2014 was a particularly depressing year for HBO programming. The grand success of True Detective: Season One and the sleeper hit The Leftovers both dealt with sudden death in a way rarely seen in mainstream American culture. One could contend that the HBO series Six Feet Under was the most death-entric the network has produced, as it literally followed the lives of a family who worked in the funeral industry. That program was about death on many levels yet was a family drama overall. The shows last year were about the complete snap from reality that is accompanied by sudden death. If you were watching True Detective: Season One concerned about time being a flat circle, Carcosa and the Yellow King instead of focusing on the absolute brutal misery of Rust Cohle, watch it again and grieve. The Leftovers:Season One upped the score by setting the series within the morphed, agonizing reality of absolute horrific bereavement, on a global scale. With very smart decisions on adapting Tom Perrotta’s novel, casting and structure, The Leftovers surmounted the oft neglected subject of staggering bereavement within our culture and how it alters our lives in entirely unexpected ways.
The Leftovers explores the events of a mysterious calamity, The Departure. On October 14th, a typical day, two percent of the Earth’s population disappeared instantly. No sickness, natural disaster or act of war caused this event; people simply vanished, with nary a puff of smoke left behind. Every type of human on Earth was subject to The Departure; from all nations, all ages erased completely in an instant. A running joke being that the entire cast of the 198o’s sitcom Perfect Strangers were among The Departed; one of the only light points of the series. The Leftovers begins it’s story on the third anniversary of The Departure or as Mayor Lucy Warburton(Amanda Warren) of small town Mapleton, NY, where the program is set, calls “We don’t know what the fuck happened day.” That is the mystery and nagging question of the series; what happened to all the people and how do the characters live without them? How can you possibly live a normal life, when all normality ended with no warning? All deaths are heartbreaking, yet the characters of The Leftovers don’t even know if The Departed died or where possibly spirited away in a miraculous Rapture-type event. They have to deal with the loss and no logical evidence as to what had happened. Two percent of the Earth’s population vanishing is not technically that many humans, yet the ripple effect of death forces change on every person left behind.
Centering on a few individuals in Mapleton, NY who experienced The Departure allowed The Leftovers to explore the sweep of directions in which bereavement amplified by a billion could push people who once had commonalities towards extreme poles. Kevin Garvey(Justin Theroux) is a late-thirties father and police officer trying to appear strong while depending on a buffet of meds, who lives with his becoming-unmoored 16 year old daughter Jill(Margaret Qualley) in his father Kevin Sr.’s(Scott Glenn) home. Kevin Sr. does not live with his family, as he is housed in a psychiatric facility for burning down the Malpleton Public Library after The Departure, due to developing voices in his head from the inexplicable event. Time and again, The Leftovers illustrates how damaging massive bereavement and having no answers to death can compound and create hideous thoughts and actions in people.
Jill’s mother, Laurie Garvey(Amy Brennenam), is compelled by The Departure to leave her family and join the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant are an austere cult which emerged in reaction to The Departure; they serve to be living reminders to those left on Earth. The Guilty Remnant take a vow of silence, wear white, live communally in plain dormatory-type rooms, eating “sustenance” instead of regular meals and most importantly chain smoke. They claim to proclaim their faith in nothing, as they don’t believe in love or attachment, with cigarettes. The Guilty Remnant give ‘smoke ’em if ya got ’em’ an unsettling, vicious new meaning. Members of the Guilty Remnant, including nothing-to-lose leader Patti Levin(Ann Down) and seething new recruit Meg Abbot(Liv Tyler) rage against the return of society to what was before The Departure. They believe nothing should be the same, as The Departure was too agonizing to return from. It doesn’t even particularly matter to the Guity Remnant why The Departure happened. Their mission is to make everyone realize they are alone in this world with no explanation. Face that fact and live like it; if not, fear their wrath. The Guilty Remnant are non-violent, in that they will not physically confront a person; instead they criminally stalk and harass the townspeople of Mapleton in ways that are beyond the pale.
Tom Garvey(Chris Zylka) is Kevin and Laurie’s sensitive son who left Mapleton after The Departure to work along side a faith-healer, Holy Wayne(Paterson Joseph). Holy Wayne charges thousands of dollars to hug the pain out of people. He claims to take people’s sorrow into himself; “Do you want to feel this way? Then let me take it from you.” A recurring question throughout the series is if Holy Wayne actually has spiritual powers and the answer is, not so much. Holy Wayne is moreso an intuative man who knows how to bilk sorrowful people out of their money by using a dash of intense compassion. He never claims to be a savior and openly tells one who seeks his hug that he does not care about her problems, yet he does feel she deserves hope, so will grant her that. Holy Wayne charges Tom with the protection of his pregnant girlfriend Christine(Annie Q.), leading the young pair to believe that Christine is carrying a “special” baby. In truth, Wayne is sending the pair on the lam to protect himself from racketeering charges; hiding the evidence of followers to save himself. The youthful naivete of Tom and Christine to believe that Holy Wayne may have magical powers which heal suffering, inform their idea that Christine’s pregnancy is of the spiritual variety. When Christine discovers the truth of the matter, her and Tom’s actions are those of desperation which leads in the end to a most unexpected sort of salvation.
