Reza Aslan Addresses All Your Leftovers’ Questions

"I’d say he’s a shamanistic character." Photo: HBO

This article contains spoilers for The Leftovers' "A Matter of Geography."

The Leftovers’ “A Matter of Geography” picked up where last season left off in Mapleton, New York, with Nora Durst discovering a baby on the Garveys' doorstep just as Kevin and Jill returned home from the fires set by the Guilty Remnant. The promise of a fresh start for this newly formed family may be short-lived, however, since Kevin can’t seem to shake the strange stuff happening to him, including stalking and smack talk from the very dead Patti Levin. Is he having a psychotic break or some sort of mystical experience? Religious scholar and Leftovers’ show consultant Reza Aslan says the answer is like a passage of scripture: open to interpretation. Here, Aslan’s revelations about the Kevins (junior and senior), Patti’s presence, and the significance of Australia (read his insights on the second-season premiere here).

The episode starts with confessions: Kevin tells Nora about abducting Patti, and burying her with Matt; Nora says she hires prostitutes to shoot her.
There is a sense of starting fresh. And of course in all great religious traditions that often begins with confession; the purpose of [which] is to create a blank slate. This new family unit is making this decision to confess their darkest secrets as a way to push the reset button on their lives.

But Kevin doesn’t cop to everything — his run-ins with deer and dogs.
Obviously, something strange and perhaps otherworldly is happening to Kevin … [And] whatever is going on with him has happened to his father, Kevin Sr., who was also seeing and regularly spoke with people who weren’t there. Many think Kevin’s losing his mind; some think he’s having some kind of spiritual experience. I like to think of him in the second way, that [he’s] either a prophet or a shaman. If I were to pick, I’d say he’s a shamanistic character. Prophets usually get messages from the beyond: They hear a voice telling them something, and then repeat that message to the masses. Shamans don’t really have a message. They’re kind of medicine men — that’s how they’re often referred to in tribal society. They have this ability to go to sleep and either physically or mentally travel great distances to other planes of existence, and then return. This is a very common trope in ancient religious traditions going back tens of thousands of years. Often they have an animal guide. In fact, for many shamans, the first part of the initiation is to find a spirit guide, an animal to communicate with and help them see the other world.

Even today, if you go to Latin America and Siberia, that is still what shamans do. They enter altered states of experience, often to be of service to people. It could be very practical. If you lost your sheep, you would go to a shaman, and he would come back after communing with spirits and tell you they were on the other side of the mountain.

Throughout the first season, Kevin had the sleep experiences. He would wake up and not remember all the things he [had done]. He was actually a different person when he was asleep — a common occurrence. We don’t know what the difference between a psychotic break and a spiritual experience is. Brain scans of people who see themselves as shamans have similar patterns to those who are schizophrenic. If you’re a rationalist, you think there’s no such thing as a shaman; they’re just crazy. If you’re a spiritualist, you would say there’s a very fine line between crazy and shaman. It’s all about interpretation and context.

When Kevin Sr. is released from the mental institution, he says he’s now doing what the voices say. So was he “crazy” pre-Departure? Were the Kevins chosen before or after?
That’s a very good question [laughs]. Is a shaman chosen or made? Most primitive tribes believe shamanism, and even prophecy, is a hereditary condition. Moses wasn’t just a prophet, so was his brother Aaron. Jesus has this prophetic nature, but according to his followers, so did his brother James. Mohammad was a prophetic figure, but the first Muslims truly believed that that prophecy existed in his family line. So his nephew Ali, and his grandsons Hasan and Husayn, also carried this prophetic ability. Shamanism is passed from father to son in almost every religious tradition. The fascinating thing about mental illness is that it’s also hereditary.

Kevin Sr. says he’s cured and moving to Australia. That’s the second reference to the country; the first was the guy in the tower sending a letter there.
Australia is almost universally understood as the seat of ancient spiritual power, particularly the sort of inland parts, because it’s such a unique landmass with a unique ecosystem. Some of the oldest tribal shamanistic traditions in the world still exist there in vibrant form among indigenous peoples. You see in pop culture and in books the concept of the walkabout, which has this mystic sense to it. People who don’t even know what a walkabout represents use the term when they’re talking about a spiritual journey. In fact, now that I think about it, John Locke of Lost was in Australia on a walkabout before the plane crash!

At the visitors’ center, someone tells Kevin he can help with his situation. Does he knows he’s a shaman?
I can’t imagine that in this post-Departure world Kevin is the only person who’s having this kind of experience … Holy Wayne was a really fascinating character because there was so much about him that was compromised, and yet whatever he was doing was actually working. People were dramatically affected by his hugs. Was he a charlatan, or did he have some kind of spiritual abilities? Isaac, the psychic, is [another] example. This ability suddenly came to him. Is he a fraud, or is what happened in the Departure so earth-shattering that it created this psychic shift where people are spiritually transformed? For me, when that guy sees Kevin and immediately has a connection to him, it seems pretty clear there must be more people experiencing the kinds of things that Kevin or Isaac or Wayne are experiencing.

Patti seems to have made it to Miracle. Is she Kevin’s spirit guide? When he lights a cigarette, she bangs his head into the stove because he’s ignoring her.
It’s clear Patti is trying to communicate something. But what that is, and whether she’s on his side or not, is impossible to tell. She seems to feel like she is. Of course, Kevin does not feel that way. People who believe this is all in his head would say Patti [couldn’t] strike him like that. But that’s not true. People who have psychotic breaks not only have real interactions with their imaginary friends, those imaginary friends regularly attack and beat them, and enter into their space just the way a real person would.

When Kevin goes back to the house to get the pie, Patti says, “Very interesting family, the Murphys. It’s hard to tell if they’re part of your story, or you’re part of theirs.”
I love that line! It sums up perfectly a lot of our conversation: What is reality? There’s this concept going all the way back to René Descartes that reality and dream states are so alike that you actually never know whether you’re experiencing something real or [not]. We’ve all had dreams that seem so, so real ... Descartes says, What if you’re having one of those right now? How would you know the difference? Is it the Murphys who have conjured up Kevin or Kevin who’s conjured up the Murphys?

Which brings us to Miracle. Does Kevin the shaman need to be there?
I don’t know why Kevin is in Miracle. There is something unique about it because it’s an axis mundi … And what’s remarkable about axes mundi is they draw people to them, particularly people who are compelled by whatever the sacredness of it is. We don’t really know why [he’s there] except for the fact that Matt is there. But I like to think there’s something calling him there. 

In the last scene, Kevin wakes up at the spring and cowers behind a rock when John and Michael arrive. Then Patti’s there, too.
Clearly, whatever is happening to him is happening in his dream state. I guess maybe there was this hope that it wouldn’t happen in Miracle. It’s not unusual for people who have prophetic or shamanistic experiences to run away from [them]. When the prophet Mohammed suddenly started hearing voices from God telling him to recite the Koran, he went to the edge of the cliff and tried to kill himself because he thought he was going crazy. Of course, what’s great about stories about great prophets, shamans, and heroes is that there is no escaping. Once you’re called, that’s it, man. You can run and hide, but in the end Mohammed still has to recite the Koran; Jesus still has to be the savior of humanity. There’s no avoiding it.