Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Leftovers, Episode 5: The turning point of the series

Ann Dowd, Amy Brenneman Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Episode 5 of The Leftovers was a turning point for the series. The tone of the show got a little darker, characters who were toeing lines became more decisive, and the mythology started branching out to include references to other cults and government projects. For the first time, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) accepted that his marriage was over, Jill (Margaret Qualley) told her father she loved him, and Dean (Michael Gaston), previously hinted to be a figment of Kevin's imagination, was seen by dozens of people at once. Kevin and Nora (Carrie Coon) became more bold with their flirtation, Mayor Lucy (Amanda Warren) showed a compassionate side, and Patti (Ann Dowd) actually talked … a lot.

Like previous episodes, episode 5, titled "Gladys," was a veritable treasure trove of symbolism, biblical allusion, and philosophy. At one point, Father Matt told Kevin a story from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. The story is similar to one found in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and begins with Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Some of the disciples give answers — you are like a righteous angel, you are like a philosopher — but Thomas answers that he can't actually say who Jesus is. When Jesus hears this, he takes Thomas away from the group and gives him three secret sayings. Thomas returns to the others, who ask him to reveal what Jesus said. Said Thomas: "If I tell you one of the words which he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."

At their core, Gnostic writings are concerned with transplanting secret knowledge (gnosis is Greek for "knowledge") to the reader. In the case of Thomas 13, the secret knowledge has to do with Jesus' real identity. In a commentary on this passage, scholar F. F. Bruce says it points to the Ancient cultic belief that "the untimely divulging of a holy mystery can be as destructive as fire." In other words, Thomas was given the secret because he was ready. But if he were to give the same secret to people who weren't ready to receive it, the knowledge would utterly destroy them.

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(Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Gladys

"Woman, where are your accusers?"

This is the quote I thought of while Gladys (Marceline Hugot) was being stoned in the opening segment of The Leftovers' fifth episode. It comes from a story recorded in the Gospel of John where Jesus thwarts a crowd's attempt to stone a woman after they catch her "in the act of adultery." After Jesus persuades the would-be stoners to leave, he asks the woman where her accusers are. When she says they're gone, Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."

Of course, things didn't turn out as well for Gladys, who, after being kidnapped at a gas station, was dragged through the woods, duct-taped to a tree, and pelted with stones until she died. The camera didn't look away as Gladys, growing more frightened by the second, slowly realized she wouldn't make it out. Blood poured from her head, her cheeks were split open, her glasses shot off. She began to move her lips, trying desperately to form words, to make sound. "Puh-please," she said. "Stop. Don't." The camera gave us an intimate look at Gladys, who looked pitiful, pathetic, scared. And as her voice grew louder, more imploring, more despairing, I found myself moved to tears.

Here was this woman we hate, who seemed to have no compassion for anyone in Mapleton, who broke into homes with a screwdriver and stole family portraits away from mourners; here was this woman who, just moments before being taken, coldly walked past an elderly man who had fallen down and begged her for mercy. "Please," he cried, as she walked ghost-like by, setting a good GR example for the novice Watcher she was training. Here was this woman who hadn't spoken in God knows how long, sputtering out pleases and stops like the voice of one failed apocalyptic prophet crying out in the wilderness. Here was Gladys, a stalwart bastion of GR aloofness, beyond the reach of basic human pathos — only here, she wasn't that bastion, she wasn't that GR ghost. She was a victim, and all of us — all of her haters — watched as she died one of the most agonizing deaths possible.

Gladys' death reminded me of the grandmother's death in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Like Gladys, the grandmother is a character that the audience comes to hate: she's annoying, and we kind of just wish she would die. And then the writer gives us what we want, and we're forced to confess our own inhumanity. Yes, says O'Connor, a good man is hard to find: there doesn't even seem to be one in the audience! That's a kind of reader entrapment, a literary technique used to help the audience glimpse the depravity of their own souls. When O'Connor's grandmother is shot dead, when Gladys is stoned alive, when characters finally get their comeuppance, all of us in the audience realize that we shouldn't have wished for what we wished for all along.

The stoning scene was the most brutal thing I've seen on television in a while, and a quick perusal through Twitter will show that I'm not alone here. The props department created stones that were safe enough to hurl at Hugot's face, and the makeup department sealed the illusion with their bloody effects. But in spite of the graphic nature of the scene, I agree with HBO's decision to show the stoning.

Here, too, I turn to Flannery O'Connor, who often came under fire for including too many disturbing details in her stories. These details, she argued, convince an audience otherwise not attuned to ethical nuance that there is such a thing as moral distortion: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." What better way to force us to confront our hatred of Gladys — and indeed, of all the GR — than by making us watch her life slowly forced out of her skull? It won't do for us to protest that there should have been a #TriggerWarning given how disturbing the scene was. It was a disturbing scene; it was meant to be a disturbing scene. One of the highest functions of a good story is disturbance: we ought to be confronted, perhaps even egregiously, with ideas that will seem despicable to us. How else are we to learn to judge those ideas?

