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

‘The Leftovers’ “The Book of Kevin” Subverts Expectations in a Near-Perfect Episode

"The Book of Kevin" subverts its own narrative to offer a profound meditation on its own intelligent design.

In its third and final season, HBO’s post-rapture parable of mourning and recovery kicks off with subtle familiarity so mellow in initial approach that it’s easy to miss how profound a series co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (author of the titular book) have crafted. Episode one, “The Book of Kevin”, is credited to Lindelof and Patrick Somerville, and Lindelof’s patented metaphysical meditations on the plight of spirituality and the need for communal collectivism remains intact. Veteran film and TV director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, ER, Shameless) also returns with a quietly earthshaking premiere that conjures an amalgamation of “best hits” from seasons one and two and conjoins them into a spirited remix that pivots just enough to launch into the show’s third and final act.

From the beginning, “The Book of Kevin” gives audiences every reason to question thematic recurrences as traumatic coincidence or paranoia amidst pain. Then, the episode subverts its own narrative construct by asking viewers to meditate on its providential intelligent design.

Thematic Preludes

Season three opens with a cryptic prologue akin to season two’s primordial parable. An Anglican woman and her family stand perched atop a pre-industrial house, searching into the heavens in lieu of a returning savior. The viewer isn’t notified of their reason or motive, per se, but as the silent prologue continues, the visual communication is clear. The Puritan community gathers as pilgrims awaiting the ultimate immigration into Heaven.

Upon morning, the disappointed family returns to the ground, a look of sadness washed over their faces. They carry a handmade ladder back across a meager rural farming community. Three males mock the mother, her husband, and what appears to be their young male child. The montage cuts to a minister standing in front of his small but full congregation within the town’s center. He scribbles nondescript mathematics and hieroglyphics upon a chalkboard and then erases and resituates a date of prominence, “21 January 1844”.

Even for those that do not immediately recognize the situation, the intent is clear. In times of uncertainty, the test of one’s faith takes on many forms. In this case, the congregants believe in a precise prediction of salvific return, set for “16 April 1844”, to once and for all save humankind. The family holds firm, and in an instant, we see them dutifully return rooftop once more. The skies grow dark and in the backdrop a similarly adorned-in-white family waits across the way, dressed as God’s bridegroom in the coming of the Lord.

The morning brings a bittersweet finish. The family returns to the church, more mocked than ever, and within its doors amidst a shrinking congregation, the husband bitterly pulls away from his wife’s hand at the nonverbal instance of a new apocalyptic date of “7 August 1844” scribbled once more. In the final of three visits (no symbolism lost there), the wife-mother drags the ladder up to the house roof alone, and stands in the pouring rain ready to be swept away. Instead, by morning she’s left behind, spiritually rocked, humiliated and heartbroken. The woman wanders solemnly past the three tormenting males and her (possibly) former husband who keeps their son’s face buried toward his vest in shame.

Entering the church sanctuary, she lies down next to the few remaining disappointed congregants. They lie still in a line, as if ready to die of spiritual (if not physical) malnourishment. When the camera pans across the group, their white linens become those of the fleeting Guilty Remnant antagonists that invaded the sanctuary city of Jarden, Texas (aka “Miracle”) in season two.

In the prognosticated third and final season of HBO’s The Leftovers, writer-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta leave no symbolic stone unturned relating to religious allegory while exploring the human psychology of an end times headspace.

A quick scene between Evangeline “Evie” Murphy (Jasmine Savoy Brown) and Guilty Remnant cult leader Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) ends with a surveillance wire tapping into their newly conquered compound, followed shortly by a drone strike that eviscerates the cult (and the border patrol station into Jarden, no less) like a meteor sent straight into Sodom and Gomorrah. Fade to white and cut to present-day Jarden, or rather, “three years later” in the show’s timeline. It’s almost easy to miss if one isn’t looking for the signs, but three clearly comprises a preordained theme throughout “The Book of Kevin”.

Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) overlooks the mammoth crater left by the explosion. Adorned in police riot gear, Kevin mounts a white horse and rides in front of a line of cars each desperate to enter the miraculous safe haven city. Having returned to active duty as a peace officer, Kevin suggests a kind of contemporary Roman soldier in his secular duties: a gatekeeper, as it were, monitoring those in pilgrimage to the miracle town. On one hand, he allows the proselytizing of his brother-in-law Matt Jamison’s (Christopher Eccleston) church to continue, while on the other hand, he still functions an outsider, never truly buying into or separating from the flock. Thus, Kevin continues to function as liminal observer to the purported paradigm shift in humanity. Having gone through his own crises of alleged mental illness — visions accompanied by suicide attempts, if viewers will recall throughout seasons one and two — Kevin wants to wait out the next apocalypse from the sidelines.

Yet as a true prodigal son of his own destiny, Kevin’s life holds redemptive value even as he flees it in pursuit of his own death. “The Book of Kevin” culminates as a kind of intertextual episodic review that recounts Kevin’s miraculous encounters, thus framing Kevin’s liminal crisis of faith at center.

Faith Tested in Three

1. Previous Spiritual Crisis Put into Question.

In many ways, the town of Jarden, Texas, is open to interpretation. As season two established, visitors and townspeople alike are left in wonderment at the purported signs and mystical elements, particularly Jarden’s positioning as a rare town in which no persons disappeared during the show’s supernatural departure. Beyond capacity — like say, the town of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth — the streets are flooded with vagabond tents and grifting markets, charlatans and spiritual refugees seeking purpose.

Having become Jarden’s chief of police, a ghost from Kevin’s past arrives in Dean (Michael Gaston). Viewers will quickly be reminded of Dean’s haunting season one presence as an aggressive neighbor from Kevin’s former town who may or may not have been a figment of his distraught imagination. The two fought off a pack of formerly domesticated canines gone feral. The “killing dogs” segments of season one were some of its most emotionally manipulative moments; perhaps a partial penance pointing to a segment of lost viewership. Dean warns of the dogs’ movement to infiltrate the highest place of power in the US government.

At this point, the season one enigma is de-mystified (nice touch when the emotional musical crescendo drops completely) while also serving to establish a narrative pattern for episode one. As a former sign of ambiguity, Dean’s instability points to Kevin’s previous weakened mental state. Dean’s weakness puts Kevin’s mindset in question for viewers, skewing away from divine providence or prophetic revelation and closer toward post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, the social science of psychology puts any inkling of faith in question.

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.

RATING 9 / 10