Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thoughts on The Leftovers

For the first three weeks of HBO’s The Leftovers, I blogged on it immediately following the episode. But after the third week, the summer turned into craziness, my husband (who is a golf writer) was away for most of it, I was at home alone with the kids, and I ended up falling behind on watching the show. By the time five episodes had piled up I knew I’d missed the boat on keeping up with the blogging. So I decided I’d sit down and watch the rest of the season in one fell swoop and blog about it at the end.

And what a season it was.

I adored it.

What started off a little slow, not really focusing on one character over another and showing a world that was intolerable in its gloominess turned into a deep, philosophical look at how we handle grief and the unknown. How we turn against each other in the very moment we should be coming closer together. How we try to move past things but they always follow us wherever we go.

The first truly spectacular episode was the third one, in which Christopher Eccleston’s reverend moved to the foreground and we focused on one particular character and what happened to his life on that fateful day. His episode culminated in the Guilty Remnants taking over his church, painting it all white, and continuing their crusade to ensure no one would forget what had happened. The rest of the season fanned out to include the other characters, and by the end of the final episode, there were enough archetypes that you could identify with at least one of them.

For me, it was Nora Durst, for no other reason than she’s married with two children. I didn’t identify with her much at all in the beginning; I didn’t like her character, I thought she was cold and strange, and didn’t quite get where she was coming from. I admired her for trying to move past the tragedy and smile in the direction of people who meant her harm (like the stupid teenagers who rob her car early on), but even when the focus moved to her trying to go to the convention as a legacy, and being upset that they’d given her the wrong badge, only to overhear how tired other people were of the legacies throwing around their tragedies instead of moving on... I still wasn’t quite sure what I thought of her.

And then the finale happened.

The season has been building to an all-out war between the Guilty Remnants cult and the rest of the citizens of the town. Officer Garvey has been warning the mayor that the GR is trouble, and that they do mean harm to the people who are there. However, Garvey is clearly suffering from a mental breakdown and people are starting to recognize that. He closes his eyes and loses long periods of time, as if he’s flitting between two universes — one in which he’s got everything under control and he sees a light at the end of this dark tunnel, and another in which he’s lost all control, the world is against him, and he’s only going to sink deeper into his own grief and heartbreak. And since the world is a dark and horrible place, we the viewers have no idea sometimes which world he’s in.

I loved the structure of the episodes. The flashback happens exactly where it needed to: in the penultimate episode, to remind us who these people once were before all hell breaks loose. Or the Christmas episode, which opens with the factory making hundreds of little rubber baby dolls, which not only becomes Kevin’s obsession in the episode, but foreshadows what happens in the finale and how the Guilty Remnants do what they do with factory-like precision.

Patti is the ringleader of the GR. I swung back and forth on my sympathy for her, but landed hard in the “NOPE” category by the end of it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the Guilty Remnants think what they do is OK, but Patti’s even worse than they are, because, like the best cult leaders, she’s tricking them into believing that their way is the only way. She arranges for one of their own to be killed in a brutal attack (that Patti herself led while hooded) and then tricks Garvey into capturing her while he’s in a fugue state, and goads him into killing her. He comes to his senses and won’t do it, knowing that to martyr her would make everything so much worse. He knows the truth about what she did, and she knows the truth about what he did. She could tell everyone about him tying her up and beating her up, even though he has no memory of doing so (just the mysterious dog killer knows about it aside from her). He, on the other hand, could tell everyone about what she did to one of her followers. The only way his argument loses ground is if she’s not around to answer for it. And so she does the only thing that will leave him entirely screwed: she cuts her own throat open and leaves the mess for him to clean up.

Garvey manages to get the reverend back on his side, but at what cost? In one of Garvey’s fugue states he imagines the reverend locking him away in a mental institution, which he could very well have done (was that real? Is what happens next real? There are moments where it’s not clear, but it does seem for the purpose of the other characters’ stories that it was his imagination).

Garvey’s father had a mental breakdown shortly after The Disappearance, and he’s in a mental institution, save for one episode where he tried to convince Garvey that the voices in his head are insisting that Garvey read a May 1972 issue of National Geographic.

