The Dizzying, Surreal Journey of ‘The Leftovers’

A pioneer among recent surreal shows, HBO’s series brilliantly balanced the ordinary and the bizarre.

Miles Donovan; HBO

Two episodes into the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers, the beleaguered suburban police chief Kevin Garvey faced an existential crisis because of a bagel. He placed its two halves onto the conveyor belt of the office toaster—but no bagel, toasted or untoasted, materialized on the other side. The camera peered out from inside the toaster’s maw as Kevin peered in; the actor Justin Theroux flared his nostrils and arched his jet-black eyebrows into a visage of horror. Kevin violently slammed the machine against the counter. Still no bagel emerged. Where the hell had it gone?

Kevin, the viewer could guess, was considering two rather bonkers answers. One was that he had lost his mind and not his bagel, and would soon join his delusional father in a mental hospital. The other was that the bagel had supernaturally vanished—in the same way that 140 million people, 2 percent of the Earth’s population, had inexplicably disappeared on October 14, 2011. Either way, Kevin was reevaluating his perception of the world—and viewers were doing the same as they struggled to make sense of what they’d seen on-screen.

The scene was typical of The Leftovers’ three-season run, which began in 2014 and ended in June, though it was hardly the strangest situation the show presented. Imagining the aftermath of an event like the Christian rapture, but implemented in an inscrutable way and without confirmation by God, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s series often felt like a blackly comic dare to see how far a handsomely realist television drama could push an aesthetic of disorientation. Dream sequences, freaky coincidences, and disturbing images were as much the driving source of thrills as the plot action was. Essential to viewers’ appreciation of the series was an appetite for philosophical pondering and the Kafkaesque. Critics, it turned out, were hungry for those things—they came to love the show. But the audience remained small, which seemed like a sign that few other TV creators would head down a path this bewildering.

And yet, by the time The Leftovers ended, the series stood out as a pioneer in a new wave of risky, metaphysically minded TV shows. HBO’s Westworld and The Young Pope, USA’s Mr. Robot, Netflix’s The OA, FX’s Legion, and a few other recent prestige dramas all feint and parry with coherence—and take up the challenge posed this way by a Westworld engineer to his artificially intelligent creations: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” Watching these shows means continually wondering whether what you’re being shown is true. In March, James Poniewozik at The New York Times labeled the crop “surreality TV,” calling it “an art form for the days of fake news, gaslighting and contested objectivity.”

This emerging subgenre is, of course, not entirely new. The dream logic and disturbing visual swerves of Twin Peaks (now back on TV in a Showtime revival) and the flashbacks and flash-sideways of Lost (the work that made Lindelof famous) preceded it. So did decades of experimental and existential cinema. And basic business concerns surely play a role in the trend: As the Netflixes of the world join HBO in the race to stock up on original subscription content—one analysis counts more than 450 scripted shows in production across TV last year—building buzz from blown minds can be nearly as valuable as retaining a mass audience.

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Yet the philosophical underpinnings of these shows are remarkably similar. In a variety of unusually explicit ways, they each probe how our world can be made anew—or turned askew—by the mind. The nesting-doll narratives of Westworld, for example, appear to happen in a future where robots begin realizing their own consciousness. The self-proclaimed angel of The OA may or may not be inventing her account of alternate dimensions. And the young pope of The Young Pope voyages through his memories and dreams en route to embracing his faith. In every case, the human impulse to wonder about a reality other than this one underlies the formal freakiness. The Young Pope’s creator, Paolo Sorrentino, once offered up a term just as apt as surreality TV: thriller of the soul.

Of this trippy generation of shows, The Leftovers staged the most convincing relationship between the real and the imagined, the banal and the bizarre. Using an appealing cast of small-town characters whose lives were suddenly upended, the show mixed grief memoir and savage comedy with speculation about how a civilization ill at ease with mystery might deal with the truly unfathomable. The results felt like a buffet of surprises, and not merely because the filmmakers were trying to keep the audience off-balance: The characters themselves were off-balance. By avoiding the definitively supernatural (aside from the October catastrophe) while still maintaining a deep sense of the weird, The Leftovers was more than just a riveting example of contemporary surreality TV. The series turned out to be a genuine—and profound—work of modern surrealism. After all, for every one of us in this life, the simple act of making breakfast can feel, on certain days, like a test of sanity.

