"I'm just trying to warn you / You'd do good to move on / No it won't hurt me none / 'cause I'm not the one."
These are the lyrics that opened up episode four of The Leftovers. As the Black Keys played in the background, we watched hands clad in blue gloves methodically constructing baby dolls. The images of these playthings being mass produced set the tone for the entire show: disembodied heads riding around a rusty wheel, glassy blue eyes being popped into lifeless sockets, all the while the words "I'm not the one" looped over and over again.
The dolls were then dressed and put into their boxes branded with the word Aforda — like all mass-produced goods, this, too, can be yours on the cheap! We saw the toys lining the shelves of a supermarket as a woman came in and bought one of them, the words "It's a Boy!" plastered on the Aforda box. She took him home, stripped him, swaddled him in a gold garment, and then placed him in a manger. This wasn't any mass-produced baby — this was Jesus, meek and mild, hailed by the magi kneeling before him as the rightful King of the World.
The camera opened up to a wide shot of the manger scene, and showed several days lapse in quick succession. One day, members of the Guilty Remnant were standing in front of the scene smoking; another snowy day, a wigless Santa hurried by on his way to or from his stint at the mall. Proudly standing tall above the Nativity scene was an American flag. The camera began to zoom in on the manger, and we realized something was wrong: the Baby Jesus was missing from his resting place. The one and only Baby Jesus. The irreplaceable baby Jesus.
Except — I'm not the one, no I'm not the one — was that the real Baby Jesus?
As the opening scene in the doll factory showed us, baby Jesus' are mass-produced these days. How are we to ever find the one among the many? The historical among the revisions? How are we to know who is Lord when there are an infinite amount of white, blue-eyed playthings competing for our worship?
This is the question episode four asked, and, like many of the show's most fundamental questions, it is deeply apocalyptic.
B.J. and the A.C.
On a basic level, the New Testament Book of Revelation is a veiled critique of ruling authority. It was written at a time when Christian communities started coming under intense persecution for their unpatriotic creed Jesus is Lord. Of course, in the first century, when someone said, "Jesus is Lord," what she was really saying was "Caesar isn't Lord." Contrary to some ahistorical theologies, early Christianity was through and through a political force to be reckoned with — which certainly explains believers being thrown to lion dens. But if early Christianity was political, it wasn't political the way the religious right today is, in proscribing rules for earthly leaders to follow. Early Christianity was political in that it critiqued the ruling powers of its day, and predicted that one day — perhaps soon — the rightful King of the World was going to overthrow those false powers and reestablish his reign on earth as in Heaven.
The Book of Revelation, then, is an imaginative exploration of what happens when God and Rome clash, when the rightful ruler of this world faces off against the impostor. While this battle is on full display throughout the entirety of the New Testament text, John the mystic (who many scholars believe wrote Revelation) brings it to a climax in the epic battle between Jesus and the Antichrist. According to John, the Antichrist will be the most deceptive false messiah the world has ever seen.
Interestingly enough, the title of episode four is "B.J. and the A.C." It seems pretty clear to me that those are abbreviations for "Baby Jesus and the Antichrist." The term "Antichrist," contrary to popular belief, doesn't actually mean "against Christ." The Greek prefix can also mean "instead of" — the false messiah is the one who comes instead of the real Christ. The opening scene establishes that the Baby Jesus is missing ... and needs to be replaced. A baby needs to be laid in his stead in the manger. After all, it is Christmas. Mapleton can't have a godless Nativity. They've had enough people vanish from sight — they can't have Jesus getting raptured away too.
What, then, to do about the Baby Jesus?
So the swaddled infant is gone. What is police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux) going to do about it? Well, if it were up to him, nothing. At the beginning of the episode, Kevin didn't care that Bethlehem was missing its most famous character: "Am I supposed to give a shit?" he asked Dennis, when he was informed about the theft. But apparently, he is supposed to care about the theft, as Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) informed him. All you have to do, she told Kevin, is run over to the super store and buy a replacement. But Kevin wasn't too keen about simply putting a new baby in the manger. As his daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), told him earlier that day, simply buying a new doll to drop in the old one's stead would be cheating: "You can't just get a new one. It's sacred."
