Saturday, January 30, 2016

Departures: HBO’s Intriguing and Difficult The Leftovers

Margaret Qualley and Justin Theroux in The Leftovers on HBO.

This review contains major spoilers for Season 1 of The Leftovers, as well as some spoilers for Season 2.

Television shows can often inspire devotion bordering on the religious, and the recently-concluded second season of The Leftovers on HBO is no exception. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, and overseen by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, the show has gone from a divisive and little-watched curiosity to one of the most acclaimed (albeit even less-watched) dramas of the past year.

The Leftovers takes place in a world where the Rapture has occurred, but in a completely unexpected way: instead of the righteous being whisked off to Heaven, 2% of the global population simply disappears into thin air in the blink of an eye. It’s an event that defies rational explanation and seemingly confirms that supernatural forces are indeed at work in the world, even as it upends all established religious doctrine. The Sudden Departure, as those left behind soon come to call it, whips up unprecedented levels of fear and existential uncertainty, since there’s no discernible pattern to who was taken and who was left behind. Many people soon turn to strange cults and dodgy would-be prophets in an attempt to make sense of their new world, and even those who try to maintain a sense of normalcy are consumed with questions about why the Departure occurred, and whether it might happen again.

Despite the momentous nature of the Departure, Season 1 of The Leftovers focuses on the small New York town of Mapleton, and particularly on one family, the Garveys. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief in Mapleton, finds himself trying to keep the peace in his unsettled community while also attempting to reconnect with his wayward daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), who’s especially troubled by the fact that her mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a mysterious cult, the Guilty Remnant, that aims to continually remind others of the Departure. Kevin eventually becomes involved with Nora (Carrie Coon), a woman whose entire family has Departed and whose brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) is an Episcopalian priest who’s desperately attempting to bring worshippers back to his pews. All the while, the menace of the Guilty Remnant looms, with leader Patti (Ann Dowd) and recruits like Laurie and Meg (Liv Tyler) undertaking jarring, unpredictable actions such as stealing photos of their neighbors’ vanished loved one.

Season 2 takes the main cast of characters and relocates them to another small town, this time in Texas. Jarden is a community of just over 9,000 people that was entirely spared when the Departure occurred, and it has recently been designated as Miracle National Park because of what happened (or didn’t happen) there. However, we soon discover in the season’s opening episode, which introduces an entirely new family, the Murphys, that Jarden has plenty of problems and mysteries of its own. Parents John (Kevin Carroll) and Erika (Regina King) are thrown into turmoil when their daughter Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) goes missing, an event which her twin brother Michael (Jovan Adepo) interprets as another Departure. The reconstituted Garvey family now including Nora and a new baby, Lilly, and minus Laurie and her peripatetic son Tommy (Chris Zylka) soon becomes embroiled in this crisis when they move in next door to the Murphys.

Although Season 1 garnered a reputation for being more difficult and unapproachable than the recently-concluded second season, it benefits from the fact that the Departure serves as a strong central metaphor on which to center the show’s narrative and themes. Many of the best science-fiction and fantasy shows, such as Battlestar Galactica or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, use such a metaphor (an overwhelming attack by killer robots, the existence of vampires and demons) to explore issues such as post-9/11 politics or the trials of adolescence, and The Leftovers often works best when it’s focused on stories and character beats that rely on equating the Departure with the more familiar experience of grieving over a lost loved one. As terrifying and traumatic as the Departure might have been, its aftermath raises questions that we’ve all had to ask: where have the departed gone? When will it happen again? How does the resulting sense of insecurity affect the dynamics of our personal relationships? The world of Season 1 is a world in which everything seems almost normal, or at least where most of the characters are desperately trying to return to normality.

Chris Zylka and Amy Brenneman in a scene from Season 2 of The Leftovers.

Season 1 divided critics, with some finding it pretentious and unnecessarily depressing. While I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment, I still found plenty to like about it, not least in the surprising moments of dark humor; I’m sometimes ambivalent about Justin Theroux’s performance, but the way the show uses his reactions, combined with Ann Dowd’s sardonic performance as Patti, offered at least a few laughs at moments when the show desperately needed some variation in tone. The show also offered an intriguing peek into a world gone subtly but unmistakably mad, a credit to Perrotta’s source material and the way in which Lindelof and his writing staff fleshed out some of the odder details of that world. Besides, there were a number of strong performances, most notably Carrie Coon’s nuanced and utterly absorbing depiction of Nora.

I confess that I’m not entirely sure that I understand the much more positive response to Season 2, since it has definitely improved in some ways but also doubles down on some of the show’s more questionable impulses. Jill Garvey, who was a sullen, cynical teenage character, has become more nuanced, if also less prominent. The writers also use the Guilty Remnant sparingly this season, which is welcome, since it was never clear to me why people, however frightened and traumatized by recent events, would join a cult that dictated its members wear white, maintain total silence, chain smoke, and invite the violent wrath of their neighbors through their actions. Many of the group’s arcane rules seemed like attempts on the part of Perrotta and Lindelof to add to the group’s mystique and build them up as antagonists by throwing in random details that, while arresting, ultimately meant nothing. Indeed, there’s a scene later in Season 2 in which Liv Tyler’s Meg questions the group’s rules, which seems like a fairly explicit admission on the part of the show’s writers that they’d botched their initial depiction of the Remnant.