Why this particular issue? Does it have something to do with the cover story of Yellowstone visitors being mauled by bears? Archaeological digs on the island of Thera solving the mystery of the Minoans? In any case, Garvey will have none of it, and keeps trashing each copy he gets.

Garvey’s son has been on a mission to keep safe The One, the pregnant woman carrying Holy Wayne’s child, until he discovers that she is One of Many, and there are several other poor saps trying to keep safe pregnant Asian women. And so he decides to break away and keep her safe on his own, but she escapes and leaves the baby behind. So he returns home, the only place where he thinks he might actually find help.

The prodigal son returns, but the angry teen daughter has defected over to the Guilty Remnants, putting mother Laurie in a quandary; with Patti gone, she’s now the de facto leader, and needs to be behind the GR cause, but is this a life she wants for her daughter? And if she doesn’t want to see her daughter chain-smoking and bringing pain to others, and wearing white and refusing to speak, then how can she convince the other followers that this is the correct path to follow?

What sets up the show for the beautiful and horrifying finale is the episode that comes before it, which, like the best Lost episodes, provides us with a flashback to what the lives of everyone looked like before. And what was so glorious about this episode was the acting: If you thought that Laurie was just an unsmiling, quiet, chain-smoking weirdo in the Guilty Remnant, think again. She was a vibrant mother with a wicked sense of humour who loved her family dearly, even though she knew that things between her and Kevin were in trouble. The daughter was sweet and funny, the son came and went but he was a loving member of the family. Patti was sad and confused, and believed something terrible was going to happen to everyone. The reverend and his wife were engaged members of society, part of the local parties and social scene. Kevin’s dad was a respected member of the police force. Nora Durst was a mother of two sweetly annoying children and a happy wife who was testing the waters of moving back into the workforce. And when everyone Disappeared, Kevin later says his children were so happy to see him alive, and he was grateful he didn’t lose anyone in his family. But he did... for in that moment of disappearance, Laurie was having an ultrasound, looking at the very healthy baby on the screen. The one who was there one second, and gone the next. Only she knows that she and Kevin lost a baby that day.

And that brings us to the final horrible act the GR commits. For a couple of episodes we see Patti and the GR stealing family photos out of people’s homes; Patti uses the church to arrange clothes on the floor, and I suspected they were somehow connected (especially when she kept consulting a book of photographs to make sure the outfits were correct). And then what appeared to be bodies in white sheets were carried into the church. Do they know what happened to the Disappeared? Is it possible they’ve found the bodies? What the hell are they doing?

Nope. Somehow they seem to have stashed thousands and thousands of dollars away to have meticulous wax figures made of the Disappeared, made to look exactly like the photographs, and they break into people’s homes in the dead of night and set them up as a horrifying tableau, ready to shock the Left Behinds when they wake up in the morning.

Because we saw what Nora and her family were like in the moment of the Disappearance, that the last thing she did was yell at her daughter before she was gone (every mother’s nightmare), that she read to them every night and kissed their foreheads and was an involved and engaged mother, the scene awaiting her in the kitchen — the last place she saw them all alive — is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve seen on TV this year. It’s not exact — the GR has the boy sitting in the girl’s spot, as if to say something is slightly wrong here — but the look on Nora’s face, and the keening howl of despair that escapes her mouth she sees them, was enough to send my heart into my mouth. For the first time, she’s trying to move on with Kevin and rely on the sweet and happy memories of her family, but seeing them all sitting there looking so much like they did in life, and yet waxy and all wrong, her entire world falls out from under her.

Most of the episode happens between here and the end, and when we come back to her, she hasn’t fallen onto the floor or raced out of the house. We can only imagine how long the wailing went on, or what went through her mind when she realized what was going on or who had left these grotesque statues in her kitchen. But when we come back to her, she’s sitting at her spot at the table, stroking the hands of her fake children. To me, that was even more devastating, and I finally identified with her 100%. I imagine wanting to fold those phony statues into my chest, and hugging them so hard they would begin to disintegrate. Not wanting to let them go, not wanting to head back into the world, and just hoping I could disappear along with them. And perhaps all these thoughts race through her head, but instead she sits there for hours and hours, stroking their hands, not talking or moving, and realizing just like these statues, the memories of her children will be staring her in the face whenever she thinks she’s moved on. And she can’t move on.

