From the very first musical bar of last night’s The Leftovers, proceedings were already perfectly strange. The universe was slightly out of kilter and I don’t mean in its normal, beautiful, crazy, beguiling way…
Being presented with the opening titles we know and love should have been comforting, but when accompanied by a theme tune from an 80’s sitcom instead of Iris DeMent’s Let the Mystery Be, there was something… missing.
Throw this into the mix and you have two unsettling mysteries that would only unravel themselves later, and before an establishing shot has even been fired.
When that establishing wide shot of Jarden came, with The Man in the Tower and Giant Gary Busey present and correct after this episode’s early teething troubles, everything was so right again that it was like going home for Christmas.
Until The Man in the Tower had a heart attack and died. From that point on, until the change of continents, almost everything felt wrong.
As Nora investigated the hermit’s “departure”, the Leftovers Universe became more and more out-of-sync, and by the end of our time in Jarden 50 minutes in, like drifting timecode. it didn’t even feel like the same show.
A chilling phonecall was the real inciting incident of this Nora-centric episode which felt very much like her season one trip to New York “Guest”. The phone call was from Mark Linn-Baker – a man who, mirroring Nora’s October 14th situation, was the only one of four Perfect Strangers regular cast members not to depart.
So, at least that opening theme tune made sense now.
After taking the actor up on his Meet Me in St Louis offer, Nora makes her way to Missouri and, at the airport, The Leftovers effortlessly glides back into what it does best. Finding the most ingenious ways to use metaphor:
If you haven’t followed the show, this photo will mean nothing, but to avid followers like me, it was a sucker-punch to the ovaries. In addition to her two departed children, Baby Lily was gone and it was killing Nora.
Then, a few short minutes later, it pulls another one out of the bag when Nora meets the actual real-life Mark Linn-Baker from Perfect Strangers and he throws her iPhone in the toilet bowl with the words ““It’s just hardware… everything that matters is out there in the cloud, right?” and BOOM!
That’s why this is the best show ever. The whole premise of the show and life’s biggest question summed up in one line.
About a phone.
In a toilet.
In a brilliantly tense and supremely well-acted hotel room scene, MLB explains the quantum science behind a radioactive device which zaps willing volunteers to reunite them with their departed loved ones. Sceptical DSD Agent Nora Durst, of course, sees through this snake-oil merchant’s bullshit and is having none of it.
The next day she drives to “nearby” Kentucky and we see her real reason for leaving Jarden – to see four-year-old Lily who’s now living back with her real mother, Christine.
Faced with the desperation and awfulness of losing her third child, that snake-oil slash certain radioactive death was smelling sweeter than ever.
In the second, long and wonderfully performed scene, Nora explains to Erika (herself mother to her own dead daughter, Evie) how she purposefully broke her arm to hide her “Wu-Tang Band” tattoo, which was, in turn, to cover up the tattooed names of her dead children.
At least now we know who Tha Lonely Donkey Kong and Specialist Contagious are – they are Tom Perrota and Damon Lindelof’s Wu-Tang Names, and there was me thinking Damon’s was Pretentious Spastic. Only kidding. You know I’d have the man’s babies if it were possible.
Nora arrives home unexpectedly early to find Kevin with a bag taped over his face, receives a phone call from an associate of Mark-Linn Baker asking if she can be in Melbourne Australia with $20,000 by Tuesday. “Yes. I can do that,” she says. “Can I come with you?” asks Kevin.
EXT. AUSTRALIA. NIGHT.
A KANGAROO GENTLY GRAZES ON GRASS — TURNS — HOPS INTO THE ROAD AND GETS HIT BY A MOTHERFUCKING JEEP.
(knowing Lindelof’s scripts so well, that’s probably verbatim)
Although the ‘roo probably needed putting out of its misery, the policeman driver takes his gun and executes poor Kanga without flinching.
As if that wasn’t the best ever Blake Snyder piece of screenwriting ever, back at the ranch the way the cop treats his sargeant shows he’s a vindictive, bully. So when he left the station, a sense of dread overcame us.
If he wasn’t such a piece of shit, this terrifyingly ominous feeling might have come with some simpatico, but nahhh… give him what he deserves.
Sure enough, Lindsay Duncan and her horse-riding cohorts, looking like something out of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman kidnap this man – also called Kevin and also chief of police – mistaking him for The Messiah.
So they drown him.
Enter Kevin Garvey Snr and we’re all set for where we wanted this season to go… Australia.
Incidentally, Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan appeared in a 2001, Stephen Poliakof miniseries called Perfect Strangers, although it aired under the name Almost Strangers in The States. How perfectly strange is that?
This episode had some brilliant moments, two heart-wrenching scenes (down to the actors) and in Nora’s bad-day brushes with technology, some brilliant metaphor for her life being out of whack with the rest of the universe (down to the writers)
But I can’t help thinking that the reason this whole episode (save for the opening shot and scenes in Australia) being out of whack was down to the director. Yes, there were a few well-planned shots like Nora walking into a narrow depth-of-field three times but on the whole nothing to write home to Jarden about.
Keith Gordon is an actor turned director – which explains those two perfectly acted scenes. He’s directed two episodes before including the brilliant season one ep “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and season two’s “Ten Thirteen” so I can’t for the life of me put my finger on why this episode didn’t quite work.
With series regulars including Kevin reduced to cameos, it was always going to be a difficult episode to nail. I’m not suggesting he is at fault, but for one rerason or another, Keith Gordon just couldn’t capture the magic of The Leftovers.
Mimi Leder is back in the directors chair for next Sunday’s episode. Until then, this is Temporary Wu-Tang Spastic signing off.