Last week, HBO premiered its new summer series The Leftovers, which is based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name. Ratings for the hour-long drama were fairly good: 1.8 million viewers tuned in to see how the small-town village of Mapleton would deal with the mass disappearance of 2 percent of the Earth's population. That premiere was so well-done that I was worried subsequent episodes wouldn't measure up. But if tonight's episode is any indication, the writers, led by Damon Lindelof, who co-scripted this episode with Kath Lingenfelter, know exactly what they're doing.
Tonight's episode was titled "Penguin One, Us Zero," a reference to the shrink that Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) has started seeing. There's an inflatable penguin in the therapist's office that is apparently meant to help children deal with their aggression. (Lindelof made a few cryptic statements about the penguin that are worth checking out.) The therapist's character bothered me, because he seems like he earned his license from an online certification program. He forgets Kevin's wife's name, then assumes the two aren't together anymore. When Kevin replies that Laurie is still his wife, the shrink scowls, "Does she think you're married?" (Laurie herself, actually, answers this question later in the episode, in a perfect example of the series's sharp writing.)
Kevin is seeing the therapist because his boss, Lucy (Amanda Warren), thinks he's starting to lose it. Last week, the show revealed there's a tobacco-chewing, gun-slinging man (Michael Gaston) going around town slaughtering dogs. But does this man even exist? After all, Kevin is the only one who sees him. (Hence the shrink.) So why is this mystery man killing dogs? For now, the only answer the man gives Kevin is, "They're not our dogs," meaning something happened to the animals after the disappearance, and whatever it was has changed the animals in such a way that they need to be put down. Of course, the rumor around town is that Kevin is actually going around killing dogs and blaming the crime on a made-up person.
Whatever is going on with Kevin and this man — whether he's real or fictitious — is very likely important to the overall mythology of the show. There is one detail, though, that is worth mentioning here: the only other person in Mapleton who seems to see the man is Kevin's daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley). While Kevin and the man talk on his front porch, Jill and Aimee (Emily Meade) enter the house. Aimee says hello to Mr. Garvey, while Jill takes a six-pack of beer from the stranger. It's significant that Aimee doesn't acknowledge the man, because I don't actually think she sees him. If I'm right about this, then that means there's something to the fact that only the Garveys are capable of seeing this man, or imagining him.
The fact that Kevin's father is in a mental institution seems to support the Garveys-see-things theory. In episode two, we learn that Kevin's father (Scott Glenn) is institutionalized because people thought he "lost his shit." Papa Garvey, however, insists that he's fine and suspects that his son is there to see him because he's worried his own "shit may be getting lost." While the two talk, the father's mind seems overtaken by voices: "Will you please shut up?" he says, to no one in particular. After a particularly heated argument with the voices, Kevin's father says that "they" have a message for his son: "They said they sent or are sending somebody to help you." That's it. No further details.The father also warns that whatever help "they" send him, Kevin should keep quiet about it.
I have a few theories about these voices, but I think it's worth holding out for another episode or two before settling on any one of them. In passing, it's significant that the camera panned to a NO SMOKING sign on the front desk of the institution. The placard called to mind the members of the Guilty Remnant who, in order to constantly remind Mapleton of the disappearances, smoke incessantly. Does the NO SMOKING sign have anything to do with the GR? It could be coincidental, but if Lost told us anything about Lindelof, it's that his fictional universes don't include room for accidents.
Episode two dealt with Liv Tyler's character Meg much more than did the pilot. She featured so marginally in the premiere that I didn't even think her character was worth mentioning in last week's review, even though she's arguably the biggest name on the series. This week, however, Meg was integral to the story — and good thing, too, because Tyler is such a capable actor! In the pilot, we learned that Meg was halfheartedly planning a wedding with her fiancee, and that she was being stalked by Laurie and one other member of the Guilty Remnant. At the end of the premiere, she showed up to the GR's house, and asked if she could stay — which was weird, because if you don't like being stalked, then you shouldn't go live with the stalkers.
This week, Meg finds herself in the Pledge House, which appears to be the initiation that would-be GR members go through in preparation to becoming full Smoking Prophets in White. While she's at the Pledge House, Kevin shows up with a warrant allowing him to search the premises for a missing person. He ends up having a talk with Meg, who tells him she is there of her own free will. "You need my help?" he asks her, and, after a short, though dramatic, pause, Meg says no.
