Marginalia: Left Behind
On HBO's three-season series "The Leftovers".
Welcome to Marginalia, a selection of thoughts on things I’ve been reading and watching. This edition, we take a close look at a show “like Marvel’s Thanos snap, but with actual consequences”.
The Leftovers (2014 - 2017)
Anyone who reads a lot of books or watches a lot of movies will recognise the phenomenon of “unintended patterns” in what one reads or watches: an unexpected run of reading books about, say, women artists who died young, or watching every film Owen Wilson was in (and perhaps only realising this after the third Wes Anderson film). Over the last few months, I’ve been inadvertently catching up on TV shows from the golden era of roughly 2005 - 2015. I’ve been rewatching Lost with my best friend, wondering with my wife if Brody is a terrorist in Homeland, and I’ve now finally watched The Leftovers. It’s been a fantastic few months.
The premise of The Leftovers is powerfully revealed in its first few minutes: the world is living in the wake of two percent of the global population mysteriously vanishing. It’s a wonderfully clever idea (that comes from the book the show is based on, whose author, Tom Perrotta, co-created the series) that only a fraction of the world vanishes. It means that a large tear has been made in the fabric of society, but not so large that the world of the show is unrecognisable from the real world.
In describing The Leftovers to our friends, my wife referenced the Thanos snap in Infinity War, saying that The Leftovers “is the blip but with actual consequences”. What’s so interesting about Perrotta’s take on the rapture is that, as is the case after all tragedies, the world goes on essentially as it always has but with something missing. Children and grandparents and neighbours have gone, and a deep and seemingly immoveable grief has taken their place. The world in The Leftovers is suffering a shared trauma.
After the chaos of the opening scene in which “the departure” occurs, I was frankly expecting the setting – three years later – to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, like The Walking Dead minus zombies. When we first meet the man who will be our reluctant hero – drink-soaked, foul-mouthed, chief of police Kevin Garvey – he’s running down empty streets and encounters a stray dog, which is shot by a mysterious figure who speeds off in a truck. So far, so apocalyptic. Except Kevin was not running for his life but jogging for health, and the random shooting of the dog was not indicative of the violent free-for-all the world has become, but a crime that Kevin will investigate.
The people who remained are dealing with different kinds of grief, in different ways. Kevin lost no one to the departure, but his son has run away and his wife left him to join a cult. Nora Durst, meanwhile, is famous in the town of Mapleton because her husband and two children all vanished. On the day of the departure, a vehicle whose driver had suddenly vanished plowed into the car of local priest Matt Jamison, sending his wife into a persistent vegetative state.
So much of the show’s atmosphere and story depend on the performances of the actors playing these three key roles, and two of them are more than up to the task. Justin Theroux is nothing short of a miracle in The Leftovers. His performance is as complex as his character. I could see Kevin portrayed as a mere asshole in lesser hands, especially when he is drunkenly abusing his power as a cop, or snapping at his teenaged daughter (as if pushing her to become the final member of his family to leave him). With Theroux, though, there is pain, sadness, and a self-torturing sensibility beneath Kevin’s gruff exterior that mean he is never merely macho.
Carrie Coon as Nora is similarly wowing, but in her own particular way. Where Theroux brings an underlying softness to the sharp exterior of Kevin, Coon brings a sourness to Nora’s grief, a bitter nastiness that lingers at the edge of her mourning. She is venerated by Mapleton, but she sees herself as anything but an object of pity or praise. In Coon’s performance, the sinner is brought out in the saint.
And then we have Matt, the local priest on a mission to disabuse Mapleton of the idea that all those who departed were “good people”. Matt is portrayed by Christopher Eccleston, an English actor who here sounds like an English actor putting on a broad American accent. Every syllable is announced like a person just discovering how their tongue and cheeks work, so that all his words seem stretched out to accommodate his over-pronounced Rs. He’s not an awful actor, and there are moments of real pathos between him and his unresponsive wife, but that accent kept removing me from the immediate moment, perpetually reminding me that I was watching an actor in a TV show.
