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The Leftovers Recap: Sinister Six-Pack

HBO  2014The Leftovers Episode 105"Gladys"Characters-Amy Brenneman-  LaurieAnn Dowd-  PattiLiv Tyler-  Meg

Well, folks, here we are: Halfway through the season, at episode five out of ten. This episode, like every episode so far, had some gripping moments (thus the three stars). But there’s no longer any avoiding it: Not enough is happening in this series.

Which is incredibly frustrating, because in many ways it’s so damn good. The dialogue is generally sharp; the atmosphere cool and appropriately moody; the characters, for the most part, feel three-dimensional. And the acting is phenomenal. More than once a scene has wrenched my actual guts, sometimes with an explosion of violence but more often with an exchange of wordless glances. This is a show full of powerful moments and powerful ideas.

But powerful moments and powerful ideas don’t necessarily add up to powerful TV. When I think of my favorite shows, the ones that jump to mind are the ones where the end of every episode felt like the film just broke in the middle of a really good movie. You don’t want to be left thinking, Well, that’s over, I wonder if there’s anything in the kitchen I can turn into a sandwich; you want to think Holy fuck, now what? You want to feel this strongly, with at least two question marks and more exclamation points than I feel comfortable using in a public forum. I love that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I love television so much.

I miss it here. Only the third episode, focusing on Matt Jamison, left me with that multiple-punctuation-mark feeling; the others have all left me thinking of sandwiches. Most of the individual characters have interesting stories, but none of those stories are moving fast enough. Laurie is conflicted about the Guilty Remnant, but not enough to go home; Tom is also conflicted about Wayne, but also not enough to go home. The Chief is trying to do his best, but he’s also kind of a mess, and the scales don’t seem to be tipping in either direction. It’s been clearly established that the Departure isn’t a puzzle that’s going to be solved. All of the Lindelofian kooky weirdness has thus far added up to absolutely nothing: the deer, the feral dogs, the bald tobacco-chewing guy, the Chief’s crazy father and the voices he hears. So a stoplight turns from green to red, and the Chief has to step on his brakes really hard. So what? His shirts go missing, and then he finds them. So what?

Mysteries are like venus flytraps: they’re only interesting if you feed them, and this one is starving. Even plot points that could have been awesome have been left to wither and die. Remember how the Chief’s father’s voices said that the bald guy was here to “help” the Chief? That was three episodes ago, and it hasn’t been mentioned — or demonstrated — since. The magic pigeons helped the GRs take Matt’s church, but now he seems to be totally at peace with the loss. Nothing is building. Nothing is developing. The situation these people find themselves in is bizarre and ripe for exploration, and there’s certainly tension within individual moments or episodes, but it’s not enough, and this show is running out of time.

Laurie
This episode belongs mostly the Guilty Remnant, and to Laurie. That opening scene, when Gladys is murdered, might be the most brutal, unflinching thing I’ve ever seen on television. (The camera didn’t flinch, anyway; I sure as hell did.) I’m glad Laurie reacted, at least a little bit, to finding her body. And after actively loathing Patti in this space last week, I was surprised to see her demonstrating some actual human compassion in the restaurant scene. I hoped this was the moment when we’d finally get inside the GR, but when Patti speaks, she doesn’t say anything revealing. Laurie holds fast to her vow of silence, which is disappointing. Laurie hasn’t had a chance to speak her piece except in that dull letter to the Chief last week. I would have liked to hear what she has to say.

Also disappointing: Laurie’s last scene, when she bursts out of the GR compound to scream through her whistle at the ever-earnest Matt. I get that she’s expressing herself in the only way available to her, and Matt’s ecstatic smile when she came outside made me want to scream at him, too. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, though, if she actually joined him? Or took a step toward leaving the GR? Or if something — anything — was different for her at the end of an episode than it was at the beginning? Wouldn’t that be great?

Matt
Oh, I had such high hopes for Matt after his episode. I wanted to see him in his basement, connecting newspaper articles with strings tied to pushpins, plotting to take down the GR. Instead he’s totally forgiven them for everything, and formed a home Bible study group. They’re nice people who come to his house and help him with his wife. So I guess that’s nice for him. Not so exciting for us, though. Anyway, he’s briefly a suspect in Gladys’s murder, but nobody really believes he had anything to do with it, so it doesn’t matter. 

Jill
Jill is sad about her mother. She cries about it. Then she immediately renounces her sadness because her mother would never have cried for her. Also, she and the Chief talk about the alarm system a lot. (Actually, she and her father have something approaching a Moment, but I feel like it belongs more to the Chief than it does her.)

The Chief
To the Chief’s credit, when Gladys is killed, he wants to conduct a real investigation. He still loves Laurie, who, along with the rest of the Guilty Remnant members, now seems to have a white-on-white target painted on her back. But nobody else cares; the citizens firmly reject the curfew he proposes, and the city council votes with their constituents. The Guilty Remnant is so very loathsome that it’s easy to understand why the residents of Mapleton hate them. I wish we knew of some reason why they shouldn’t, other than the fact that Laurie and Meg are among their number, and Matt thinks it would be nice if we all got along. Even the government thinks they’re vermin; in this world, the ATF has added an E for Explosives and a C for Cult to its acronym, and it seems less interested in solving crime than eradicating “infestations” of cult members with vans full of armed officers. (To his credit, but to nobody’s surprise, the Chief doesn’t take them up on this offer.)

Also, it turns out that the Bald Guy is an actual person that other people can see. We haven’t learned anything else about what he wants besides to kill dogs, or how he’s connected to the Chief’s father.

In other news, the Chief has lost his white shirts. He gets very drunk and has a tantrum about it, prompting the justifiably terrified dry-cleaning clerk to give him somebody’s white shirts, at least. I hope for the Chief’s sake that they fit. But I hope for storytelling’s sake that they don’t, because otherwise this doesn’t make sense. If they were really his shirts, and the clerk found them so easily while being threatened by a crazy drunk person, one would assume he would have found them even more easily on an ordinary morning.

One positive benefit of the Chief getting drunk, though, is that he tells Jill about the divorce, which it seems that he’s finally ready to face. He also tells her he loves her, which is a big step for him. She tells him that she loves him back, which I believe, but I also understand why she didn’t throw herself into his drunk, weeping arms for a big reunion hug. Sarah Qualley gives her just the right amount of vulnerability and wariness there, so maybe this is her moment after all. Justin Theroux is good, but it must be said: He’s had a lot of opportunity in this show to refine his It Pains Me How Much I Long for You But Cannot Act Upon It expression, so the fact that he nails it here isn’t much of a shock.

Tom
Tom isn’t in this episode. Let’s assume he’s conflicted and screaming somewhere, shall we?

Random Things

  • Me, early in this episode: Wow, somebody should tell the Chief of Police that it’s illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving in New York.
  • Me, later in this episode: Oh, maybe we should focus on the drunk driving instead.
  • Also: Are we meant to take from Patti’s speech to Laurie that Laurie used to be a therapist? And as a therapist, did she advocate leaving bags of something that was presumably poo on the doorstep of loved ones? Because, if so: weird.
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO