The only way to begin this sermon is with the opening line of every TEDTalk, ever… “Forget everything you think you know…”
The Leftovers isn’t a TV show, it’s a Goddamned mystical experience… and I’m not just talking about the overtly religious storyline, nor the fact it aired on Easter Sunday and not even the child-like, Christmas Eve level of excitement I feel towards the show.
Not only is HBO’s most underrated hour-long spiritually awakening, it’s also the most beautifully crafted TV show I think I have ever seen – this season three opener reducing me to tears. Twice.
This article contains spoilers for all seasons of The Leftovers, including season three’s opener.
Just as season two’s opening prologue “Axis Mundi” transported us back to cavewoman times, this episode began with another dialogue-free, Leftovers Universe flashback. The year is 1844 and white-clad, Guilty Remnant ancestor townsfolk of an Australian pilgrim settlement desperately await The Rapture, as calculated by their prophesying mad professor/priest and his pigeons.
From the first second of the opening establishing shot, Mimi Leder’s beautiful direction shines, effortlessly conveying one female settler’s desperation as she stands atop her straw roof hoping to be whisked away to heaven. The scenes are so intensely hypnotic it’s impossible not to be sucked into the mid-nineteenth century, becoming another villager suffering damnation.
Writer Damon Lindelof’s love of short bursts of quick-cut repetition not only set scenes quickly but manage to capture the villager’s hopelessness and engage the viewer with humor and pathos…. for that’s what great TV is – efficient, emotive audio visual storytelling.
Even before Lost’s divisive finalé, Lindelof was (wrongly) hated by most of the world’s population, yet he remains the only TV writer that consistently puts his viewers through the wringer with more conflicting emotions than his characters.
So far, we’ve spent seven minutes in a mid-nineteenth century village with characters we don’t know, have never cared about, have most certainly been dead for 150 years, will probably never see again and… I’m officially a wreck.
From 1844 Australia, we segue seamlessly to modern-day characters we do care about about – Evie and Meg, holed up in the Jardin Visitor Welcome Center on the morning after the Guilty Remnant’s revolution. It was both sad and thrilling to see Evie’s final seconds before being blown up by a drone strike, but entirely necessary for what followed…
Just like the saṃsāra (endless cycles of Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation) that he writes about, Lindelof is the master of rebirth: Every season of Lost “zoomed” out to reveal more of the diegesis; every season contained a completely new, standalone, rebooted storyline and revealed more answers about the universe until the final episode which answered the most important question humans have ever asked.
What followed was a glorious half hour of Lindelof World Building. Beginning with our hero staring into a very familiar hatch-like, missile crater/abyss, it’s quickly made clear who’s Sheriff of this town as Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) rides through Miracle on a white horse, putting out fires and looking cool.
For the first time in more than six years, everything is right with the world: Jarden is still a messed up, Wild West Sodom and Gomorrah Circus Freakshow but Kevin has stepson Tom (Chris Zylka) as Deputy and Nora (Carrie Coon) has her old job back at the Department of Sudden Departures; and what’s more. their love is rekindled like a phoenix from the flames.
Across town, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is still vociferously preaching to a congregation which overspills into the streets and includes a rejuvenated Mary (Janel Moloney) and their three-year-old son, Noah. Even dog-shooting Dean (Michael Gaston) is back – madder than own his dog DNA sandwich, spouting conspiracy theories and more unsettling than ever… but at least now Kevin knows he’s real and not a delusion. Kevin’s no longer mentally ill, right?
Angst-ridden John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) is reborn as a hippie and he and Laurie (Amy Brenneman) are using nefarious means to give lost souls hope – and are an item! Everyone has seemingly moved on, and even Jill (Margaret Qualley) shows up in a Nirvana T-shirt (Nirvana being another Sanskrit word meaning ‘liberation from the cycles of reincarnation’)
Everything is groovy in Groovetown. Kevin has found purpose and equanimity abounds in “the house where the fucked-up people live” but this is The Leftovers, and if there’s one showrunner who understands the cyclic, circuitous change of saṃsāra – where this life (or, this present incarnation) is known as dhukkha and is full of pain and suffering – it’s Lindelof.
Writers say “a ticking clock creates tension” and in other shows, a series of unfortunate events would now perhaps begin a countdown to an important character’s death or terrorist attack but not in this show.
In The Leftovers, that ticking clock is the end of the world. Biblical style.
Many writers telegraph events very well, but there is never an ounce of foreshadow fat on this show’s bones whether that’s the delicious trail of breadcrumbs that leads Kevin to discover he is the hero of Matt’s titular New Testament 2.0 – “The Book of Kevin” or Tom giving Dean a dose of his own medicine by gunning him down on the street like Atticus Finch…
To Kill A Mockingbird is highly likely the source of Perrota/Lindelof’s black dog as madness metaphor.
The last twenty minutes – the protest at the poisoned lake, Tom calling bullshit on the official Guilty Remnant gas explosion story, Dean’s death and Kevin telling his son he too killed people (in the afterlife) all point towards characters awakening.
All Hero’s Journeys deal with death and rebirth; metaphor for finally winnig the battle against the ego – casting off the old paradigm and dedicating your life to something bigger than your old, ‘selfish’ self.
This is almost certainly one of the basis’ for Jesus’ Easter reincarnation story and this ‘awakening of the self from illusion’ idea can be found everywhere from the 3,000 year-old Upanishads talk of Maya (the illusion of reality) to The Matrix’s red and blue pill nod to Alice in Wonderland’s down the rabbit hole.
That’s what stories are for, you see – to wake us up… we’ve just been drinking water from the River Lethe for far too long and have forgotten.
Luckily, Damon Lindelof is here to remind us.
The final scene lures us inot thinking we’re watching a ponytailed, dove-wrangling Kevin Garvey Snr. cycling through rural Australia. It’s actually someone called Sarah and is either the end of a reclusive, sixty-year-old Nora’s story or the beginning of a departed and returned version of Nora named Sarah.
While the latter theory may sound outlandish, with this show expect the unexpected.
The Leftovers has never once failed to subvert my expectations and I don’t mean in the police procedural, “Oh, the other guy was the murderer” red herring, sleight of hand diversionary trope, but more an “Oh. My. God. WTF just happened? Don’t end now!”
It’s one of the many reasons Lindelof is so verily disliked. Whatever people say, many don’t like being so many steps behind. Another reason is that they are petrified that they’re not as in control of their lives as they like to believe.
In other words, they can’t handle the truth… but that’s a whole other blog post for another day!
Out-of-this-world writing, an enviable understanding of classical mythology, sizzling character interaction, tremendous acting and a bubbling undercurrent of inescapable inevitability are not only what makes the show so special.
Director Mimi Leder’s unparalleled visual storytelling nous and her team’s assured camera movements and perfect framing of every single second elevate the show to Emmy-worthy.
But that’s not what made me cry – my tears were solely due to the incredible sense of awe. Hundreds of gifted writers, actors, directors like Mimi Leder, technicians, assistants and execs all bringing their A-game to feed my eyes, ears and soul with Manna from heaven.
HBO airing this beautifully crafted hour of television about rebirth in a town called Miracle on Easter Sunday was inspired. If you’re not already converted, make it your daily bread and watch all twenty one episodes before next Sunday!
The Leftovers airs on HBO at 9/8c, Sunday nights.
Miss it and go straight to TV Hell.
Do not pass The River Styx.
Do not collect two pennies for your eyes.