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Marceline Hugot, Ann Dowd. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Laurie

Laurie, too, evolved a bit during this week's episode. Discovering Gladys' body in the woods was clearly traumatizing. While she was searching for Gladys with the other GR, Laurie was guided (?) to the lifeless body by Dean. Upon discovering her, Laurie shone her flashlight on the bloodied carcass, and dropped to her knees, which, at least to my mind, carried overtones of Mary at the crucifixion of Jesus. Behold the man, I thought, as Laurie beheld the broken body of Gladys hanging lifeless on a tree. Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.

Laurie was understandably affected by Gladys' murder and began to have a panic attack while Meg (Liv Tyler) was talking with her. "Are you surprised?" asked Meg, taking a cigarette from Laurie and smoking it for the first time since she joined the GR. "We want them to remember something they want to forget," she said, and Laurie went pale. Was she made uncomfortable by Meg's transformation to a GR prophet? Maybe Laurie was secretly hoping Meg would change her mind and return home to her fiancee — something Laurie herself couldn't do. This episode showed Meg's complete transformation to full GR member. Not only did she smoke for the first time, she also communicated in writing for the first time, too. And she seemed colder, as her brief, callous exchange with Kevin showed. "I just hope she didn't suffer too much," said Meg, and that's when Laurie lost it. She tried to catch her breath as Meg held her up and called for someone to help. "Please," she cried, which called to mind Gladys' unsuccessful plea the night before.

Laurie was taken to a hospital, where she was given a prescription for medication to help with future panic attacks. Patti picked her up from the hospital and took her to a hotel — Patti was giving Laurie a day off. Laurie's room was clearly non-smoking, so she wouldn't have to worry about performing her GR duties as long as she was a patron there. As she ran her hands under the bath water, I thought of Matt (Christopher Eccleston) bathing his crippled wife in episode 3 — Laurie had no one to bathe her. She was self-reliant. No family.

But though she might publicly live by the GR motto "No Family," we've already seen that Laurie does in fact miss her family. She sometimes sneaks to her old house in the middle of the night to sit on Jill's swing set. And despite the cool disaffection she turned on for Meg, she really did want to keep the lighter her daughter Jill had made for her. There is a deep tension within Laurie between her loyalty to Kevin, Jill, and Tom, and her loyalty to the GR. And Patti can sense this. Patti thinks Laurie is getting weak, and becoming vulnerable. This week, we saw Laurie wave and smile to one of the children she was supposed to be watching: that's surely not GR protocol.

But if there were any doubts about Laurie's allegiance to the GR, by the end of the episode Laurie made it clear whose side she was on. As Father Matt stood outside of the GR's house honoring Gladys with a makeshift funeral, the camera zoomed in on Laurie, who seemed affected by Matt's sermonizing. To her right hung a GR adage: It won't be long now. What won't be long now?

Matt invited the GR to come outside and join him as he recited Psalm 121, which begins I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord. Laurie ran outside, and we and Patti thought she'd decided to leave her GR life and return to the world of feelings and warmth and family. But that didn't happen. As Matt continued to recite the psalm, Laurie blew the whistle that Kevin dropped off to the GR earlier that day. (Kevin told the GR to blow the whistles if anyone was trying to hurt them, and police would respond.) She blew the whistle fiercely, doggedly, announcing her protest to Matt and all of Mapleton. She's a member of the GR. She's not going anywhere. She has no doubt, and she will not be burned to ash.

Laurie's involvement with the GR has always affected Kevin, but it's really started to take a toll on him this week. For one thing, he realizes it's "open season" on the GR, and is worried his wife might be a target for a possible "hate crime." Kevin is starting to become more of a loose canon: he's more easily angered, and he's having an increasingly difficult time with managing his anger. His exchange at the dry-cleaners bordered on violence, and I was actually concerned he might assault the launderer. But though he's angry, Kevin still seems morally centered (for the most part).

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Justin Theroux. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Patti

The opening shot of episode 5 seemed foreboding enough: Gladys was slouching in a chair, backlit by light emanating through a window in Patti's (Ann Dowd) office. The two were engaged in a seemingly intense but wordless conversation. Patti looked a bit more troubled than usual, but Gladys appeared as resolute as ever, ending the scene with a firm, determined nod. What was that nod about? Did Patti and Gladys have a "talk" about what was coming? Did the nod signal that somehow Gladys knew what she had to do, what she had to allow to be done to her? Was the nod her agreement of martyrdom — that she somehow knew she would have to be murdered for the good of the Guilty Remnant?

This is obviously speculation. Episode 5 never came back to the short scene between Patti and Gladys, and we're left trying to make sense of it on our own. I'm almost positive that at some point down the road, The Leftovers will come back to this scene and contextualize it in a way that adds some clarification to Gladys' tragic murder (martyrdom?). But I think we did get several possible nods in the direction of an answer during Patti's scene with Laurie in the hotel restaurant.