Immediately, the familiar musical theme of The Leftovers starts playing. It's a simple enough melody, really — just a few passing chords over top a quiet bass line. Max Richter, a Berlin-based neoclassical composer, wrote the score for the series, which ends up beautifully echoing the emotional inner-workings of the characters. It's hard to imagine The Leftovers being as brilliant as it is without Richter's music floating quietly around the characters.
As the music continues to play, Kevin asks Meg if he can take her picture. She hesitates, but ultimately agrees to the shot. Kevin's police partner Dennis positions his camera to capture Meg, who simply stares into the lens, looking fragile and vulnerable. As soon as the picture's taken, Meg looks away, almost embarrassed to be filmed. Was she worried her fiancee would end up seeing the image? Was she embarrassed of her own beauty? Much was made of this in last week's episode. When the GR were deciding whether or not to recruit her, one of the recruiters wrote, "She's pretty," which seemed at the time like it might have been significant. Regardless of what was going on in Meg's mind as the picture was being taken, there was something deeply moving about the moment.
The fragility of moments is a major theme in The Leftovers. Here are these characters going about their everyday, humdrum lives, when all of a sudden, one seemingly insignificant moment — a baby crying at a laundromat, say — becomes the moment that everything changes. This, too, is an apocalyptic theme: the awareness that universal transformation could happen at any moment. In one of St. Paul's earlier letters, the apostle warns Christians in Corinth just how imminent this transformation is:
"Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed."
Cameras capture moments, and transform them into something less fleeting, more momentous. With the flash of a red light, the twinkling of a shutter, Meg becomes painfully aware of just how much her life has changed.
After the police leave, Patti (Ann Dowd), the leader of the GR, is concerned that Meg isn't going to make it through her pledge, so she tells Laurie, Meg's supervisor, to up the stakes. Laurie takes Meg to the woods and wordlessly informs her of her new mission: cut down a tree with an axe. Again, because this is Lindelof, seemingly ordinary details carry within them biblical resonances. The image of a tree being cut down is an explicitly prophetic motif: passages from Ezekiel and Daniel, two apocalyptic Jewish texts, notably employ the theme.
To me, though, the passage that had the most bearing on Meg's task came from Matthew's gospel. In the passage, the prophet John the Baptist warns his listeners to escape the "wrath to come" — which is rapture language straight from the Book of Revelation — by practicing good works. With the ambiguity of a chain-smoking prophet, he says, "Even now, the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (It's worth mentioning that Kevin's nightmare at the beginning of the episode ends with him being burned alive.)
Meg gets frustrated with her task and ends up quitting, leaving Laurie in the woods alone. Some time later, the two meet back at the GR house for their evening ritual of surrendering. Each night, the pledges are to open their luggage and give their supervisor one item from their old lives. Meg doesn't want to give up her baggage — "Please can I just have one night where I don't have to give you any of my stuff?" — and Laurie urges her to "surrender." That's when the script began to shine. (You can watch the scene below.)
"Do you even remember what it feels like to care about anything?" Meg asks, and we immediately think of the family that Laurie left behind. ("We're always being left behind," said Perrotta, regardless of whether or not there's a rapture.) While other women lost their husbands and children on October 14, Laurie chose to walk away from Kevin, Jill, and Tommy. Laurie's rapture is self-imposed.
Yet, just because the situation seems more natural — she didn't vanish, like the other Disappeared — doesn't mean it's any more understandable. Why, asks Meg when she finds out that Laurie is married to the "hot cop," would she have left him to join the GR? Laurie's concise answer: "I remember." Richter's piano theme plays gently, and Laurie's face contorts, briefly, into an expression of pain, and perhaps regret. Laurie's new vocation with the GR is to remember the departed. But will she also remember those she's departed from? Which memory is more prophetic?
