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The Leftovers' third episode is perfect television

Christopher Eccleston in 'The Leftovers'
Christopher Eccleston in 'The Leftovers'
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

This is the story of a man who lived by a river.

One day it started to rain very hard, and the river began to flood. A boat came by to offer him a way off his flooded porch. "Don't worry about me," said the man as he sent the boat away. "God will save me."

Soon the man's first floor was covered in water and a second boat rode by: "Get in," the passengers called, "we can help you." Again came the stubborn man's refrain: "Don't worry — God will save me."

In a few short hours, the man's entire house was under water, save the chimney on which he, praying, perched. A helicopter appeared overhead and tossed down a rope, but, as with the two boats: "God will save me" and all that.

As his last chance of survival flew from sight, and the water swallowed his chimney stoop, the man of faith, accusingly, cried out to God, "I had faith in you! Why haven't you come through yet?" The skies opened up, and God called down, "What more do you want me to do? I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"

Matthew

This week's episode of the The Leftovers was cryptically titled "Two Boats and a Helicopter," an unexplained allusion to the above story. Granted, I have no confirmation that the story I just told is the popular parable from which the writers derived their title, but I'm almost willing to gamble that this is precisely what they had in mind. (Remember what showrunner Damon Lindelof said last week: it's up to us, the viewers, to figure out how exactly his "purposefully pretentious" titles fit in with the greater themes of the show.)

This week's episode concentrated mainly on Matt, an Episcopal priest, played by the insanely talented Christopher Eccleston, who fans of Doctor Who will remember as the Ninth Doctor. This wasn't the first time we've seen Matt. He was in last week's episode, too, but was given only brief screen time. He was handing out fliers featuring the names, faces, and sins of some of the people who vanished on October 14. Like the Guilty Remnant, Matthew seemed to consider himself a prophetic voice whose task was to shed some light on the Vanishings. In this week's episode, we heard Matthew explain his vocation — and his motivation — in his own words.

Epiphany

As we learned from the opening shot of the hymn board next to Matt that episode 3 takes place during the Christian feast day of Epiphany. Epiphany falls on January 6, which means almost 3 months have passed since the third year anniversary of the Vanishings. The word comes from a Greek word (epiphaneia) meaning "to appear" — it's through and through an apocalyptic term. In the New Testament, the word is used several times to refer to the belief that Christ will suddenly appear one day, balance the cosmic scales, and put the world to rights. (Some Christians call this the rapture.)

The word can also refer to other appearances of God: most notably, God's appearance in the Incarnate Jesus. In fact, this is the appearance that Epiphany commemorates: the revelation that God is here, active now, in this material world, taking up residence in physical, earthly things — things like babies and religious prophets, yes; but also everyday things, like pigeons, and roulette tables, and bath water.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As the episode opened, Matt's Epiphany homily was heard over a montage of him taking care of the church. With careful hands, Matt polished the altar, set out communion wafers, and swept the vestibule. As he swept, he noticed a pigeon on the front steps, and, shooing it away with the broom, he caught the familiar sight of two stalking, smoking members of the GR. Matt's homily detailed his childhood fight with acute lymphatic cancer. Matt was lucky — he beat his cancer. But, as he explained to his congregation, he was left with a choice: was the cancer a punishment or a reward? Ultimately, he decided to be grateful because, in his words, the struggle changed him. It made him.

Baptism by water

While all Christian traditions commemorate God's manifestation in Jesus during Epiphany, some strands put special emphasis during this time on the story of Jesus' baptism. As recorded in the Gospels, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist — an eccentric prophet "crying in the wilderness," warning his hearers to repent of their sins and prepare themselves to receive God's messiah. The sign of their forgiveness was to be submersion in water, a practice whose roots stretch back to the Jewish custom known as Tvilah, a ritual whereby a conversion to Judaism is purified.