Whether his daughter's words convinced him or he legitimately had a change of heart, for some reason Kevin pushed back against his superior (which is something we've come to expect of their relationship). "Oh, for fuck's sake," Lucy replied, "it's not the actual baby Jesus." Is it not? Her orders were simple: go procure a new body, strip him naked, and rough him up. Interestingly, that language sounded less like it was describing a manger and more like a crucifixion scene. Which historical version is the real Jesus: The gentle infant who was adored, or the rabble rouser who was martyred?
Oh, and be sure to get a white doll, the Mayor told him. ("Obviously the fucking white one!" she shouted into her phone at Marlene.) The fact that the mayor was a black woman only heightened the irony of this order. Was this detail, too, a critique of our culture's fascination with mass-marketed Jesuses? A white Jesus is obviously not historical; nor is an American Jesus (call to mind the American flag flying overtop the Nativity in the opening sequence). And yet, a pro-American, white Jesus wrapped in gorgeous golden fabric is exactly the kind of Messiah that sometimes rears his head in our most shrill political discussions. Are the writers of The Leftovers critiquing popular American Christianity with these details?
Aforda was the brand name of Mapleton's baby Jesus, which brought to my mind images of mega churches and gold-encrusted altars, some of which are constructed in our nation's poorest cities. "Always give God your money," preach the masterminds behind these artifices, "And the floodgates of Heaven will open up, and showers of wealth will rain down upon you."
And yet, in spite of the fact that this "Health and Wealth" gospel is mass-marketed and branded as the teaching of Christ, in the Book of Revelation, we actually discover that the antichrist is the one peddling the promise of wealth. This isn't surprising: wealth and power go hand in hand in empires, and to critique the misuse of one is to critique the misuse of the other. But for some reason, many of our loudest and richest Christian ministers have seemingly forgotten about the apocalyptic warning against mammon.
Kevin disobeys his boss' orders, and sets out on a journey to find the missing Jesus. A replacement won't do — he is going to find the body that was stolen.
"Sacred" was indeed a strange word for Jill to invoke as the reason why her father shouldn't replace the stolen Jesus with a fake. After all, she was the culprit behind the kidnapping. Just a few scenes after she goaded her father to open an investigation into the missing doll, we saw her holding a joint up to the doll's mouth as a friend took a picture. Jill's character seems really all over the place. Like many teenagers dealing with grief, Jill doesn't seem to know what it is that she wants, and more importantly, why it is that she wants it. For instance, why did she want her dad to look for the baby Jesus when she had him all along? What were her intentions? In contrast, Aimee (Emily Meade) seemed more reserved in this episode, most notably in this scene, which I'm calling the mock crucifixion.
It was nighttime. There were about a dozen high school students there, including the hot, goofy twins (Max and Charlier Carver). One of the twins told Jill that her dad knows she's the one who stole Jesus, as they found out earlier that day when he unofficially pulled them over. The baby was mockingly hailed as "Son of God," "Lamb of God, "King of Kings" - indeed, a triune benediction. One of the youths then pulled down his pants to offer a gift to the innocent baby: "As our esteemed guest was unjustly crucified by the Romans, I'm bestowing unto him a Roman soldier's helmet." He then squatted over the baby and placed his scrotum on his head. "Get your balls off the Son of God," protested Aimee.
Jill then had an idea: she should give the baby an ancient water burial, and light him ablaze and float him out to sea. Before they set him afloat on the water — which certainly had overtones of the birth of Moses, another prophetic deliver — they anointed him with gasoline. Jill picked up a Nerf gun, which was the perfect prop to tag her with in that moment: it highlighted how absurdly juvenile she was being. Her foam arrow was lit on fire, and she prepared herself to destroy the evidence of her crime. As the music swelled, the camera cut to behind Jill's right shoulder, overlooking both the fiery arrow and the floating baby several yards out. After yet another change of heart, Jill put down her weapon and told her friends to go fuck themselves. ("Go fuck ourselves!" they cheered, claiming her judgment as their own.) As Jill warmed herself by the fire, I couldn't help but think of Peter, Jesus' friend and disciple, who also warmed himself by a fire after he betrayed his Jesus on the night of his arrest.
While I'm not sure what exactly Jill's motivations are, it seems clear that she's deeply affected by her family's breakdown. After she leaves her mock crucifixion, she walks in on her parents have a conversation about divorce. Well, not a conversation, really. Jill's mom, Laurie (Amy Brenneman) is a member of the Guilty Remnant, and the senior members are required to remain silent and communicate only through writing. Or, as we found out tonight, through other lower-ranking members, like Meg (Liv Tyler), who accompanied her fellow chain-smoking prophet to her husband's house to present him with divorce papers.
