Sunday, July 06, 2014
The Leftovers 1.02: Penguin One, Us Zero
There was some discussion in the comments after last week’s episode of whether Damon Lindelof has no more originality in him and just keeps writing stories where mysterious things happen with no explanation, or whether Damon Lindelof is a humanist who explores how people react in dire situations, and I loved reading the back and forth from everyone, both positive and negative. As I always said with Lost and every show, the comments are a place for everyone.
I’ll be perfectly honest: for four years, I’ve felt like an apologist for Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and I’m not. Sure, Lost had its flaws and faults, but for me, it was a fantastic show, and I adored that finale. Many people didn’t, but many people did, and I’m tired of people who cannot wait to meet me just to say, “That finale SUCKED” just to see if it’s going to get a rise out of me. It won’t. I enjoyed it; I don’t know why I have to apologize for having loved it, or why people feel it’s necessary to point out all the flaws as if they’re trying to take away this thing that I love. Trust me: I’ve studied every frame of that finale and wrote a 22,000-word piece on why it works: you’re not going to convince me otherwise.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to someone, only to discover that the only reason I was being introduced to her was because she thought the Lost finale sucked. Once I realized why she’d been told she needed to meet me, I was already standing in front of her and had no way to excuse myself from the conversation without looking rude, so I looked at her and joked, “Well, maybe give me 15 minutes and see if I can change your mind!”
“No, you won’t,” she replied, without a smile. “Because you would be wrong. Damon Lindelof is the devil.” And that’s when I just excused myself from the conversation, not really caring if it was polite or not. The devil? Really? Wow. No wonder the poor guy left Twitter; with fan thought processes that simplistic, I’m thinking he’s better off leaving social media altogether and actually doing something productive with his time.
I’m not an apologist for Lindelof; I simply love the way he thinks, and his constant examination of human nature — he does not believe we’re inherently evil, but inherently good, as he showed for six years on Lost. Despite comments to the contrary, I respectfully think he’s not presenting some overly Christian viewpoint, but quite the opposite, saying that our connections with each other are more important than our connections to some big bearded deity in the sky. As I’ve said for four years, he doesn’t write to the end game, but instead his writing reflects the lives we live. When you wake up tomorrow morning, are you going to know exactly how that day is going to end, and just live your day working to that ending? Or is it just possible that things might happen that you don’t see coming? At some point in your life has something mysterious happened that had no explanation whatsoever? Or can you explain away absolutely every single moment of your life and the lives of those around you?
I don’t know Lindelof personally, but I would bet that’s what he’s working towards: looking at things that happen to us on a daily basis and how we respond to the unexpected. In real life, it’s someone who cuts us off and then shouts obscenities out their car windows at us. What the hell is that guy’s problem, and isn’t he the one who just drove like a maniac? Shouldn’t I be shouting obscenities at him? It’s a mystery.
Now, would I write a show around that incident?
Of course not. Boring.
So to explore these ideas of human nature, Lindelof goes bigger: what would happen to a bunch of people trapped on an island with no explanation of how they got there or why? What would happen if 2% of the population just suddenly disappeared?
In both cases, these fantastical events are simply the catalysts that he uses as a metaphor to explore real-life responses to it. That guy who cut you off in traffic? In the big picture, a menial thing that you’ll never remember on your deathbed, but when it happens you think it’s the WORST THING EVER, you’ll tweet and Facebook about it, you’ll rant about it at work all day, and it’ll entirely affect everything.
And then something truly terrible happens in your life, and you forget every stupid thing you’ve complained about for the past year.
On Lost, those people were trapped on an island, but we identified with it because they responded and dealt with things just like people who are lost in their everyday lives, not tethered to anything in particular, questioning the decisions that got them this far, wondering why. In The Leftovers these people are reacting to people who literally disappeared, but we can watch it as an examination of people who suddenly lose someone with no explanation. Ever had someone break up with you without offering any valid explanation? Or a loved one die quite suddenly with no obvious medical problems? What does it feel like to be suddenly left alone? How could they do that to you? Why is this happening to you?
That is what this show is about. Lost was about the people who disappeared. The Leftovers is about the people who have been left behind by the people who disappeared.
Lindelof isn’t a writer who keeps writing the same material, but a man looking to explore all facets of human nature in its darkest, lowest moments. And that’s why I love what he does. I appreciate and respect comments to the contrary, and welcome them as long as they actually have something backing them. You want to point out that The Leftovers has a number of flaws, can drag at times, and frankly, is a little too damn dark and could use some humour? Hey, I’m right there with you. I wish there was some humour in this aside from joking about the celebrities who were taken, and that we could see a bit of a lighter side at times, but I’m willing to give him more time. I’m intrigued by Christopher Eccleston’s minister character, and the fact that, despite the girls understandably thinking she’s going to punch him in the nose, she gives him a hug on the way past him. What’s the story there?
So now, onto the second episode. We go from a gory and violent ambush against a man who might be a charlatan, might be the real deal, but generally surrounds himself with Asian girls while purporting to heal bigwigs with deep pockets. And Tom Garvey steps up to save Christine, the one girl Holy Wayne thinks is the most important above all the others. Tom becomes a killer in order to obey Wayne’s orders to protect Christine at all costs, making Wayne an even slipperier character. Who the hell is this guy? Can he be trusted at all? And why is Christine so damned important?