In contrast to Laurie is Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman from Mapleton who lost her husband and two children on the day of the vanishings. In last week's episode, she was the featured speaker at the Heroes Day parade. Her remarks were simple and elegant, and they reminded me of Perrotta's discussion in The Atlantic of how Our Town's preoccupation with "ordinary details" influenced The Leftovers. In her speech, Nora spoke of two memories she had of her family: a perfect day at the beach and a bleak winter's Saturday which her whole family spent together in bed with the stomach flu. "I'm not greedy," said Nora, "I'm not asking for that perfect day at the beach. Just give me that horrible Saturday." Nora seemed to be Mapleton's sweetheart, a tragic symbol of all that had been lost.
This week, however, we learn there's more to Nora than the helpless town widow. When Jill accidentally knocks over her purse, we discover that Nora is packing big time. If that's not weird enough, Jill and Aimee see her purposefully knock her ceramic coffee mug off the table at a restaurant, and pretend it was an accident. The barista seems angry at hearing a mug break, until he learns it was Nora, Mapleton's sweetheart. He insists she not worry about it, and after thanking him, she leaves — with Jill and Aimee secretly following.
Nora goes to visit an older couple whose son vanished on October 14. She's there, she tells the couple, to conduct a 150-question interview with them about their departed son, which she claims is required before the couple can receive their Departed Benefits from the government. Nora may be a broken woman, what with being the only person in Mapleton who lost her entire family and all, but I think she's dishonest, and I think she has a somewhat dark agenda.
If I had to guess — and this is only episode two, so I could be way off! — I'd say she's conducting her own study into finding out what happened to her vanished family. In the world of The Leftovers, it might be possible to get to the bottom of a seeming disappearance: think about Kevin's two bagels, which turned out to be stuck in the toaster, exactly where he and we expected them to be.
Even if Nora is slightly mysterious, the cult-leader Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) is by far the creepiest character The Leftovers has given us so far. Last week we heard a rumor that Wayne was able to heal people's hurt by hugging them. This week, we learn that he doesn't really just hug them — in fact, he has 8 counts of statutory rape against him in Pennsylvania alone. It seems, says one of the investigators, that he has a particular fondness for young Asian girls, like Christine (Annie Q). He also, we learn, has a thing for young men (and dead men!). When Wayne invites Tom to "Come on in" and give him his troubles (via, presumably, some sort of sexual osmosis) Tom, after a moment of deliberation, declines. "You're the one motherfucker I can't figure out," Wayne tells him, which might mean Tom is the only would-be victim that Wayne hasn't been able to seduce.
It's impossible to watch this scene unfold and not think of the horrific molestations that have happened in religious settings over the years. What's it like to have the person you trust — to have the holy person you trust — exploit that bond in such a way that it lands you, at your most vulnerable, in his or her bed? The psychological power play involved in such situations is often overlooked in popular discourse on the topic, which is why The Leftovers' honest treatment of the phenomenon rings so depressingly true. October 14 left a vacuum in the hearts of those left behind, and Wayne, with all the guile of Lucifer, intends to fill it.
So far, The Leftovers is doing everything right. The characters are complicated and believable, and the various plot points are unfolding organically but not predictably. What is Nora doing with that gun, and is she lying about those interviews she's giving? I also can't wait to find out about Holy Wayne's motivations for starting his cult, and to learn what exactly he means when he calls Christine "special." I also hope Tom gets away from him, but I fear he's not going to any time soon. As we learned tonight, father/son relationships are integral to the series (just as they were on Lindelof's earlier Lost). I can see some kind of scenario playing out that has Kevin facing off against Holy Wayne as he tries to rescue Tom. Of course, I'm also hoping the entire Garvey family — including the voice-hearing Papa we met tonight — reunites soon, though I'm guessing that won't happen until the very last scene of the final episode.
Though each character is skillfully written and portrayed, my favorite this week was Meg. This week's episode ends with her finding fresh resolve, walking to the woods by herself and trying once more to cut down that unyielding tree. The more progress she makes, the bigger her smile grows, until she is finally laughing. Then as quickly as the laughter comes, it departs, and she's back to being angry, taking out her aggression with each swing of the axe. The camera remains fixed to her face, calling back to the picture Kevin took of her earlier in the episode. In this frame, however, fragile Meg isn't passive and vulnerable. She's determined and assertive, self-possessed. She is going to cut down the tree.
Then, all at once: cut to black.