'The Leftovers' "The Book of Kevin" Subverts Expectations in a Near-Perfect Episode

by Garret Castleberry

4 May 2017

Kevin (Justin Theroux) contemplates burning Jamison's "Gospel of Kevin". 

Subverting Everything

2. Present Mental Stability, Leadership, and Trust Completely Subverted.

The Garveys’ host a surprise party for Kevin’s adopted son Tom (Chris Zylka). Their home, full of smiles, laughs, and singing, turns out to be a misnomer of happiness for this reconfigured family. After the initial dinner and cake, the men sit on the porch recounting stories of karmic coincidence or, as Kevin accidentally jokes, “divine intervention”. Even after a night of passion between Kevin and Nora (Carrie Coon), as soon as his wife goes out for a casual bike ride, audiences are alerted to a deconstructive revelation as Kevin duct tapes a plastic bag to his head and attempts to suffocate himself. The camera doesn’t turn away from his efforts and the bleak visual site is juxtaposed against the cheery luminescent glow of morning.

Hence, the episode usurps Kevin’s alleged mental stability and his recovery from tragedy. Or perhaps his motive remains somewhat ambiguous, as if perhaps he’s looking for entrance back into the liminal spirit world between life and death. Or maybe he simply can’t shake the heavy burden placed upon his shoulders in a post-departed world. The only thing that’s certain, however, is that his redemptive return at season two’s close did not necessarily “save” Kevin.

3.Public Confession and Private Denial of Faith

After a failed attempt at killing himself, Kevin heads out to work as usual. A call brings him down to the waters where he previously tried to drown himself. The church has gathered for a mass baptismal and protestors have thwarted their efforts by dumping toxic containers into the natural springs. Despite the contamination, or perhaps because of it, Kevin walks over the cliff and into the water. He emerges and tastes the water (hoping it’ll kill him?) only to reveal the protest as a “prank”.

The Garveys’ neighbor boy Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo) is now matured and works with pastor Jamison at the church. Michael enters the waters and proceeds to baptize Kevin as a sign of goodwill to reignite their planned service. With a public confession of faith, Michael performs the baptism in rich ceremonial fashion. But afterward Kevin agnostically assures him, “That didn’t count”.

On the way home, Kevin is nearly shot to death by the mentally unstable Dean, only to have his only adopted son Tom (now a third-generation law enforcer) shoot Dean right through the head. Back home, Kevin learns pastor Jamison’s wife Mary (Janel Maloney) plans to leave him with their son. The reveal further upsets the narrative arc that strengthened and rewarded Jamison’s faith in God through the miraculous return of his barren wife from a comatose state in seasons one and two. Her decision is a gut punch, albeit relatable in her justification about overprotected smothering. However, the situation also recalls this episode’s opening prologue and flips the gender dynamic of the Anglican mother that loses her husband and son by simply maintaining steadfast faith during times of public duress and personal trial. Their conversation finally leads to the capstone revelation in “The Book of Kevin”: pastor Jamison has been secretly recording a new gospel from which the episode gets its title.

Aggressively perplexed, Kevin heads for the church, in which a confrontational showdown emerges between he and Jamison. Inside the sanctuary, Michael and his father John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) function like observant disciples privy to Jamison’s recordings. Eccleston shows continued depth in his wholehearted portrayal of the renewed minister. Jamison speaks with conviction, as he seeks to convince Kevin of his own miraculous life testimony. Michael and John bear witness as well, having each individually watched Kevin “return from the dead” in different capacities (in season two). The three recount a trilogy of instances where Kevin seemingly escaped his own demise despite his best efforts to end his life.

Having nothing of it, Kevin demands the sole copy of the “hand-written” manuscript. He storms off with the copy and plans to immediately incinerate the binder in a charcoal grill outside. And yet, just as Kevin prepares to set the non-sacred artifact aflame, a skywriting airplane catches his eye. The flight path spells the phrase “13 days to go…”, in at least the third such warning of impending doom uttered to Kevin (and audiences) throughout the episode.

Amalgamating Garvey’s Divinity

What we get in Kevin is an amalgamation of messianic proportions. Technically, there isn’t a lot of Christ in Kevin, unless you discount his likelihood to take the Lord’s name in vain. First, with his Anglican agency and law enforcer status, Kevin carries a cryptic burden not unlike the New Testament’s Saul. Like Saul, Kevin is metaphorically blind to the truth (whatever the “truth” is, as The Leftovers is intentionally short on answers). His blindness stems from or morphs out of traumatic transgressions that proceed the first season. The Biblical Saul is reported as having experienced a miraculous turnaround of vision, which coincides with his ultimate conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Saul’s transformation includes the transition to Paul, a rebranding of Self that mimics his newfound faith and mission.

Like Paul, Kevin undergoes change (well, sort of) when he packs up his family to move to the promised land of Jarden, Texas, in season two. There he encounters new traditions, a new lifestyle, and looks to right the wrongs he feels responsible for in season one; namely, persecuting the ubiquitous smokers-not-mourning cult the Guilty Remnant. Garvey’s persecutions of the Remnant included [spoiler alert] killing their leader Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) in cold blood.

Second, Kevin shares similarities to Jesus’ disciple Peter in that his level of aggressive dismissals toward heavenly signs is in direct proportion to how broken he becomes once divine nature symbolically convicts him. For example, Kevin tries to deny the divine through ritual suicidal attempts. He only becomes convicted or open to listening once he’s crossed a trifecta of experiences.

Third, Kevin’s continual flight instinct recalls the Old Testament figure from the book of Jonah. Jonah is recorded as a prophet meant to carry a message of significance to the city of Ninevah. It’s only through habitual denials and retreats that Jonah ultimately becomes humbled to the point of obedience to God.

In these three flawed figures, Kevin Garvey approximates a divine amalgamation. In some ways, Kevin might come to represent a transfiguration of Old Testament/New Testament genre mixing. A character in crisis between old and new faith, struggling to accept and redirect his faith in a moment in time hinged upon and torn between interpreting a sacred versus secular paradigm shift in human history. Ultimately, while Reverend Matt Jamison holds Kevin in Christ-like reverence due to his seemingly immortal existence, Garvey isn’t so much divine as perhaps divinely protected, at least until his moment of righteous submission can come to fruition.

Benediction and Postlude

“The Book of Kevin”, like its titular character, isn’t perfect. Viewed within the symmetrical framework established by season one and two, however, the final season premiere offers something sacred by setting up heavy meditations on its narrative past, before ultimately rocking viewer expectations with a paradigm shift of its own in the closing scene.

Is there such a thing as “perfection” in TV? While the episode may hold indelible flaws, they’re hard to spot. Along with the triumphant finish comes an epic recalibration of the show’s musical main theme now set as a closing credits score. The musical notes and final shot sequence will haunt viewers for days. For faithful servants comprising the TV series’ small but devoted fanbase, The Leftovers may have arguably crossed over into a religious-like televisual experience.

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//Mixed media