Hello, Vultures! My name is Kelly Braffet. I’m a novelist who loves TV and recaps, and I couldn’t be more excited about getting to do this one. Since my books are all about bad things happening to fucked-up people, The Leftovers is kind of perfect for me. I’ll also cop to being fascinated by end-times theology and fanaticism in general — my last novel was called Save Yourself, for god’s sake. So author Tom Perrotta’s decision to approach the Rapture from a secular and psychological point of view, carried through in HBO’s show, which he also co-executive produced, lit my lake of eternal fire. The problem with disaster movies, for me, is that they’re usually about people dealing with the disaster; I’m much more interested in people dealing with being people dealing with a disaster.
There were elements of this premise that made me nervous, though. The disappearance is a disaster so widespread and all-encompassing that it need only be referred to by its (increasingly ominous-sounding) date, which will sound familiar to anyone who’s, oh, you know, alive. Because we all remember that other disaster referred to by its date; we all remember the photos, including those of wide crowds of numb-looking people dressed in dust-covered business casual. Well, one of those people was me — numb, covered in dust. In the years since, many a director and screenwriter and author has explored the resonance of that day and its aftermath. I understand the world’s need to do that, but I’m not going to lie: more often than not, they make my teeth clench, and I tend to avoid them. United 93 might be fucking amazing, but I will never, ever know, because I will never, ever see it.
I have, however, read Perrotta’s book, and while the 9/11 resonances were there, he approached them from a perspective I liked. When something rips a hole out of the world, no matter how personal or public the tear, the cracks in what’s left suddenly start to tremble and widen, and whoever you are, you’re forced to deal with that. You’re forced to navigate that hostile, cracking terrain on your way to work and school and the grocery store. When the thing that ripped your heart out also ripped out every other heart in the country, to one degree or another, you’re also forced to listen to endless chatter from politicians and talking heads about what it all means, and how you should feel, and what we’ll all do now. And there’s a push and pull between wanting to listen, because you’d certainly like to know the answers to those questions, and loathing every minute of it, because you know nobody else knows them either. In The Leftovers, there’s a moment when Chief Kevin Garvey is sitting in a bar, having just done a terrible job quelling a riot. All the guy wants is a beer – but it’s the anniversary of the disappearance, October 14, and there’s a TV in his face, some 24-hour news cycle nattering on and on all the famous people that got maybe-Raptured. “Turn that shit off,” he snaps at the bartender. As someone who once declared September 11 National Media Blackout Day, I can relate.
For me, that’s where this series premiere succeeded the most. These people have been cracked open, and the cracks are just near enough the surface to show, but just buried enough that they’re sort of getting by. Justin Theroux, as Kevin Garvey, and Amy Brenneman, as his estranged wife – who left him for a group of silent white-clad cultists, who smoke cigarettes and eat with sporks – carry their pain just close enough to the surface for us to know it’s there. Theroux’s precarious balance of grief and tightly clenched determination and Brenneman’s exhausted sadness generally feel real, and appropriately complex. (It’s only occasionally clumsy, as when Garvey stops on his way up the stairs of his home to smash a family photo with his elbow. That made me wince, and not because it looked like it hurt. The artfully broken glass, revealed later – Garvey and his daughter on one side of a crack, his wife and son in their own separated shard – made me wince, too. But that’s on the writers, not the actors, and I tend to be a little generous with pilots. Exposition is hard.)
But enough of widescreen thoughts.
This is one of the few shows I can think of when the main character actually starts with a depression beard. When Garvey is on the job, Theroux has a tendency to maybe overplay the hard-bitten cop snarliness just a bit, but his tone with Garvey’s daughter Jill felt spot-on: baffled, wounded, tired. I also really dug his interactions with Amanda Warren’s Mayor Warburton, as they go a few rounds about the threat the white-clad cultists – the GRs – might or might not pose to the upcoming Heroes Day celebration. I’ll admit to some incredulity at the idea that Warburton wouldn’t at least consider that the creepy cult with a history of disrupting town events might also disrupt Heroes Day, but Warburton is a snarky, steely spined marvel, frankly, and if she doesn’t get more play in future episodes I’ll be highly disappointed. (The chief is right about the cultists, as it happens.)
