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The Leftovers season 3, episode 5: "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” stares lions and God in the face

Or: When Matt Met a Lion Sex Cult.

Forgive us, readers, for we got no pictures of the lion sex cult.

Every week, Vox Culture is diving into an episode of HBO’s The Leftovers, which is currently airing its third and final season. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Caroline Framke got together to talk about "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World," the season’s fifth episode. You can read our previous coverage here.

Todd VanDerWerff: I suppose when I thought about what the final season of The Leftovers might contain, "an orgy at sea with a sex-lion cult" was not on the list, but, then, I'd like to meet the person whose list it was on. Isn't that why we watch this show? For its endless number of ways to show us how people handled the Departure really, really poorly?

What's even better is that this episode tosses The Leftovers’ most stubborn, most faithful character into the midst of its big orgy, in hopes that he might have an epiphany, and then he kinda does. I'm speaking, of course, of Matt Jamison, who's off to Australia because something something End of Days have to help Kevin something. The reasoning is less important than the result — he's on the boat, with the lion Fraser and lots of scantily clad people and a man who claims to be God (who is played by the great stage actor Bill Camp, so he very well might be).

Also, this episode starts with a nuclear weapon being detonated. By the French, no less. (Okay, by a rogue Frenchman, but it's still one of the country’s bombs.) The opening sequence with this explosion is a great one, a little bit silly, a little bit scary, and brimming with creativity. You can tell that The Leftovers’ writers have really thought about how one man could launch a nuclear missile, and then come up with a sequence that shows their ideas off with panache. That goes for the rest of the episode as well.

This is to say that "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" (great title, btw) is the show following up last week's epic emotion with a story that constantly teeters on the brink of farce yet somehow doesn't tip over. The episode contains what might be the entire series' most naked moment of questioning God and wondering why God would do, well, anything that makes humanity suffer. And it happens against the backdrop of sex lions and a murder at sea.

I realize as I'm writing this that this is the point where our editor will go, "Can you explain a little of this just a tad bit more?" but I'm not sure I can. "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" is a grand, silly, sad episode of television, which is to say it's an episode of The Leftovers. Are you joining the cult of Fraser, Caroline?

Caroline Framke: I'm surprised you would say his name lest you become him, Todd. (In other words, yes of course I’m joining, all hail that majestic sex lion!)

I’ve said this with every passing Leftovers episode, but my god, "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" truly is the kind of episode only The Leftovers could — or would — do.

From the opening of the naked Frenchman sprinting through a submarine to set off a nuclear weapon (to the tune of a jaunty French song, yet another perfectly weird soundtrack choice in a season that’s been full of them) to the final minutes of a lion eating a man alive, this episode is a trippy, deeply sorrowful fever dream. It not only sends Matt careening down a spiral of both self-discovery and self-doubt, but like you said, its surreal story unfolds against not just the backdrop of a lion sex cult (a phrase that’s never gonna get old), but a nuclear crisis. It’s the end of the world as Matt knows it.

Even if the episode ends with, I think, Matt taking a good hard look at his stalwart faith and bitterly smashing it to pieces, I haven’t been able to shake his prediction that the seventh anniversary of the Departure will bring forth an apocalyptic flood. The entire episode plays out like someone desperately scrabbling to get a grip on the side of a cliff before plunging to their death — and I don’t just mean for Matt, who ends the episode by calmly informing his friends (and Laurie) that he is literally dying.

The cult of Fraser, ridiculous though it is, is the kind of thing that can only build momentum once people feel the end coming deep down in their bones. Matt can’t understand why no one aboard the boat cares when he tells them he watched “God” (a.k.a. a former sportscaster named David) throw a man into the ocean, but I immediately did. When you’re living in a world that could end at any moment, a world that could steal you away with seemingly no rhyme or reason, what does it matter when (or how) you make your exit?

Not exactly where they thought they’d end up, but hey.

Todd: You saying that makes me realize that one of the things that's always marked Matt is that he's one of the few characters on The Leftovers who sort of acts as if the Departure never happened.

Obviously, the event marked him and scarred him deeply, to the point of putting his wife in a sort of waking coma. But at the same time, he's clung to the faith he found as a child, one that was strengthened in the death of his parents, and he's tried to act as if that answer should be everybody's answer in the face of gigantic, terrifying uncertainty. His approach has had ... limited success, let's say, but fiction often favors a stubborn character who throws himself against the big, hard obstacle that is reality, and that's our Matt.

That's what makes the end of this episode so moving. Matt, having realized that whatever his faith was, it wasn't helping him any longer, faces both a new day and the last months of his life with something like clarity for the first time. He might not have much, but he has himself, finally, and he's on the same continent as his sister, the one person he has left. I do hope they find each other.

