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The Leftovers, Episode 7: The writers really like John 3:16

Scott Glenn
Scott Glenn
(Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Every kid who's been to Sunday School can rattle off John 3:16 on command: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. If you know Damon Lindelof  — co-creator of the series, and co-writer of episode seven, titled "Solace for Tired Feet" — then you know John 3:16 tends to crop up in his writing. In fact, one episode from Lost's fifth season was simply titled "316."

Here's what you should know about John 3:16. The verse refers to one of the foundational beliefs of Christianity: that Jesus' father sent him to earth to redeem it, even though his father knew it would mean death for the would-be messiah. At the heart of the Christian story is a conflict between father and son, which comes to a head in the story of Jesus' arrest. As Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for God to help him escape his impending murder, he tries desperately to change his father's mind. Ultimately, Jesus submits to his father's will, and because of it, the world is saved, which means the world is ultimately put right with God, the Father. The gospel, in a sense, is all about daddy issues. So was Lost.

So, too, was this week's episode of The Leftovers. Angry because his father (Scott Glenn) escaped the mental institution he was imprisoned in, Kevin (Justin Theroux) discovered a letter from his father to Matt (Christopher Eccleston) buried in the backyard and put it together that the priest was in cahoots with his dad. Kevin then went to Matt's house to get his dad back. Finding neither one there, Kevin called the priest to demand the return of Papa Garvey.

As Kevin screamed into a telephone for Matt to bring back his father before slamming down the phone to hang up, the camera cut to a wide shot which showed us that Matt's street number was 316. The context of the phone-smash, like the Scripture verse that referred to it during the action, was a conflict between a father and son. Just to really drive this point home, we were treated to not just one phone-smash, but two — one by Kevin, one by his son Tom (Chris Zylka). The Scripture reference, the phone-throwing, the multi-generational father/son conflicts — it's as if the writers of the show were saying, "OK, look, we usually just hint at stuff, but this time we really need you to be paying attention."

A fractured family

The first shot of this week's episode showed posters of the brutally-murdered Gladys (Marceline Hugot) plastered all over downtown Mapleton. The poster said "Save them" — John 3:16 again!

The camera cut to Laurie (Amy Brenneman) pondering Gladys's face. The last time she saw that face, remember, it was disfigured, bloody, unrecognizable. Now, here was Gladys, clean and white-clad, her face adorned with her usual judgmental grimace. Was Laurie concerned about being the next victim? Did she felt guilty? Did she know something about Gladys' murder? We still haven't revisited that crucial moment just before the stoning when Gladys silently nodded her head to a focused Patti (Ann Dowd). Maybe Laurie knew something about that nod.

But whatever her emotions, Laurie's thoughts were instantly complicated the moment she noticed her daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) looking at her. Jill loves her mother, as was made clear when she gave Laurie a lighter with the words "Don't forget me" emblazoned on it. Jill's face contorted quietly into an expression of both hurt and regret, but displayed no signs of bitterness. "Fuck her," Jill's friend Aimee (Emily Meade) said, as the two walked away. The mommy issues of The Leftovers are as palpable as the daddy ones.

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Scott Glenn, Margaret Qualley, Justin Theroux. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Notably, after Jill walked away, Laurie took the unlit cigarette out of her mouth and chucked it at the ground. Is Laurie about to give up on the Guilty Remnant? We've already seen that she secretly cares about her family, and that her frustration with Patti is mounting. From a writing standpoint, making Laurie move closer to her family, just as her husband moves further from her and closer to Nora (Carrie Coon), would be a good move.

Jill went with her friends to the woods, where they engaged in a dark game of Who Can Stay Locked In This Old Refrigerator The Longest? According to legend, a bullied teenager named Paul Glowski was locked in the refrigerator on October 14, and ended up vanishing from his enclosure. To prove their own fearlessness, other teenagers willingly allow themselves to be locked in the box. Before they can attempt "the crossing," they have to recite the "invocation," where they honor the mystery of Glowski's "loss by repeating his suffering and embracing the great darkness." Jill volunteers to undergo the dare and steps inside the enclosure.

While Jill is trapped in the refrigerator, her father and Nora made plans to consummate their relationship, after five dates. Kevin tells Nora he'll have to make sure his daughter will be OK on her own for the night, which recalls the last time we saw Nora try to make plans with Kevin. ("Fuck your daughter," Nora said without thinking when Kevin told her he couldn't go to Florida because of his responsibility to Jill.)

