Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 8 through 14, 2015, is the sixth episode of the second season of The Leftovers, titled "Lens."
Look, what's it gonna take to get you to watch The Leftovers?
Do I have to come over to your house and watch it with you? I'll do it if you provide snacks, because I'm feeling downright evangelical about this show — appropriate for a series that considers matters of religion and eternity.
Everybody who loves TV has watched a show that's inspired feverish declarations of love, an insistence on viewing each episode as soon as possible, and a tendency to browbeat others until they, too, are enjoying it just as much. This is not a terribly pleasant affliction, and people tend to keep their distance from you when you are in its throes.
But, dammit, it must be borne. Because nobody is watching The Leftovers, and the second season is some next-level stuff.
The Leftovers has become a post-post-9/11 show
When Lost — the last series co-created by Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof — was reaching its end, it was often described as a post-9/11 show. This made lots of sense. Lost, about castaways on a strange deserted island after a plane crash, was forthrightly concerned with living through trauma and finding ways to be whole again after searing pain and loss. It was filled with mysteries and strangeness, but at its core it was about broken people longing to become whole again.
In its second season, then, The Leftovers has morphed into a post-post-9/11 show (a phrasing I owe to former colleague Phil Dyess-Nugent). The Sudden Departure that saw 2 percent of the world's population simply disappear is far enough in the past that people have started to move on, to rebuild their lives, to start anew.
But the memory of it is still fresh enough that Earth's population longs for safety and security, for the promise that such an event will never happen again. Some turn to religion. Some turn to science. Some turn to superstition. But everybody's looking for assurances, and that's exactly what a Lindelof show, steeped in ambiguity, refuses to offer.
What marks The Leftovers as a post-post-9/11 show is the way its characters struggle with the safety and security measures they've put in place to prevent another Departure.
Season two is set in Jarden, Texas, a little town that nobody departed from on that fateful day. (Since the departure, a national park called Miracle has sprung up around Jarden.) This has led its 9,000-plus residents to believe they are somehow uniquely and truly blessed, leading to all manner of rituals meant to stave off further disaster.
But the more time wears on, the more the citizens of Jarden — and particularly Erika Murphy (Regina King) — start to suspect that these rituals aren't keeping anybody safe. The Departure could have been a terrifying, random event, one that might strike again at any moment; maybe Jarden was saved through simple, dumb luck.
Still, the longer you have security measures in place, the more they seem like they're actually protecting you and the less you might want to let go of them. The measures in place in Jarden — which involve sacrificing goats and maintaining rituals from the day of the Departure — are slightly more metaphysical than the ones we've enacted in our reality. But the effect is the same: Nobody's sure how safe they really are. Randomness is terrifying. We cling to markers of our safety, no matter how ill-advised.
The best scenes in the show are interpersonal ones
The Leftovers has always balanced a gigantic, world-changing fantasy story (or a sci-fi story, if you buy the various possible scientific explanations for the Departure) with achingly small personal tales. That balance was off every so often in season one, when the series' epic sprawl threatened to upend it. (Despite the huge ambitions of Lindelof and his Leftovers co-creator, Tom Perrotta, there's only so much you can do in 10 episodes of television.) But season two has recalibrated things, and its laser focus on character has been a godsend, clearing out the mists to reveal the sharp, intimate drama the show has always been.
Take, for instance, the best scene of "Lens," which features Erika and her new next-door neighbor Nora (the always revelatory Carrie Coon) facing off over the possibility that Erika's daughter, who mysteriously disappeared in the season two premiere, has Departed and, thus, destroyed Jarden's main claim to fame while simultaneously suggesting that the Departure can recur — and seemingly at random.
Erika has gone from believing her daughter might be found to believing she really has Departed. Nora, meanwhile, has been visited by scientists who suggest that she's the "lens" of the episode's title, someone whose particular qualities cause those she comes in contact with to disappear. (Her husband and children, as you may recall from season one, Departed, leaving only her behind.)
Nora — whose day job used to be administering questionnaires in an attempt to figure out if families of the Departed qualified for government benefits in the wake of the event — needs to believe, at her core, that another Departure can't happen. She takes great pride in the times that she found people who were said to have Departed but had simply left their lives behind, thanks to a convenient excuse. She asks Erika to answer the standard set of questions about her daughter, but the conversation turns more and more personal, and more and more hurtful.
The thing is, even if Erika's daughter didn't Depart — even if she's still alive somewhere, or if she's dead but her body hasn't been found — that doesn't mean Jarden isn't unraveling. The whole world has ended, but nobody in Jarden has taken the time to look around and realize that.
How the series keeps its eye on the biggest questions imaginable — but never dares answer them
This makes The Leftovers a show with a wonderful tension at its core. It mostly boils down to a series of small, interpersonal moments of family drama, scenes where the characters have conversations about matters mostly of personal importance. But it's playing out on a grand, epic scale, in a world where nothing is as it seems, and almost everybody seems to believe they're on the cusp of some greater revelation of purpose — even if they have no desire to be privy to that revelation.
The Leftovers took some time to find just the right balance of those elements. I loved season one, but I have no problem admitting it was hit-or-miss for many, who couldn't quite get on board with its odd mix of components. The show's ratings were adequate during that first season, but without its True Blood lead-in, they've plummeted in season two. Even with the largesse of HBO behind the program, a third season seems unlikely.
That is, perhaps, understandable, if frustrating. We've all made snap judgments about TV shows we've decided aren't for us, only to be frustrated when others later insist they've gotten so much better, really; I hope that hasn't happened to The Leftovers, that the evangelism I and many others espouse isn't just pushing people away. After all, it's hard to believe in something you've already categorically rejected.
Many have struggled with The Leftovers' seeming religiosity (which has been toned down somewhat in season two), but it's not as if the show is saying that there really is a God in its universe, a moral arbiter of right and wrong who swept a bunch of people up into the sky based on a code of ethics nobody quite understands.
No, what it's doing instead is something altogether more difficult and isolating. It's asking viewers not to look for answers, but to ask more questions, to keep examining existential quandaries that will never be explained satisfactorily for many tastes. The Leftovers understands there's a giant void somewhere, and invites you to gaze ever more deeply into it and see how long you can avoid going mad with despair.
That's maybe not the most entertaining hour of TV you've ever heard of, but it's audacious and bruised and unlike anything else out there. And that makes it essential.
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.