Caroline: Speaking of Nora, that moment where Laurie mentions Nora, and Matt just stares at her blankly, is small — but it’s a gut punch nonetheless. Matt has always had tunnel vision once he gets an end goal in mind, whether it’s convincing people to remember the Departed, rebuilding his church, or breaking Mary’s coma. In this episode, he starts off not caring about anyone who isn’t Kevin and/or Jesus; by the end, he might not care about anything at all.

On a somewhat related note, it was fascinating to watch Matt go head-to-head with Laurie. We’ve barely seen them exchange two words before this episode, and her pragmatism clashing with his blind faith made for some predictably electric scenes. (Also, Christopher Eccleston and Amy Brenneman are very good, and it was fun to watch them finally spar!)

As always with The Leftovers, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” circles the question of what’s real and what’s imagined without ever quite answering it, but setting Laurie versus Matt laid that conflict especially bare. If he’s right, there are larger forces at work that are channeling themselves through Kevin. If she’s right, Kevin is delusional and so is Matt. This episode weaves in and out of skepticism and religion — at least until the moment when Fraser’s ravenous descendent gores “God” to his presumed death. (Bless The Leftovers forever and ever, amen.)

Having quit Sunday School once I realized I was more into the post-service donuts than the mid-service scripture, most of the Bible allusions went right over my head (the exceptions being Laurie floated as the requisite skeptical disciple in whatever Biblical testament Matt is trying to act out, and the cruise maybe acting as some sort of demented Noah’s Ark situation). So I’m curious to know what you make of how "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" functioned in Matt’s evolving Christianity, before finally cutting it off at the knees altogether?

Can you feel the existential crisis tonight?

Todd: The deeper we get into this season, the more it feels like a remix of some of the Bible's greatest hits. You mentioned Noah, but you could also point to Daniel in the lion's den as an example of an obvious parallel. (Intriguingly, it seems that Matt survives because he abandons much of his faith, while "God's" self-certainty only ends with him getting devoured by said lion.)

The whole season, really, has been balancing on that question of what is justifiable as faith and what is a sad delusion, and it's appropriate that the whole question comes to a head in an episode about Matt. But it's also not as if the skeptics are somehow "victorious" here. Even if you don't believe, you have to live in a world where terrible, random things happen. There's no "right" answer. There are only degrees of how much you can keep yourself from feeling the weight of what's terrible.

That's what makes the scene between Matt and David so powerful, and not just because it's Christopher Eccleston and Bill Camp playing the two characters. Here is Matt's chance to finally ask "God" everything he wants to know, and the ultimate answer ends up being a stupid, silly joke that makes him feel small. Then again, even if you believe in God wholeheartedly, it can be tempting to think of all of life as a stupid, silly joke that makes you feel small. It doesn't matter where you're looking for answers. They're rarely easy to find.

Caroline: That scene in particular was a stunner. I was positive when it started that Matt, furious at the audacity of this former sportscaster claiming he’s God, was about to wreak some unholy revenge. Instead, we got to watch as David — who Matt has tied up in a borrowed wheelchair — wears down Matt’s resolve with a calm, almost surgical precision. He breaks down Matt’s defenses with rhetorical questions and shrugging apathy. He even deflects the hardest question of why He enacted the Sudden Departure with the most maddening, convincing answer: “Because I could.”

Somewhere around there, about halfway through the scene, something changes in Matt. He considers the idea that he might, in fact, be staring at the one true God — which, sure, might have a scraggly face with a mean glare, but who cares when it could also be the face of God?

So yes, this episode may be immediately remembered as The One With the Sexy Lion Cult, or on a darker flip side, The One Where Matt Almost Gets Assaulted in the Name of a Lion Named Fraser. But that scene where he lets himself hope for a miracle and ends up staring into a spiritual black hole is as wrenching and essential as The Leftovers gets.

Todd: I think it's important that it also underlines that Matt wasn't crazy: David really did chuck a man overboard seemingly just because he could. That's an idea the episode seems to underline: If God really does exist and really is responsible for some of the worst things in humanity, just because he can be, that's pretty messed up. (I believe many of history's greatest religious thinkers have shared some thoughts on this subject beyond just "that's pretty messed up," but I'm going to leave it there.)

What's more, acknowledging the terrible things that have happened isn't crazy either. It's important to do. You need not just to see what's glorious about God's plan, but also everything that's terrible. You can't just see the moments when your wife wakes up from her coma, or when you finally have a child, but the moments when you've got cancer and you're dying.

"It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" has more than enough allusions and symbols for us to tease out at great length, but I like the way that it ultimately comes down to a kind of synthesis. Believe in God or don't believe in God — either way, you're still stuck with yourself.

The Leftovers airs Sunday nights at 9 pm on HBO.

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