Jill gets her father's text as she begins to run short on oxygen. Determined to prove that she's independent, she tells him she'll be fine on her own. Which is when two things go very wrong: she drops her phone, and the handle to the refrigerator breaks off. Trapped, alone, in a dark box, without her phone, the only thing she can do is thrash about wildly and scream, "Get me out of here!" In a sense, that is what every member of Mapleton is thinking: Get me out of here now! Why can't I be free of this loss? The grief is suffocating!

Jill's phone is her lifeline to her father, but because he can't be contacted, he can't come save her. But luckily, there's another Garvey patriarch to offer her salvation: her grandfather. Somehow, he knows Jill is in trouble, and somehow, he knows where she is, and somehow, he manages to free her. "Don't tell your dad you saw me," he tells Jill, before running away in a bathrobe. If this tells us anything, it's that Grandpa Garvey didn't just happen to come across Jill while frolicking through the woods. Grandpa Garvey seems to know what's going on in Mapleton.

National Geographic: May 1972

Jill's grandpa used to be the police chief of the town until he started to display, in the euphemistic words of his son, "erratic behavior." "Erratic behavior?" one officer protests. "He burned down a library." After that crime, he turned himself in and was remanded to the mental institution he was presently missing from.

Grandpa Garvey doesn't seem like a malicious person. He did beat up Dennis (Frank Harts) at a library, but as he apologetically explained to Kevin, that was only because he was in his way. So what's up with Grandpa's interest in libraries? He was trying to find a rare copy of the May 1972 issue of National Geographic.

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Scott Glenn (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

OK. A discussion of this particular magazine issue is in order. First of all, the issue referred to in the show is a real magazine issue that you can buy and read through and hold in your hands. The cover of the issue shows a black bear standing on its legs, being photographed by oddly fearless tourists. "Beware of bears!" the caption reads.

The cover also contains the headlines for several stories in its pages. One headline references Cairo, which is significant for two reasons. One, while Kevin dozed off after looking around for his dad, the word "Cairo" was clearly heard among the white noise of his police scanner. The other notable thing is that next week's episode is actually titled "Cairo" — so I'm guessing we'll understand more clearly the significance of the reference to the Egyptian capital.

Another interesting story in the National Geographic issue has to do with the "Riddle of the Minoans." The Minoans — named after King Minos — were an ancient civilization of people who lived on the Island of Crete. Notably, their religious system is matriarchal — they worshipped goddesses primarily. While it's not clear what bearing the Minoans have on the show, it is worth mentioning that the Minoan civilization died out so rapidly that some (like the National Geographic article suggests) refer to it as a disappearance. Of course, the theme of rapid disappearance is the premise of The Leftovers, and so maybe this is a nod to that.

But if there's one article from the May 1972 issue of National Geographic that is alluded to in the strongest terms possible, it's an article titled "The Spider that Lives Under Water," by Robert F. Sisson. The article is about the argyroneta aquatica, which, according to the article, is the only species of the world's over 30,000 spiders that "lives almost its entire life beneath the surface, building air-filled domiciles in which to dine, sleep, and even hatch its young."

I cannot at all pretend to have any idea what this unique spider has to do with the mythology here, but it turns out that Christine (Annie Q.) might have some idea. Early in the episode, as Tom brought her soup, Christine tossed in her sleep, and mumbled the words "spider" and "underwater." When Tom woke her up, we saw an 8-months' pregnant Christine who was clearly ill. But Christine wasn't worried about her pregnancy. After all, she said, Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) told her that nothing can hurt the baby. "He's the one," she repeated, "the only one. He's the bridge."

The only one

Referencing a son as "the only one" is a blatant allusion to John 3:16. But you should also know that John 3:16 is a blatant allusion to a passage from the Old Testament. Like the Gospel reference, Genesis 22 has everything to do with a charged father/son relationship.

After finally having a son, Isaac, born to him after decades of waiting, Abraham was delighted! But his faith was tested when God, the one who blessed him with the child, ordered him to sacrifice Isaac to him. "Take your son," said God, "your only son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering." As the story goes, Abraham obeyed God, but just as he was about to slaughter Isaac, God intervened, told him that he passed the test, and that his only son could stay alive.