This scene was hands-down the best performance of the episode (and maybe one of the top performances of the series so far). As Laurie stared (longingly?) at Kevin, Meg began to read the note Laurie wrote for him. "You deserve to look at me when it's said," read Meg to a confused Kevin who sat searching his wife's face for any signal that her self-imposed rapture was over, that she would return to him, that they would begin to pick up the pieces of their broken lives together, as a family.
We learned from the letter that Kevin was there for Laurie when she needed him most, after she'd been hurt by a former partner. We also learned that Tommy wasn't Kevin's biological son, though he tried to raise him as his own. Meg continued to read the letter with a calm, steady voice as Kevin started questioning his wife. "This isn't your fault," read Meg, "it's nobody's fault," and Kevin asked her to stop reading. She kept on with her task at hand, as Kevin grew more impatient and frantic, finally swearing at Meg to shut up. When he was handed an Action for Divorce, he rejected the proposition. "No!" he shouted. "I'm your husband. We made fucking vows. You want this over? You fucking say it. You fucking say it."
This scene was a painful lesson in communication breakdown. But it was also, refreshingly, a reminder that at the heart of marital love is a vow of commitment. While trying to win Laurie back, Kevin didn't wax romantic about their first date, or their passionate sex, or all the good memories they shared. He invoked their vows — and with that, he deconstructed the entire empire we've built upon cheap, capricious notions of romance. Apocalyptic literature doesn't only dethrone Mammon; it also dethrones Eros.
When Laurie and Kevin noticed their daughter, the conversation halted. Jill walked over to the Christmas tree, picked up the gift she wrapped for her mom, and handed it to her before going to her room. This brief exchange between mother and daughter was the first they'd had since she left six months ago. While she and Meg made their way back to the GR headquarters, Laurie opened her daughter's gift. It was a lighter with the words "Don't forget me" inscribed on it. Meg insisted Laurie keep the gift, but Laurie — no doubt remembering the GR rule about giving up possessions and attachments to their old lives — dumped Jill's gift in a gutter, and silently walked away. What explains this tension in Laurie? She obviously loves and misses her family, as we learned last week when we saw her sitting on her children's swing set. Why, then, does she continue to alienate herself, to rapture herself away from them?
Laurie attempted an answer this week. After October 14, Laurie was broken. As Meg explained, she tried to fix herself for the sake of her family, but ultimately failed. "I think I'm supposed to stay broken," read Laurie's letter. "Maybe we all are." But her family disagrees with her. Think back to the ending of the pilot, when Kevin punched the family portrait; the frame might be shattered, but Jill is going to try her hardest to put the pieces back together.
Of course, the GR have intentions concerning family portraits, too. While the residents of Mapleton are celebrating at their annual holiday dance, members of the GR break into their homes and remove every picture they find from its frame. The GR, it seems, are growing ever more dark. Chain-smoking in public is — though hardly harmless! — a petty societal grievance; break-in and robbery is criminal. Max Richter's score for this scene was chilling; the strings were menacing, and as they crescendoed, the camera displayed a wall bearing empty picture frames.
What was the message the GR intended to send with this prophetic action? Presumably, the photos they took contained images of the Departed. If the GR see their duty as reminding Mapleton of October 14, why would they try to erase the memory of that life-altering day? On the other hand, maybe the GR didn't like how Mapletonians were remembering their loved ones, in happy images of hugging and bonding and playing and loving. Maybe the GR's message, then, was, You are remembering the Departed in the wrong way. Don't remember them as smiling faces. Remember them as Ghosts, as Deletions from your lives, as people whose faces you are unworthy to behold. At any rate, the scene reminded me of a line from G.K. Chesterton: "The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame." Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or the Watcher.
Get a new baby?
We found out in episode 4 why Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) thinks Christine (Annie Q) is "special" — she's pregnant with his child. While she and Tom sat waiting for Wayne to call, a curious pants-less man crept over to Christine to ask, "Why are you in my dream?" The tension quickly mounts as the man attacks Christine. Tom pulls him off, but not before Christine is knocked over. The struggle between Tom and the naked stranger (his penis on full display) was intense, and they were finally pulled apart from each other. As Christine and Tom left, the man shouted, "I know what's inside you." We know what's inside her — Wayne's child. But her attacker seems to mean something much more foreboding: the child Christine carries means something for the overall mythology of the series. In terms of the episode's title, the baby would be the A.C., the antichrist. If that's true, then it would certainly explain why a man tried to kill her: he doesn't want that child born. And if his cryptic Greek shouting at her is any indication — "You understand!" he repeatedly tells her — Christine is quite aware of the significance of her pregnancy.
