What Remains for The Leftovers

HBO announced this past Wednesday that The Leftovers will be renewed for a second season, just a few weeks shy of the season finale set to air on Sunday, September 7th. Admittedly, I was fairly shocked to hear that writers, producers and audiences alike would be in for another season exploring what ruin and remains await the leftovers in the small town of Mapleton.

The show, which premiered in June, is adapted from Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name and is created by Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost), who is also the showrunner. The story begins three years after a rapture-like event called “The Sudden Departure” where 140 million people[i] vanished without warning, signal, or any sort of God fearing smoke arising from their abandoned little shoes.

The show is centered on the chief of police, Kevin Garvey, his unraveling family and the strange ways the community reacts and retreats in the wake of this kind of inexplicable event. Justin Theroux plays Garvey[ii] with an unbound intensity and reticent sadness that makes him both likeable and incredibly hard to watch. Garvey’s wife, Laurie, left their family following the departure to join the Guilty Remnant—a local cult whose members take a vow of silence, cloak themselves in all white, wield notepads and sharpies, smoke like chimneys and defy the town members that have chosen to move on with life like nothing has happened. It’s clear that Laurie’s choice to join the cult has deeply affected their teenage daughter, Jill—whose attempts at rebellion seem less like defiance than attempts to ritualize a greater sense of sadness. As if all teenagers aren’t out in the woods locking themselves into old fridges until just about all the air is gone. Jill’s brother, Tom, has fled Mapleton to follow the prophet christened as Holy Wayne—protecting his harem of women, and recoiling from Wayne’s claims to be able to take away people’s suffering with a hug.

Reception to the show has been divisive to say the least, a lot of viewers already abandoned midseason. Whether it’s the eschatological themes, the uncertainly of the show’s vision with Lindelof at the helm, or the unrelenting sadness—the show is a far cry from your run-of-the-mill Sunday night entertainment. It has the kind of tear-stains-on-the-pillowcase, can’t-quite-finish-your-dinner, look-away-from-the-screen-during-this-scene existential dread that’s nearly impossible to stomach. And yet, people are still watching—enough for HBO to renew the show for another season.

The starting point of the show (three years after The Sudden Departure) suggests that the event itself is merely a catalyst for a greater conversation about loss and grieving, and that we are clear of any Christian eschatological perspective on the rapture itself. However, they have not been shy about flirting with eschatological themes. The show’s intro—a conveyance through a renaissance inspired domed fresco—is reminiscent of an assumption scene, but with Job-like faces of suffering on men and women dressed in chinos, or undressed and grappling, as their loved ones float away from them. It recalls Coreggio’s Assumption of the Virgin adorning the dome of the Cathedral of Parma, Italy, but there is no virgin ascending here and no sign of a decorated Jesus descending to meet her. Like the nativity baby Jesus that gets thrown from Chief Garvey’s car, we’re left godless, but surrounded by heavy-handed eschatological undertones like judgment, deliverance, and the destiny of those left behind.

The Assumption of the Virgin, Antonion da Correggio - Cathedral of Parma, Italy

The Assumption of the Virgin, Antonion da Correggio - Cathedral of Parma, Italy

Perhaps it’s Lindelof's work that makes me uneasy about the presence of eschatological themese in light of the enigmatic nature of a rapture-like event. Certainly there will be questions, but where will the pursuit of answers lead us? The ending to Lindelof’s Lost was perhaps one of the most divisive endings in television history—a lot of questions left on the table, a heavy-handed religious allegory and a pantheistic church scene to send us along on our merry way. Certainly it’s unfair of me, but every time we are presented with something enigmatic in The Leftovers, I wonder when the camera will pan over the horizon and we’ll realize that everyone is just back on the Island again in some sort of human purgatory, awaiting judgment[iii]. It’s my hope that some of the stranger things we’ve seen on the show[iv] are just motifs for the absurd nature of life, and not an intentional peppering of strange scents and random philosophies that will ultimately throw us off the scent of the more important themes. A story less about the mystery itself, and more about the ways that we choose to temper life’s great riddles—cultish worship, religious fanaticism, blatant rebellion, self-punishment and an unrelenting hunger for something more.

Somehow, in light of all of this, I’m afraid I will tune into the second season for another round of existential plight. After all, I do find it to be well written and beautifully guided. Some of the scenes of this first season will web themselves within my memory for a long time. But it’s painful to watch, and I mean really painful. It may not have the consistent violence of Game of Thrones, or the culturally induced ennui of Man Men, but it’s as desolate as watching the evening news as told by Samuel Beckett. Perhaps the closest thing to The Leftovers viewing experience is Greek tragedy; the very first screenwriters for the tragic sensibility—a narrative of ordinary people experiencing extraordinary circumstances, and an audience to endure it all. The Greeks believed that by enduring tragedy as art they would experience a collective catharsis, thus cleansing themselves of darker emotions.[v]

So then, if I choose to experience The Leftovers like Euripides, I can only hope that the show isn’t leading me toward some great Revelation or strange mystery, that it stays course to what it truly is—a tragedy. And then somewhere along the way, because we are human after all, we hope; we hope for the spiritual, for the mysterious, or at least for a satyr play at the end of it all so we can learn to laugh again.

HBO, The Leftovers

HBO, The Leftovers

Footnotes

[i] Including notable celebrities like poor Condoleezza Rice, Shaq, Jennifer Lopez, Bonnie Rait (really giving them Something to Talk About after all) and even poor Gary Busey.

[ii] Aka: Mr. Jennifer Aniston. Let’s talk about the possible hair dye and spray tan at a later occasion, ok?

[iii] We do not, in fact, have to go back. Please don’t take us back.

[iv] The deer and its kitchen-destroying antlers, Garvey’s late night episodes that lack memory, but are filled with wild suspicion and animals; Garvey’s seemingly benevolent father and his mysterious National Geographic magazine (I knew something was up with those magazines, people can't possibly collect all those volumes just for science project references).

[v] Aristotle, Poetics. “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament […] in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.”