The episode ends with Nora’s voiceover dictating the letter she leaves for Kevin, that she’s realized she’s stuck and can’t move on, and she will carry these children with her forever. As it’s read over an image of her carrying the wax statues upstairs and putting the children to bed one last time, the tears were streaming down my face. The heavy anvil that was sitting on my heart got heavier, and I couldn’t imagine going through anything like this. What sounds like a suicide note isn’t; she’s simply leaving, and moving far away from the house, from the wax statues, and from the horrible GR cult that has done this to her and the other townspeople.

Kevin returns to town in the midst of an all-out riot, with people setting the GR homes on fire and starting a bonfire in front of it as they toss their waxy family members into it. “How could you DO this?” asks the aging parents of the man with Down’s Syndrome as they throw his likeness into the fire. The mayor stands in the middle of the street, shocked and horrified, and looks at Kevin and blankly says, “you were right.” He’s the one who told everyone the GR were trouble, and no one listened to him. Now look what’s happened.

Kevin helps Laurie out of the burning house, but a look of terror crosses on his face as she says her first word in two years — “JILL!!” — and he races back into the house to save his daughter. The two of them walk back home together in time to find Nora standing on the porch, holding the Chosen Baby that Kevin’s son has clearly put there because he doesn’t know what else to do. A smile crosses her face as she realizes the world is full of so much death, but maybe new life can begin to change that.

If The Leftovers hadn’t gotten renewed (and it was as of last week), this actually would have been a fitting ending. Open-ended, yes, but one where we would have felt like we’d had a snapshot into their lives, and there’s hope for everyone.

But as we move into S2, things are looking up, except for the fact that the town looks like they will kill any GR member they see, and Kevin’s mental state is so precarious he’s now imagining Patti straddling him and whispering evil thoughts into his head.

The show is dark, yes, and I’m sure that has put some viewers off. But for me it does best what so many shows of its ilk do: it shows us the darkest moments one can imagine and asks what we would do in that situation.

And then, at least for me, it makes me appreciate the people I have around me all the more, because I can’t imagine suddenly losing any of them in this way.

I'm running through the entire season by memory, because I decided to just sit down and watch it with no notes. Yes, I'm sure I've missed some items, but I'm focusing on the things that affected me the most. What did you think about the first season? Will you be tuning in to the second? 


humanebean said...

Thanks for the recap, Nik! I was mesmerized by this show, and while it quickly lost audience in my house (at the same rate it was shedding casual viewers elsewhere), it was must-see-TV for me each week. So much so that I drove myself crazy while away over Labor Day weekend, trying to find a way to watch the Finale ... until I remembered that they were skipping a week before the final episode of the season. *DOH*

There are so many things I enjoyed that I would have to go back, installment by installment, to list them off comprehensively. The casting was excellent (I know that some felt the teenage actors were sub-par, but I disagree strongly), the lead performances were at once subtle and nuanced, dynamic and powerful, and the storytelling was tight and sure. Way to reel them back IN, Damon!

The atmosphere presented in the show was by turns unsettling, paralytic, darkly funny, emotional, deflating, and transcendent. There have been few things on TV quite like it. I have described it as an exercise in existentialism, varying between the poles of Sartre (for whom Hell is other people) and Camus (for whom other people are the only redeeming elements of an otherwise bleak existence).

It's moody textures put me in mind of such personal favorites as the late, lamented (by me and the other 6 people who watched it) AMC series "Rubicon", and the recent Sundance channel breakouts "Rectify", "The Departed", and to some extent the mini-series "Top of the Lake". Few shows have the courage to challenge the boundaries of our Short-Attention-Span mindsets, and I find the ones that do rewarding and often profound in ways that are difficult to categorize.

Yes, there were some plot elements that lagged behind others: "Holy" Wayne and his cult of fanatical protectors of young Asian women, Kevin's odd interactions with local wildlife, and daughter Lily's angst and rebelliousness. However, in my view, these at times difficult strands were woven together brilliantly, and ultimately paid off in the season's closing episodes.

