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The Leftovers season 2, episode 3: Amy Brenneman on the birth of cults and the paralyzing power of doubt

Amy Brenneman's Laurie Garvey (and her son, Tom) get a standout episode of The Leftovers.
Amy Brenneman's Laurie Garvey (and her son, Tom) get a standout episode of The Leftovers.

The Leftovers puts its characters through the wringer every week, following their heartbreak, frustration, worry, and grief in searing detail.

Portraying these emotions, still-beating and raw, requires mammoth strength from the series' actors — made even harder when they couldn’t speak, as happened with Amy Brenneman, who portrays Laurie Garvey. Last season, Laurie was a member of a silent cult called the Guilty Remnant, who believe the world ended with the Departure (the disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population that is at the center of the series), and that anyone who suggests otherwise needs to face facts. People left their families to live in the Guilty Remnant’s silent house, chain smoke, and become living reminders of the world’s loss.

Laurie abandoned her own family and therapy practice a year and a half after the Departure to join the Guilty Remnant. Last season, she didn’t speak a single word until the season finale, when she gasped the name of her daughter with guttural pain, prompting her ex-husband to save their child from the Guilty Remnant’s burning building.

This season, Laurie has not only left the Guilty Remnant but is actively working to take it down with the help of a tell-all book and her son. She's ditched her white linens and swapped her constantly lit cigarette for a goldfish bowl of Nicorette. But leaving the Remnant hasn’t solved all her problems, nor erased the pain that made her join in the first place.

I caught Brenneman on the phone to discuss how it feels to speak on the show, Laurie’s relationship with her kids, and the startling lengths Laurie will go to to bring down the Guilty Remnant (or "the GR," as Brenneman calls it). We talked about all of the biggest moments and themes of the latest episode.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and contains spoilers for the October 18 episode of The Leftovers.

Laurie is adjusting to a post-cult world, including the fact that she can now speak

The Leftovers

Laurie (Amy Brenneman) gets to work. (HBO)

Amy Brenneman: I feel like I went on the whole ride last year with the relief of not speaking, and then, the frustration. It’s such a complex show, and I’m such a complex character, that it’s like, "Oh, finally I get words."

It’s really much easier to communicate when you speak! It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to put words to all sorts of things that I couldn’t last year.

Laurie gives Tom a letter for Jill, but has to watch their meeting from outside, as her daughter wants nothing to do with her

Amy Brenneman: I think what’s really delicious about that whole thing is that in episode two, we see the scene from inside the diner. I’m obviously a presence, because of the letter, but I’m not physically there. Then you get to see the same moment from my point of view. I’m crazy for Rashomon storytelling. [Rashomon is a famous Japanese film that tells the same story from several points of view. — ed.]

There’s real longing there. It’s not that I need to make Laurie unnecessarily likable. But certainly for me, it’s been a very familiar thing to tap into that longing for connection with your kids.

Laurie works with her son to bring Guilty Remnant members back, but is scared he might be vulnerable

Amy Brenneman: Tom and Laurie are partners in crime. We’re Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a piece of her that’s like a stage mom, because he’s such a compelling person, and he and Laurie are after the same thing, which is to break up the cult. I think in a genuine way, more than once, it’s like, "I gotta pull you out." He’s a pretty fragile person.

I think that Tom and Laurie were really the speakers even before the Departure. Laurie, because of her profession [as a therapist], was always interested in looking for context, looking for meaning, and Tom got that from her. They'd look at [Jiddu] Krishnamurti, they probably discovered [Allen] Ginsberg together, and all that stuff.

I think that Jill and Kevin just want a calm household, you know? So that push-pull, which you kind of get in the flashback episode from last year, that was between Laurie and Kevin for a long time.

Laurie spends her nights staring down Guilty Remnant members — then running them over when they won't move

Amy Brenneman: It’s like someone who breaks up with a bad relationship, but all they can do is talk about that relationship and how bad it was. The center of her life is still the Guilty Remnant, but it’s just like, "Now I hate them."

Laurie was led down the garden path by these guys. They’re not who they say they are. They’re going to use you for cannon fodder. In that way, it’s sort of a 12-step thing, because Laurie is not outside of it. She’s doing it herself, as well.

But I think [running over the Guilty Remnant] is a little more nuanced. She’s really trying to wake these guys up, even by physically threatening them. It’s like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: "I’m about to strangle you, just say uncle!" She wants them to wake up and go, "What are we doing?" But they don’t get out of the way. They’re kamikazes. They’ll die before they’ll say uncle. That’s when Laurie realizes what she’s up against.

Laurie takes a meeting with a publisher that goes south. (Read: She tries to strangle him.)

Amy Brenneman: What I love about The Leftovers it’s sort of these recognizable moments on acid. It’s like, "I understand that," but times a million.

Damon [Lindelof]’s so brilliant, because [the publisher's] words in this moment are like The Sound and the Fury. For most of us who have this experience, you get some devastating news, some word that a loved one is ill, of a terrible diagnosis, and you have to go and act civil and keep it together.

For the purposes of this story, there is that scene where it seems to work: [The Guilty Remnant member] and her husband are going to reconnect. If that had gone well, and Laurie had gone in to the publisher and he had said inane things like, "Put yourself in there," I think she would have said, "I’ll try."

But Laurie’s doubting herself to a profound degree. She is somewhat, if not entirely, responsible for this woman’s death — and her entire family’s death. If she had stayed in the GR, the family would have stayed apart, but most likely, they would have been living. It’s just her doubting herself at every conceivable moment.

Tom and Laurie realize they need to give the ex-cult members something to believe in — like, say, the fictional healing power of Tom

Amy Brenneman: That speech in the car, that dialogue [Laurie and Tom] have in the car after she’s all broken and busted out of jail … I think that that is at the root of so many religious and spiritual practices.

The Leftovers

Laurie still believes in the power of therapy. (HBO)

Anyone who’s going to join the Guilty Remnant has a big hole that they need to fill. For whatever reason, good or bad, the structure and the ideology the Guilty Remnant provides fills a hole, for a while. You can’t take that away without providing something else.

I don’t think Laurie wants to be a cult leader. As poorly executed as it is, I think she is still trying to hold on to what she believed before the Departure, which is that with therapy, a sympathetic ear, and a community, people can share their burden and get mentally healthy.

There's this isolation and this violent universe that [The Leftovers] now inhabits where people go fucking feral.

Fifty percent of the person being healed is wanting the thing to work. If I believe that homeopathic medicine is going to work, then it has a much larger hope of working than if I say it’s not going to work. So is [Tom hugging people to heal them] duping people? I don’t know. It’s taking their own internal need to be healed, and harnessing it.

The second season could take these characters anywhere

The Leftovers

Laurie and Tom (Chris Zylka) plot their next move. (HBO)

Amy Brenneman: I approached this season utterly surrendered — in a great, great way. The process of last year wasn’t that I wasn’t surrendered, but that I still kept trying to quote unquote "understand."

In the middle part of last season, I suddenly was like, "I don’t know what my character would do." My question to Damon would be, "Am I doing what you want me to do?" Quite literally. I am in discovery, as we all are. For all the times in my current life where I have to be in control of something, it was actually really lovely. Passivity, in the best sense.

When you can trust, then you can not worry about it. I don’t know how it’s going to add up, but it’s going to be truthful, moment to moment.