhaber: Previous Matt-centric episodes were fairly excruciating experiences, with the reverend proving himself as the self-made heir to Job via tense roulette games, ugly parking-lot brawls, nude stockades, and public spanking for pay. This episode, by contrast, mostly just felt delightful. It’s not that things weren’t heavy—we got atomic catastrophe, cancer nosebleeds, ritualized sexual assault, a murder, a lion mauling, and a conversation with God himself. But The Leftovers seemed giddy through it all, serving the viewer with jaunty song cues like Charles Aznavour’s “Je Ne Peux Pas Rentrer Chez Moi” as it executed upon a completely bonkers synopsis: Nuclear-submarine mishap forces the gang to spend 11 hours with an at-sea orgy of furries.

Perhaps the episode’s success simply owes to it directly probing the central conflict of the show—faith vs. reason. On the faith side is Matt, whose once-bewildered Episcopalianism has reshaped into a new faith involving Kevin Garvey and the magic of Jarden. The length he goes for this ad hoc sect are even more grandiose than we’ve seen from him before: diverting a cargo plane for inter-hemispheric travel, throwing himself into the Indian Ocean at night, and being horrible to his miraculously recovered wife and new son. Christopher Eccleston has accordingly injected the character with yet-greater twitchiness; not to mock a cancer patient, but Matt’s a spectacularly ungraceful nose-bleeder and overboard vomiter. This new phase also gives him the chance to do that which all great religions eventually do, exclude, as seen in his behavior to Laurie.

He’s at odds with Laurie for good reason though: She is this show’s best advocate for rationality. The psychoanalyst who became so convinced of existence’s meaningless that she spent the show’s first season silent is finally getting a chance to effectively ply her trade in these insane times. She’s had a calming influence on the formerly wrathful John; she served as Kevin’s cross-continental therapist during a psychotic episode. Now, she helpfully recaps the skeptic’s view of the show’s events as she spars with Matt: “Three years ago my ex-husband experienced severe delusions and tried to kill himself, and instead of acknowledging his mental illness, you turned it into fucking scripture.” She also provides the crucial information that one of Kevin’s tattoos is spelled wrong.

Caught between these two extremes are the Murphy men, John and Michael, both of whom have a relationship to the spiritual but also seem grounded in real life. John tells Matt that Laurie brought him “peace,” and Matt seems offended by the word: Peace is the last thing Matt has ever sought. But peace is, in theory, religion’s greatest offering for people unsettled by existence’s mysteries—just as a dose of agnosticism might temper the agony of worshippers tormented by God’s silence. Perhaps the blending of approaches explains why the Murphys react so coolly to the episode’s crazy happenings—including the revelation that the possibly holy Kevin saw Evie Murphy in Melbourne—while Matt and Laurie’s bickering seem a portrait of deep fragility.

It does seem that Matt has arrived at some peace by episode’s end, though. You’re right, Sophie, that the conversation with David Burton seems to break his fever of devotion—a few hours earlier, he certainly wouldn’t have told the ship’s captain he had no urgent business in Melbourne. The exact cause of this change is for now ambiguous, but he seems to have reached a breaking point thanks to cancer and a grump in a red hat (a symbol of our era’s charlatans?). The powerful scene of his confrontation with Burton must have taken a lot of fine-tuning in The Leftovers’ writer’s room: “You’re denying paternity!” is a nice comeback to God disavowing Jesus. But the scene also was made great by the actors’ performances. You can tell that for however exasperated and offended Matt is, he also, on some level, wants to believe. You can also tell that Burton, wearing a calm smirk on his face as a stranger screams at him, has had this conversation many times before.

If Matt has indeed dampened in his faith, it’ll be an ironic twist given that we viewers may be feeling more mystically inclined than ever. The lion devouring Burton was such a perfect button on tonight’s saga that it’s hard not to credit divine intervention. Moreover, if David Burton looked familiar to you, it wasn’t simply because the actor Bill Camp played Detective Box on HBO’s The Night Of. It’s because what appears to be this same character showed up in Kevin’s visions for “International Assassin” and “I Live Here Now” as the guy at the bridge and the hotel bar holding the knowledge of what Kevin needed to do to resurrect. It’s possible that Kevin had heard of David Burton’s rock-climbing story and, in his mind, turned the Olympian’s image into God’s. Or it’s possible Burton really is God, and one of mankind’s beasts just killed him.