The pair of characters who embody the deepest sorrow on the program are the brother and sister pair of Rev. Matt Jamison(Christopher Eccleston) and Nora Durst(Carrie Coon). Before The Departure, Matt ministered to the people of Mapleton; a regular small town Episcopal reverend, along side his wife Mary(Janel Moloney), who everyone knew and respected. Nora, Matt’s younger sister also lived in Mapleton with her husband and young daughter and son. Nora was fairly satisfied with her life at the time of The Departure and was about to enter a new career working on Lucy Warburton’s election campaign. When The Departure occurred, Matt and Nora’s lives were changed in the most unbearable of ways. Their experiences with The Departure are so integral to understanding the force of bereavement that two episodes(Two Boats and a Helicopter and Guest) of the season centered on their stories alone.
On the day of The Departure, Matt and Nora lost everything; their lives irrevocably shattered. Nora was standing in her kitchen, on a phone call about her new job as the room went silent. Her two children and husband had vanished from the table and so to did Nora’s ability to ever function normally thereafter. Her brother Matt and his wife had just left the doctor’s office when The Departure occurred and due to people up and disappearing, were involved in a car accident caused by a driver-less car, which left Mary paralyzed and unable to speak. Matt and Nora did not deal with these events in any way that could be called healthy grieving.
After The Departure, Matt became massively paranoid and was convinced that those who disappeared were not ‘saved’ or ‘heroes’ as some dubbed them. In Matt’s mind since The Departure took all sorts of people, it was not a Godly salvation and did not mean that those left behind were bad or not worthy; it was a random event. To prove his point, Matt publishes his own newsletter about those Departed known to have participated in immoral acts. This intrusive and in the eyes of The Departed family’s members, harassing newsletter, causes Matt’s congregation to dwindle to a handful and to him being regularly punched in the face for preaching his version of the truth. Matt is guided by loving intentions, yet his vitriolic attacks on The Departed’s sins are an obvious side effect of not being able to spiritually process losing not only his niece, nephew, brother-in-law, countless congregants and friends, but also having to deal with his wife’s paralyzed condition. Matt’s most poignant moment in the series is when he is shown getting ready for bed. He’s had a terrible day, again, trying to save his church, trying to live with The Departure and he pulls out a cot. Every night he sleeps on a fold-out cot next to his speechless wife’s hospital bed, in their bedroom where they used to share a bed. She is all he has; his beautiful wife, breathing, silent and unaware forever more. He curls up on the cot next to her and cries out to God, “Help me.”
Nora’s path after The Departure is that of a placid facade in public, with the most tragic psyche hidden underneath. Everyone in Mapleton knows she lost three family members during The Departure, which was a high number; most people lost one person or were effected by the event adjacently. Nora carries on everyday with all eyes on her; her fellow townspeople treat her with kid gloves due to her massive loss. To seem normal, Nora works a government job, helping to distribute Departure benefits(similar to a death benefit), she visits her brother and sister-in-law, she dresses neatly and does not cry uncontrollably, as one would expect from a person in her position. Observing Nora’s grocery shopping reveals how destroyed she actually is. Every week Nora buys the same foods her children and husband ate, puts them away, while throwing away last week’s uneaten family groceries. Does she buy the same food because she thinks, somehow, they will return or is this an habit she cannot extricate herself from? The answer is somewhat both; she knows they won’t return and buys the same groceries as a habit to feel close to them and also just in case they somehow reappear. Nora also acts out in public by willfully breaking things, screaming at people who she feels are phony about their emotions in regard to The Departure and she carries a handgun. This is the ultimate is desperation. Nora hires prostitutes for thousands of dollars, has them come to her home and shoot her in the chest, after she has donned a kevlar vest. Nora’s sadness is so great that she is willing to spend a fortune to feel like she is dead for a few seconds. In Nora’s words, “I’m beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair. I can’t go on the way I’m living, but I don’t have the power to die.”
The finale of the season ends the story of the source material on which it was based, leaving ample room for speculation as to where the second season will end up. The riot at the very end of the last episode, which erupted after the Guilty Remnant abhorrently placed “Loved Ones” dolls(highly realistic, fleshy dolls which look like The Departed; used as a substitute for a corpse)in the homes of those who lost family during The Departure. This most cruel of actions which the Guilty Remnant enacted upon those left behind; to shove the pain of loss in their faces, opens the powderkeg of pent up anger in Mapleton. Members of the Guilty Remnant are beaten bloody, few try to stop the wild fighting and in the midst of this smoky nightmare, Kevin is granted his family back, in a way. Will this cobbled together unit fulfill his yearning for normalcy in the second season or prove to be another false panacea, like medication or shooting dogs with a mysterious man who, though seemingly an apparition, is only “lonely” and wants companionship in the altered world of The Leftovers? Nora discovering Christine and Holy Wayne’s baby, left on Kevin’s doorstep by Tom, while remarking, “But I have to move towards, something. Anything. I’m not sure where I’m going. Just away. Away from all this.” is simply stunning. Nora did not want a baby, Kevin did not want a new wife, nor Jill a new mother, and yet the trio will form into a foursome. A family brought together by heartache and the unexpected arrival of a baby to love who is not damaged with the ultimate sadness of The Departure, who has the hope to start anew. “Look what I found!” exclaims Nora, as she shows Jill and Kevin their new life and chance for love and healing.