The Leftovers Recap: In the Lion’s Den

The Leftovers

It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World
Season 3 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Christopher Eccleston as Matt, Jovan Adepo as Michael, Kevin Carroll as John, Amy Brenneman as Laurie. Photo: Ben King/HBO

Okay, here goes. On this week’s episode of The Leftovers, a French naval officer strips naked, blasts old music at full volume to attract the attention of his captain, murders the man, steals his nuclear launch key, seals himself in the missile launch control room of a submarine, and fires a nuke at an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. With commercial flights grounded following the explosion, a quartet of our heroes led by Reverend Matthew Jamison board a relief plane and land in Tasmania, where they board a boat to travel to Melbourne and rescue Kevin Garvey so he can resume his duties as the messiah. This boat happens to be the venue for a massive lion-themed orgy. One of the guests is a former Olympic bronze-medal decathlete who rose from the dead after breaking his neck three years ago and now believes he’s God. If he looks familiar, that’s because he appeared in the hallucinatory afterlife purgatory where Kevin went when he died and came back from the dead. “God” murders a guy by tossing him overboard in the middle of the party; Matt’s the only witness and no one really believes him. Matt is also, apparently, dying. Matt confronts God twice, first getting punched in the gut, then knocking him out with an axe handle and holding him prisoner until, half-convinced he’s got the real deal on his hands (or just too delirious to care), he frees the deity in exchange for being saved from his illness. The cure doesn’t seem to take. When the boat finally docks, police arrive to arrest God because a fishing boat found a floating corpse, which confirms Matt’s story. In the confusion, a splinter faction of the lion orgy frees the actual live lion brought onboard as the guest of honor. The lion promptly kills and eats God as he attempts to flee. Matt turns from the scene toward the camera, looks at his friends, and says, “That’s the guy I was telling you about.” The end.

When you lay it all end-to-end like that, the sheer narrative and tonal audaciousness of The Leftovers is clearer than ever. From the crazy lion orgy boat to the storm-tossed cargo plane to the nuclear submarine commandeered by a madman in his birthday suit, this is a strange trip. But the show’s confidence that it will get to its appointed destination carries you along for the ride — just like Matt’s sheer bloody-minded belief in God, in Kevin, and in himself was enough to drag former skeptic John Murphy, his devoutly Christian son, Michael, and his strictly rationalist wife, Laurie, all the way across the globe. Right down to a willfully goofy title — “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” — that practically dares you not to take it seriously. This episode is The Leftovers at its boldest and best.

Clearly, much of its success is owed to the balls-to-the-wall script, by Lila Byock and showrunner Damon Lindelof. It plays out like a game of “Can You Top This?” with jokes and scares and sex and pathos escalating deliriously from scene to scene. The very idea of a sex club inspired by the ’70s fad surrounding Frasier the Sensuous Lion — an honest-to-God real animal who caused a sensation and inspired both a movie and a song (by Sarah Vaughan, no less) when he fathered nearly three dozen cubs by a half-dozen lionesses at an extremely advanced age — is inspired madness. The specifics of their rituals are a scream too: Matt learns to his horror that if you say Frasier’s name after midnight, you’re treated to forcible semen extraction via a device that’s basically a Wicker Man lioness replica. He escapes this fate, but this show is willing to go so far that I wouldn’t have bet against it.

There’s more here than just the lion sex cult, though. Matt’s battle of wills against Laurie is fascinating to watch. It’s not without its funny moments, for sure: Witness the grin she flashes when he tells her the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure is just days away and she responds with a cheerfully blasphemous “So?” Or how she offers the fact that her ex-husband Kevin “shits four times a day” as proof he’s not the son of God. (The cargo plane nearly gets flipped over by turbulence that very moment, giving Matt a reason to smile this time.) Throughout the hour, we see how Laurie blames Matt and his “Book of Kevin” business for causing what she feels is a relapse of the delusions her ex experienced several years earlier. By teaming up to “rescue” Kevin, they’re basically agreeing to use each other, hoping that their viewpoint will win out in the end once they have him safe and sound.

Matt’s struggle with “God” — a.k.a. David Burton, Australian sportscaster turned local curiosity — plays out along similar lines. Laurie doesn’t believe in Matt, but humors him to the extent that it’ll get her what she wants. Matt doesn’t believe in Burton’s claims, but unlike Laurie, he has no intention of letting him get away with making them. Again, there are funny bits here, from Burton’s business card (“YES I AM GOD” it reads on the front; Patrick Bateman, eat your heart out) to their debate about the divinity of Jesus, which Burton claims is bogus. (“He wasn’t my son.” “You’re denying paternity?” “Mary’s word versus mine.”) But since this strange man was, somehow, present in Kevin Garvey’s personal limbo years ago, everything he does is imbued with eerie menace, even before he murders a guy for no apparent reason, or takes credit for doing the Sudden Departure “because I could.”

Of course, the man’s psychological insight is his most formidable weapon. It doesn’t take long for his interrogation by Matt to reverse course, so that Matt is the one whose secrets are laid bare. “Everything you’ve done, you’ve done because you thought I was watching, because you thought I was judging, but I wasn’t,” God-Burton tells him. The life of selfless and self-sacrificing virtue Matt claims he led was, according to Burton, just a lifelong way to cover his ass. “Is that why you’re killing me?” Matt asks, revealing the severity of his condition for the first time. Whatever he does or doesn’t believe about Burton’s divinity, he knows the guy has his number.

By the end of the episode, Matt is weirdly serene about his fate — or perhaps fatalistic is the right word, since he’s also given up on finding Kevin and is completely blasé about, you know, watching a guy get eaten by a runaway lion that the cops promptly shoot to death. It’s here that the team-up of Christopher Eccleston as Matt and director Nicole Kassell, returning to the show after helming last season’s powerful Matt spotlight, reaches its apex. Standing on the top deck, ocean wind in his hair, the gray light of dawn hitting every line in his face and every gray hair in his beard, Matt looks like a true prophet, perhaps for the first time. Eccleston has always used his expressive facial features to convey Matt’s outsize passion and enthusiasm; now he’s closed off, drawn in, as impassive as an Easter Island statue, and he wears it just as well. When he turns to us and the words “That’s the guy I was telling you about” emerge from his wizardlike face, this blackly hilarious understatement feels like it could be about any human who’s done something strange and terrible, up to and including the naked nuclear bomber who began the episode by unleashing the fires of creation itself. After all, isn’t the evil that men do the true subject of every seer and scripture-writer, including the ones who write this show?

The Leftovers Recap: In the Lion’s Den