Of course, since this is a Damon Lindelof project, we can expect some random weirdness. Here, it’s a deer: first stuffed, appearing then disappearing in a front yard; then alive in a dream; then unseen, but apparently guilty of trashing Garvey’s kitchen. That deer, and the prospect that Garvey might be seeing it in corners for the next ten episodes, worried me. When the deer finally shows up in real life it’s almost immediately torn apart by a pack of feral dogs, and yet I still half-expect the damn thing to come back. What happens next, though, when the dog-killer Garvey’s been half-heartedly looking for the entire episode shows up, and convinces Garvey that the wild dogs need to be killed – I thought that was wonderful. The tears in his eyes as he fires, man. Ouch.
Then there’s Garvey’s daughter Jill, played by Margaret Qualley, who is so very beautiful that it’s kind of hard to believe that her unrequited love for her classmate wouldn’t be requited in about an eighth of a second, but whatever. She’s a compelling character (although I’ll confess to a soft spot for damaged teenaged girls) but doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this episode, other than a little acting out. The scene where she and the Prius twins, whose names, if thrown, I never caught, bury a dead dog is kind of lovely, though. The three teenagers, leaving a party to bury a dog – to give it, and themselves, the closure and respect the vanished people never got – was sad, and their mixture of awareness and deflection feels very adolescent.
Oh, Laurie, with your grown-out highlights and your constant smoking. Smoking is bad for your skin, Laurie. I will show you pictures of my aunts to prove that this is so. But, as the sign painted on the wall of the GR’s dining room says: WE DON’T SMOKE FOR ENJOYMENT. WE SMOKE TO PROCLAIM OUR FAITH. (The smoking is one of those things that I understand because I read the book, but I did wonder if it would make any sense to people who hadn’t and if they’ll eventually tease that out over the show’s run.) Laurie never speaks in this episode, although she does get to scrawl pointedly a few times. But when Garvey leaves the bar and comes to the GR house, trying to get her to take a walk and sit on the grass with him – ouch, again.
Tom, Garvey’s son, is the only character so far who’s out of the idyllic little fucked-up town. He’s somewhere in the southwest, working as a lackey for the handsome but very creepy guru, Wayne, and ignoring his father’s phone calls. Chris Zylka has the sincere, anesthetized cadences of the truly faithful just right, but something about Tom makes me think that he’s walked right up to the edge of faith, looked over, and seen nothing but vacuum. Maybe it’s the way that, when asked if Wayne is the real deal, he says, “As real as it gets,” which is a little noncommittal. Maybe it’s the way he kept an anxious eye on the guards as he passed clandestine gummy worms to one of the many attractive, bikini-clad young women draped around Wayne’s pool. Maybe it’s the fact that Wayne is a fanatic who shows up in Tom’s room in the middle of the night to do shots and predict the beginning of the Tribulations while playing with a knife and warning Tom to keep his hands off the gummy-worm girl. Or maybe it’s the fact that Tom ends the episode alone in the crystal-blue waters of that same pool, screaming in the only place where the water can muffle the sound.
And then there’s Meg, who’s the assigned target of Laurie’s Watching. Meg is getting married but doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic about it: Shen her fiancé waxes poetic about the fact that they’re about to exchange vows, she points out the wedding isn’t about vows, it’s about “picking fucking centerpieces.” (The moment when Laurie smiles and leads her into the house is the one moment of true joy that Laurie gets in this episode. Her son might be wavering, but Laurie is a true believer.)
- In the city meeting, going over last-minute details for Heroes Day, somebody says, “I still don’t think they were heroes. My brother-in-law disappeared and he was a dipshit.” Mayor Warburton replies, “They’re heroes because no one’s going to come to a parade on We Don’t Know What The Fuck Happened Day.” Speak it, both of you. Dying doesn’t make someone awesome, and marketing is everything.
- I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hell hath no fury like a teenaged girl with a hockey stick.
A note: I’ve read the book on which this television series is based, but I don’t plan on predicting what is to come. If you’ve also read the book, please refrain from spoiling any future plot points in the comments section below.