But while water can purify, it can also destroy. Think back to the story of Noah's flood. Because of the wickedness of the earth in Noah's day, God sent a flood to annihilate all the life he'd created. In the New Testament, this flood was interpreted as a kind of baptism whereby God purged sin from his creation. Like Matthew's cancer, baptism could be interpreted as a life-giving blessing or a life-ending curse.

Episode three taught us that Matthew's congregation has declined, and so, too, have collections. As a result, Matthew was in danger of losing the church to the bank unless he came up with $135,000. It seemed that not many people were ready to visit Our Savior since the inexplicable Vanishings. Were Mapletonians mad at God? Mad at their priest? After all, his prophetic sinner-shaming antics have made him many enemies, like his assailant in the opening scene.

One day as he cleaned his church, Matthew was surprised by a knock at the door. The man, a former congregant, was there with his child. "Are you open?" the man inquired, seemingly anxious. The priest invited him in, and learned that he was there, without his wife's knowledge, in the hopes of getting his son baptized: "How long does it take to do a — you know — baptism?" Max Richter's angelic score faded in, and Matthew, with all the quiet subtlety that the actor commands, appeared to grow guardedly hopeful.

The baptism sequence was the most beautiful of the series, so far. The camera started with a wide shot to set up the scene: a father holding his crying child, a priest blessing the sacramental water. We were then treated to closeups of the crying baby rocking in his father's arms, and the priest gently pouring water upon his head. There was special significance given to Matthew's hands as he bathed the child with holy water, and carefully, fragilely drew the sign of the cross on his forehead. He then took a white cloth and dried the baby off, before kissing him, and ever-so-gently laying his cheek against the babe's. Throughout the ritual, Matthew's face remained solemn; and yet, underneath that gravity was a lightness, a hilarity waiting to break forth. Is this the child who will bring us hope? Is this baby the sign that God has not forgotten us? Just like John the Baptist had learned with Jesus in the Jordan, so, too, did Matthew discover that the act of baptism reveals the grace of God.

During the baptism sequence, I called to mind Matthew's beautiful Epiphany prayer for a comatose girl named Emily: "Allow your healing hand to touch this girl," he prayed to God. If Epiphany is the day that Christians remember God's manifestation in one person, it's also the day they remember his manifestation in all people. Praying for God's hand to touch someone requires that the prayerful be willing to touch them, too. For as St. Paul writes to Christians, "You are the body of Christ." Matthew, then, as a priest, is literally, physically the hands of God — he is, in a sense, an epiphany of God.

Baptism by fire

After the bank told Matt a corporate LLC — "probably a hedge fund" — made an offer on the church, the priest went to his sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), for a loan. As we found out tonight, the two have really been through a lot together, including a house fire that claimed both their parents, who left their children Our Savior Episcopal Church. When Nora denied the loan, an argument ensued, and, for the first time in this series, God was explicitly brought up.

"Don't say that word," Matt yelled to his sister, referring to her invocation of God's name. "You don't get to talk about something you don't believe in."

"I don't get to?" fired back Nora. "What do you believe in Matt? Do you know where my family went?" And of course, he doesn't have an answer for her.

I'm conflicted about this scene. On the one hand, I thought Nora was right to challenge Matt's faith. But on the other hand, I thought the dialogue here was slightly overwritten. Granted, that's always the danger when God is brought from the subtext to the forefront, but I thought the script here could've benefited from some of the more pulled-back nuance that shines through in other scenes.

Matt, more desperate than ever, returned home to his wife (Janel Moloney), who, as we learned near the end of the episode, was paralyzed in a car accident on October 14. (This revelation reminded me of Lindelof's masterful Lost episode, The Other 48 Days, which retroactively filled in the gaps of motivation and circumstance over the course of two entire seasons of that show.)  "Hello, sweetheart," he whispered, before kissing her gently on her mouth. She remained lifeless on her hospital bed, save her eyes which lowered to look at her husband as he playfully rubbed his nose against hers. Strings began playing Richter's haunting motif, and Matt picked up his wife's paralyzed body and took her to the bathtub. The camera panned out to reveal the religious icon hanging on the wall to the left of the couple — a cross, the universal symbol of a broken body.