In the first “Manifesto of Surrealism,” published in 1924, André Breton wrote that “under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy.” Influenced by the Dadaists, who reacted to the horror of World War I with artistic anarchy, and by Sigmund Freud’s insistence on the importance of the subconscious, Breton’s surrealism sought more than the deconstruction of our world as we know it. On the agenda was a reenchantment of the world. Paying serious attention to dreams, automatic thoughts, and the strange juxtapositions of modern life, the surrealists mounted a critique of narrow rationality. A pursuit of science-fiction-inflected fantasy wasn’t the point. The goal was to resurrect the sensibility that invented religion. At the animating core of surrealism was a “quest for primitive culture,” as Georges Bataille wrote.

The inhabitants of the world of The Leftovers indeed experienced a mental and spiritual reset at odds with “civilization and progress.” Science couldn’t explain the instantaneous disappearance of millions. A committee investigating the “Sudden Departure” ended up stumped. Answers weren’t forthcoming from the major religions, either: October 14 claimed saints and sinners and atheists alike. The Episcopalian priest Matt Jamison, his congregation waning and his wife rendered vegetative by a Departure-related accident, took to preposterous expressions of faith; at one point he locked himself in a stockade on top of a taco truck. This was not The Leftovers’ only insertion of a medieval image into modern life. A busy diner became the site of impromptu goat sacrifices; mortification of the flesh made a comeback, in the form of teenage party games, public paddling, and (nonerotic) auto-asphyxiation with plastic bags.

The most overtly surrealizing force of the show’s first season was the nihilistic Guilty Remnant cult. Wearing white, smoking incessantly, and observing a vow of silence, its recruits disrupted the fragile social order and unsettled the community subconscious. A brochure they handed out at a bus stop advertised that “Everything That Matters About You Is Inside; the inside, of course, was blank. “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly … into the crowd,” Breton once wrote; the Remnant didn’t go that far, but its acolytes coolly simulated random terror by, say, throwing a fake hand grenade into a school bus full of children. Their targets reacted with violent rage or acquiescence—becoming silent trolls themselves—or, in Kevin Garvey’s case, a dip into madness.

Some amount of madness ended up being a fact of life for all the characters as they coped with a reality that had developed a glitch. Nora Durst, a pugnacious fraud investigator who lost her husband and two children in the Departure, acquired a habit of hiring prostitutes to shoot her while she wore a bulletproof vest. But her eventual new beau, Kevin, an emotionally smoldering cop largely abandoned by his family despite his attempts to maintain a sense of normalcy post-Departure, succumbed to more severe derangement.

His bagel saga did have a rational resolution—eventually he took a power drill and opened up the toaster to find two crispy circles stuck in the back of the machine. Nevertheless, he unraveled. A significant percentage of The Leftovers was spent inside his head as viewers kept him company on some very strange adventures. In the show’s penultimate episode, he found himself in an underground bunker where two Kevins, one bearded and one not, faced off.

In staging this journey into possible insanity, The Leftovers had a lot in common with other recent Jekyll-and-Hyde stories on TV, including Mr. Robot and Legion, both of which have featured moments that later turned out to be more or less psychotic experiences. But unlike those shows, The Leftovers almost never tried to trick the viewer into believing that what was on-screen was real when it wasn’t: Kevin’s every vision was explicitly ambiguous in authenticity, even if other characters, wowed by his repeated survival of deadly experiences, imbued the resurrections with religious meaning. (Lindelof has pointed out that stories of astonishing death-defiance abound in our own world.)