In The Leftovers, the incredibly moody atmosphere is deeply informed by the elegant score by Max Richter. His music finely balances piercing, sometimes shrieking, strings that tremble all the way down the back of the neck and into the soul with long, sonorous, melancholic bass tones drawn out as if to imply eternity. Richter’s pieces are always expertly executed and pitch perfect for the scenes they score. And his main theme song, which evokes the grandeur in the cosmos out there and the inner world here, is illustrated with a wonderful fresco that looks like something from the Sistine Chapel, but depicts the departure of the show, with infants pulled from the arms of their mothers and lovers torn apart. In every episode of season one, I was absorbed into this minute-and-a-half moment like a believer in prayer.
All of which makes it that much more confusing – and disappointing – that they changed the music and titles for season two. The music here is the worst music choice I’ve ever heard in TV or cinema. Gone is the depth, thoughtfulness, and apt mood for the tone of the show, replaced with a bouncy, folksy tune that would better serve a sitcom. Where Richter’s score put you in mind of the fear and trembling of a religious fervour and sets your sights on the higher, transcendent things that The Leftovers grapples with, this new tune literally tells us not to worry about questions of ultimate fate, singing, “No one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” These two title sequences are diametrically opposed in their messages: season one is guiding us to reflect on higher values and meaning, while season two is telling us that ignorance is bliss and not to think too deep about stuff.
That said, season two does make a few excellent music choices with pop songs underscoring certain scenes. Great use is made of Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With”, a choice that seems inevitable once you hear it, perfect as it is for the show as a whole and the moment it serves. The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” is used as a leitmotif throughout the season, the heaviness of the original rock song brilliantly and beautifully contrasted against Maxene Cyrin’s touching, delicate piano rendition. This is something The Leftovers is constantly doing: having the intense, the powerful, and the troubling wrestle with the serene, the sorrowful, and the reflective.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of struggle that goes on at the heart of many religious experiences, from Job’s role as unwitting mark in a cosmic bet between the devil and God to the multiple cults and religious schisms that result from the departure in The Leftovers. Season three opens with one of my favourite visual metaphors of the whole series. We watch a montage of believers in the nineteenth-century expecting the end of the world, repeatedly proved wrong, each failure chipping away at their faith until a single woman remains. Finally, her devotion unrewarded by her god, she goes into a church and lies down next to a row of people dressed in white. The camera pans across them until they become the members of the Guilty Remnant, a modern-day cult whose faith about the departure is perpetually tested. It is a simple idea but profound: the continuity of religious conviction, the eternal struggle between belief and doubt.
There are a number of missteps in the series as a whole. For a show that is so wildly inventive, interested in religious esoterica, and daring enough to try some fairly unique storytelling experiments, The Leftovers is at times guilty of holding the viewer by the hand. There are details that could have been substrata for turning over on repeat viewings but are laid bare on the surface instead. It’s as if the writers balked at the leap last minute, and wrote lines of dialogue to make sure the audience “gets it”.
In one episode, a character dreams about walking over dead bodies; later in the episode, a car crash spills dead bodies across the road and the character walks among them, turning to someone to announce, “Just like in the dream!” You know, in case you missed it. Similarly, the opening titles through seasons two and three are as subtle as a fart in the face. Then there’s the episode in which a character travels through the underworld, guided by another character named Virgil (I’m not kidding, and I did roll my eyes when we met him a few episodes earlier, predicting where this went).
There are a couple of flashback episodes that are not simply dull because they put the narrative momentum in reverse, they are also ill-conceived as part of this particular show: those who have departed are gone, and those who remain are never able to see them again, but in the flashback episodes, the departed are brought back in a way that misaligns our experience with that of the characters in the show. There is an episode set in a transitional place between life and death, and the show’s creators made the correct decision not to have any of the departed here, only people who have died. Unfortunately, the flashback episodes work exactly against this choice. They take us out of the world in which our characters live – one in which those who are gone are gone.
But mistakes will inevitably happen when a show swings this big, and I would always rather watch the fumbles of a show trying to do something unique and important than a safe bet that does it all by the numbers. And by the end, the show tells a compelling story and is an overall success.
Ultimately, The Leftover comes together as more than a satisfying whole – it is a question worth asking, meaningful to consider, and a joy to imagine answers for. “Where is my mind?” asks the Pixies’ song. Mine will be with The Leftovers for a long time to come.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe