It’s a long, long time before a familiar face shows up in The Leftovers’ second-season premiere. Until Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) steps up to a Texan pulpit, the town of Mapleton, New York feels like a distant memory, a ghost of the most polarizing new series of the 2013-14 TV season. But the episode isn’t about Mapleton, and neither is the season it kicks off. Focusing on the Murphys, a family whose hometown was unaffected by the Sudden Departure, the episode makes no mention of the Guilty Remnant, burial dolls, or the cul-de-sac fires. The world changed on October 14, 2011, but in Jarden, Texas, everything remained the same. The lack of transformation even earned the town a new nickname, Miracle, which it shares with the state park devoted to preserving Jarden’s pre-Departure state.
Season two represents a hard reset for the series, motivated in part by a Sudden Departure of a different kind. The Leftovers used up all of its source material in its first 10 episodes, and now it’s driving to Miracle without a road map. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta are plotting a continuation that operates within the framework of Perrotta’s novel, abiding by its rules and honoring its customs while expanding the borders of its world. There might be only one Miracle, but there are hundreds of Mapletons—and there just might be a little bit of Mapleton in Miracle.
Like every idyllic genre-fiction refuge from Twin Peaks to Wayward Pines, the introduction to Miracle only tells part of the story. The Murphys—father John (Kevin Carroll), mother Erika (Regina King), and twins Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Michael (Jovan Adepo)—had no neighbors who departed, yet they each have hidden methods for dealing with the pain and confusion of being left behind. The Murphy-centric season premiere, “Axis Mundi,” plays like a mini-movie set in The Leftovers Extended Universe, laying out the quirks of Miracle—tourists arriving by the busload, a choral hymn praising the town’s unaltered population count, activities reserved for “residents only”—while serving up slices of life from the Murphy household.
And then Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) moves in next door. There goes the neighborhood.
Theroux and Carrie Coon are the stars of the season-two ad campaign, so it’s no great surprise that Kevin and Nora eventually arrive as the type of interlopers John works so hard to drive away. The reconstituted family unit—rounded out by teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and the infant left on the Garvey family doorsted by Jill’s brother Tommy (Chris Zylka)—grounds season two in what’s come before, and their move symbolizes The Leftovers’ own desire for a fresh start. The show is better than any other at micro-level storytelling, but the big picture stuff with Mapleton, the chain-smoking “Remember the Departure” goblins of the Guilty Remnant, and the state of Kevin’s mental health always threatened to drive season one off the rails. The slash-and-burn policy of “The Prodigal Son Returns” did nothing to clear Kevin’s head, but it opens his makeshift clan to new experiences in a new town where a new calamity is foretold by a new purported mystic (Darius McCrary, a.k.a. Family Matters’ Eddie Winslow).
Amid all the shakeups, The Leftovers’ standalone technique remains second to none. Practically reversing the way Lindelof and his Island cohorts prioritized the forest over the trees on Lost, The Leftovers staff digs at complex emotions with surgical precision and intimate storytelling. (Go ahead, get bent out of shape about what the other seven episodes of the season amounted to—“Two Boats And A Helicopter,” “Guest,” and “The Garveys At Their Best” were three of the finest hours of TV produced in 2014.) Season two makes most of its premiere out of such a story, then takes a full sideways leap in its third installment, “Off Ramp,” joining the estranged, cult-prone half of the Garvey family—ex-Holy Wayne follower Tommy and his Guilty Remnant mom, Laurie (Amy Brenneman)—in their ongoing quests for healing. Few prestige dramas would pause for detailed character sketches like these; only The Leftovers has the supernatural edge that grants tremendous significance to mundane vignettes of backyard pitching practice or trips to the drug store.
In the most exciting prospect of season two, the whole attitude and culture of Miracle flies in the face of that significance. Miracle is either the nightmare scenario for the Guilty Remnant or the GR’s perfect target: The townsfolk haven’t forgotten about October 14, but it didn’t give them much to remember, either. (Then again, “no one departing from Jarden” is not the same thing as “no one in Jarden being affected by the Departure.” It’s 140 million people—surely someone’s aunt or cousin or college roommate got sucked up.) Their memories of the time before the Departure remain largely intact, physical, and tactile, fenced in and patrolled by park rangers who oversee visitors and pilgrims trying to make sense of the day and recreate the pre-Departure time in their own lives.
As Lindelof, Perrotta, and company will surely illustrate in the weeks to come, there’s an irony in The Leftovers’ step forward. The narrative of the show is moving on to what comes next, but the characters would much rather retreat into the Miracle of their own remembering.
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.