The Leftovers is magical. Not only in the sense that it flirts with magical realism and whimsical ideas, but also in the sense that its narrative sleight-of-hand tricks are unparalleled. It’s television as close-up magic. You can look and look, and still not see what’s happening right before your eyes. “Ten Thirteen” ends with what has to be the most brutal gut punch a television show has pulled off all year. And it’s all a result of the deliberate, unorthodox storytelling approach The Leftovers has taken since the season began. Damon Lindelof insists season two is not a reboot, and I’d agree that the description doesn’t fit. But just like a rebooted show or a brand new one, season two of The Leftovers has had to train its audience how to watch it, for example, not to take for granted that you’ll see the same faces in one episode that you’ll see in the next. The lengthy character absences have allowed the writers to move pieces without the audience catching on, but also without the shocking reveal feeling like a cheat or a renegotiation of the rules.

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The results of this approach to the storytelling is not a universally positive one, though. The consequence of a character spending so much time out of the frame is that they don’t feel as familiar when they step back into it. The Leftovers has always been an ensemble show, and ensemble shows divide audiences by their very nature. Without the benefit of a traditional character hierarchy, viewers have highly individualized experiences and bond with some characters while failing to warm to others. If Megan Abbott was one of the characters with whom you connected in season one and you lamented her near-total absence in season two, “Ten Thirteen” is a gift. For those who don’t like Meg or are indifferent to her, a lot of “Ten Thirteen” isn’t going to catch fire. The writers gave the audience enough time to miss Meg or forget all about her, depending on how they took to her to begin with.

There’s also a moderate third path, which reflects my reaction to the episode. I was mostly indifferent to Meg, then I became intrigued by her again after watching “Orange Sticker” and seeing the contrast between Meg, a highly-ranked true believer, and Laurie, the apostate who once silently supervised Meg as she chopped wood and tried to make sense of it all. Now I’m all in after seeing “Ten Thirteen,” which shows just how deeply involved in the Guilty Remnant Meg has gotten since her indoctrination in season one, and provides some insights into the emotional pain that led her to leave her old life behind in the first place.

The episode title refers to the day before the Sudden Departure, when a coked-up Meg lunched with her mother to discuss the wedding and get remedial etiquette lessons, an interaction she can only get through by numbing herself with frequent bumps in the bathroom. She returns from one of her pit stops to find that her mother has died in the restaurant while she was in the bathroom doing coke. Meg’s mother died at the worst possible time in more ways than one. She died while Meg was away from the table, where just maybe Meg would have been able to more quickly flag down help and save her life, and she died the day before the Sudden Departure, an event that would psychologically bifurcate what came before it and what came after for people just as the death of Christ did. By losing her mother on October 13th, Meg became the Sudden Departure-equivalent of a Christmas baby.

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What happened on October 13th didn’t matter anymore on October 14th, and Meg was left alone, without anyone to understand what to make of her totally ordinary grief. The Guilty Remnant is such an odd, goofy cult, it hasn’t been easy to jump into the mindset of the person who would choose to join. The depiction of Meg in “Ten Thirteen” does the show’s best job yet of illuminating the kind of sadness, loneliness, and anhedonia that would lead someone to leave behind everything they know to become chain-smoking voyeurs. “Thirteen” takes place over what might be the longest period of time compressed into a single Leftovers episode. It begins before the Sudden Departure and carries Meg through to the present, where she’s skulking around Outer Jarden with plans to mount a devastating terrorist attack on the city.

Meg didn’t settle for becoming a rank-and-file white walker, she fought her way up through the ranks of the Guilty Remnant, and now represents the organization’s lunatic fringe. The incident in which she cornered Tommy in the back of a box truck and raped him before ominously dousing him with gasoline is actually on the low end of Meg’s antics. She commandeers a school bus full of children and rolls an inactive grenade down the aisle before strolling away with the terrified children locked inside. It’s a horrific scene, mostly because Meg’s behavior has been so menacing and unpredictable, there was no guarantee when Meg strolled away from that bus that it wouldn’t burst into flames. The scene made me think of Westboro Baptist Church, the organization the Guilty Remnant most resembles, and become terrified again. The line between horrific, harmful free speech and horrific, harmful actions is not as broad as we’d like to believe it is.

On her path to building a radicalized offshoot of the Guilty Remnant, Meg and her fiancé take a trip to Jarden among the many tourists desperate to see the mythical town spared by the Sudden Departure. She winds up at Isaac’s place for a reading, hoping he can connect with her mother and puncture the numbness she’s felt since October 13th. Isaac is the real deal, and he proves it to her by recalling details of their final lunch together, but she’s not comforted by his message from the beyond. She’s in tears after her meeting with Isaac, but she’s still effectively numb, and she suspects everyone around her is equally numb. It’s only through escalating her actions that people will finally internalize the gravity of what happened. Meg’s visit to Jarden does yield one important development, when she sits crying on a bench and is befriended by a weirdo named Evie, who is carrying around a bag of baby carrots as emotionally powerful as Holy Wayne’s hugs.

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Speaking of Holy Wayne’s hugs, Tommy reappears in “Ten Thirteen” to fill in the gaps between his embrace of unethical religious showmanship in “Off Ramp” and Laurie’s panicked phone calls and visits to Jarden trying to track him down. In Laurie’s call to Nora, she apologized to Tommy, a reference to a terrible fight they had about his weariness with their approach, which ends with her slapping him across the face. Naturally, Tommy seeks out Meg, which was his initial instinct after his harrowing encounter with her, and he only relented because Laurie dragged him back onboard. Tommy convinced Laurie that the people they were rescuing from the Guilty Remnant had to have something new to latch onto, and it didn’t necessarily have to be something valid. He’s speaking from experience, because Tommy was introduced as a character searching for deeper meaning and renewed purpose wherever and however he could find it. One of The Leftovers’ central themes can be summarized with an idiom: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” When a chunk of a structure is removed, something will naturally replace it, and Meg is waiting with open arms to welcome Tommy back into the fold.

The question now is what Tommy will do once he gets a better grasp of this fringe branch of the Guilty Remnant and learns what they have planned for the town that now happens to be home to his entire immediate family. He asks a white-clad Evie who she is, while her color-coordinated friends clinging to her side. “It doesn’t matter,” she writes. Hopefully he won’t take her at her word.

Stray observations

  • I’d love to know the conversations that go into which part of the story goes where, because if not for the final scene, “Ten Thirteen” and “International Assassin” could be swapped without much consequence.
  • The Isaac scene was terrific, if only because I’d forgotten about the handprints Isaac was taking in the premiere. It’s crazy how layered this show is.
  • I would have preferred if Tommy had gotten in touch with Meg using a Missed Connections ad on Craig’s List: “Me: The cute-at-certain-angles cult interloper you raped and threatened with death. You: raven-haired hottie who chose her words carefully and gave me a thrill before I almost died. We almost caught fire last time. Maybe there’ll be another?”

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