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

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

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


The Leftovers

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 1 – "The Book of Kevin"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2017-04-16
Amazon

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.

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