Michael Schur, who created NBC’s fantastic afterlife sitcom The Good Place, has talked about the influence Damon Lindelof had on his series. When the show was in its earliest developmental phase, Schur called up Lindelof to ask for some informal guidance on how a show set in the afterlife would work, particularly one with a heavy element of mystery. According to Schur, Lindelof was a huge help in determining how to pace the show and when to parcel out information. “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going,’” Schur recalled in the interview with The A.V. Club’s own Erik Adams. I thought about that interview quite a bit during the first two-thirds of “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” an episode of The Leftovers that initially found me needing my faith in the show reinforced.
That’s not because “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” is bad when it’s getting cranked up. It isn’t. Mimi Leder’s direction is gorgeous and the story is always intriguing even when it’s opaque. But “Whitefella” is definitely paced slower than the first two episodes of the season and it’s entirely set around 9,000 miles from the main action of the story. The Leftovers often asks the audience to sacrifice superficial check-ins with every character in favor of spending quality time with one or two. It’s a terrific approach when the focus is on Kevin, Nora, Laurie, Matt, or even Meg. Kevin Sr. is a tougher sell because of how tangential he was to the middle section of this three-season series. He was a huge presence, but was totally absent. To spend this much time with him in Australia doesn’t always make for the most riveting television.
At the same time, The Leftovers eventually had to delve into all of the questions about Kevin Sr. and how he went from Mapleton’s chief of police, to a mental health facility, to crossing Australia in search of an Aboriginal song that will help him save civilization. The elder Kevin Garvey lays out the whole story to a clever man named Christopher Sunday, who Kevin Sr. hopes has the missing piece of the song that will avert a global flood he believes will coincide with the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure. And that story? Well, let’s just say it’s the very definition of a tall tale. To his credit, Kevin Sr. does a fine job of laying out the story in a concise, chronological fashion. Auditory hallucinations yada yada, God’s Tongue, two weeks unaccounted for, so on and so forth, and wait ‘til you hear about Tony The Magical Chicken.
The episode, as this show always manages to do, takes these almost laughably surreal elements and turns them into well-earned pathos. Tony The Magical Chicken, who Kevin Sr. found out about following his God’s Tongue bender, answered Kevin’s plea for purpose by scratching at an audio tape an inquisitive young Kevin Jr. made during a road trip to Niagara Falls. Kevin Jr. asked his father to stop a downpour by singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and Kevin Sr. thinks Tony is trying to tell him that he stopped the rain once, and with the right song, could do it again. Even in a show teeming with unbelievable stories, Kevin Sr. sounds like an unreliable narrator. That’s what happens when you start a story with hallucinated instructions and then throw a fabled hallucinogen into the mix.
Kevin Sr. spends most of “Whitefella” stranded with nowhere to go and no way of getting there, a classic Biblical trial for the man disappointed to learn he doesn’t factor prominently into The Holy Bible 2: Kevin Can Wait. The journey is incredibly lonely, not only because Kevin Sr. is by himself, but because the show leaves enough room to interpret that he is, in fact, alone in a world of his own making. An event like the Sudden Departure wouldn’t suddenly validate the breathless brimstone rants of every guy preaching from a corner. As Kevin Sr. trudges across the plains of Australia, finally resting his tired body against a wooden cross, I couldn’t help but wonder if Kevin is still considered one of the crazy people in a world where everybody is a little beside themselves.
But Kevin Sr. finds out that if he is, in fact, a crazy person, he’s in good company. His walkabout leads him to a property owned by a woman named Grace, last seen drowning that unfortunate sheriff at the end of “Don’t Be Ridiculous.” Grace (the excellent Lindsay Duncan) tells Kevin Sr. her story, and it made me sad that The Leftovers never gained more of a following. There are so many different angles to take and survivor stories to consider, and I wish the show had more time to explore them.
Then again, I’m not sure how many stories like Grace’s I could stand to hear. She was away from home on that fateful day (it was the 15th in Australia), and when she finally made it home and found everyone gone, she assumed they had all been taken. But Grace, who deliberately uses the term “rapture” to describe the event, wasn’t horrified. She was happy her family was with God, even if she couldn’t be with them. And then her children’s bones turned up. It’s a harrowing, gutting story that balances out the episode, making it feel more grounded as opposed to the more fantastical elements of Kevin Sr.’s story. It also connects Kevin’s adventure with the mysterious coda from the last episode.
Grace certainly didn’t mean to kill the sheriff whose name just so happened to match the handwritten scripture carried to her farm by a stranger. But she’s desperate, just as Kevin Sr. was desperate enough to take God’s Tongue and solicit advice from a chicken. Just as Kevin Jr. was desperate enough to drink poison. In the face of unfathomable grief, people are liable to do just about anything to connect with the people they lost. And now that they’ve connected, Kevin Sr. and Grace can be for each other the sign from God they’ve been looking for. And maybe Kevin Sr. deserves a few chapters of scripture all his own.
- Kevin Jr. sounds like a rather adorable kid.
- When exactly did Kevin Sr. and Matt get so close? Did Matt interview him for the book?
- Nature cops to Kevin: “What are you doing?” Kevin, to nature cops: “Preventing the apocalypse. What are you doing?”
- R.I.P. Christopher Sunday. You were a hell of a good listener.
- This week’s opening credits theme: Richard Cheese’s lounge cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”