The writers also wisely take some of what worked in Season 1, such as episodes that focus closely on one or two characters instead of including the entire ensemble, and lean on those elements more heavily in Season 2. The most highly-praised episode of the entire season, “International Assassin,” follows Kevin through an especially surreal adventure that I found both exciting and fascinating, while an episode that showcases Nora’s residual feelings of grief and guilt over the loss of her family gives Coon another powerful showcase, as well as a pretty funny payoff when it turns out that the apparently respectable researchers who have been hinting that she may have been inadvertently responsible for their Departures end up mooting a desperate, ridiculous theory that she’s somehow inhabited by a demon, leading to a cathartic moment where she’s able to laugh at and dismiss them. That episode also features a stunning scene between Nora and Erika Murphy; Regina King, who plays the latter character, is an especially strong addition to the cast for Season 2.

At times, the writers pull from the same bag of tricks that they used in the previous season. Just as in Season 1, there’s an episode that’s about testing Matt’s faith, putting him through the wringer by heaping one misfortune after another on top of him. The finale, while quite effective, also follows much of the same overall narrative pattern as the last episode of Season 1, down to the involvement of the Guilty Remnant and the upbeat tone of the final scene. Although it feels like the show’s hitting some of same beats as last season, that’s a minor quibble in light of the fact that the new setting feels like a general improvement. The fact that the show’s now focused on developing relationships among a more cohesive set of characters than in the first season gives The Leftovers more narrative urgency and keeps us invested in the individuals at the center of the plot.

Regina King in a scene from Season 2 of The Leftovers.

However, Lindelof and his writing staff began to lose me when they pushed beyond that focus on the characters and tried to make big statements about big issues. I think many of my reservations about Season 2 stem from the opening sequence of the first episode, which has to be one of the most godawful things that I’ve seen on a “serious” television show in a long time. The sequence, which is a stand-alone story with no narrative bearing on the rest of the season, follows a pregnant cavewoman who narrowly escapes the demise of the rest of her clan when she steps outside to relieve herself just before a rockslide buries them. She then proceeds to give birth (we get to see both that and her serendipitous pee break, since this is HBO) and attempt to care for her newborn child alone in the wild. She manages to find another clan and hand off her offspring just before she expires from a poisonous snakebite. It’s a grueling, ugly set of scenes that seems like an attempt to make a grand statement about the nature of grief and the tenacity of familial love, but it comes off like a pretentious (and slightly exploitative) effort to emulate some of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick’s dubious impulses.

That cavewoman sequence set the tone for the rest of the first episode for me, and I think it put me off from opening back up to the show until fairly late in the season. The rest of the initial episode doesn’t help: the writers may have been wise to dial back their use of the Guilty Remnant, but it still feels like our initial introduction to Jarden features many of those same cryptic, portentous, but ultimately rather meaningless elements that characterized their portrayal of the cult in Season 1. The writers eventually clear up the meaning behind many of the initially opaque aspects of Jarden, but that still means that, for a significant portion of the season, we’re watching characters whose behavior, both towards each other and in the context of their unique environment, hasn’t been fully explained. In fact, they never entirely explain the central conflict that, we come to find, has poisoned the Murphys’ intra-family relations. The sometimes empty portentousness of Season 2 stems in large part from the fact that there’s no obvious inciting incident, as in Season 1, that helps place the odder elements of the town’s milieu in context; I was willing to forgive Season 1’s weirder moments because it opened with a scene showing the actual Departure, which set the tone for everything that followed.
Furthermore, just as I found myself getting used to Jarden, the show throws Matt into the trailer park outside the town, where a freak-show assemblage of would-be pilgrims who aren’t allowed into the park live in a bizarre community; at one point, Matt finds himself forced to hit a man with an oar while yelling the name “Brian,” and he ends his showcase episode crouching naked in the stocks, for reasons which are never entirely clear.

A corollary to this occasionally infuriating aspect of the show is its visual style, which, while often quite beautiful, can also be ploddingly literal at times. Lindelof has cited the sequence in Mr. Robot in which the main character, Elliot, undergoes a withdrawal-related freakout after trying to quit drugs – as an inspiration for the excellent “International Assassin,” which represents a high point for The Leftovers. However, there’s a linearity and logic to even parts of that episode that’s more akin to Christopher Nolan’s unimaginative Inception than the aforementioned Mr. Robot scene, let alone something from a master Surrealist like David Lynch. This tendency towards literalness pops up at other times, such as when Kevin sings Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” in the finale (don’t ask) and, on the line “Every day’s an endless stream/ Of cigarettes and magazines,” director Mimi Leder interpolates a quick shot of a National Geographic that figured in Season 1’s events.

My criticism of the show may be misleading: for all my reservations about it, I nevertheless admire it, especially for the way in which it attempts to depict religious belief in a novel way. It seems impossible for most commentators to interpret Lindelof’s involvement with the show without making reference to his tenure as the co-showrunner for Lost, which had a memorably controversial ending that tried to both adequately answer the questions the show had raised in the course of its run while also maintaining an air of ambiguity and mystery, an impossible task that led to him becoming something of a hated figure in certain corners of the Internet. The Leftovers refuses from the beginning to offer clear answers as to the nature of the Departure, and it’s often devastatingly effective when it uses its characters’ confused, anguished responses to that event to explore how we attempt to make sense of the fundamentally unknowable questions of existence. At the same time, a show that aims to tackle such questions necessarily requires its audience to have faith in it to distinguish moments of genuine mystery and uncertainty from narrative sleight of hand and truncated character development. By the end of Season 1, I’d become a slightly hesitant convert. After Season 2, I’m still willing to keep the faith, but I’m skeptical of some of the doctrine.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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