Death is peculiar. It marks us all as guests and travelers on this planet, as guests of being – or what we know of being, anyway. Even if one believes in the permutation and transcendence of the conscience or the soul, death is still an annihilation of all of our points of reference. The only thing more terrifying than coming up against this unknown is having to be the person who contemplates it from a distance, through loss.
A lot of great art – and it is my contention that great television certainly qualifies as art (and it is also my contention that anyone who disagrees can honestly just go to hell at this point) – has dealt with the pain and confusion, depth and breadth of bereavement over the years.
Few shows, however, have delved into bereavement’s innate weirdness, the way it messes with our heads, the way it can change us in both frightening and beautiful ways, the way it exemplifies the “strange” part of Shakespeare’s line about how death turns us “into something rich and strange” – for our loved ones especially.
HBO’s The Leftovers, which has been renewed for its third and final season, is a cool and startling exception. I’m deliberately using the word “cool,” because I like the definition of coolness that the actress Chloe Sevigny offered to The New Yorker’s Alice Hines last year: “Cool has a certain mystery to it. It’s being removed.”
So in that sense, The Leftovers is a cool, removed sort of show. Its ratings also slumped in the second season, just as it was scaling new heights of storytelling. And though ratings can generally be unpredictable and can ultimately be traced back to anything from disagreements between producers to marketing screw-ups, it is very tempting to blame the show’s atmosphere of “removal” for its comparative lack of viewers.
Created by Damon Lindelof alongside Tom Perrota, the author of the book on which the show’s first season was based, The Leftovers obviously owes a lot to Lindelof’s other flawed but nevertheless glorious masterpiece – LOST, which ran from 2004 to 2010 on ABC.
LOST also alienated viewers by a never-ending stream of mysteries, not all of which were eventually resolved to the viewers’ satisfaction.
Of course, LOST’s ultimate problem, by the end of the show, was that it attempted too many explanations, something that could not be achieved gracefully and do justice to its sprawling, vibrant mythology, a mythology that often times depended on puzzle pieces never quite fitting and loose ends never being tied up all the way.
It is obvious that Lindelof learned his lesson. The Leftovers is a much more ambivalent show that revels in rather than attempts to resolve its weirdness. In one of the more bizarre and yet fitting moments in season two, for example, a preacher character is given the chance to get some cash he desperately needs by hitting a man with a paddle while saying “Brian.”
It’s a sequence that starts out as hilarious and quickly ends up as creepy and cruel. The preacher never finds out what he was tasked with performing that particular action. And neither do the viewers. Because if hell is other people, then other people’s inexplicable treatment of one another is hellish in particular.
In fact, The Leftovers is so against the idea of neat resolution, that its creators have flat-out stated that they will never give a satisfactory explanation for the central event that drives the plot.
That event is the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, labeled the “Sudden Departure.” The Departure is most often compared to the Christian Rapture and the idea that at the Second Coming of Christ, living believers will be taken up to meet their Lord.
Yet while the theme of the Rapture is obvious for any viewer of the show, what The Leftovers is most closely dealing with so far is death. Specifically, sudden death as viewed by those who are left behind to pick up the pieces.
As Russian film critic Larisa Malyukova wrote some years ago, “[Death] destroys the matrix of the world, it leaves a gaping hole.” Those who are left behind when a loved one dies suddenly are confused and disoriented. How can this be happening? She was right here. How can she not be here anymore?
The Leftovers gamely and bravely portrays that “hole in the matrix.”
Its tone is that of a show about the world where the magnetic poles have suddenly been switched. Everything looks the same – the cops wear the same, familiar uniforms, people drive pick-up trucks, folks in small town America are into Jesus – but something is still not quite right, families and communities are rupturing in small and, eventually, in major ways.
At the heart of the show is the Garvey family, whose unraveling, we slowly find out, began before the Sudden Departure.
In the first season, the show initially offers up a deliciously engrossing portrayal of dysfunctional family relationships. Hot cop/dad Kevin Garney is getting wasted and (possibly) hallucinating, and those are, frankly, the least of his problems. Ex-therapist/mom Laurie Garvey has joined a creepy cult. Son Tommy Garvey has dropped out of college and is living with a guru hunted by the feds. Daughter Jill Garvey tries to shield herself from her family’s collapse by going to raucous parties and raging at her father, but it doesn’t really work. Grandpa Garvey is in a mental institution – and seems saner than any of the other characters on the show.
And all of these people, truth be told, aren’t even the worst-affected following the Departure and the ensuing mass confusion, dread, and breakdown of trust in the natural order of things.
Ultimately, the unraveling of love in all of its forms takes on a deathly quality of its own on The Leftovers.
The show reminds us, poignantly, that some people we lose way before they die; we then must go on to mourn them; and then to mourn the version of ourselves that existed next to them.
The second season has continued to expand on that theme while also delivering quite a bit of commentary on the world we live in, the strange, unforgiving forces that shape it, and how humanity copes or doesn’t cope when they wreck everything around. The season premiere is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its hearkening back to ancient times – the strangeness of the distant past as perceived by a modern observer and its inexorable, living, pulsating link to the present.
In Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin, there is a line about the nature of the world and its secrets: “Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light.”
Watching The Leftovers for these last two seasons is a bit like sticking that shovel into modernity. Behind the façades of innovation, progress, and a shrinking world there are the horrible things that people living in developed countries try their best not to dwell on – war, poverty, terrorism, atrocity, the renewed threat of international stand-offs. As Sady Doyle put it last year, at the end of season two, watching The Leftovers “feels like being alive in 2015.” And 2016, so far, doesn’t seem much different either.
The second part of that Margaret Atwood quote, meanwhile, goes like this: “Good for trade, we thrive on bones; without them there’d be no stories.”
The Leftovers and projects in a similar vein don’t merely react to death or process it. They also thrive on it – they show it as not merely annihilation, but an enormous source of power.
Even if death is only an eternity of darkness, we must also remember dark matter and dark energy, the idea that just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there. In that sense, an eternity of darkness may not be as empty as it would appear. As a dead writer noted over four hundred years ago, “Nothing can come of nothing.”