The Leftovers Recap: Meet the Murphys

By
Carrie Coon and Regina King. Photo: HBO
The Leftovers
Episode Title
Axis Mundi
Season
2
Episode
1
Editor’s Rating
5/5

When last we saw our friends from Mapleton, New York, things weren’t great. Riots, arson, the kidnapping of proxy Baby Jesus, a few really ugly murders: Mapleton had a hard year.

But if the town has seen better days, the people actually turned out okay, with a few notable exceptions (RIP, creepy Patti). Kevin and Jill Garvey managed an actual conversation, and Tom and Laurie found each other, which is as close to a happy reunion as that family is likely to get.  Tom left Christine and Holy Wayne’s baby on Kevin’s doorstep, where Nora found it, the implication being there were good things to come for them, that they were going to be able to cobble together a life out of the shreds of family they had left.

We’ll see.

In season two, we’re not in Mapleton anymore. We’re now in Miracle (formerly Jarden), Texas. Population 9,261, Departures 0, the welcome sign says. Like Mapleton, it’s superficially idyllic, if a bit earthquake-prone. In the wake of the Departure, Miracle has become a national park, complete with tour buses, licensed vendors, and color-coded entrance wristbands. It’s like Disney World, but with barbed-wire fences and cops with truncheons.

The episode focuses on the Murphy family, who parallel the Garveys in ways that aren’t that subtle (because when has this show ever been subtle?).  There’s the civic-leader dad, John, about whom I will say more in a few minutes; the true-believing religious son, Michael; and the smart and slightly rebellious teenage daughter, Evie. John’s wife Erika (Regina King) isn’t very Laurie-esque — she’s loving, supportive, and will not be putting up with any nonsense — but she’s the sole holdout. There even seems to be an ostracized grandfather, who Michael visits on the sly.

Above all, there are mysteries.

The Mystery of the Doomed Prehistoric Mother
The episode opens on a pile of ash-smudged, firelit bodies, which took me back to the Loved Ones bonfire at the end of last season — but we’ve taken the Way Back Machine much further than that. A very pregnant woman in animal skins gets up in the night to pee, leaving her cohort sleeping in a cave, which promptly collapses in an earthquake. The woman goes into labor and has her baby alone to ironically upbeat music. While walking toward a column of smoke that hopefully indicates another settlement, she rescues her baby from a rattlesnake, but is bitten in the process, and dies horribly next to a river. (The baby is rescued. So there’s that.)

Why start here? The river is significant, as we’ll see later. The earthquakes might be significant; they’re still happening in modern times. Beyond that, who knows? The sequence takes nearly ten minutes of screen time; the actor who plays the doomed mother does amazing things without any dialogue. Her story is beautiful, in a brutal kind of way. Maybe that’s the point: Sometimes everyone you know is gone in a flash. Sometimes everything goes wrong. Life endures past tragedy.

The Mystery of John Murphy
Oh, John Murphy. I am a fan. Kevin Carroll walks a high wire with John, making him simultaneously likeable and sinister. He’s up to no good, but I’ll bet he believes it’s not just good, but necessary. Isaac the Fortune Teller’s “thing” is a little rickety — handprints in kid’s paint? Really? — but the post-Departure world is a bit strange around the edges, and I think John knows it. I think John burned Isaac’s house down not because he claimed to know John’s future, but because that future was bleak. “Shit, Isaac,” John said, angry more than anything else, when Isaac breaks it to him. “That is not ideal.”

I have so many questions about John. Who made him the head of Miracle’s secret police? Is it an elected job, or a self-appointed one? What crime exactly is he looking for? Busting fraud is one thing, although there’s some cognitive dissonance required for a town that buses in tourists to shop at their official Miracle Mart to discourage the cottage miracle industry. It seems like more than that, though. From the pulpit of the Murphy’s church, Michael delivers a very pointed verse from Thessalonians about not repaying evil for evil, looking directly at his father. The regular preacher announces his temporary substitute, who is our old friend Matt Jamison, recently moved to Miracle. Matt starts to tell the congregation about something that happened to his wife Mary after they moved to Miracle, but the regular preacher cuts him off. When John asks him to finish his story after the service, Matt senses the threat in John’s question (he’s many things, but not a fool) and says something banal. Maybe Miracle is happy to cash in on the appearance of Miracles, but any hint of the reality is unwelcome.