I'm aware that the book and the series differ sharply in some ways, and now that the season has ended, I'm eager to seek out the source material to see how things were handled there. I look forward to the second season eagerly, to see where the show runners will take the characters and their personal journeys.

I read an interesting article recently, online at The Vox, that offered the interpretation of the series as being about depression, and the ways in which people live with, struggle with, and at times are overwhelmed by its darkness.

Have you seen this, Nik? Or, have any of your readers? I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on this topic.

Thanks again for providing a forum to discuss this challenging and singular tele-vision!

Paticus said...

I really liked the season and the finale.
And humanebean-I was one of the 6 who also watched and enjoyed Rubicon!!

As for a season 2, part of me wishes that they would go a semi-True Detective route and focus on a different town next time around. See how a different type of community might deal with the loss and the GR. I doubt it will happen, but I would like to see it. I feel like we have followed these characters to an acceptable stopping point.

Rad said...

Every time I want to post a comment I end up reading one by humanebean and am completely intimidated (the man is a wordsmith).

Like Humanbeane, I was the lone watcher of this show after the first few episodes. There is a lot of quality television out there, but I feel like the shows that prefer the "slow burn" with no immediate payoff get pushed aside due to impatient audiences who want answers right away or see no point to the show.

I feel like The Leftovers focus on the aftermath of an event, rather than the event itself, is brilliantly done and and forces the viewers to constantly wonder "how would I have handled that". The moment that first comes to mind is good ole Reverend Matt completely mollywhopping the thug that tried to rob him outside of the casino.

Matt was not by nature a violent person, not from what we'd seen before this slip up anyway, but this was the straw that broke the camel's back (I can completely relate as a non-violent person myself). But his wife became a vegetable for reasons that noone can explain, he is about to lose his church and everything he has left to live for because he has no money. Then he wins big at the casino based on blind faith in RED and he is on cloud nine! This thugs comes along and again tries to snatch it away. he couldn't do anything about The Departure causing the accident that would eventually kill his wife's brain, he believes that to be an ac of God and he can't foresake God because then what does he have left? But this guy, this goon who just snatched happiness and joy right out of his hands, he can and will be dealt with. He loses it and completely beats the living sh** out of this guy and you have to believe that it was the most amazing release to finally be able to do something about what was going on. This leads to the greatest scream I've seen filmed in a car. Then of course the GR causes him to get hit in the head with a brick and it all falls apart. But that moment, that one brief sliver of a moment in the years of his life, he was a man of action, not just words.

Like Paticus, I kind of hope that we start in a new town and get a different point of view that will somehow tie-in to the people of Mapleton in a later season (ala The Wire). My only fear is that this may have been the original idea of the producers but now that these characters have been such a hit, they will change course and stick with Mapleton. This is what ruined what would have been one my favorite shows ever, Heroes.

Great recap Nikki, awesome comments as always everyone

Nikki Stafford said...

Rad: Our humanebean is indeed quite the wordsmith. He puts me to shame again and again. (Which is why I tried to do a regular recap with him, you know, just to pull his genius on here so it would appear weekly, but then both of us fell out of sorts with the show... one of these days, I will get him back!) ;)

My husband watched Rubicon, and it's one of those things I didn't watch, but wish I had (it didn't last long, so I suppose I could simply watch it).

Like Rad, I've always watched this show as one of those "what would I do under these circumstances" kind of things.

And humanebean, I hadn't seen that article about depression at all, but I think that's fascinating, because early in the season I was saying that this is a show about people being pushed to their darkest places, and as that would suggest, depression would usually be where they would end up. People who suffer from depression feel like the entire world is weighing down on them like an anchor, like they're moving through sludge day after day. What do you do when EVERYONE feels like that?


And it absolutely is an exercise in existentialism; Damon was beginning to examine existentialist crises in the final season of Lost, even bringing Kierkegaard into it, but here he gets to explore it in a much deeper fashion. Nora has spent two years pushing that boulder up the hill to finally get rid of it, and just as she's about to finally get it to the top, the wax figures appear and in her horror she lets go of the rock and it tumbles all the way back down to the bottom.

I hope more people begin watching it before S2. I think it's a beautiful show.

And like you guys were saying, I'm the only one who watches it in my house, and frankly, among any of my friends. There's no one I can discuss this with person to person the next day!

