“We made them remember.”
The first season of HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS is a triumph of adaptation. Along with Executive Producer/novelist Tom Perotta, showrunner Damon Lindelof extrapolates extensively on the novel’s occasionally sardonic, but ultimately superficial study in grief. Side characters like Mapleton’s resident preacher Matt Jamison (the wonderful Christopher Eccleston) take on whole new lives, whereas the novel was mostly preoccupied with Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who serves as mayor on the page and police chief onscreen. In adapting a novel so relatively light on plot, Lindelof was tasked with generating a stronger, more immediate conflict engine for the show. He succeeds by including a larger-scale and more nefarious set of protests from the Guilty Remnant, rich inner lives of many less prominent characters from the novel, and Kevin’s struggle with his own sanity.
Much ink has been spilled over Lindelof’s past work and how it relates to The Leftovers, which, like Lost, is preoccupied with faith and its manifestation in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances. The Leftovers smartly sidesteps the issue of “why” within moments of its first episode. In front of a congressional oversight committee, a team of scientists and men of faith declare, regarding the mysterious disappearance of a small but very significant percentage of the world’s population, “We don’t know.” In taking the question of “why” off the table so quickly, Lindelof frees himself of LOST-related baggage and allows The Leftovers to focus on the business of picking up the pieces. Although Lindelof has struggled very publicly with the reaction to the Lost finale, and despite many think-pieces stating the contrary, The Leftovers is absolutely not about the reason for the disappearance, and clearly states that it does not owe viewers any answers to that effect.
In Perotta’s novel, Kevin Garvey is not a good man. Theroux’s Garvey tells us as much just before he goes to bed with a woman, (not his wife) who disappears in the middle of their tryst. The combination of the show’s writing and Theroux’s vulnerable performance transforms the Kevin of the novel, who mostly comes off as a put-upon sleeze, into a man with whom we can truly sympathize. As he confesses to Reverend Jamison in Sunday’s finale over the swelling of the show’s ever-present musical theme, he was contemplating leaving his family on the fateful day of disappearance. The event, however, lost his family for him. Despite what HBO’s promos may lead you to believe, Kevin never pursues the Lolita-esque advances of his daughter’s friend Aimee (Emily Meade), with which the novel’s Kevin is constantly preoccupied.
The show’s Kevin eventually begins to build an almost normal, functional relationship with Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a local woman who lost her husband and both of her children in the event. However, the Guilty Remnant cult with whom his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has taken up literally floats around the edges of his new relationship like ghosts. As the Liv Tyler’s Meg communicates to Kevin in the finale, the Remnant must make people remember.
BEWARE: *SPOILERS FOR THE FINALE BELOW*
Sunday’s finale “The Prodigal Son Returns” (expertly directed by Mimi Leder) does offer some closure, and in doing so closes off some of the more problematic corners of the show. In particular, the cult leader Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) never quite succeeds in communicating onscreen the charisma and healing power that brought young men and women (including Kevin’s son Tom, played by Chris Zylka) to his side.
Tom and Wayne’s supposedly “chosen” girlfriend Christine’s (Annie Q.) naivete about their leader is frustrating throughout the season, since the show doesn’t seem to want to throw its full endorsement of Wayne’s “power” behind him. Despite the powerful scene at the end of the Nora Durst-centric episode “Guest,” we mostly see Wayne as a charlatan. His shady credit card machine used to charge for his healing hugs alone is enough to send any sensible person running. While Wayne’s death, (possibly at the hands on of the FBI or Tom himself) doesn’t answer the question of whether or not he has the power to truly heal, his shared scene with Kevin brings home this corner of the story literally to the Garvey’s doorstep. While Wayne’s geographical distance from the rest of the cast often made this storyline feel extraneous, the finale succeeds in bringing the character home thematically. Like the rest of the residents of Mapleton, Wayne is grasping for something, anything to believe in.
While the show seems unwilling to support Wayne as an effective spiritual force, it undeniably posits that there some kind of unknowable force greater than ourselves, if we are willing to put our faith in it. This theme is explored most fully through Eccelston’s Jamison, whose solo episode “Two Boats and a Helicopter” reads more like the Book of Job than an episode of modern prestige television. It is rare to see such an explicit discussion of faith that refuses to look down upon those who believe in more traditional ideas of God (Sundance’s exceptional Rectify aside) and while the episode knocks Jamison down again and again, he is still left with a giant pile of cash, seemingly a gift from heaven, at the end of the hour.
Rev. Jamison begins the series as almost an antagonist for Kevin. He, like the Remnant, is obsessed with perpetuating the tragedy that occurred on the day of the disappearance. However, his harrowing experience in “Two Boats” is a significant turning point for the character, and ultimately leads to his arc becoming one of the strongest of the season. While it initially seems strange that he helps Kevin cover up Patti’s kidnapping/beating/suicide, he has decided that is serves a greater cause. Jamison is clearly a man of action, and by the end of the season, his obsession has drifted from the “outing” of bad people who departed to “saving” the members of the Guilty Remnant. Just as the cult members are themselves, Matt needs to take action in response to this new world at any cost. Both parties are willing to endure physical harm and emotional turmoil to make a point. It is all that they have.
Independent of the strong character work, the show also masters a very subtle element of world-building. Perhaps one of the most interesting and different themes that the show addresses is the way in which the culture has digested the new-found mortality and combined sex, death and faith into the culture in a new way. While the teenagers of Mapleton may not be the most interesting characters on the surface, Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) finds herself demonstrating this theme on multiple occasions. She and her friends play a morbid new version of Spin the Bottle that includes a “choke” option, and lock each other in abandoned refrigerators, perhaps to get as close to crossing over to the other side as possible. Without realizing it, the teens are still grasping to contextualize the fact that they live in a world where people can just “poof” out of thin air. The “Loved Ones” burial dolls are another logical extension of this world, akin to the assisted suicide pills in Children of Men. What at first seemed like a clever grace note ends up becoming a major part of the finale, and is the cause of the heart-wrenching scene in which Nora finds her family sitting at the breakfast table, just as they were when she turned her back on them on the morning of the disappearance.
Now that the Remnant has made their ultimate statement and almost caused the town to burn to the ground, it is unclear what the (already ordered) second season of The Leftovers may look like. Has Kevin’s family truly reunited in any meaningful way? How will Kevin’s questionable sanity affect any tentative domestic peace between Laurie, Tom and Jill. Most importantly, how will the Guilty Remnant’s apocalyptic final stunt change Mapelton going forward? Lindeloff expertly spends the entire season smothering the audience in a feeling of dread. Kevin accurately predicts in the pilot that the town and its residents are about to explode, but what is next for them since he was right?