She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say
Only to realize
It never really was.
— The Doobie Brothers, “What a Fool Believes”
“It was a test.” Reverend Matt Jamison (Chris Eccleston) gazes at Nora (Carrie Coons), offering one of many possible answers to her question, the question that informs every moment of The Leftovers. They’re in her kitchen in Mapleton, New York, one of countless towns across the globe still contending with the loss, three years earlier, of two percent of their population. The loss, imprecisely presented in one brief scene at the start of the series, series suggest, was instantaneous and utterly inexplicable. People were here. And then they were not.
Those not gone, those left over, contend daily. Matt’s declaration that it was a test comes after years of obsessing over the moral conditions of those who disappeared: finding that they ranged from babies, like Nora’s daughter, to utterly venal culprits, he tells Nora now, as she looks appalled and tearful in her kitchen, that the test was not “for what came before, but what came after. It was a test for what comes now.”
He makes this assertion in the series’ third episode. In another sort of show, that might suggest he’s come up with an answer, this after you’ve seen all manner of folks — from Nora and Matt to the police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his angry teenaged daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) to the seemingly sketchy healer-by-hugs Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) — asking for them or suggesting they have them. But here, in this show, he only seems to have articulated an intelligent framework for asking after them, of comprehending that the crisis has only exposed what’s left, or who’s left, in stark relief that’s sometimes terrible and other times wholly mundane.
Based on co-creator Tom Perrotta’s 2011 book, The Leftovers imagines a range of responses (and too often, responses accompanied by anxiety-making piano or violin trills). Kevin worries that he’s losing his mind, following on his father, the former chief (Scott Glenn), even as he feels the weight of everyone else’s expectations that he maintain an order when no order can possibly be believed. Glimpses of CSPAN hearings on background televisions suggest that the nation’s leaders have no response that’s even close to good, debating whether it was a rapture (and so, a morally defining event) or something that might be scientifically fathomable: “I don’t know” is the panelist’s answer that concludes your glimpse into this process.
This bit of TV within TV demonstrates the loss of order brought on by the loss of people, even as it references a more general, more familiar loss of order acted out in congressional hearings. And if, again, TV looks to be the part of the test that’s failed outright, it also suggests, here that the efforts at storytelling framed by The Leftovers are considerably less effective than in, say, True Detective, less big, less convincing, less inspiring. Indeed, much of the storytelling in The Leftovers takes place off-screen: you don’t see Holy Wayne’s embraces, you don’t see Kevin’s investigations (though you do see Jill and her friends attempt one that leads, aptly, to still more misunderstanding), and you don’t see much of Matt’s most frightening adventure, when he’s knocked cold by a rock to the head, because he’s unconscious.
You do see a few too many flashbacks, but these soon look less explanatory than hallucinatory, explanations inside survivors’ heads, memories that may or may not be accurate. You do see attempts to impose order, to find in stories the sort of peace they promise. To call the loss a rapture, or perhaps better, The Rapture, grants those left a semblance of order. And at least one organized version of an effect — plainly not an answer — is excessively visible in a group who call themselves the Guilty Remnant (GR): they wear white and smoke cigarettes (“We Don’t Smoke for Our Enjoyment, We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith”, a sign explains). They skulk at the ends of driveways and across the street from gatherings, their dour faces beckoning.
In addition to the smoking and skulking, they’ve developed the ritual of not speaking, instead writing notes on pads with markers. They’re alarming for you, especially, whether peered at from distances or pushed into a jarring close-up, appearing to judge others (maybe you too), and engendering dread in their friends and family members.
This dread has to do with what can’t be conceived or explained or, in a too deliberate way, spoken. They trouble Kevin, who cautions against Mapleton’s first Heroes’ Day, scheduled as par of a newly mandated federal holiday. Lucy plans a reading of names and the unveiling of a creepily commemorative statue of a baby flying from a mother’s arms; “We’re all gonna walk through town, have a good cry, and then move on,” she says, “It’s time. Everybody’s ready to feel better.”
Lucy’s determination to reinstate order, however well-intentioned, already looks like a bad idea. This question of “time” — what it is, whose it might be — is precisely what’s unhinged here; you see it in the fragmented storylines and story structure, you see it in the faces of survivors or in their incapacity to see one another expect as reminders of something bad. In response, Kevin is left without words. “Nobody’s ready to feel fucking better,” he says, “They’re ready to fucking explode.”
You guess that he’s projecting here, dealing as he is with Jill’s confusion, his wife’s absence, his son Tommy’s (Chris Zylka) unclear connection with Holy Wayne, and his own encounters with a guy (Michael Gaston) who’s going around town shooting stray dogs, lost without their owners (“They’re not our dogs anymore,” this guy doesn’t quite explain). But Kevin is also not wrong. Even if he can’t make sense of what happened, he’s doing his best to make sense of now, and as much as he and Lucy share a remarkably un-clichéd relationship, he does appear to be making that effort on his own.
That’s not to say that Kevin has figured out the test any more than Matt has. Indeed, both men spend the first few episodes of The Leftovers starting or not avoiding fights. Nora asks Matt please to do something other than what he’s doing — digging up dirt on disappeared people’s backgrounds, in order to cast doubt on the rapture idea — because he inspires survivors to want to “punch you in the face”.
His and Kevin’s faces are each day increasingly bruised and bloodied, emblems of what’s left, of flesh and fear. In ways unlike the aggressively angry GR, these battered faces reveal the trouble with a desire to feel better, however fictional, however impossible. Such desire is a measure of time and means to survive, but it’s also a function of deceit, of self and others. Such desire is the basis of religion, law, romance, and, of course, television.