“Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from,” rang out Iris DeMent’s jubilant voice every week during the opening credits of HBO’s second season of The Leftovers. She continued: “Everybody is worrying about where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done / But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me / Think I’ll just let the mystery be.” DeMent’s voice—a happy medium between a screech and a honk—and the words it carried over her bluegrass ditty were inevitably the most joyous part of every episode. Hers was a point of view almost entirely missing from a show obsessed with people’s points of view: blissful willful ignorance.
The Leftovers, which ended its second season last night, is otherwise populated by characters tortured by their endless questioning and that of others, mostly related to the so-called Sudden Departure, an event that occurred three years before the first season’s premiere, when two percent of the world’s population spontaneously vanished. Why did it happen? What was the selection process? Will it happen again? Does this mean the end times are upon them? And why do those left behind keep leaving and hurting each other? The people on the show are searching, unsatisfied, often miserable. Happiness flickers briefly, breaking up the grieving.
Viewers related to the misery of the characters, perhaps too well. The show’s notoriously divisive first season left many grasping at opaque symbols and juxtapositions. Little did they know, they weren’t being called on to solve a mystery (as they took it upon themselves to do with Lost, another show co-created by The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof), they were being asked to empathize with characters who’ll never know what’s really going on. The mysteries—the behavior of some characters, seemingly enchanted phenomena like rogue deer, and whether what we were seeing was actually happening or just a dream—were just as confounding to the characters inhabiting his surreal world as they was to those watching it from the outside. On the Guilty Remnant, a cult of silent, chain-smoking agitators, the show’s police chief protagonist Kevin Garvey, Jr. (Justin Theroux) said to the mayor of his town of Mapleton during the first season premiere, “I don’t know shit, Lucy. Do you? Where do they come from? What do they want? We don’t even know who they are.”
It would take a full season to even start to unpack those questions. In the eighth episode, Patti Levin, the leader of the Mapleton chapter of G.R., broke it down, as much as one can on a show where breaking it down doesn’t necessarily yield absolute clarity, and often comes wrapped in prophecy: “It doesn’t matter what happened,” she said, regarding the Sudden Departure. “But the difference between you and me is that I accept that it did, and while you push it aside, while you ignore it, we strip ourselves of everything that distracts us from it. We strip away the colorful diversions that keep us from remembering. We strip away attachment, fear, and love, and hatred and anger until we are erased. Until we are a blank slate. We are living reminders of what you try so desperately to forget. And we are ready. And we are waiting. Because it’s not gonna be long now.”
This is a show whose very genre classification “always kind of baffled” star Theroux. While the acting was uniformly superb and the writing generally concise and realistic in any given moment (even if the sum of those moments was ultimately less tangible), there were times during the first season when the show wasn’t merely lacking in exposition but seemed to be designed to disorient. The Leftovers’s first season was too respectful of its viewers’ intelligence and its source material, Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same name. While that book contained plenty of explanation via internal monologue and omniscient narration (“If the G.R. had one essential mission, it was to resist the so-called Return to Normalcy, the day-to-day process of forgetting the Rapture, or, at the very least, of consigning it to the past, treating it as part of the ongoing fabric of human history, rather than the cataclysm that had brought history to an end”), the show fixated on showing and not telling. And through that, unlike the characters it contained, HBO’s The Leftovers seemed to be merely hoping for the best.
One major reason why season two received such a rapturous response from those who stuck around and gave it a shot (each episode snagged about a million fewer viewers than last season’s, which typically did around 1.5 million) is that the show changed tactics from demanding that you empathize with its characters to empathizing with you. It grounded itself in certainty—it did not offer answers regarding the Sudden Departure, but it did move settings to Jarden, Texas, the only town in the world in which there were no departures that’s been rechristened as “Miracle.” No departures is a fact its characters and viewers could cling to. It gave viewers a true mystery, and it solved it. It presented an event—the migration of Kevin, Nora (the astonishing Carrie Coon), Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and Kevin and Nora’s adopted daughter Lily, which seemed to be tied to the ensuing disappearance of their next door neighbor Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and two of her friends—and then went back over it, several times in various points of view, deliberately sowing understanding. It sprouted tangents, sometimes lasting for for full episodes, zeroing in on one character (Matt Jamison’s Job-like trial to get back into the exclusive, gated town of Miracle after being cheated out of it was a midseason highlight). It felt truly free, offering a go-for-broke, enlivened way to explain how people cope with the inexplicable. It also was free of the burden of adaptation—the first season ended where Perrotta’s book did.
“One thing that I do feel I’ve learned, and I could be completely wrong about this, but I think this idea that the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next is not good,” Lindelof said to Hitflix’s Alan Sepinwall in an interview that ran just before Season 2 began airing. “People want to know what’s going to happen next. They like to be surprised, but more than being surprised they really want to have a sense of comfort. They want to know what they’re going to get, you know. You want to know what they’ve signed up for. This idea of unpredictability is not good. And so is there a way that the show can kind of message, ‘Hey, don’t worry, you know. We’re doing this this week, but hopefully this is still the show that you dig.’”
