Regina King, Kevin Carroll, Jovan Adepo. Jasmin Savoy Brown

“Axis Mundi” is nothing short of miraculous. There are certainly more creative words to describe The Leftovers given that its second season takes place in Jarden, Texas, which came to be known as “Miracle” after the town took a post-Rapture inventory and found none of its nearly 10,000 residents had gone missing. But few adjectives would be more fitting. The Leftovers is, after all, one of the most polarizing television shows of the past few years, and it was co-created by Damon Lindelof, the man behind one of the most polarizing television shows ever. Added to this, Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta burned through all of Perrotta’s dour, knotty source material in the first season, leaving them without a net. It’s hard to think of a recent example of a show that seemed more doomed to failure going into its second season.

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So yes, “Axis Mundi” is miraculous. It’s leaner and more focused than anything season one had to offer. The existential dread remains, though it’s naturally less pronounced in “Miracle” than it was in Mapleton, but the tone isn’t nearly as elegiac. What’s most surprising is that “Axis Mundi” is more mysterious than anything from the first season, and far more confident. The perplexing nine-minute opening sequence is enough to put The Leftovers among the boldest, most audacious storytelling of the year. It’s more than a notion to take a show that’s been pilloried for being humorless and for refusing to slow-walk its audience and start its season premiere with a brutal vignette set in a prehistoric age with nothing more to connect it to the present-day narrative than its physical location. A pregnant woman watches helplessly as a rock slide crushes her people, then delivers her own baby before dying of a snake bite. It’s not as difficult to watch as, say, poor Gladys being pummeled to death with rocks, but as human despair goes, it’s right up there.

The opening sequence feels like a deliberate effort to troll impatient viewers who tuned in to “Axis Mundi” for the sole purpose of determining whether or not to watch anymore of The Leftovers. Everything that follows the cavewoman sequence confirms this. It’s not manipulation for its own sake, of course. The episode’s title refers to the spiritual concept of the physical point at which heaven meets Earth, and the significance of this Texas location will play a central role in the season’s unresolved mysteries. Lindelof and Perrotta have stated their refusal to provide answers to questions like why Jarden of all places was spared from the Sudden Departure. But for what The Leftovers is trying to do, it isn’t necessary to explain what’s special about Jarden or how a snake-bitten new mother from a prehistoric era relates to young Evie Murphy’s swimming hole. The sequence exists, like most of The Leftovers’ looming questions, to ensure the audience is always as off-balance as the characters.

The entirety of “Axis Mundi” achieves that goal just by staying with the Murphy family for nearly all of its hour-long running time. Back to the matter of confidence, it’s borderline arrogant to start with the prehistoric sequence, then to drop in on the Murphys and go nearly an hour without introducing characters the audience has seen before. But the Murphys are instantly compelling, as is the world of Jarden/Miracle and the grateful residents who managed to escape the Sudden Departure. John Murphy is enough of a riddle to carry a show by himself, and the rest of the family has its own odd secrets, whether it’s Evie streaking in the woods, Erika’s bird ritual, and Michael’s home-delivered prayer vigils. Although they are all given some kind of spiritual or quasi-spiritual quirk, the Murphys never come across as walking plot devices or pieces of a larger puzzle soon to take shape. Grace notes like the Erika, Michael, and Evie testing the limits of John’s deep sleep and Erika and Evie communicating with sign language make their home feel familiar after only a few minutes. The Murphys barely bat a lash when a local drags a goat into the greasy spoon to sacrifice it Old Testament-style, and yet they never seem like anything other than a typical American family.

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You don’t quite realize just how attached you’ve gotten to the Murphys until another earthquake, not unlike the one that took the lives of the pregnant woman’s tribe, shakes Jarden and leads John to Evie’s empty room. A trip to the spring where Evie swam, which has since become a focal point of the town’s cottage industry, turns up nothing except an empty car and an empty spring. It’s a disappearance as baffling and heartbreaking as those suffered by the rest of the world in the Sudden Departure. It might be even more hard to grapple with considering the town’s reputation for good fortune. Evie was in the right place at the right time until she wasn’t, and the prophecy that threw John into a defenestrating rage comes true in an unexpected and devastating way.

Though it’s bound to be seriously cold comfort, the Murphys are now living next door to a few people who know all too well about dealing with unresolved losses. Kevin, Nora, Jill, and Lily arrive not long before “Axis Mundi” ends, but they quickly find a rhythm with their new neighbors. At a barbecue for John’s birthday, Kevin seems more intrigued than put off when John brings up his six-year prison bid, while Jill and Michael start up what will likely be a very awkward courtship. Evie accidentally drops John’s birthday cake during an epileptic spell, but Nora thinks to grab the pie John regifted to her after it was anonymously left on the Murphys’ porch. The pie makes for a powerful metaphor. There’s so much uncertainty, sorrow, and despair in this world, you can’t just foist it all onto your neighbor. Everybody has to eat their own slice.

Stray observations:

  • For the record, I loved season one and didn’t expect to at all. The Guilty Remnant was a sometimes exasperating element, but I really dug the show at its most challenging and its most dull.
  • I actually kind of liked the opening credit sequence from season one, but the new one is a much better fit for this season.
  • Mimi Leder’s direction is phenomenal from beginning to end.
  • The National Park Service has capitalized on Jarden’s good fortune by turning it into an attraction where people can bus in to fulfill their miracle water needs.
  • That gash on Kevin’s head is awfully interesting.
  • Kevin, on John’s attempted murder charge: “What happened?” John: “I didn’t try hard enough.”
  • I’m super proud of Darius McCrary for some reason. It’s not often you see a former Family Matters regular pop up in something new.

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