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The Leftovers: “Pilot”

Justin Theroux (HBO)
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It’s going to be difficult to watch The Leftovers week-to-week.

There are a lot of strong elements to this pilot, but there’s so much uncertainty and not-knowing at its center that watching it doesn’t feel like it solves or explains anything at all. The biggest reveal is one that I accidentally discovered while viewing (and perhaps you did too)—Laurie, Amy Brenneman’s character, is the Chief’s wife. Justin Theroux as the Chief, Kevin Garvey, spends the entire episode mourning, trying to connect first to his daughter and then to his son, and the easiest explanation is that his wife was lost on October 14, along with 100 or so members of their town. The episode plays with the reveal deftly, making it possible but unexpected until the very end—even after the two have run into each other (almost literally) on-screen, in the episode’s second-act climax, the protest at the three-year memorial service for the “heroes.”


But it’s perhaps the only question the episode answers, and my immediate instinct after watching this dreamy, atmospheric pilot was to cue up the second and start watching. Not necessarily because I liked it so much—I liked it fine—but because I had no idea what I just watched.

In fact, the end of the episode made me think more of the end of a short film than it did an episode of television. A stubbornly anticlimactic button on a story that has resisted easy definition; I feel like in a 10th grade literature class we would have been asked to discuss why the police chief starts shooting dogs in his town at the end of the story. I would have had to write a paper or two on the topic, comparing the structure to another story, arguing for what ambiguity means in a text. I would have left the class not really knowing what happened in the story, though. Because answers aren’t the point, or something. But damn, they sure feel like the point when you’re watching or reading something.

One of the reasons I like television so much is that the medium is necessarily heavy on plot—you can’t get through four seasons of television without making something happen to your characters. The constraints of the form are masked as freedoms: serialization and infinite length are major challenges. Television has to master some kind of follow-through, and I appreciate that.

The Leftovers sort of defies that, in ways that could be either frustrating or fantastic. This episode barely stands alone on its own legs aside from the story of the dead dog (which is, admittedly, an amazing story). Other than that it’s an introduction to the Guilty Remnant and to the fundamental premise of the show, before splintering into following characters that at first are not immediately compelling. Gratuitous shirtlessness aside, I am not convinced that the Chief is someone I’m all that interested in following around, though he does have that “trying to do right” everyman quality that so many prestige dramas hinge on. I am not convinced that I care about either of his children, Jill and Tom (though certainly more for Jill). There’s just too much mystery surrounding them and why they are the way they are to get too invested—and none are painted in particularly flattering light.


What’s great about that is that The Leftovers isn’t afraid to take its time with the characters, to let them reveal themselves to us at their own pace. What’s potentially worrying about that, especially in a show helmed by Damon Lindelof, is that the mystery could outpace the story. Part of the visual language of the show is bleak, mundane reality interspersed with violent, passionate flashbacks—of love or sex or death. It’s arresting, and confusing; usually, it conceals more than it reveals.


The reason it works—or the reason I think it could work—is that The Leftovers is playing with a certain kind of metaphor for life. The unexplained happens all the time. There are things that stretch our understanding, occurrences that stymie science and deny proof of God, and most of us are so used to dealing with them all the time we’ve forgotten about them, or swept them under the rug. Why do we exist? What happens to us when we die? Why are we the way we are? Survival asks too much of us to sit and ponder the big questions on a regular basis, and yet these unknowns are at the center of our whole lives. Belief in science or in religious teaching can get you through the day—can get you through most days—but all of us, at some point, face a reckoning. That moment where the beliefs don’t add up to the reality. That moment of betrayal or realization or grace; that moment where something’s gotta give. A mass abduction or death of 140 million people is fine as a thing that could trigger that reckoning for a bunch of people, including the small town of Mapleton.

I’m not, right now, interested in it for much more than that reason. I’m fond of science fiction, and fond of mystery, and fond of looking for answers. But the true story of The Leftovers seems to be besides that point entirely, and toward something else: salvation. I’d rather not get stuck in the weeds of What Happened On That Day; it doesn’t matter as much as the struggle of regular people to understand the incomprehensible does. That part speaks to me. At its most elegant, science fiction offers answers while also giving confusion and not-knowing tons of space; Hyperion by Dan Simmons comes to mind.


Which is why, perhaps, the strongest moment of the pilot for me was Meg’s moment of dissolving into the Remnant; primarily because she was so angry about them before, and full-on slapped Laurie across the face. (I was honestly surprised Laurie didn’t have a welt the next day.) It’s a pilot of disconnected, searching moments, backed by music as disparate as James Blake’s “Retrograde” and what seems like original piano score. Meg showing up at the cult is one of the characters acknowledging the searching, the despair, and doing something about it. Meanwhile, Kevin shoots dogs, and his son screams underwater, and Jill does what all anyone can do, really: Bury the dead.

Right now what’s making The Leftovers tick for me is that it’s simultaneously making the mystery important and also unimportant; there are things we need to know to move forward, but they might not be the answers to the questions we have, or the questions our characters have. That is fascinating. It speaks to life’s frustrating ability to offer multitudes that are often not exactly what we want—to crack open windows while we’re sitting and staring at a door, willing it to open.


Stray observations:

  • I’m coming to this show without much knowledge of Damon Lindelof’s or Tom Perrotta’s work—I never got to Lost, for a variety of reasons, and I have not read the novel this HBO show is based on. So I’m not going to be able to compare it to much at all. I welcome your insight in the comments—but please tag speculation from the book’s plot elements as spoilers! Otherwise we will berate you, with our capslock and our wit.
  • Everything else aside, I do not find Jill’s hypersexual best friend to be a particularly probable character, nor do I buy the nihilistic appeal of their “spin the iPhone” game. Adults are fond of making teenagers into metaphors or monsters rather than young people, and there’s too much of that here.
  • Sonia’s speculation corner: Okay, the clues in the pilot indicate that: Kevin was having wild sex with another woman who then was taken; he ran around naked and screaming, maybe. But also, it seems like the town is remembering his father for doing something nuts. Are those things related? Did his father disappear? (His father has been cast—he’ll be played by Scott Glenn—but that could be in a flashback, presumably.)
  • I’m pleased that The Leftovers took up the task of burying the dead, because it’s a human concern that used to concern us much more when the world was bleaker and people died a whole lot faster. (Hence the pyramids; hence the weirdly detailed burial rituals in The Lord Of The Rings’ Middle-Earth; hence ancient Rome’s burial societies, so that connected families would know someone, at least, would put their body to rest with the right ceremony.) The worst tragedy of the missing is that they didn’t leave behind anything to bury, to inter, to put to rest.
  • Post-apocalypse, I, too, would ask for gummi worms.

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