The official tagline for the first season of The Leftovers was “We’re still here,” while this season’s tagline is “Begin again.” The unofficial tagline of The Leftovers—then, now, and probably forever—is “Your mileage may vary.” This is undoubtedly the most polarizing television show on the air, and Damon Lindelof is keenly aware of it. In an interview with Vulture’s Joe Adalian following the season premiere, Lindelof said that startling, prehistoric cold open came out of a writers’ room conversation about the most efficient way to piss off Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan, formerly of the Grantland podcast. “We love [the podcast] and think they’re brilliant, but they both fucking hate The Leftovers,” said Lindelof. “So the joke was, ‘What can we do to completely and totally piss off those guys?’” This is a show expressly designed to provoke, and it does that so successfully that not even all of the people who don’t fucking hate it will get the same satisfaction from every episode.
“International Assassin” is the most polarizing episode of the most polarizing show, a stress test of an episode that pushes the boundaries of the show’s premise and expands its universe in a way that not everyone will respond favorably to. It’s also the episode that bears the most striking resemblance to Lost, specifically the series finale, which revealed that the much of the final season had taken place in a reality-adjacent netherworld. (It’s more than coincidence that the episode was written by Lindelof and Nick Cuse, son of Lindelof’s Lost collaborator Carlton Cuse.) There are echoes of Jack Shephard in “International Assassin,” with Kevin as the tragic hero seeing visions of his father as he tries to find his way home from a weird, magical world of symbols that exists outside of space and time. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and generous hour of television, packed with enough nuances and easter eggs to keep superfans freeze-framing for years to come. But it’s ultimately a scenic detour, however breathtaking, and like the final season of Lost, the argument against it comes down whether it’s a detour worth taking.
The quick-and-dirty synopsis, if that’s even helpful to the discussion of an episode like this, is that Kevin startles awake in a bathtub full of water and pulls himself onto the floor of a hotel bathroom. His last memory is of drinking a poisonous concoction in Virgil’s trailer, so he’s understandably confused upon waking up in a strange hotel with a blaring television. Kevin is more confused when a bellman shows up with a flower delivery for a Kevin Harvey, then proceeds to try to kill Kevin, who first tries to offer him a tip but finds only Euros in his wallet. After making his way to the lobby, Kevin is directed to Virgil, who’s acting as the concierge in the otherworldly hotel. Virgil discreetly tells Kevin to meet him in the parking garage, then explains that Kevin is an “international assassin” registered at the hotel under an alias. He’ll get an opportunity to meet Patti Levin, who in this world is a senator mounting a presidential campaign, and that will be his opportunity to retrieve a gun from the toilet and kill Patti, which will allow him to return to his body. Virgil leaves him with some important information. He tells Kevin to stop thinking in straight lines, because the wily Patti doesn’t operate on that level, and to avoid drinking the water at all costs.
Kevin is vetted by Senator Levin’s staff, who are naturally wearing their Guilty Remnant dress whites. A dolled-up and talkative Gladys leads the process, which includes hooking Kevin up to a lie detector and spritzing glass cleaner in his eyes when he provides a dishonest answer. He passes muster and is led to Patti’s suite, where a stern security guard tells him to “Make like Jesus” for a pat down. Kevin’s initial attempt to retrieve the gun goes left when he walks in on Holy Wayne on the toilet. In this world, Wayne is one of Patti’s security guards, and he vaguely recalls Kevin’s face, then chalks it up to a trick of the mind. Patti and Kevin have a fascinating conversation about the Guilty Remnant’s beliefs and end goals, then Kevin retrieves the gun from the toilet, shoots Wayne and Gladys, then takes out Patti after ignoring a story about how she’s actually a decoy.
When the assassination fails to end his time on the other side, Kevin realizes that the man and little girl in the adjacent room are actually Patti’s poop-positive ex-husband Neil and a youthful manifestation of Patti herself. With the help of his father, who’s broadcasting live from Perth, Kevin concludes that the only way to get home is to carry the little girl to a well in Jarden and toss her to the bottom. There’s a genuinely affecting scene between Kevin and Ghost Patti Junior, who Kevin can’t bear to kill even considering the stakes and his intellectual awareness that none of this is real. He’s forced to tumble down into the well himself to finish the job, at which point he’s able to crawl out of a shallow grave to return to the mortal world.
