The Leftovers Recap: The Meg Problem

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Liv Tyler as Meg. Photo: HBO
The Leftovers
Episode Title
Ten Thirteen
Season
2
Episode
9
Editor’s Rating
3/5

From my favorite episode to my least favorite, in just seven days. That was quick.

The girls aren't missing anymore. We know exactly where they are and we have a pretty good idea of how they got there. The cards are set to fall, and as with last season, I think they'll come down with a satisfying crash in next week's finale. All of this is good.

This episode left me cold, though. In episode three we learned that Tom is a drunken, unhappy mess, and Meg is a terrifying zealot. Six weeks later, Tom is still a drunken, unhappy mess, and Meg is still a terrifying zealot. Last season, they were characters, but now, they're just a means to an end. The second season has tended to focus on one or two characters per episode, a strategy that has led to some incredibly strong television, but if we'd seen more of Tom and Meg along the way — even a glimpse here and there — it might feel a little less like they were pulled in from nowhere to make everything super awful. These two feel like a deus ex machina gone wrong; instead of swooping in to save everyone, they're swooping in to blow everything up (perhaps literally). Or Meg is, at least. I'm not sure Tom Garvey is the man to save us.

Meg, Before

I actually liked the beginning of the episode. We didn't really see Meg's story from her point of view last season — although I loved that fantastic scene where Remnant Laurie makes her chop down a tree with that impossibly small axe — so it was good to finally see the woman behind the creepy white dress. It turns out she's a coke-snorting overachiever, telling her dead-eyed reflection to smile in a restaurant bathroom. She's there having lunch with her mother, who seems great. She says all the annoying mom things, When are you going to get married? and, Remember when I loaned you that $400 you never paid back? but she says them with a wink and a nod of self-awareness. It's not exactly clear why Meg is so tight-lipped with her, although Mom does say, "You are the most relentless person I've ever known," so tight-lipped might just be Meg's thing. Then Mom drops dead while Meg powders her nose in the bathroom, and that really sucks because it's October 13. One day later, Meg's mother is still dead, but now nobody cares. Meg is left to grieve alone.

Fast-forward two years, to a soft-voiced, wide-eyed Meg dragging her fiancé to Jarden, Texas, looking for — what, exactly? Ostensibly, Isaac. But before she visits him, she does Jarden to the hilt: golf cart, audio tour, the works. She seems desperate to find meaning in the place, but it's not clear why. She's not like Nora, running from the chance of a repeat Departure, and she's not like Matt, seeing signs and wonders in everything. Maybe the search for meaning is, like her relentlessness, something innate. As Isaac astutely tells her, knowing the words her mom left unsaid won't heal what's broken in her. She still wants to know, and he tells her (turns out, he actually is psychic). We don't get to hear that conversation, but it leaves Meg seriously pissed off. The last thing she does in Jarden is spit at it, viciously.

But first she meets Evie on a park bench, in that way that real people who aren't television characters almost never do. Evie, too, seems somehow hollow. Meg tells her a knock-knock joke. It's the same one about the broken pencil Evie tells John in the premiere, and it reminded me that in that scene — the one where they're playing catch in the backyard — Evie seemed angry, almost cold. As if all the rage her nice-girl, choir-singing life couldn't admit was channeled through that softball, aimed straight at her father.

Meg, Now

Then there's a horrible scene where Meg and her GR cronies attack a school bus full of children with a grenade. We quickly find out that nobody was hurt, but it was still really hard to watch. The local GR leadership doesn't like it either; they call Meg on the carpet and have actual words with her. As it turns out, the bus is merely the latest conflict — Meg wants more violence, more action, more punishment for all of the terrible people who didn't properly mourn her mother with her. There are rumors of plastic explosives, of plots involving Jarden, Texas. Meg, sweet as high-fructose corn syrup, disavows all knowledge of anything untoward. They look scared. They should.

Meanwhile, poor Tom is faking magic hugs at a rented hall in New Jersey. The last person he expects to show up for a hug is Meg, last seen sexually assaulting him on what must have been a traumatic day. But show up she does, and hug they do. Meg whispers in his ear that she can "do this" for real, and that's it for Tom and the magic hugs. He slaps Laurie with a painful-because-it's-true accusation of only trying to help people to absolve herself of abandoning her family, and in turn, she actually slaps him with her hand. He storms out and spends the night drunk on a playground bench, and the next morning, after watching a woman abandon her dog (because the world he lives in is nothing but casually, impossibly cruel), he heads straight to the GR, looking for Meg.

I'm not going to lie: This is a problem for me. I get that Meg offered Tom something, and even in episode three it was clear that the GR resonated with him in unexpected ways. But it's really hard to stomach him being totally cool with the person who orchestrated what happened to him in the laundry van, pulled his clothes off, and forced him to have sex with her. It's even harder to accept that he'd jump into a car with her for a cross-country trip, dance with her at a bar, and kiss her. It's just wrong.

Nevertheless, Tommy clearly has issues with control. He seems desperate to give it up: to Holy Wayne, to Laurie's deprogramming group, to booze, to Meg. Even when he had the power — as Christine's protector, as the giver of magic hugs — he didn't want it. All he seems to want is for somebody to tell him what to do.

Meg in Jarden

Meg, of course, is happy to oblige. She has plans. "It's pretty fucking amazing, what I'm going to do," she says, on the road, and makes it clear — first to Tom, then to Matt in the tourist camp — that she wants to take away every ounce of security that those lucky bastards in Jarden ever had. "You've been waiting for me," she tells Matt, with perfect confidence, but I think Matt is sharper than she's giving him credit for. He's a man of faith who believes there's a greater power, a greater structure at work in the world. Meg is a nihilist. When she sees a structure — like, say, a bridge — she wants to tear it down. Like John Murphy, she needs to hit people because she needs to hit people. October 14 is much like her this season: a means to an end, a convenient reason to attack.

Meanwhile, back at the weird semi-GR encampment Meg set up at a farm outside Jarden — no white clothes, only a little talking, a mysterious barn, the occasional stoning — Tom has been more or less abandoned. He doesn't matter to Meg, and he knows it. She told him she fucked him "to get [him] pregnant," and there are lots of places to go with that — gender-role reversal, positions of power, and so on — but I'm going with metaphor. She wanted to plant a seed in his head, a sense of her power or his own futility. Who knows for sure, but when he's alone at that farm, he seems to realize how truly unimportant he is to her. It's almost as if he wakes up. The mysterious barn holds a mysterious trailer; the mysterious trailer holds three teenage girls. We've seen them before — many times — but Tom hasn't. If he ever makes it into Jarden, he might see their faces on a poster.

By then, I'm guessing Jarden will have other concerns.

Random Things

  • Once again, the music in this episode — Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" and Olivia Newton John's "Magic" — kills it.
  • All of my criticism aside, Liv Tyler's performance this week is stellar. Meg is deeply, decidedly scary, and her emotional hairpin turns are perfect.
  • Not to suggest that the mothers in this show have it easy, but there are so many characters with daddy issues: Kevin, Tom, John, Michael, Meg, Jill, Evie, and probably more that I'm forgetting. Makes a person think of another Father who might, in Leftovers-land, be accused of favoritism, abandonment, and abuse. And when you factor in the GR, which seems to be predominantly matriarchal — what a happy family we have.