"You look nice," said Patti, to a confused Laurie. Patti was talking, and obviously, that was against the GR rules. But Patti was aware of that — she wasn't breaking the rules, they were taking a day off from adhering to them. "Just for today," she told Laurie, "you can say anything you want to." But though Laurie moved her mouth and tried to force out some sound, she ultimately ended up staying true to her GR vow of silence. This might have been voluntary, but I also got the sense that Laurie was truly unable to speak in that moment. Giving up your voice is, in a way, death, and it's hard to recover from that.

So why the holiday from silence and smoking? Well, presumably Patti didn't want Laurie to end up like Gladys. As she explained it to Laurie, Patti took Gladys out to the same restaurant almost a year ago, after she found out her son had been killed in a helicopter crash in Yemen. "As you can imagine," said Patti, "she didn't take it well." According to Patti, Gladys became distracted with her feelings: she started "moping" (read: grieving) out in public, and people began noticing. So Patti brought her to the hotel, and asked her to "speak her troubles out loud." But Gladys wouldn't break her vow of silence — and, though this is presumptive, I can't help but wonder if Gladys' decision had something to do with her murder one year later. (I don't think I'm the only one wondering if Patti had something to do with the stoning. Again, I'm sure we'll find out more once the series goes back to contextualize the cold open with Patti and Gladys.)

Ann Dowd really is a tremendous actress, and this scene with Laurie was her greatest so far. When Laurie insisted on keeping quiet, Patti grabbed her arm and gave her the same advice she gave Gladys:

I understand before. I understand your family ... I understand that going back to them feels comfortable and easy, because the alternative of what we do is very, very hard. But there can't be any doubt, Laurie, because doubt is fire. And fire's gonna burn you up until you are but ash.

She let go of Laurie's arm and, almost instantly, changed characters. She drummed the table in the ba-da-DUM way you do when you tell a joke. The drumming is sort of like a punchline, a comical button to what came before it. But if Patti was amused, Laurie wasn't. Essentially, Patti was shifting the blame of Gladys' murder onto Gladys — Gladys died, she said, because she doubted her purpose with the GR, and that doubt was her undoing. The last shot of the episode seemed to prove the truth of Patti's adage: at the crematorium, Gladys quite literally was burned up until she was but ash. Who knows how exactly this should be interpreted in light of the Gnostic passage from Thomas. I think it's safe to say the leadership of the GR — including Gladys — do have secrets, and that those secrets somehow resulted in Gladys' stoning. The GR is hardly the only cult in town, as was emphasized this week during Kevin's phone call with Agent Kilaney (whose very agency was renamed to reflect its anti-cult duties). Maybe Patti's getting more desperate and going to more extreme lengths to carry out her prophetic plans? Maybe even those plans include murdering one of her own? And maybe Laurie secretly understands this and that's why she so wholeheartedly took a stand against Matt: she's earning back Patti's trust to avoid her own stoning.

Patti asked her waitress for a doggie bag, but the waitress was confused because, well, there were no leftovers (ba-da-dum!). For the first time since their GR-holiday began, Patti picked up a pen to write something down. "Remember what you told me to do in the last session before everything changed?" she asked Laurie, and wrote down the name Neil on the doggie bag. She started to lose it, and devolved into a cackling mess of crazy, before asking permission to be excused in a sing-song cartoon voice. The side of Patti that was displayed in episode 5 seemed volatile and potentially-explosive. No doubt she feels pressure being the leader of a cult. And now with the introduction of Neil to her backstory — I assume it's a family member? — further complicates her character. And lest we decide that she's through and through an evil person deserving of a bad ending — let's remember Gladys hanging on that tree. Moving us to empathize with characters who seem to scorn compassion is one of the highest achievements of writing.

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Christopher Eccleston. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • What happened to Kevin's white shirts? This moment seemed important to me, and I'm sure it will be picked up again at some point. Maybe Kevin is simply misplacing them, but I think it's more than that. Also, an empty hanger in the closet with a heart on it is the perfect symbol for Kevin's unreturned love for Laurie.
  • Kevin and Nora are really getting close. I'm sure that this will eventually lead to something romantic at some point. From a character standpoint, that would be the perfect way to complicate the Laurie/Kevin love story. It would also make Nora come to terms with her husband's departure … and infidelity.
  • Jill's friend Aimee (Emily Meade) is a little too blatantly obvious with her crush on Kevin. I'm really hoping that nothing happens there.
  • What was up with that guy with the dogs who found Kevin sleeping in his car? It looks like those dogs are the same ones Dean is hunting. And the guy's eery warning to Kevin — "Don't investigate too hard!" — could certainly be taken to suggest that he had something to do with Gladys' murder.
  • ATFEC is the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Cults. This is who one of Kevin's officers called to report Gladys' murder. Kevin was angry about it, but there was nothing he could do once AFTEC set the ball rolling.
  • Agent Kilaney of ATFEC told Kevin that he could take care of the GR "infestation" for him if he wanted. In other words, if Kevin gave the word, AFTEC agents would visit the GR headquarters and slaughter everyone. "Don't worry about your victim," said Kilaney, "worry about your town." But of course, Kevin wasn't worried about Gladys — he was worried about Laurie.

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