Whew, this fucking show. I hate to be hysterical about it, but The Leftovers is absolutely clowning the rest of television in this quantum leap of a second season. It’s doing monster-truck wheelies over the competition. There’s been a lot of amazing television in 2015, but with every new episode of The Leftovers comes the very real possibility of seeing a “top 10 episodes” list violently upended. This much is certain: If you’re an actress on a television drama with plans to lobby for one of next year’s Outstanding Actress in a Drama Emmy awards, and the name of your show is not The Leftovers, your target is getting narrower by the week. Maybe don’t even think too hard about the Emmys next year. Maybe submit something, maybe not, whatever, but release the stress of the whole thing, y’know? I once interviewed John Slattery after one of his Mad Men nominations, and he said on the morning the Emmy nods were announced, he was out surfing rather than home pacing. Now imagine: What if instead of surfing to take your mind off the Emmy nominations, you were just surfing? There’s plenty of time for lessons. Just give it some thought, because after “Lens,” both of those races now have clear frontrunners in Carrie Coon and Regina King.
After weeks of narrowly focused vignettes, “Lens” finally braids the show’s narrative threads together, and the synergy is even more satisfying than I anticipated. But while there’s room for everyone in “Lens,” the focus is on Nora and Erika, and their respective strategies for coping with the uncommon grief of losing a child under such confounding circumstances. One of The Leftovers’ central themes is that, as human beings, what unites us is greater than what divides us, but we forget that frequently and thoroughly for a variety of reasons, even after a global equalizer like the Sudden Departure. Look at Nora and Erika, who began the season negotiating a tentative friendship, but are more or less sworn enemies now that they’ve hurled rocks through each other’s front windows. Both had reasonable enough motivation. Nora is upset with John for abruptly rescinding his offer to help Matt get back into town, and the rock through the window is the luxury she’s affording herself to help work through the resentment. Erika is furious with Nora for coming into her home and using a stolen DSD fraud questionnaire to use her as a means of working through Nora’s own guilt over having possibly caused the Durst family’s departures, and possibly Evie’s.
It’s an example of two people whose circumstances are so similar, they can’t get along because they’re too busy projecting their own drama onto each other. There’s a version of this story, a version only barely different than the one in “Lens,” in which Nora and Erika act as a support system to help each other cope with a horrific loss. Instead, they now live worlds apart, despite physically residing next door to each other, even as their circumstances become more and more aligned. They’re both trying to keep it together after having children cosmically kidnapped, raise other children they don’t completely understand, cope in relationships with psychically damaged men with rage issues, and clarify their feelings about living in the town that was a Miracle until it wasn’t. They probably understand each other better than anyone else could, but neither of them can see past the fog of their personal grief.
In Erika’s case, she’s grieving the disappearance of her daughter and dodging the delightfully named George Brevity from the DSD’s Second Departures department. She’s dealing with the withering gazes from Loretta and Emily, the mothers of the girls who disappeared along with Evie, who resent her for not cooperating with the DSD investigation. At work, she’s forced to patch up bloodied snake oil salesmen who her coworkers sheepishly bring to her knowing her husband, a cross between Adam Savage and Jonny “Bones” Jones, is probably the one responsible for it. Her son is going behind her back to pray with an estranged relative who she still hasn’t forgiven for some old transgression.
Nora, meanwhile, is in a slightly better place psychologically than Erika when the episode begins. She’s had more time to adjust to the Departure, and she doesn’t know what it’s like to live under the impression that you were spared for some possibly spiritual reason. It’s not until a maladjusted scientist shows up asking aggressive questions that Nora comes unglued. She runs across George Brevity and after finding out he’s a fellow DSD investigator, she stalks him to a diner and tries to convince him to give her a peek at the DSD’s newly revised fraud questionnaire. The new version incorporates aspects of the “lens theory,” which posits that departures were caused by the physical proximity or touch of a specific person, either for reasons to do with ultraviolet light, or the influence of the demon Azrael. Nora is so consumed with this new explanation for why her family may have disappeared, she’s oblivious to the fact that her boyfriend might be losing his grasp on reality.
The two women cross paths at a fundraiser vigil which builds to an affecting slideshow of pictures of the inseparable friends before their disappearance. Nora takes the opportunity to sneak the new questionnaire out of Brevity’s bag while he’s distracted, and Erika is distracted by the sight of Jerry coming in and laying down his plastic tarp to slaughter a goat, as is his wont. Erika can’t abide Jerry’s antics, not on this night, not at this event. If the narrative, for some at least, is that there are no miracles in Miracle, then there should be no exceptions for the innocuously superstitious. None of Jerry’s random goat slaughters, and none of Cecilia’s touristy nonsense about how wearing her wedding gown on the day of the Sudden Departure has some kind of significance. It’s just lucky for Tower Guy he opted to hang out at home as usual. Nora frees the questionnaire, like Erika frees the goat, she can’t wait another moment to put Erika through the paces.
In a season of uncommonly strong scenes, the confrontation between Erika and Nora is perhaps the finest of them. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s script is emotionally incisive and quietly unsettling. It reminded me quite a bit of the auditing scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a jaw-dropping duet between Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. King and Coon perform the scene just as adeptly, and it’s even more intense than that one because of director Craig Zobel’s decision to keep the camera tight on their faces for the entire scene. King’s micro-expressions are precise in a way that’s kind of hard to believe. It’s difficult to find the fault in her performance, or in the fundraiser and questionnaire scenes as a whole.
It’s getting harder generally to find the fault in this season of television. I’m still on the fence about Ghost Patti, though the final scene with Kevin’s confession to Nora certainly stoked my interest in that. But this show is operating on a different level. There’s so much depth, detail, thought, and love poured into each episode. In the season premiere, there were so many tiny flickers of detail: Erika’s bird in the box, the squirrely dude collecting water at the spring, the woman cutting her grass in a wedding gown, and the man randomly exsanguinating a goat in the middle of a casual dining establishment. Those tiny details seemed thoughtful even when it seemed like most of it would wind up being window dressing. To see those ideas incorporated into the story in such a seamless way is kind of astonishing. Even people who haven’t quite warmed to The Leftovers have to concede that this is some of the most interesting and significant television of the year. And if you’re an actress who is not in it, I’m not saying give up on your dreams. I’m just saying maybe give up on your dreams.
- I can’t wait to see what’s going on with Laurie and Tommy. That phone call to Nora was devastating. “It’s really easy to unlist, if you want.”
- Matt’s a big hit in Outer Miracle.
- The diner scene between Nora and Brevity is another fantastic example of the attention to detail. The DSD shop talk was fascinating. Departures are called “deeps.”
- John Murphy is taking palm prints. That ain’t good.
- The fundraiser is only accepting donations via PayPal. The project lead on Google Wallet must have lifted.