Though these changes made for a much more enjoyable viewing experience, The Leftovers retained the same heart and mind that made this project—from Perrotta’s book through the uneven first season and then through the transcendent second—so special in the first place. Our lives may or may not be guided and graced by the supernatural, but the open curiosity regarding the supernatural and the behavior it yields (for good, and, especially, bad) is undeniable. Religion is a major force in our world. Nonbelievers can avoid God, but not religion. We are affected, sometimes controlled, by other people’s beliefs, and civilization demands those beliefs be at least considered, if not engaged with. In presenting a range of beliefs—the G.R.’s terrorist evangelism, Kevin’s obsession with the voices in his head, the learned pragmatism of former G.R./former psychologist Laurie (Amy Brenneman), the flagrant, sometimes giddy disbelief of Nora—The Leftovers takes an agnostic position and illustrates why it’s the most humane point of view at all. Faith in one’s beliefs necessarily means the rejection of others’; understanding philosophical and theological variety and what triggers each, fosters compassion (even when your conclusion is that the only logical faith is in possibility). The world is cruel, but The Leftovers’s sensitivity for its characters is unyielding. In one of her recaps for the New York Times, Jen Chaney put it very nicely: “The Leftovers may be the only show on TV right now that consistently...invites us to question belief systems while acknowledging their genuine power and beauty at the same time.”
The Leftovers is a pragmatic show about the irrational things people do to cope with the sadness of existence. Lindelof told Variety, “To me, it’s not a Sept. 11 metaphor, it’s a death metaphor.” But Perrotta’s novel makes it clear that it’s more than that even—it’s about the inescapable loss the characterizes life, period. There’s a moment at the end of the book when Kevin, who lost no one from his family in the Sudden Departure, is alone. His wife Laurie left him a while ago to join the G.R., his girlfriend Nora is pulling out, his son Tom is wandering aimlessly having abandoned the messianic leader he latched onto post-Departure (Holy Wayne), his daughter Jill is toying with joining the Guilty Remnant, Jill’s friend/Kevin’s part-time object of desire Aimee has moved out of Kevin’s house, where she was crashing. The departure of Kevin’s loved ones wasn’t sudden, but it was a departure all the same. People will come in and out of your life for as long as you are emotionally available, and sometimes when they leave it will make absolutely no sense. What’s even sadder is that then you have one less person to sort it out with.
The fact of the matter is that every day is one closer to tragedy, on macro and micro levels, whether it’s mass killings or the loss of someone that you love or your own death. In Perrotta’s book, when Laurie is still a G.R., this is acknowledged in a section about her understanding of the Sudden Departure and the feeling she has (the knowing she has) that she was left behind, that she didn’t make the cut:
And yet she chose to ignore this knowledge, to banish it to some murky recess of her mind—the basement storage area for things you couldn’t bear to think about—the same place you hid the knowledge that you were going to die, so you could live your life without being depressed every minute of every day.
Through its action and characters’ reactions, The Leftovers excavates that knowledge repeatedly. That is another reason why people don’t like the show, because ignoring the world’s relentless grimness is a lot easier than facing it. The Guilty Remnant may have self-defeating tactics, but more than that, they have a point.
But unlike the G.R., the show, mercifully and realistically, doesn’t deny its viewers or its characters of hope. In the final moments of last night’s season finale (which could be the show’s series finale if HBO doesn’t pick it up for a third season), Kevin returns to the nearly dilapidated $3 million house in Jarden that Nora bought and in which he has lived this season. He at this point has (maybe) died twice and found a way back to the physical world both times. He’s forgiven the man who most recently sent him to that big hotel in the sky, his truth-averse neighbor John Murphy (Kevin Carroll). He has, in fact, resigned himself to letting the mystery be—as John tends to the gunshot wound he put in Kevin in an abandoned hospital after members of the G.R. have infiltrated and rioted in Jarden, an anguished John says, “I don’t understand what’s happening here.” “Me neither,” says Kevin peacefully. “It’s OK.”
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He returns to the house and sees his daughter, his ex-wife, his estranged son, his perhaps former girlfriend, their child together, Nora’s devout bother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), and his newly post-comatose wife Mary (Janel Moloney). They’re all waiting for him, just like he saw when he died or dreamed it. Just like he was hoping.
Sometimes people leave you, and sometimes they come back. Allowing for the possibility of the latter is to have hope. Because no one really knows where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done, religion is essentially formalized hope. And sometimes the world calls for hope and sometimes it rewards its possessors. I can’t say with any certainty that “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” but I know the feeling well.