The Leftovers Recap: Axe and You Shall Receive

The Leftovers

Penguin One, Us Zero
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
HBO 2014
The Leftovers Episode 102

The Leftovers

Penguin One, Us Zero
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/Paul Schiraldi Photography

I know a lot of people out there have complex relationships with Damon Lindelof’s body of work. Hell, I count myself among them; I still can’t figure out why everybody in Prometheus wore strategically placed Ace bandages instead of underwear. As someone who loves science fiction and fantasy and freaky hybrids of the two, I find Lindelof’s sense of Weird to be undeniably awesome. He frustrates me terribly, though, because I also love stories, and I feel like he’s constantly shortchanging his stories to ramp up the Weird. With The Leftovers, he’s working with solid source material, and I still hope that will carry us through.

Meanwhile, though, I’m a little worried, because in episode two, “Penguin One, Us Zero,” it kind of feels like Lindelof is laughing at us. The penguin in question lives in Chief Garvey’s shrink’s office, is inflatable, and, according to the shrink, helps children work out their aggression. But it also reminds me an awful lot of a certain polar bear on a certain tropical island, with a long, drawn-out backstory that turned out to be convoluted and lame. When we complained about it, is that what Lindelof thinks we were, children working out our aggression? The Chief’s disappearing and reappearing bagel bothered me, too. I mean, it came back, which was good news for breakfast lovers everywhere, but was the whole thing the subtextual equivalent of Lindelof revving up a cordless power drill and saying, Sometimes a toaster malfunction is just a toaster malfunction, you uptight assholes? Since the title of the episodee tells us that Lindelof clearly intends the penguin to win and us to lose, this doesn’t exactly feel like a warm welcoming hand extended to his viewers.

But, hey. Maybe it’s just a penguin. Maybe the bagel is just a moment where the Chief catches a break and solves a mystery, however small. The bigger problem here is this: Watching this episode, I found myself thinking as much about Lindelof as I did the characters, and that tells me that as much as I loved the pilot, this episode felt like it was treading water. I heard more than one voice out there last week saying that the pilot was confusing; this episode gave us more backstory on Holy Wayne, the GRs, and the Chief’s father, which should have helped with some of that. But for me, what we gained in explanation, we lost in momentum. I’m still enthusiastic about the characters and the premise, but more things need to happen now.

For those of you who signed up for the WTF team after last week’s episode, that tidy little bit of exposition about Holy Wayne in the beginning should have cleared some things up — namely, what Wayne’s mystical Deal is (“magic fucking hugs,” according to the FBI agent who orders the raid), why his compound seems to have an unusually high population of young Asian girls in bikinis, and why Tom is running errands in Nevada. (It’s because he’s a “stupid college kid.”) Less clear is why Tom is still hanging around, or how deep his belief in Wayne really runs. After Tom kills an FBI agent while defending Christine (the gummy-worm girl from last episode), Wayne offers him a magic hug and he declines. “You’re the one motherfucker I can’t figure out,” Wayne says. “You’re all suffering and no salvation.” Maybe. Then again, maybe Tom just doesn’t want his fragile faith, if he has any left, to be tested, and fail. Then again, maybe Wayne is just too terrifying to hug. For all I know, in real life, Paterson Joseph enjoys baking pies and cuddling kittens, but in this show, that dude has the wild-eyed crazy going on, big time.

Meg and Laurie
The last scene of the pilot took place on October 14. Now, Meg says she’s been with the GRs for “weeks”; judging by the size of the snowbanks, it seems like it must be closer to months, but I’ll take her word for it. Laurie’s had time to get her highlights fixed, and she’s moved out of the dreary, overpopulated main GR house into what the Chief calls the “Pledge House,” where she’s training Meg for full membership. Which mostly seems to involve taking away things that belong to her and having her do chores — impossible chores, like chopping down a biggish tree with a smallish axe. Once again, Amy Brenneman is doing a lot with very little, but this week, their shared arc belongs to Liv Tyler’s Meg. The last shot of the episode is hers: hacking away at that tree, her face moves seamlessly from one emotion to the next. She’s laughing, she’s furious, she’s grieving. She kills it.

In the pilot, Nora Durst appeared only briefly, giving a speech about how much she’d rather have a Simultaneous Stomach Flu Saturday with her vanished husband and two kids than nothing at all. Now she’s coming into her own, and so far I unequivocally love her. She has a stupid, bureaucratic, and seemingly heartless job, but she’s completely upfront about how stupid and heartless it is, and in a show where everybody is desperately searching for meaning, it’s kind of refreshing to hear somebody come right out and say, There is no meaning in this. It’s stupid, and we have to do it anyway. Much, one might suspect, like Nora’s life without her family.

Better yet is the way that Nora is absolutely aware that being the most grief-ridden person in Grieftown brings with it a certain kind of immunity from, um, everything. She deliberately knocks her coffee cup onto the floor in the coffee shop, presumably just to see the waiter go from annoyance to flustered servility — and she’s making no attempt whatsoever to hide the gun in her purse. “A big one, too, not some bullshit lady-gun,” says Jill, who’s the one to catch sight of it — but nothing really seems to come of that, either, besides some fun riffing between Jill and Aimee. Nora’s out to see how much she can get away with, which has the potential to be really cool, and really terrifying.

Sorry. That riffing in the coffee shop is the most interesting thing that Jill gets to do here. If most of the characters in this episode are treading water, Jill’s kicking back on an inflatable floaty ring. Maybe it’s penguin-shaped.

The Chief
One thing I really did like in this episode was the fact that we saw what happened after the fade to black that ended the last episode. As a writer, you want to stop the scene at the moment that leaves the biggest impression — like the teary-eyed Chief blasting away at the dogs last week — but life doesn’t work that way, obviously, and I always appreciate it when there’s a nod to the reality of What Came After. It makes particular sense here, because the whole show is about the reality of What Came After. And, yeah, you can’t just start blasting away at a pack of wild dogs tearing apart a deer on a suburban street and expect there not to be consequences. The bald guy with the black truck and the massive plug of chew is nowhere to be found, the Chief’s in mayor-appointed therapy, and there seems to be a general consensus that he belongs there. Even he’s beginning to wonder.

But if Baldy is a hallucination, he’s a shared hallucination, because Jill and Aimee seem to see him, too. Still, the Chief is worried enough to go visit Chief Senior (played by Scott Glenn), who appears to be in psych lockdown, and ask the old man when he started to know that he was losing it. Dad is full of all sorts of warm, fuzzy homilies — “It wouldn’t kill you to show a little vulnerability every now and then, people love that shit” — but he’s also apparently full of voices nobody can hear. Voices that, in fact, would very much like to speak to our Chief, and which strongly imply that Baldy is a friend of theirs.

Lindelof, I am watching you. This better not turn into another damn polar bear.

Random Things

  • I haven’t mentioned Christopher Eccleston, who plays the street preacher we keep seeing around, because so far he hasn’t really done anything. But I’m psyched to see him, and looking forward to more.
  • There is no way in hell that Meg is ever going to get through that tree with that axe. Ever.
  • Is Tom going to end every episode screaming?

A note: I’ve read the book on which this television series is based, but I don’t plan on predicting what is to come. If you’ve also read the book, please refrain from spoiling any future plot points in the comments section below.