The bath sequence was undoubtedly supposed to be read against the earlier baptism Matt performed. In both, the camera focused on his hands as they gracefully, methodically poured water over the innocent heads of the baptized. "Allow your healing hand to touch this girl," Matt prayed in the opening scene. Here he was, days later, being the healing hands of God to his wife, offering to her brokenness the physical touch of an invisible God. After anointing her broken body with lotion, Matt pulled out a cot to sleep on. Through stifled cries, he prayed, "Help me."

The camera then cut to the painting hanging on his wall: a 16th-century oil by Albrecht Dürer depicting the biblical characters Job and his wife. In the painting, suffering Job sits, dejected, as his wife pours water over his head. Of course, the painting is the inversion of the scene we just witnessed, in which the husband was the one bathing his suffering wife. The other thing worth noting is this painting is actually part of a larger worker by Dürer, known as the Jabach Altarpiece. The panel that Matt doesn't have depicts two musicians — one with a flute, one with a drum — playing songs for Job. The question the painting presents us with is: Are the musicians trying to soothe the sufferer or are they mocking him? Are they a blessing to Job, or a curse?

Looking at the painting, Matt suddenly had an epiphany. He knew how we would get the money to save his church.

Matt raced over to Kevin Garvey's house where, after triggering the motion sensor lights, he found Laurie sitting on the swing set in the backyard. Even though it was simple and understated, I loved this moment. Over three years ago, 140 million people vanished in the twinkling of an eye (see my review of episode 2). This week, one of the Departed was recovered, was made manifest in the twinkling of an eye, or in the flash of a high-powered light. Of course, as I've noted before, Laurie's rapture is self-imposed — she willingly walked away from her family — and so de-rapturing, or reappearing, is a possibility for her. But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's easy, and for some reason, Laurie still has a compelling enough reason to stay away from the family that she still longs for.

Baptism by … blood?

Laurie left, and Matt dug up a jar of Jiffy peanut butter in the backyard — remember that jar of peanut butter from episode 2? — containing $20,000. The money was reserved for the "Rev" (which I assume refers to Matt) and was gifted from "K.G.," or Kevin Garvey. The note from K.G. was scribbled on the back of one of Matt's sinner-shaming fliers; this one contained a picture of Judge Roy Hader, who is probably the judge Nora referred to during their argument. The flier accused Hader of accepting bribes. (Here's my theory: after Matt's wife was paralyzed in a car crash, he went to court to seek financial retribution. Hader was the presiding judge and ruled against Matt, who then decided that the judge's ruling was unjust. K.G. agreed with Matt, and, feeling sympathy for him, left him a sum of money to help when he most needed it.)

Money in hand, Matt got in his car and drove to the casino, the same casino he was at earlier in the episode trying to learn more about a sinner he wanted to put on a poster. While there, he heard an angry gambler holler, "Jesus fucking Christ!" because two pigeons had landed on his roulette table and threw his bet. As the birds flew away, Matt seemed to have another epiphany — he'd seen pigeons earlier in the episode on the steps of his church. Were these the same ones? Were they a sign? Matt saw pigeons for a third time on his way back to the casino. They were perched atop a red light. As Matt stared at them, a look of perplex ion came over his face: What were the birds trying to communicate? That might not be too crazy a thought in the world of The Leftovers: in the pilot, Kevin seemed convinced that a deer was trying to tell him something.

Matt exchanged his $20,000 for gambling chips, and the teller asked him which denomination he'd like them in. "Does it matter?" said Matt, a bit of wordplay which made me chuckle because, in a world of literally thousands of Christian denominations, denominational divisions definitely seem to matter to many people. Matt ended up winning big — he left with $160,000 — and decided it was time to leave. He got into his car looking renewed and accomplished. Finally, he could pay off the debt and keep Mapleton's church open. All was right with the world…

Knock knock knock

Matt opened his car window just a bit to hear the stranger's request. Could Matt possibly give him $100 so he and his girlfriend could make it to Niagara Falls. See, he blew all of his money, and now he was out of luck. The exchange reminded me of a confession of sorts: here was a sinner confessing his gambling problems to a priest, who sat listening on the other side of the partition. When the supplicant ended up assaulting the priest and taking off with his money, Matt chased him, overpowered him, and repeatedly slammed his head into the street pavement.