And that's where you lovely people come in. :)

Rad: I agree that Matt's story really resonates; I think it's the one that really jumpstarts the season for all the reasons you point out here.

Paticus: I think that would be an excellent idea! I think the introduction of Patti as Kevin's dark passenger (to use a Dexter reference) suggests we're sticking with these people, but I really like that idea.

Anonymous said...

Cool write-up. I thought you had given up on the show.

I understand why a lot of people can't get into this show - it's hard to get into the mindspace of characters going through existential crises. But those who don't get it, and of those, the ones who won't even try to get it but choose to keep watching and calling the show "crap," you're active opponents of the Golden Age of television. Because the horrifying nature of the GR finale stunt and it's execution as a piece of the narrative showcases why this show is, (almost objectively), brilliantly-made. Few shows have this level of imagination and skill. Consider how Nora's scene is set up with shots of paused Departed figures, surreal and dreamlike, before transitioning to a waking Nora. It parallels Kevin's arc and helps establish the dream/nightmare quality of this world.

For those of us who can get into the mindset of these characters, there's an additional level of brilliance. Going back to Nora's scene, if you imagine what it must have immediately felt like for Nora, after 3 years of grieving, to see those figures that at first glance resemble her family - she probably thought that whatever supernatural force that took them in the first place reversed itself. The irreversible had been reversed, and her deepest wish had come true - (something akin to losing your ability to walk in an accident and then being miraculously healed)! And then, 15 seconds later, she would realize what it really was, and feel and emotional repeat of the Sudden Departure (by its inversion!), and reinforcing the idea that hope is always false.

Page48 said...

@humanebean, I'm one of the 6 who watched and loved "Rubicon" and I have NOT forgiven AMC (I want that on the record in case AMC execs are scanning Nikki's blog).

Axing "Low Winter Sun" was a mercy-kill. Axing "Rubicon" was a disgrace.

Long live Truxton Spangler.

humanebean said...

@Paticus & @Page48 - I might have KNOWN that I would find "Rubicon" fans amongst the erudite and insightful commenters on the Nik at Nite blog! We few, we happy few, we ... Nielsen Refugees. Ah, well.

@Rad - don't be intimidated at all, sir! I am a wordy bastige, and occasionally I succumb to what I call the Steppenwolf Syndrome. As in "Fire All Your Guns At Once And Explode Into Space." Much worse, it's a bit of a genetic problem. We have a saying in my family; "I'd like to say just a few words ... but you all know me better than that." ; ]

@Nik I pine for the day when we find another show to blog on together! That day WILL come.

I'm not ready to leave the good people of Mapleton just yet. I agree that the first season ended on a fantastic note that might well have served as an endpoint ... or rather, an Open-Endpoint. Still, I think there's more story in these characters and I have faith that these show runners will find it.

Jazzygirl said...

Thanks for this Nikki! As I said on Facebook, week after week I'd run on here to see if you posted and felt like a lone ship on a dark, choppy sea. LOL I totally understand you were busy. Just goes to show you how much we need you! LOL
I stuck with the show even though, I will admit, it wasn't always easy. By about the mid-point I felt like watching it brought me down. Like a dementor sucking your happiness away. I was the only watcher in my house too so I had no one to talk to about it. And that made it more lonely and sad. Just like the characters on the show.
I did feel around the mid-point that they needed to start doing more reveals and less questions or I wasn't sure how much more I could take. Then, finally, it picked up. I think the episode where I channeled Nikki was the one where they killed that member of the GR. I gasped and held my hands over my mouth.
Then the following episodes had more little reveals. Then the ending.....
Probably my biggest question at this point is Wayne. The scene with Garvey where he tells him to make a wish and if he can hear it, he knows he not a fraud. And he seems to hear it.
At the last scene when Kevin is walking home with Jill and the dog shows up, then he sees Nora and she's holding the baby. I think his wish was to have a family again. And boom...there it is.
But I really hope we get more answers about Wayne.
I just cancelled HBO for the time being. I waited for the Leftovers to end then I cancelled it. I will get it again for Game of Thrones and we'll see if I keep it for season 2 next summer.
Regardless, I'm glad to finally have a place to share it. :)