The Leftovers: How this HBO drama can change your life, part one

A screenshot of the Leftovers Blu Ray title screen. Credit: HBO.

*Author’s note: this essay will discuss the key themes raised in Season One. Future essays will dissect the themes found in Seasons Two and Three. Expect minor spoilers below.  

The HBO series The Leftovers has defied simple classification since its inception in 2014. With its conclusion airing on June 4 in the United States, there is much to say about the show’s capacity to address age-old mysteries and profound philosophical notions.

British viewers can watch the third season on Sky Atlantic from July 4.

Its premise is less concerned with explaining the events of October 14 – or as it’s known colloquially as The Sudden Departure – where two percent of the global population disappears. The number may seem small for such a bold premise, but the ambition of this show is not about seeking to explain the mystery, but to shine a tender and deeply empathetical light on what it means to grieve in a world, that for some, has lost all meaning.

The first season of The Leftovers grounds global tragedy in the town of Mapleton, New York, where the Garvey family did not depart, but the consequences of October 14 have shattered the mineral conception of the nuclear family, scattering its fragments into winds of uncertainty and the waiting hands of quasi-religious fundamentalists. Laurie (Amy Brenneman), estranged from her husband Kevin (Justin Theroux), has found purpose in the Guilty Remnant, a chain-smoking cult who communicate non-verbally, and only dress in white. This cult haunts much of the season, with their eerie presence outside of the homes and places of work of individuals who have lost people to the Sudden Departure.

In Christianity, the Eucharist symbolises a new covenant decreed by God to his followers. At its core is the promise of eternal salvation and freedom from sin. The solemnity of the event concerns the final meal of Jesus Christ and his disciples, where they are asked to consume consecrated bread and wine in memory of him since Jesus knows that he mere hours from arrest and his impending crucifixion. While denominations differ on the meaning of the Eucharist, it remains clear that for many Christians, the blessings of God have broken their bodies and remade them, gracing them, like the bread the disciples broke on that fateful night, with the teachings and grace of Jesus Christ.

But the Guilty Remnant inverts this idea. They would rather break the bodies of those left behind. Their covenant seeks to propel individuals towards their waiting arms with the promise of a different and darker promise of salvation. As an audience, we learn from the perspective of Laurie and others of the inner-workings, idiosyncrasies, and deep hypocrisies of its internal hierarchy.

Tom, the adopted son of Kevin from Laurie’s previous relationship finds himself in the thrall of another cult, that of Holy Wayne, a messianic figure who promises to hug the pain out of a person. According to police, Wayne demonstrates a proclivity towards teenage girls; ‘Asians, apparently’. The scene also reveals that Wayne had lost a child on October 14. As the season develops, Tom, like his mother, discovers the inherent hypocrisy that underpins this cult.

Before we arrive there, however, is perhaps the most powerful episode of Season One. Titled ‘Guest,’ it focuses on Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a local resident who processes the Department of Sudden Departure’s benefit questionnaire. She tries to get families to open-up about their loss in the hope of increasing the likelihood of their compensation claims being filled. Nora also carries a deep pain. She lost her husband and two children on October 14. In her own words, odds of ‘one in 128,000’.

This grief propels her to continue grocery shopping for a family who is gone. To externalise the pain she feels, Nora hires sex workers to shoot in her chest while she wears a bulletproof vest. As she travels to New York for a conference, she is subject to identity fraud and is almost kicked out of the hotel. When this is resolved, she finds her in the hotel bar with the author Patrick Johansen. A man who lost four family members. When Nora and Patrick share in their grief, he suggests that it is time to ‘move on’. In a moment of disbelieving anger, Nora yells: “If you were in pain, you’d know there is no moving on.”

As she leaves the hotel, a stranger tells Nora that he can prove Johansen’s fraud for $1,000. Behind a curtain in a dingy room is Holy Wayne. He reassures her that she is not beyond hope and that she will not forget her family. This brings Nora to tears as she weeps in the arms of Wayne. Like with many of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the Leftovers, the beautiful compositions of composer Max Richter compliment the acting.

If the Guilty Remnant inverts the Eucharist, the ‘departure’ itself inverts the very idea of the rapture. That is, of course, if you believe Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), an Episcopalian priest, and brother to Nora. He spends much of the first season trying to disprove any religious fervour around the events of October 14. To prove this thesis, Matt borrows, perhaps unwittingly, from the tactics of the Guilty Remnant. For the rapture to be true, only the righteous ascend to heaven, not the bad. So, Matt pours through the personal histories of the departed, highlighting their flaws to prove his argument. This sometimes has violent consequences for Matt when confronted by relatives or friends of the departed – including his own sister.

Matt’s mission, however, is motivated a deeper vanity. A belief that if indeed there was a rapture, why was he not taken? His spiritual crisis hits new depths when he loses his church to the Guilty Remnant. Despite personal setbacks, Matt’s character remains defined by his capacity to spread the good word to anyone who will listen. Nor do personal flaws prevent him from helping others. In a pivotal moment towards the end of the first season, Matt comes to the aid of Kevin. Here, we are introduced to the Book of Job, where Kevin reads Job 23:8-17 (New International Version). Kevin stumbles as he reads the line: “I have not departed from the commands of his lips.” The raw emotional realisation is too much. For the words reflect the terrifying realities of the events of October 14 and what it means to be left behind.

