[this is a new series on my favourite things and trying to put into words why they mean so much to me]
What happens after the end?
It’s a big question. Entire religions have been founded on it. There are numerous sub-genres of art dedicated to grappling with it. Each has its own different answer – often some variant of paradise, pain or purgatory – with every answer being harder to accept than the last. Perhaps no answer to the eternal question is worse than what The Leftovers arrived at.
Life goes on.
Some context: The Leftovers, which ran on HBO for twenty-eight episodes spread across three tragically underwatched seasons, takes place in a universe where 2% of mankind (approximately 140 million souls) vanished simultaneously on October 14th, 2011. We never find out why, because this is not a show about why, but about how. How people cope after ‘The Sudden Departure’. How society attempts to fill the void where the missing once were. And how life, against all odds, lurches on like nothing ever happened. As eschatological fantasies go, this is a clever one – imagine if The Rapture happened, but so many were left behind that society could essentially carry on as per normal.
This is heady stuff for a TV show, HBO or not. And indeed, the first season of The Leftovers is merely ‘very good’, due to an unfortunate tendency to dip into the waters of portentousness. Too much unnecessary suffering resulted in an overpowering tone of misery, best exemplified in the antics of death cult The Guilty Remnant, who took a vow of silence and chainsmoking as a reminder that the world ended on October 14th. It was all very well executed, but delighted too much in wallowing in its own despair, like an edgy fourteen year old who just found out that Avenged Sevenfold really speaks to me, man.
Then Season 2 starts with a cavewoman fighting a snake after a magical earthquake, and from that point, The Leftovers is reborn. It’s not as though the grief and misery are gone – they remain a constant thread in the show’s fabric – but they are tempered with a weird, wild, wonderful whimsy. An almost too perfect encapsulation of this tonal shift can be seen in the opening credits, which metamorphosed from dirgey orchestral music played over church frescoes of the rapture to a folksy country tune twanged over photographs with silhouettes where the departed people used to be.
While Season 1 tried so hard to make the scenario feel as gritty and realistic as possible, Seasons 2 and 3 leaned into the myriad possibilities that the show’s central concept provided. The afterlife as a hotel, complete with karaoke bar? Sure, why not. A single Texan town, untouched by The Sudden Departure, that is christened ‘Miracle’ and becomes a haven for pilgrims and tourists alike? Ok. A pleasure cruise cum orgy dedicated to the memory of an elderly lion who literally fucks his entire species out of extinction? Hells yeah.
As such, Seasons 2 and 3 of The Leftovers feels like watching the scene in a superhero origin movie where the once-normal schlub realises “omigod, I have superpowers.” The writers (led by showrunner Damon Lindelof) are Peter Parker swinging through New York or Clark Kent taking flight over Kansas, coming to the understanding that the scope of what they can do is boundless. The only limit is the breadth of their imagination, the only goal to fly as far as they possibly can, and in so doing, The Leftovers attains televisual nirvana.
No other show on TV has achieved as much with symbolism, not even Mad Men (always and forever the gold standard of how a show can be ‘literary’). It’s no coincidence that the best episode of Season 1 revolves entirely around a name tag that reads ‘Guest’ (and Carrie Coon’s performance, but we will get to that soon), because in The Leftovers, symbols carry the story. A pair of stocks atop a pilgrim camp that resembles a Bosch-ian hellscape in the midst of a terrible acid trip. A dried up well in the middle of nowhere. A cigarette lighter, gifted from daughter to mother. These are all part of the lattice of symbols within The Leftovers, each bursting with significance, as if the overwhelming emotion of its characters has infested the objects around them.
And speaking of characters, what an absolute murderer’s row of talent in front of the camera! Justin Theroux is no stranger to weirdness, thanks to his dalliances with David Lynch, and he imbues nominal protagonist Kevin Garvey with depth and humanity. Part Messiah, part naughty little boy, Theroux’s Kevin is a man torn between his desire to regain his pre-Departure life of quiet domesticity and his need to be always play the hero. Matching Theroux at each step is Amy Brenneman as Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie, which is saying something as she spends most of Season 1 silent. Brenneman portrays Laurie as a multi-faceted being, a person who both counsels cult members and runs them over with her car without blinking. Laurie’s evolution from skeptic to sheeple to skeptic again is a wild ride, and Brenneman’s excellent performance grounds that journey in emotional truth.
Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison, on the other hand, barely changes across the span of all three seasons, but is no less fascinating for it. Matt, the John The Baptist to Kevin’s Jesus Christ, is a man of faith, and it is to the show’s credit that this is both his greatest strength and worst flaw. Eccleston delivers every line with the conviction of a prophet, and it speaks to the subtlety of the writing and the performance that the audience finds itself rooting for Matt to succeed based on the strength of his faith, and to fail based on how insufferable said faith can be.
Also treading the lines between insufferable and sympathetic are Ann Dowd as cult leader Patty and Scott Glenn as Kevin’s father. Dowd has become iconic for her portrayal of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’d argue that her work as Patty surpasses that. Like Aunt Lydia, Dowd’s Patty has the terrifying ruthlessness and relentlessness of the true believer. However, the role of Patty allows Dowd more chances to show her range, and her scenes with Theroux are a hoot because of how well she sarcastically spits venom at him. Glenn, too, plays Kevin Sr. as a true believer, except one constantly on the edge of madness and violence.
