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The Leftovers Recap: Always Bet on Red

Last week, I mentioned Christopher Eccleston, and that I hoped we’d see more of him. This week’s episode was all Christopher Eccleston, which leaves me wondering what else I should wish for. Because clearly, I have Powers.

If last week’s episode was lacking in momentum — and it was — this week made up for it. Which is odd, considering that it was mostly a self-contained character study; but Eccleston plays Matt Jamison as grief-stricken and intense, and there were some definite nail-biting moments here. I felt like Matt’s transformation from man of faith to man of crazier, more vengeful faith said more about the effect that the Departure had on the world than feral dogs, teary eyes, and depression beards ever could.

Breaking the ensemble structure to focus on just one character — one who’s been mostly unseen, at that — is a risky move this early in a series. I like a show that’s willing to take risks, but I am beginning to worry that we still know too little about major aspects of the show, like a more complete picture of the Guilty Remnants and Holy Wayne. Focusing on Jamison, as cool as I thought it was, might well alienate viewers who are waiting ever less patiently to learn about those things. I hope it doesn’t. I feel like this show is still setting up its dominoes, and I’m hopeful that when they fall, it’ll be with a hell of a crash.

Matt
As you’d expect given the single-character focus, there’s a lot of Matt’s backstory jammed in here, most ineffectively in a third-act dream sequence that was my least favorite part of the episode. He survived childhood cancer, Nora Durst is his much younger sister, and their parents died in a fire. He was also a passenger in the crashing car we saw in the very beginning of the pilot, outside the laundromat where the mother is screaming for her baby. When he calls 911 after the crash, nobody answers, so he picks up his bleeding wife and runs down the street with her, calling for help. Yes, he probably shouldn’t have moved her, because what if she had a spinal injury, etc.; but this is still the sharpest moment of the dream, and tells us the most about him as a person. If you’re bleeding, and he can’t bring help to you, he will pick you up and go find help, even if that’s a stupid thing to do.

In a way, that’s everything you need to know about Matt Jamison. He is a man of action. Sometimes that action is reckless and idiotic.

Matt and Nora
Matt is a man of the cloth who’s finding said cloth increasingly tattered. A whopping five people attend his last sermon, and two of them, one notices on repeat viewings, are his vegetative wife and her caretaker. His “paper,” a series of fliers accusing the Departures of various misdeeds, is much more successful, if by successful you mean that it incites people to hit him on a regular basis. Matt considers the paper his calling: “If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty,” he says, “everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless.”

I get it. One of my favorite moments in the pilot was when the man in the Hero’s Day planning meeting said that his Departed brother was a dipshit. Lionizing the dead just for being dead always feels disingenuous to me, but Matt’s lofty ideas about separating the innocent from the guilty feel disingenuous to me, too. The man likes to blame people. He blames the Departures for not being perfect. He blames a judge who took bribes for his wife’s condition (somehow; we don’t know the details yet). He even blames his sister for not giving him the money he needs to save his church, and punishes her by dropping a nasty little tidbit about her unfaithful Departed husband in her lap. “I love you, Matt,” she says. “But what you’re doing, the paper, the church – it’s not working anymore. It’s not making things better.”

Matt and the Pigeons
Whether it ever worked might be the grand question of the show. A massive event with religious overtones occurred, and changed the world, but then turned out to maybe not have anything to do with religion at all. So what was the point of all those years of prayer and ritual? What’s the point now? Did any of it ever make anything better?

To be determined. But you know what did seem to be making things better, at least at first? The magic pigeons. They visit Matt in his church, at a tribal casino, at a red light. Play this roulette table, they seem to tell him. Play red, and play it three times. I might have some qualms about Lindelofian kooky weirdness, but I didn’t mind the pigeons at all. They led Matt to my favorite scene: He’s standing at the roulette wheel, trying to win enough money to save his church, betting everything on his faith. I am not lying when I say that I could barely look at the screen while that wheel spun. And Eccleston is so damn good, his gaunt, sad-bloodhound face battered and held together with steri-strips – his desperation, the strength it takes him to will himself to believe.

Matt and the Garvey Family
One of my least favorite scenes, though, was the mysterious pause in the dark bedroom, before he digs up his $20,000 gambling stake from the Garvey’s backyard. Judging by the swingset, and the way that Laurie is perching silently on it when Matt enters the backyard, I’m assuming this is the house the Chief and his family lived in before they moved into his father’s house. Judging by the way the Chief’s father seems to have a direct line to the mystical forces at work in Mapleton, I’m guessing that the “K.G.” who leaves a note telling Matt to take the money is the former chief, not the current one. Judging from absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I’m guessing that Matt Heard a Voice or Had a Vision or something. I have no problem with storytellers withholding information from their audience, but I do think that audience has to be fairly certain that the information exists; we don’t have to know, in other words, but we have to know that somebody knows. In the bedroom scene, as it’s written, it’s impossible to tell if anyone knows or not. There were approximately a thousand better ways to make that moment happen. I’m disappointed that the writers didn’t choose one of them.

The robbery in the casino parking lot, though, was amazing. Note that I didn’t use the word “surprising;” as soon as Matt leaves the casino, I wrote, “Please don’t get robbed,” in my notes, because it seemed so fated that he would. What was surprising, in a wow this guy is deeply scary kind of way, was that our mild-mannered if slightly fanatical preacher went absolutely ballistic on the would-be thief, and left him lying on the asphalt in a motionless puddle of crunchy squishy goo. At which point my notes say only, “Holy shit.” It’s underlined. 

Matt the Very Dangerous Person
So, finally, we have Matt Jamison, at the end of the episode. He’s lost his church because, despite having the money, he was too busy being unconscious to make the deadline. Why was he unconscious? Because he stopped to help a Watcher injured in a random attack, and the random attacker came back to randomly attack him. By the time he comes to, the new owners have already taken possession of the building. Surprise: The new owners are the GRs, and by the time Matt gets there they’re already throwing away his hymnals and boarding up his stained glass windows.

The pigeons weren’t helping him save his church. What they were doing was creating a monster: a man with a punitive sense of justice, a demonstrated willingness to put himself in harm’s way to achieve it, and nothing to lose but money. He’s a gun, waiting for somebody to pull the trigger. If the purpose of this episode was to introduce something like a villain, it was brilliantly done. All of the best villains are a little bit heartbreaking, and nothing breaks a heart like sympathy.

Random Things

  • The Chief inherits the police force, Matt inherits the church — what is it with people inheriting positions of power in this town? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not how either of those things work.
  • So far, we’re one for one on dream sequences per episode.
  • The title of this episode is “Two Boats and a Helicopter.” I have absolutely no idea what to make of that.