Abraham is an interesting character because, although we sometimes think Isaac is his only son, that isn't true. Because Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were anxious to have an heir, they agreed that Abraham should have sex with their servant, Hagar, and produce a child. Abraham slept with Hagar, and she bore a son named Ishmael. After Sarah had her own son, things became tense between her and Hagar, between Isaac and Ishmael. God had promised to bless the world through Abraham's heir — so which son would it be, Isaac or Ishmael?

A certain level of jealousy charged the women's relationship, and as a result, Abraham made Hagar and her son leave the camp. But it's not as if God forgot about Ishmael — in fact, God gave him a "consolation prize" and made his descendants the Ishmaelites, or the Arabs. (This point was driven home when Matt began reciting the story of Joseph — the biblical paradigm of sibling rivalry — to Kevin. Rather than recite the story from Genesis, Matt's words came directly from the Koran, the holy text of Ishmael's descendants.)

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Annie Q., Chris Zylka (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

So why does any of this matter? In episode seven, we learned that Christine, whom Wayne referred to as "special," wasn't really that special. She might be carrying Wayne's child, but she's not the only young soon-to-be mom Wayne impregnated. In one of the more bizarre reveals of the episode, Tom learned that Wayne might have a habit of impregnating young Asian women. While he was buying prenatal vitamins for Christine — apparently she hasn't been to the OB/GYN! — Tom got a phone call from Wayne. The line grew quiet when Tom answered, and finally Wayne responded, sounding a little disillusioned. "Who's this? … Tom, Tom … Oh, of course it it! I know that, I called you." (It seems like Wayne is losing it.)  Wayne told Tom to take half of the money he had left, and to drop it off at a specific mailbox. When the money was picked up by a guy about Tom's age, Tom followed him to his hotel room, and that's where he learned that the guy had his own pregnant Asian woman he was caring for — just like Tom.

Much is made of the fact that Christine's unique purpose is taken away with this information. At the same time, though, so is Tom's. Wayne had a stockpile of young men just like him. Tom thought he was doing important work. He left his family to follow Wayne because, presumably, he believed in his mission.

But now, as Tom explains to Tom 2, there is no purpose to what they're doing. "There is no plan," he said. Just then, the girl started shooting a gun at Tom, wounding his left hand in the process. "Where is that whore?" she screamed. "[Wayne] said it would be my baby! He promised me he's the one and only one! He's the bridge."

The biblical resonances of this disagreement are undoubtable: the question, though, is which girl is carrying Isaac, and which is carrying Ishmael? Both babies can't be "the one" — one of them has to be an impostor. Think back to episode four, "B.J. and the A.C." The episode, which was about a Nativity Jesus that had gone missing, established the importance of Christine's pregnancy, as well as the greater theme of "antichrist" that is now clearly integral to this show. As I said in my recap of the episode, one translation of the Greek word anti is "instead of" — meaning, the antichrist is the one who comes instead of the real Christ. The episode ended with the impostor baby Jesus being placed in the original baby's stead. Now we know what the writers were setting up. (Notably, however, the child Christine gave birth to was a girl — that seems significant because all of Wayne's prophetic comments about the child have referred it as male.)

Like father, like son

I already mentioned the fact that both Kevin and Tom smashed their phones out anger. There's another detail, though, that seems significant. Tom's left hand was wounded. Kevin's left hand, too, was wounded when an angry dog bit him. This is hardly a coincidence. Left-handedness is an interesting concept in Scripture. The Old Testament contains several stories of lefties, and all of them are set within a context of war.  They also all, strangely enough, involve Benjamites, or members of the tribe of Benjamin.

Benjamin is one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and a brother to Joseph (the story that Matt quoted to Kevin!). The name Ben-jamin literally means "son of the right hand," which is an ancient way of saying, "This son is blessed and highly favored." Biblical writers enjoy clever wordplay, so it's not for nothing that so many of the Benjamites who appear in Scripture fight with their left hands — the irony being that the sons of the right hand are themselves left-handed.

But while the right hand is the privileged one, being a leftie has its advantages. In the ancient world, most warriors fought with their right hands — being able to switch-hit, so to speak, gives you an edge over your opponents because it means you are able to take them by surprise. The same "condition," then, is both a curse and a blessing. Just like, it would seem, Grandpa Garvey's voices are both a curse and a blessing to him: he has insider knowledge about what is coming, but everyone thinks he's crazy.

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Justin Theroux (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

If Grandpa Garvey is right, there's a kind of invisible battle happening beneath the surface in Mapleton. And Kevin's "services are being requested." As Grandpa Garvey told his son: "We're in the fucking game now. That whistle blew three years ago, and you cannot ignore it anymore." Things are about to get very dark in Mapleton. Hostilities between the GR and the mourners are mounting. The government is unable to keep its own macabre secrets from getting out. Wayne's getting more and more desperate. And, sadly, Kevin and Tom are standing, with wounded left hands, on opposing sides of the battle lines.

But if Tom's life seems to be going from bad to worse, Kevin at least gives off the appearance that he is moving on from his heartbreak. While he chased his father through a crowd of sign-holding GR, he knocked over Patti, and continued along his way. On his way back, he walked cooly past his ex-wife Laurie, as she and Meg (Liv Tyler) helped Patti stand up. (I'll note here that the theme of the Good Samaritan, where a passerby walks past someone lying on the side of the road, pops up every week almost like clockwork.)

Kevin's stoic expression as he passed by Laurie, mere yards away from her, made me wonder if he even saw her. Unlike when his daughter saw her mother at the beginning of the episode, seeing Laurie did nothing to him. She was, in a sense, a ghost to him. Patti's plan to strip away Laurie's "You" from Laurie seemed to work. As far as Kevin is concerned, Laurie isn't Laurie anymore. But as we know, Laurie gives some signs that she wants to be Laurie again. This is going to be problematic now that Kevin is sleeping with Nora. Even though Laurie acts like a good GR and responds dismissively when Meg tells her of her ex's new relationship, deep down, we know that Laurie would like to go back to October 13.

This week's episode had the most nudity of any episode to date. But rather than see this cynically as a numbers ploy, perhaps the bare butts and exposed breasts underlined another theme The Leftovers explores. While he was on the phone with Tom, Holy Wayne, whose favorite pastime seems to be memorizing Scripture in King James' English, quoted Job 1:21: "Naked came I from my mother's womb and naked shall I return." The biblical character of Job has already been introduced in the series, in episode three. Father Matt has a a 16th-century oil by Albrecht Dürer hanging on his wall. The painting, which is part of a larger work called the Jabach Altarpiece, depicts Job's wife comforting her mourning husband as he tries to deal with the heartbreak of losing his children (among other things). Job's nudity represents the humility that he's suffered at the hands of cosmic forces. And like Job, Kevin, Nora, and Scott Frost — all of whom were naked this week — had something ("Someones," Wayne told Nora) stripped away from them on October 14.

We're all mad here

After they had sex for the first time, Nora asked Kevin if he wanted to talk about it. "I think I might be going crazy," Kevin said, referring to the visions and dreams he's been having. There was a dog tied up in Kevin's backyard and, though he tried to convince Aimee otherwise, he seemed to have no idea how it got there. Kevin's always had a strange relationship with animals, and especially with those barking dogs that Dean (Michael Gaston) insists on killing. But this week, the dog storyline was pushed even further. Kevin knows there's something significant about those dogs and Dean, but the closer he gets to figuring out what that is, the crazier he thinks he's becoming.

Nora offered him some comfort when he confided in her his fear. "Well, my friend," she said, "you've come to the right place." Obviously she was referring to herself and her bed: Nora is a bit crazy, too, and she's in the same grieving boat as her new bedfellow. But there's a wider significance to the word "here." It refers to Mapleton, this world, this earth, post-October 14. The line reminded me of the Cheshire Cat's playful line to Alice, who doesn't want to have to journey among people who are mad. "Oh, you can't help that," the cat says. "We're all mad here."

Like the refrigerator Jill got trapped inside, here can feel suffocating and cruel and dark. Here can also feel terribly isolating and fractured. And yet, not only, says The Leftovers, are we all mad here — but we're all here. All of us, those who have been left over, forgotten about, painfully hurt: we are all here, occupying the place that comes after October 14.

And though, like Jill, we might scream for someone to let us out of our hell, we should consider the words of Grandpa Garvey: "Here ain't so bad, sweetheart."