The gentle hands that poured water over his paralyzed wife's head, that made the sign of the cross over the baby's head, these were the same hands that now forcefully laid hold of a thief's head, and, without any trepidation, beat him viciously. Matt's first two baptisms were a blessing to all involved. His third baptism was a curse. If Matt's bout with cancer was a test that made him, his assault of this thief remade him. Or perhaps it unmade him?

Two boats and a helicopter?

In spite of his best efforts, Matt ended up losing his church. In a surprise twist that I didn't see coming — but looking back, I should've! — Our Savior Episcopal Church was bought by the GR. The irony of this purchase was painful. While Matt was driving to the bank to pay off the mortgage with his casino winnings, he stopped on the side of the road to help two smoking prophets who had just been hit with rocks from a passing car.

As Matt got out of his car to offer assistance, I thought about Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. As the story goes, a Jewish man is beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Two people, one of them a priest, see the man, but keep walking without so much as giving the victim a second thought. The hero of the story is the good Samaritan who stops to take care of the hurting man — an ironic ending indeed for Jesus' parable, given the historic tension between Jews and Samaritans. In the ancient world, Jews saw Samaritans as an out-group: they were both ethnically and ceremonially unclean.

In The Leftovers' version of the Good Samaritan, the priest did stop to help a victim lying on the side of the road. At least, we assume he's still a priest. Maybe his violent actions stripped him of his priestly mystique. Maybe he stopped to help the GR because he is now just a simple, unclean Samaritan.

While Matt is on the phone with 9-1-1, the assailants come back and chuck a rock at him, knocking him unconscious for three days. It's during these three days that the GR take ownership of his church. The realization that Matt could have prevented the GR from buying Our Savior if only he hadn't stopped to take care of two of their own was depressingly striking. Matt was given a choice between saving a religious building or saving an enemy: he made the latter choice. He made the right choice.

The last scene saw Matt walking to his church only to find the smoking prophets remodeling. They were whitewashing the beautiful stained glass windows. Whitewashing is a biblical term of judgment. "Woe to you," Jesus said to the misguided religious leadership of his day. "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones." Was the GR's painting an acted-out judgment on Matt — he did, after all, have the secret of dead people's bones inside him?

The last few frames of the episode showed Patti taking down the lettering of the church sign Matt put up in the first scene: "HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU," it read. Why was Patti taking this sign down? Did she disagree with the "HE" part, or the "ALWAYS WITH YOU" part? In the creepiest moment of the episode, the camera showed Patti taking down the letters "Y-O-U." Patti seems to be the one who erases individual identities. When people, like Meg, join her remnant, she strips away their dress, their mannerisms, and their voices. They cease to be who they were, and become ghosts, haunting reminders of all those — good and evil — who disappeared on October 14.

So why were seemingly evil people taken away with good people three years ago? This is the question that drives Matt. As he said, "If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering is meaningless." Matt believes it is his calling from God to be that someone.

But just as the two boats/helicopter parable reminds us, sometimes we can be mistaken about the voice of God. Matt interpreted his 3 pigeon sightings as the sign that he should place a bet on red on a specific roulette table. But maybe he was wrong about the pigeons; maybe they were sent to be a warning for Matt not to attempt to save the church, since it was just going to be sold to the GR anyway. The episode title also recalls the very concept of Epiphany: that God works through human hands. Because the old man by the river was so focused on an otherworldly spirituality, he failed to recognize that God might choose to use very human things — two boats and a helicopter — to answer his prayers.

I've heard the old parable told in two ways — in one, the man of faith drowns, in the other he survives. I'm not sure yet which version Matt's story is.