Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
I really want to like The Leftovers. It’s not perfect, but it’s generally smart, stylish without being slick, and has a hell of a cast. One thing it’s not, though, is subtle. Which I suppose is to be expected for a show with this premise, and I actually think it fits, given that the show is less concerned with good versus evil than it is with whether there’s any point in distinguishing between the two. Big questions like that can land at the end of a story with a beautiful, Olympic-level dive into deep water, or one hell of a belly flop. I’ve got my fingers crossed for the former, but in the meantime — yeah. Not subtle.
The baby doll, for instance: a crass commercial object, mass-produced for a toy company that’s so very comfortable with its status as Producer of Cheap Things that it calls itself Aforda. Then it’s purchased by some lady in a nice coat, wrapped in brocade and turned into the baby Jesus. Still a hunk of vinyl, but now it’s our Lord and Savior, too. It departs the manger, only to experience its own sad sort of passion and take on new layers of symbolism in its absence. It’s what’s missing in Chief Garvey’s career (success). It’s what’s missing in his family life (honesty, trust, meaning). And, in the moment when the Chief announces its return and discovers to his chagrin that nobody really gives a shit, it exposes what’s missing in Mapleton: the giving of a shit.
It’s a lot to ask of a doll who doesn’t even have eyes that close. I like that they’re making the details matter, but I still wish things were moving a little faster.
There was a moment in the last episode when the Chief asked Matt to come by and have a steak, “like old times.” God, I wish he had. Does anybody deserve to sit back and knock down a good-natured beer with a friend like Kevin Garvey does? That guy just cannot win. Even when he finds the baby doll, it’s such an empty gesture that he almost immediately throws it away again. When his estranged wife, Laurie, comes over with Meg, the hope in his eyes as he brings them cookies is heartbreaking; when it turns out they’re there to deliver divorce papers, he explodes. “Fucking say it, Laurie,” he says, meaning: If you want this, you have to connect with me long enough to get it.
If only he was that brave with his daughter. When he figures out that Jill was involved with the disappearance of the aforementioned baby Jesus, he flat-out tells her that he’s not going to deal with that, or her, because he has more important things to do. She flat-out tells him in return that not even bothering to look for the doll is “cheating.” Although I’d say that in this case, it’s less cheating than it is sticking his fingers in his ears and singing la-la-la-la and hoping that his angry, wounded daughter somehow manages to fix herself. When he’s a cop or a husband, he’s sympathetic. As a father, he tries to try, I guess, but even that trying comes in half-steps, unfinished sentences, and sad, frustrated gazes.
Also, he’s driving the bald guy’s truck now. That can’t be a good sign.
For the first time, Jill got to do something sort of interesting. We don’t see her steal the Jesus doll, but we see her holding a joint to its lips and almost setting it on fire. Almost: She and the Prius twins, after all, are the kids who did such a sad, lovely job of burying the dog in the first episode, and ultimately, she can’t quite do it. She can’t quite nuke Christmas. She wants Christmas. She wants her own family ornaments on the tree, not her grandfather’s. She wants her family. She wants her dad to know she stole the baby Jesus and to come after her, about that or maybe about anything at all. The poor kid: She wants her mom. The only Christmas present she buys is for Laurie. It’s a cigarette lighter, something Laurie could undoubtedly use, engraved on the side with the words Don’t Forget Me.
Once again: not so subtle.
About the Guilty Remnant: Last week, I theorized that maybe the show was building Matt into a villain, but this week I realized that it already has one. Patti, the leader of the Mapleton GRs, has the eyes, warmth, and humanity of a cockroach. I want to believe that there’s a broken person in there, and maybe we’ll get to see that person eventually — the one time she spoke, welcoming Meg to the GRs, she almost came across as warm — but right now she seems monstrous. The GRs creep me out. The scene when they steal the town’s family photos is awful. The brochure they give Tom (“Everything that matters about you is inside,” with a completely blank interior) is awful. Patti is awful.
Laurie, on the other hand, is not awful, and that’s why I find her so frustrating. Patti may have ceded all of her humanity, but Laurie seems to be actively clinging to hers. Amy Brenneman isn’t the problem; she’s incredibly expressive, and the look on Laurie’s face when Jill walks in on her parents’ one-sided argument is helpless and joyous all at the same time. The problem is that this is a look we’ve seen on Laurie’s face before. We’ve seen it over and over again, and it’s starting to wear a little thin.
Laurie throws the lighter Jill gives her down a drain although she clearly doesn’t want to, and later, she tries to retrieve it. I don’t think we know enough about the GRs for this to work; it’s hard to understand what they could possibly offer that’s stronger than the longing in that look she gives Jill. It’s also a little hard to understand how we’re ever going to get inside these people when we can’t hear their thoughts. In Laurie’s letter to the Chief, she says, “I think I’m supposed to stay broken. Maybe we all are.” Fine. I’ll buy that. What I won’t buy is deliberately spreading the brokenness around, the way Laurie is doing to Jill or the GRs are doing to the town. And the fact that Laurie goes back for her own precious memory — the lighter — immediately after destroying everybody else’s: not cool, Laurie. Not cool.
Finally, there’s Tom. Still on the run with the pregnant Christine, still waiting to hear from Wayne, seething with adolescent anger. When Christine is attacked by a crazy pantless man and injured, he turns his anger on her in a way that’s almost, but not quite, understandable. She’s the symbol of the impossible task he’s been given, and she’s what he’s supposed to protect. She’s why he can’t go home, even though he claims to want to. But she’s also a human being, and watching him tell her that it’s her fault she was attacked sucks. Watching the way he is with her when he takes her to the hospital sucks. We know he didn’t cause that bruise on her stomach, despite his skinned knuckles, but he’s sure as hell acting like he did, and it’s hard to blame the nurse for wanting to protect Christine from him.
And, as with Laurie, I’m not sure we know enough to buy his inner conflict. Okay, so the Chief isn’t his father. We hear that first from Laurie and then from Tom himself, when the sheriff in the elevator asks how he ended up that way. “My father abandoned me,” Tom says. He’s doubtless talking about his birth father (whom we glimpse in the photograph of a pregnant Laurie that Kevin unfolded elsewhere in the episode). Maybe he also means Wayne, or God.
The pilot was riddled with flashbacks, two- or three-second bursts of the characters’ previous lives. They’re not doing it anymore, and I understand why — it’s an awfully device-y device — but I miss the context they gave, however brief. The conflicts inside these people are all laid out in front of us like Tarot cards; I wouldn’t mind if somebody came along and offered to read them.
- Finally, we see the Loved Ones we’ve been hearing ads for all along — lifelike synthetic dolls that friends and family members of the departed can buy, presumably to bury. And they are super, super creepy, all the more so because they’re also completely understandable.
- Those of you playing along with Dream Sequence Bingo: I say that Christine’s pantsless attacker’s dream of her among the white-clad bodies counts.
- I think I was wrong about Matt being a villain. He’s the one, after all, who swoops in and replaces the Aforda doll with an actual nativity Christ child — restoring some reality to the display of faith, perhaps? — and frankly, if they’re setting him up against the GRs, I’ll root for him.