Every episode of The Leftovers faces the same challenge: Make it seem as if everything that happens either could have happened by some divine design or by the hand of very fallible human beings who interpret what happens as the work of divine design. And by that standard, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” might represent a new platonic ideal for the show.
Think about it: Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn, in a terrific, often wordless, performance) goes halfway around the world in pursuit of an Aboriginal song that he hopes will help him avert a global flood that will end the world.
He wanders into the Australian Outback in search of same, only to be rebuffed at every opportunity. And when he — bitten by a snake — collapses at the foot of a cross, he’s found by exactly the right person, who saves his life, finds a page of the Book of Kevin in his pack, and proceeds to kill a local sheriff by the name of Kevin, in hopes of finding the answers she seeks.
Or maybe you can look at it from the other person’s perspective. Her name is Grace Playford, and she, desperately seeking meaning in the fact that her children died in the wake of the Departure, seems to find it in the form of the man collapsed at the foot of the cross she erected to honor their memory. Looking for meaning? Well, here it is!
The entirety of this sequence — Kevin Sr. stumbling upon Grace and her friends drowning the poor other Kevin, then speaking the next morning with her — is carefully constructed to serve a bunch of different masters by writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Spezialy.
Notice how Kevin Sr. never says his name until she’s delivered her whole monologue, because if he did, she might try to drown him, too. It allows him to be so moved by her story that he believes she is a supporting player in his story — that she just has the wrong Kevin, and his mission has been, all along, to deliver to her his own son, who just so happens to be heading to Australia at Nora’s side. It’s all part of the plan, right?
In this way, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” functions as a kind of exemplar of The Leftovers as a whole: When you’re in pain and grieving, you desperately cast about for any way to bring meaning to that trauma. We are all looking for ways to turn ourselves into the driving force behind our sad stories, to believe that we have been uniquely touched by despair because somebody somewhere is testing us, or wants to make an example of us, or just needs to guide us toward some other, better self. We don’t want to believe that grief and trauma and pain are sometimes random.
Grace lost all of her children after her husband Departed, while she was in town buying groceries. (The kids, alarmed when she didn’t return as quickly as possible, set off on foot into the forbidding Outback.) Kevin Sr. desperately wants to be important in the grand scheme of things.
Both of them, ultimately, are willing to become the servants of Kevin Jr. if he really is the new messenger of God — but neither of them is willing to entertain, even for a second, the idea that there might not be a larger purpose to what’s going on, that the world might not be in imminent danger of ending, that everything might just keep rolling along as it has.
When I talked with Lindelof and his Leftovers co-creator Tom Perrotta before season three began, Lindelof said they toyed, for a time, with doing an entire episode from Grace’s perspective, going back to the tragedy with her children and continuing forward to her meeting with Kevin Sr.
But there’s something so much more powerful about seeing Lindsay Duncan’s haunted face delivering that long, long monologue about what happened to her kids. It has a gravity and a weight to it that make you forget, if only briefly, that Kevin Sr. only landed on her doorstep by chance. You see in her eyes the weight of having to live with this pain for so very long.
And that monologue links her to Kevin Sr.’s earlier lengthy rant about what’s brought him to Australia, and why he needs to track down Christopher Sunday (an elderly man who has the last bit of the song Kevin Sr. is trying to pull together). These are two people convinced of their purpose, yet utterly unable to consider that they might be inflicted with the condition in the episode title. It’s easy to think you’re important; it’s terrifying to admit you’re not.
“Crazy Whitefella Thinking” might be the emptiest episode of The Leftovers, visually speaking, with director Mimi Leder making excellent use of wide shots of the Australian landscape. (I’m particularly fond of that shot of Kevin Sr. wandering into the wilderness as a streak of lightning slices through the purple sky in the distance.) Leder isolates Sr. against the long, foreboding landscape, and he already feels insignificant. We don’t need anything like the Departure to feel like the world itself might be conspiring against us. We just need to get out into the wilderness for a while.
There’s a shaggy dog quality to Kevin Sr.’s story, one that starts to feel a little perverse by the time he’s hunched over an injured Christopher Sunday in the back of an ambulance, hoping against hope to get the song before the old man arrives at the hospital (or dies, as he eventually does). I kept hoping the guy would take the hint, would get the message, would abandon his quest.
But this wouldn’t be The Leftovers if he did. To live a life of faith is sometimes to take a step into the unknown and to believe in things that will mark you as crazy to many of the people around you. It’s the act of belief that animates these characters, even if everything they say seems legitimately nuts. But, then, we all believe in something that, if we took a step back, is based on the shakiest of foundations. There are things we take on faith and hope, things that could be torn asunder in a moment, because the world is bigger and scarier than we like to think it is.
And what happens then, when everything stops making sense? Do you retreat inside yourself? Or do you chase yourself to the ends of the Earth, hoping to find the key that will make it all make sense?