Meanwhile, Kevin is dealing with people thinking he just might be a dog-killing crackpot, and by the time the dog killer’s pickup truck shows up in Kevin’s driveway, I started to think he just might be one, too. But when Jill and her friend show up in the doorway and take the beer from the guy, and then Jill asks who he was, I was relieved. Thank goodness this wasn’t just a figment of Kevin’s imagination. Kevin is drawn to this guy because he acknowledges something that Kevin’s been feeling all along: that the world is no longer the place it once was, and that “these are not our dogs, not anymore.” Other people think Kevin’s going crazy, but this guy suggests Kevin might be the only sane one around. At least he’s not burning his brother’s clothes (and dentures) in the front yard.
One of the reasons people are waiting for Kevin to lose his shit is because his father (despite his protestations to the contrary) has already lost his. We see him in the mental institution — kissing Mayor Lucy — and he seems to be pretty together, until he begins talking to the voices around him. And when he does, he tells Kevin that they will try to contact him with a message. Earlier that day, Kevin put a bagel in the conveyer-belt toaster oven and it never came out, as if things just disappearing into thin air will just become a way of life. But when his father tells him this he decides he needs to go and find out if that bagel did, indeed, disappear. Maybe he’ll reach in and there will be a note from beyond? Or he’ll find a croissant? But no... it’s just a burnt bagel. I thought this moment was a bit of humour (which, I must say again: there NEEDS TO BE SOME HUMOUR IN THIS SHOW), in its rendering of Occam’s razor: sometimes the easiest explanation isn’t that the bagel got sucked up into some Holy Bagel Rapture, but that it goes stuck in the gears — like every friggin’ bagel I’ve ever stuck in one of those stupid conveyer-belt toaster ovens — and is burnt. From now on, Kevin, just use the damn push-down toaster.
Meanwhile, over at the GR house, we find Meg Abbott finding out the hard way that it’s not as easy as she thought it might be to become a Guilty Remnant, as she’s stuck in the Pledge House for weeks. Laurie is assigned to her and has her cutting wood and keeps taking her things, but she doesn’t seem to be getting to her. It’s only when she finally reveals that, like Meg, she was escaping a life that seemed to others to be ideal, that Meg finally realizes she’s not alone.
The saddest part of the episode (and the one that makes Aimee and Jill even more annoying than they’ve already been) is the section focusing on Nora Durst. The woman who lost her husband and two children on October 14th still drives around in the SUV with the little stick-people stickers on the back showing a happy million-dollar family, plays The Chipmunks CDs while she drives so her imaginary children will enjoy travelling in the car, and keeps a bag of jellybeans in the glove compartment as a treat for them. The girls cruelly follow her around after she purposefully pushes a coffee mug off a table in the café as if she gets off on people letting her get away with things out of pity, and they follow her to the house of an elderly couple looking to collect benefits for losing their son. She asks them questions that are hurtful, and they stop her after she asks if their son knew more than one language: “Charlie had Down’s Syndrome,” they tell her bluntly. She apologizes, and tells them that she has to continue asking. “To your knowledge,” she says, with a pained expression on her face, “Did your son have more than 20 sexual partners?”
Why does Nora do this job in particular? Is it a Norm Peterson thing, where the company figures others will allow her to ask these questions because she carries around even more pain than they do? Or is there some catharsis in it? By inflicting these questions on others, could she be perhaps alleviating some of her own suffering from having to answer them herself? Is it a form of group grieving? Or passive-aggression?
The title of the episode is “Penguin One, Us Zero,” and it refers to the blow-up penguin in the psychiatrist’s office. He tells Kevin that he uses it for his children’s therapy sessions when they need to work out aggression. Everyone in this episode is working out some sort of aggression in one way or the other, whether it’s shooting dogs, stealing jellybeans, knocking mugs off tables, chopping wood, or slaughtering the people at Wayne’s compound. But no matter how much aggression they take out on others, it’s not removing any of their own pain. That penguin just keeps popping right back up again, but everyone else is unable to move much of the time. “She’s gone,” Patti writes on her paper at the end of the episode, and she’s wrong: Meg isn’t gone, but has chosen to stay with the cult. However, she’s chosen to leave the real world and join a world of silence and chain smoking. Not exactly a penguin who bounces back from the blows that come at her.
Once again Max Richter’s music is ace. However, it would be nice to hear some original music from Richter: hearing music that I know really well playing throughout every scene is becoming a distraction for me. (However, I was thrilled to hear Ty Segall’s “Thank God for the Sinners” playing on the radio in the twins’ Prius.)
While I’m happy to be back in the world of Damon Lindelof, I can understand and appreciate the skeptics out there who feel like they were burned once, and just want to disappear like Kevin’s bagel. And it’s for that reason that, despite enjoying these first two episodes, I do hope the pace picks up soon, and we find some humour embedded in there very soon, or else Lindelof’s audience might just disappear in the same fashion as that 2%.
But then again, one of those departed was Balki Bartokomous. And I remember that while Lost was good in the beginning, it didn’t become stunning until the fourth episode. So I’m actually quite happy knowing that I’ll be one of the leftovers still watching, no matter what.