“Assassin” is easy to admire even when it’s hard to like. Just the choice to follow through with the idea of Kevin facing off against Patti in the great beyond is an incredibly ballsy one. The attention to detail that has characterized the season is on full display, reflected in the loose bird in the hotel lobby and the balloon delivery to Mary Jamison made by a bellhop whose name tag says “Bellhop.” The references and allusions are rich, from the Epictetus quote engraved on Kevin’s wardrobe to the amnesia-inducing water, a nod to the Lethe River in Greek mythology. Interesting ideas about faith and doubt are introduced, when Decoy Ghost Patti suggests her beliefs might be more aligned with Kevin’s than he realizes. The episode is boldly performed, with Ann Dowd, Marceline Hugot, Paterson Joseph, and Steven Williams getting to play wildly different versions of their characters. “Assassin” has the same hypnotic effect created by the best episodes of The Leftovers.
But “Assassin” also feels goofy at times with all its Lynchian surrealism and its efforts to literalize the abstract. And ultimately, the episode serves little purpose other than to presumably rid the story of Ghost Patti, whose inclusion in this season was a questionable choice to begin with. The Kevin and Patti story has always felt like an understandably desperate ploy to keep Dowd in the fold after her character’s death, and there’s only so much impact to the death of a character only one person can see. Kevin has taken a backseat in this expanded second season, but “Assassin” makes a strong case that he’s still very much the main character of the show, though he can no longer justify that prominence. The Leftovers is a proper ensemble show now, and in a 10-episode season, with so many disparate characters to service and a broad story to tell, it’s hard to make a case for devoting a full hour to Kevin’s death, resurrection, and all the cottonmouth in between.
Let’s assume we live in a just world and say that The Leftovers is going to run for four more seasons despite its paltry audience. In that scenario, it’s not terribly important that one of those hours was devoted to Kevin’s adventures between worlds. What is important is how “Assassin” changes the audience’s perception of the story going forward. Following Kevin to the other side is not a minor thing because it establishes definitively that there’s another side to follow him to. I’ve admired Lindelof’s approach to this material, the constant reminders that no answers are forthcoming, and that the audience won’t know anymore about the cause of the Sudden Departure than the characters do. Telling the story that way allows us to see how the lack of certainty shapes the characters in different ways, making some reaffirm their faith while others shield themselves with logic and reason, and neither is necessarily more correct. And while there’s nothing to suggest that Kevin’s trip abroad has any bearing on the whereabouts of the departures, one of those general positions is now more objectively correct than the other. As was the case with Lost, Lindelof plays with the reason-versus-faith dichotomy, but eventually comes down on the side of faith.
The choice to show Kevin crossing over comes across differently in a second-season episode than it would as series finale, but emphasizing the afterlife has a much more profound effect on The Leftovers than it had on Lost. Lost was about people stranded on a deserted island and searching for answers. The Leftovers is about people stranded in their everyday lives and struggling to accept that they’ll never get any answers. Even if Kevin is able to convince Nora to return home, and they handcuff themselves together, it may not matter. Now Kevin knows something Nora doesn’t, something he can never share with her, and they’ve never been farther apart. Just as the audience now knows more than most of the characters, and can no longer fully empathize with their desperation for answers when none are forthcoming.
- I’m renewing my irritation over the use of the Magical Negro trope. It didn’t even occur to me that Virgil was committing suicide to serve as Kevin’s spirit guide, but that makes the use of the trope far worse than I initially thought. Here, you have a magical black man who literally sacrifices his own life to save the life of a white dude he barely knows, all in an effort to atone for crimes he committed against people who live across town. Oh, okay.
- Gladys on Patti’s conversational triggers: “Don’t ask her about North Korea, gun control, abortion, or Neil.”
- R.I.P. Ghost Neil. You died as you lived, with someone straddling your chest and squeezing really hard.