Watching her parents separate seems to intensify the teenage angst of Jill Garvey. She volunteers to be shut inside a refrigerator to ‘honour’ a local urban legend. Jill likely encouraged the stealing of the baby Jesus doll from the local nativity scene in episode 4, “B.J. And The A.C.”

This episode is also a synecdoche for Kevin Garvey’s arc in season one. A man seeking to do his best, but only to be met with broad indifference.

Jill’s sense of alienation is outwardly expressed in acts of hostility towards Nora. This includes acts of stalking that seek to expose her emotional deception. Again, she recruits other teenage friends to break into Nora’s to prove that nobody is ‘okay’. She risks friendships in pursuit of this misguided aim.

As David Foster Wallace argues in Infinite Jest, the pursuit of youthful acceptance propels us towards a ‘weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete’. And ‘hip’ cynicism is a bitter pill, a means to avoid an inherent loneliness, to not experience the full capacity of the human experience, as youthful expression requires a mask to fit in. For Elenore Stump, a cynic “sees others through the lens of his own character; because his character is divided against itself”. This view of the world, according to Stump, disfigures all the loveliness that comes their way, leading to worldview characterised by ‘impaired vision’.

Jill, like her father, wants her family back. She spends much of the first season seeking to reconnect with her mother. At Christmas, the only gift she gives anyone is Laurie. She presents her with an engraved lighter that reads Don’t Forget Me. Despite every maternal instinct, Laurie ditches the lighter, and later tries to retrieve from a drain. A move that rejects the anti-materialism of her cult. She may wear white, but Laurie has not quite lost all humanity.

If Nora believed that she was undeserving of hope, then so does Jill. Flashbacks of her youth confirm a once happy child, but she did witness a departure on October 14. A separate flashback scene at a science fair depicts her and Tom learning about the flow of electrical currents. The breaking of this human chain serves as a deeper more painful metaphor for Jill’s arc in season one. A pain that will take years to resolve.

Religion weighs heavy on the subject matter of the Leftovers, from fundamentalism to mainstream Christianity. Yet, it does not seek to advantage one belief over another. But it does understand something deeper about the connections between religion and art. As Karen Armstrong notes: “Like art, religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of relentless pain and injustice of life”.

What of Kevin Garvey? The closest thing we have to a protagonist. According to co-creator Damon Lindelof: “There’s a trend in television right now, like the rise of the anti-hero. The whole breed of men in their early 40s who have heroic intent but are deeply tortured.” Tom Perrotta, however, reflects that in the book, Kevin serves as the embodiment of the human desire to keep things together. But the weight of this is too much. In his repeated frustrations, you watch Kevin pushed to the brink of breakdown, and yet emerging from the experiences of the first season achieving a measure of this objective, but not without some deeper damage. Throughout the second season, Patti Levin continues to haunt Kevin, in the hope of pushing him further from what he wants to be: a devoted and loving partner and family man.

The Leftovers has the remarkable power to grant humanity to those we may despise. A chance encounter with a dying Holy Wayne speaks to the innate desire to not be alone as death awaits. Kevin grants him this small mercy, unaware of who or what this man has done. Stripped of his messianic appeal, Holy Wayne’s final confession concerns his own legacy. “I think I may be a fraud,” he confides. “But if I’m not, I can give you anything you want. That will mean I was real.” Kevin is then asked to make a wish that Holy Wayne appears to grant. When Kevin queries an investing officer about Holy Wayne, he replies: “Just another asshole who thought he was God”.

Matt Jamison also resolved to look at the Guilty Remnant with empathy in the hope of drawing them from despairing grip of a death cult. In Gladys, Matt stands outside a Guilty Remnant house with the message: “I don’t understand your faith, but I understand commitment and I respect it. But we are, all of us, no matter what we’ve suffered, still alive. We still feel pain and sorrow. We still feel loss. We still feel love.” In this fundamental Christian message, Matt tries to impart that the ideal, undiluted, and purest form of Christianity has the potential to offer refuge in times of strife. It’s an idea reflected in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. A key theme of the book that connects it to Christianity is the message of active love. This is best expressed in the teachings and life of Father Zosima, who argues that the purest way to experience to experience this form of ‘active love’ is tied to the indefatigable love of one’s neighbour. As the teachings of Christ confirm that the second greatest commandment compels believers to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ He affirms this stance when visited by a woman who doubts the afterlife. Father Zosima encourages her to reject fear and not to be scornful of others. Nor does he discount the arduous work that active love requires of its believers. But he offers the stranger hope that when all seems lost, that they will come to realise that the “miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you”.

Such a stance has consequences for Matt, but as a committed Christian, he must stick to his convictions, to speak true and with love, no matter the personal cost. Throughout the second and final seasons, Matt begins to see himself tested by God, his failures and sufferings in his mind at least, mirror that of Job. A theme explored in the later seasons.

The themes of family and love solidify the future directions, and will feature in later pieces.

Season One of The Leftovers is available on DVD or Blu Ray in most major retailers.