Or maybe the Miraclites believe they’re elite, and that only the chosen can live among them; there’s a palpable us-against-them vibe happening. At choir practice, the Murphys’ daughter sings a hymn with lyrics that can pretty much be paraphrased as “God loves us because we’re special.” John’s interest in the Garveys, who move in next door, definitely seems more investigative than neighborly. The townspeople don’t seem entirely comfortable with John, either: The outgoing preacher’s smile flickers just a bit when he sees John approach, and when John jokes to the Garveys that they “don’t have any friends” it falls a little flat. Miracle is a place where strangers will leave homemade apple pies on your doorstep, but you might not want to eat them. At least, not if you’re John Murphy.

Also, he was in prison for attempted murder, and when Kevin asks what happened, he says, “I didn’t try hard enough.” I am excited about this character.

The Mystery of Erika’s Buried Bird
One morning in Miracle, Erika Murphy woke up and went for a run. She ran to her favorite place in the woods, where she stopped under a tree and unearthed a large cardboard box, rubber-banded shut. After a moment’s pause, during which she is clearly hoping for or wanting or dreading something, she opens the box. There’s a live bird inside. It flies away. She seems ... disappointed? Sad?

There’s more than one unanswered question here. She clearly expected something, and I’m not sure she got it, and it would be really hard to trap a live, uninjured bird in a cardboard box.

The Mystery of Evie
And then there’s the Murphys’ daughter, Evie. (Evangeline, technically, and the twin of Michael: again with the subtlety.) It seems like she and Jill might make for good friends; when she meets Christine’s baby, whom Kevin and Nora have named Lily, she says, “Is she adopted, or did your mom fuck a black dude?” Sincere, heartfelt Michael is horrified, but Jill laughs in surprise and — I think — delight. Evie is secret-wild, teasing a scientist while swimming in the river but still making it home in time for choir practice. Where Michael has bought into the miraculousness of Miracle, hook, line, etc., Evie seems more amused by it all. She’s a teenager. She’s great.

Except: she likes to run naked through the woods with her friends, which isn’t exactly normal. She also suffers from epilepsy, specifically absence seizures, and if you’ve seen any vaguely paranormal television show made in the last 20 years (I’m looking at you, Under the Dome) you know that’s not a good omen. It’s borne out; when something bad does, indeed, happen to John, it actually happens to Evie. She vanishes, along with her two friends, and all of the water in the swimming hole. Gone without a trace. Welcome to life with the rest of the world, John.

Mysteries abound in this episode. Who’s the guy in the tower, and what’s with the guy in the light-bedecked trailer that Michael goes to visit? How did Kevin really hurt his head? What’s the deal with that pie? How did the firemen get all Bradbury-esque? Honestly, I’m feeling good about this season. Unlike last season, all of these mysteries feel significant, relevant, and controlled; I might not know what’s happening, but it feels like somebody does. With any luck, the creators kept all of the good things from last season — the great dialogue, the fantastic acting and character development — and let the rampaging deer and inflatable penguin go free.

Details, details, details

  • Miracle is a place where you can kill a goat in a diner, and everyone’s sort of vaguely annoyed, but mostly because the blood overflowed your dropcloth. Warm-up on that coffee, anyone?
  • The books on John’s nightstand: biographies of Mandela and Lenin, and something called Road to Terror.
  • Mark Linn-Baker from Perfect Strangers faked his Departure. I knew that guy couldn’t be trusted.
  • Vivisepulture: the art or practice of burying alive. Look, we’re learning!