Tom took Christine to a hospital to get checked out, and the examining doctor, upon seeing the bruises on Christine's stomach, suspected that Tom was the one responsible. When Tom caught on to what was about to happen, he told Christine to keep quiet about Holy Wayne, and fled the scene. Later that night, he sat alone at a bus stop staring at the smiley-bearing phone Wayne had given him. "Now's your chance," he says (prays?) to the prophet ignoring him. "You want me to trust you?" he asks. "Then you have to let me know why!" Behind Tom stood two smoking Watchers, perfectly framing his body with their white, stalking shapes. One of them had given Tom a tri-folded brochure, the front of which read, "Everything that matters about you is inside." When Tom learned the inside of the brochure was blank, he rolled his eyes and said, "Clever."
This exchange seemed to further the critique of American Religion that was established in the opening sequence. How many of us at some point have found one of those obnoxious Christian tracts on the windshield of our car or the handle of a urinal? The messages on these little leaflets are meant to be encouraging, but actually cheapen the very theology they intend to relay. How, one wonders, can you reduce the entire narrative of Christianity to a few clever words on a mass-marketed tract? The answer, of course, is that you can't. And when you try to do so, just like when you try to replicate a white, American Jesus, you end up creating an idol of your own theological musings. A mass-marketed Baby Jesus is not the singular Christ. He is what Christine has inside her — he is antichrist.
Something happened to Tom to give him a renewed sense of purpose, and he went back to the hospital for Christine. He was barefoot, and on his head was drawn a red, white, and blue bull's eye. "It'll make you invisible so the Creator can find us," he told Christine as he drew a target on her forehead. I'm unsure as to the full significance of this drawing, but I couldn't help but think about the Mark of the Beast as written about in the Book of Revelation. (And as far as critiques of imperial wealth go, the Mark could certainly be interpreted to be one, since it appears in John's Revelation within the context of government regulations on economic transactions.)
The episode's ending focused on Kevin and Laurie, though they remained separated. After she was finished her portrait-stealing with the GR, Laurie walked by herself to the gutter in which she discarded Jill's gift. She got down on her knees and struggled to recover the lighter. She pressed herself further onto the grate and reached even lower down to perhaps the only physical object she had to remind her of her former life. Her discarded life. As Laurie strained desperately to grasp the lighter, I cheered her on. I wanted her to get the lighter back. And I thought, for a moment, she was going to succeed. Yet, as what is usually the case on The Leftovers, ours and the characters' hopes are often frustrated — Jill's gift remains out of reach. Laurie's family, too.
Kevin, meanwhile, having recovered the stolen Baby Jesus — the twins dropped it off on his porch — returned to the original scene, the Nativity, to put Mapleton back to right. His plans, too, are foiled when he discovers that Mapleton had already been put to right … by Father Matt: "I heard the baby went missing," he told Kevin. "I had a spare." The priest wished Kevin "Merry Christmas" — the first time it was said the entire episode — and Kevin drove off into the woods. He picked up the white, blue-eyed, gold-swaddled baby sitting in his passenger seat and tossed him outside of his truck window, into the trees and the dirt, and then drove away. The stolen infant was recovered, then discarded in the end. Kevin's episode arc returned full circle: he didn't give a shit about the Baby Jesus.
Not the one
Like every episode of The Leftovers, "B.J. and the A.C." was a thematic goldmine just waiting to be explored. But if I had to choose the one theme that towered over all the rest, I would choose the missing Baby Jesus. To me, the main question posed by the writers this week was, Where is Jesus? Of course, the real answer to this question is, the Baby Jesus was with Jill and her friends as they staged their own mock crucifixion of him. And though it might seem sacrilegious for a teenager to adorn Jesus' face with gasoline and his testicles, it's worth noting that that Jesus seems much closer to the murdered one found in the Gospels than any sanitized version of him we might find wrapped in the ornate, golden fabric of various pop theologies that try to offer quick fixes to the problem of suffering.
As The Leftovers reminded us this week, that baby in a manger is both a symbol of Christianity, and its critique.