In this ridiculously stacked cast, two actors do stand out. Firstly, kudos to Lindelof for figuring out how to weaponise Liv Tyler’s (yes, that Liv Tyler) ethereal blankness. As grieving daughter and eventual terrorist Meg Abbott, Tyler takes all the famous aspects of her – that voice, those eyes, that smile – and dips them in poison. Tyler gives us a thoroughly modern villain, a seductive fascist hiding her sadism behind empty rhetoric and a Freudian excuse. The Leftovers and Tyler deserve a medal for taking Liv Tyler (Liv Tyler!) and making her downright terrifying.
Then there is Carrie Coon, whose portrayal of Nora Durst is, bar none, the best acting performance ever given in a TV show. You heard me. Not the triumvirate of Hamm, Gandolfini and Cranston, not the combined work of Elisabeth Moss or Keri Russell, not even Tommy Wiseau in Neighbors can compare to what Coon does here. As Nora, a woman who lost her entire family to The Departure, Coon is a raw nerve of grief and pain, with every fibre of her being finely calibrated for maximum emotional impact. I am generally hyperbolic by nature, so perhaps the only way to stress Coon’s greatness is to just speak as plainly as possible. This is the finest acting ever seen on television. That’s it. It has depth and range and subtlety. Carrie Coon will break your fucking heart, and you will say ‘thank you’ for it.* The Leftovers ends with a single, almost uninterrupted monologue by Coon that goes on for over five minutes (this is not really a spoiler, because nobody can really see the content of said monologue coming). For any other show, that would be a ballsy move, but for this one, it’s basically the TV version of passing the ball to Michael Jordan for the game winner. Just give Coon the shot and get the hell out of her way. There is no better example of how spectacular this performance is than the fact that the creators of this show hinged everything on a single close-up monologue … and it worked.
Fine, just one other example. Avoid if you are spoiler-phobic.
That ‘ok’ right there at the 2:45 mark is the second best goddamn line reading of a two syllable word I have ever seen.** In two syllables, Coon packs the combined weight of an entire sibling relationship in a single moment of gratitude and love. It slays me, every single time.
Acting means nothing, however, without good writing behind it. I have alluded a few times to the fact that The Leftovers is literary in its scope and treatment, and I stand by that statement. Keep in mind that ‘literary’ does not mean good (Breaking Bad, for example, is firmly unliterary), it just means, well, literary. Perhaps a better term for ‘literary’ would be ‘writerly’, which is a term that might fit The Leftovers even better. And since we are talking about the writer, I need to hold my hand up and give a mea culpa to one Damon Laurence Lindelof.
I sincerely apologise for calling you a hack. I regret ever saying that you were ‘a bullshitter of the highest order who avoids narrative resolution of any sort through quasi-mystical nonsense dressed up as philosophical depth. But in fairness, you have to admit that my conclusion was a sensible one considering you wrote both Lost and Prometheus, right? Whatever the case, I’m sorry. You’re a terrific, terrific writer, and I’m sorry I ever doubted you.
With that out of the way – it is astonishing how well The Leftovers is written. Each season has an overarching plotline, but that arc is moved forward through individual episodes focused on specific characters. This approach allows for episodes to take on the shape of the characters they focus on. Kevin episodes are trippy time-jumping affairs, as befitting a hallucinating somnambulist. Nora episodes, like the character, are more grounded, as she tenaciously attempts to force fit a crazy world into making sense through sheer power of will. And then there are the Matt episodes, three rewrites of The Book of Job, as the preacher struggles against the tribulations of an uncaring (and maybe even non-existent) God. The Leftovers toys plenty with perspective, shifting points-of-view within a season (and even within an episode) to dole out its plot through a constantly fragmented lens. Lindelof’s obsession with the unknown may frustrate in a text where answers are expected, but in a work like The Leftovers, where the theme song implores the audience to ‘let the mystery be’, this obsession is perfectly suited. The Leftovers has no answers because life has no answers.
What The Leftovers has instead is what Keats termed ‘negative capability’ – “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, all in the service of pursuing artistic beauty. It presents a world very much like our own, one where lost people desperately, hungrily grasp for any meaning, in symbols, dreams, pain, death and God, only to find that the only real purpose in life is to live. But that, perhaps, is the most accurate answer of them all. There is nothing after the end because there is no end, regardless of our feeble attempts to draw a finish line in the shifting sand. Nothing will save us, nothing will provide answers, and nothing will give meaning to life. All we have are each other. The other people trapped in the world. The leftovers.
After twenty-eight episodes of The Leftovers, it is impossible to avoid Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous conclusion that hell is other people. But in its final line, a single declarative statement of “I’m here” spoken by a woman holding her lover’s hands, The Leftovers rises above its artistic brethren by balancing this famous maxim with another that might be more profound, more true, and more difficult to admit.
Hell is other people.
But then again, so is heaven.
*She also happens to be really sexy in her portrayal of Nora Durst, who, as I may remind you, is a grieving mother to departed children and wife to a departed husband. Pulling off sexy in the midst of all that might be the most astounding feat she achieves.
** Number one, always and forever, is the way Daniel Day-Lewis says the word ‘people’ in 3:10 of the scene below in There Will Be Blood.