By constantly balancing the uncanny and the genuinely unbelievable, the show heightened a dynamic by now familiar in our time. Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers was, in large part, an allegory for post-9/11 grief, and Lindelof visited post-massacre Newtown, Connecticut, site of Sandy Hook Elementary School, while researching The Leftovers’ bleak first season. Incomprehensible violence and the tragedy that follows, the implication goes, inject a surreal dimension into existence. The conspiracy theories and social upheavals spawned by our own world’s mass departures—and, Lindelof has noted, electoral surprises—suggest that the strangeness of The Leftovers is mostly one of degree, not kind.

Yet how, in the face of the abnormal, might society itself avoid madness? The Leftovers moved from a chilly upstate–New York setting in Season 1 to Texas in Season 2 and then Australia in Season 3. Along the way, the grief-stricken nightmare of its original concept was leavened with whimsy and grandeur as the show probed whether people can, in the words of the second season’s perky theme song, “let the mystery be.” The final episode of the series (spoiler alert for those who may be behind in their viewing) posed the most radically disorienting test yet for audience and characters alike.

The finale opened with the show’s only real flirtation with science fiction: Nora preparing to enter a radioactive contraption that would either kill her or, according to the physicists who invented it, send her to where the Departed had gone. But the authentically surreal stuff came once the show cut to an older Nora, alone in rural Australia, where—to her bafflement—an older Kevin suddenly showed up, acting as though they had never had a life together. Was Kevin just going cuckoo again? Or was this another reality, an alternate universe?

Almost everything about the scenario seemed impossible, until almost everything was revealed to be a plausible result of human behavior. Nora went missing the day she entered the machine, and Kevin then spent a decade looking for her despite being told she was gone for good. When he found her, and learned that she’d been hiding from him for years, he decided to behave like a near-stranger, inviting her on a first date. Before long, Kevin owned up to Nora about faking amnesia, and the urge to deny history—their own and the world’s—didn’t seem so far-fetched. Who wouldn’t want to start over again?

If the desire to revert is primal, so is the desire to have all the answers, a desire Nora proceeded to satisfy with the tale she then shared with Kevin. The radioactive machine did in fact bring her, she told him, to the realm of the Departed. There she saw that her kids and husband—joined by a new mom/wife—were one of the few happy families in a grim alternate dimension: 98 percent of that realm’s population had disappeared on October 14. So she decided not to stay or interfere. The process of getting back took so long, and her story seemed so improbable, that she didn’t seek Kevin out upon her return. In the show’s final moments, he grasped her hand and said he believed her story.

With this jarring but understated finish, The Leftovers exposed the allure and the limits of the human hope for new beginnings. If we do believe Nora’s report of traveling across dimensions, she came back certain that some pain never heals. And what if we don’t trust her account? In fact, The Leftovers’ closing story could be read as an endorsement of faith both blind and unblinkered. Gnawing, irrational, loving faith that she would see her family again led Nora to enter the machine. The same sort of faith led Kevin to spend years tracking her down. The story Nora told can’t be verified, but believing it offers greater solace than the alternative: that she didn’t cross over, and instead simply decided to live out her life in isolation.

The early-20th-century surrealists challenged rationality not to escape from the world we live in but to plumb its full, and often frightening, depths. For many of the surreal offerings on TV lately, knowingness eventually surrenders to mysticism and irrationality. The OA saw jaded 21st-century teens give themselves over to arcane ritual in a moment of crisis; Westworld’s first season climaxed in a terroristic disavowal of work that let humans play God. Both twists certainly offer plenty of grist for anyone looking to analyze our era’s anxieties about faith versus science.

The Leftovers, meanwhile, skirted violent standoffs and stark conversions to close on a note that felt both primitive and postmodern. In the end, these characters calibrated their belief systems to accord not with illusory claims to universal truth, or some transcendent order, but with the everyday pursuit of peace and happiness. This conclusion is more grounded, and less romantic, than the final shot of Kevin and Nora holding hands might suggest. Viewers aren’t fooled that the struggle for security and meaning in the face of the preposterous is over, or ever will be. The Leftovers has shown otherwise, and so has our own world.