Ugh. This episode. The writing is great and the acting is phenomenal; Amy Brenneman in particular really gets to shine, in a chaotic, depressing way. And we do seem to be on track to avoid the mid-season lull that we experienced last year: Between Evie’s disappearance, the whole Kevin-meets-cinderblock thing, and, yikes, Meg, there sure isn’t a lack of fuel in the show’s engine.
Story-wise, though, this episode is a pit of despair. The Leftovers hasn’t ever been a barrel of laughs. It would be weird if it were, since it’s always been about how you continue living after your world has ended. In fact, in this episode, we learn that this is actually what the Guilty Remnant believes: that the world has ended. Which is interesting, and makes sense of so many things (including their name), but there are so many questions left to answer. After this episode, prime among them for me is this: What the hell are Tom and Laurie doing?
At first glance, post–Guilty Remnant Laurie kind of seems to have her shit together. She’s wearing colors, chewing nicotine gum, and has rediscovered hair conditioner. (One of the things I like about this show is that characters who are living in self-denial cults or who otherwise should by all rights have bad hair actually have bad hair.) With Tom’s help, she’s running a GR deprogramming group: Tom goes undercover to bring them out, and Laurie shares her nicotine gum and helps them talk about their feelings. In her off hours, she works on a book about her experiences and makes her son grilled-cheese sandwiches, the most mom-ish of all possible home-cooked meals. All in all, it would appear that she is a functional member of society who has found a way to use her own torment for the good of the world.
The cracks show almost immediately, though. Money is tight, and her jovial, slightly caricatured landlord isn’t exactly understanding. She’s obsessed with washing her car, and her son seems a little broken (more on that later). When Tom brings her a GR refugee named Susan, Laurie says all the right things and smiles in all the right places, but I can’t be the only one who thought she made leaving the GR seem awfully easy. When she promises Susan’s husband that his wife won’t leave again, it made me think of drug addiction: It doesn’t do much good to treat the addiction if you don’t treat the underlying problems that made getting high seem necessary. An internal hopelessness drove Susan to the GR, and teaching her how to sleep in a nice, comfy bed again won’t help her deal with that.
Not that Laurie is doing much better with her own problems. The soundtrack doesn’t give Laurie music, it gives her frenetic pounding drums, driving her onward: to work all night on her book, to send her son back into the GR even though she knows it’s hurting him, to steal her laptop back after her landlord confiscates it. It drives her to run down GR members when she sees them in the street, and it drives her to erase every trace of them on her car afterward. (She’s not completely remorseless: “They won’t jump out of the way,” she weeps later.)
She sends her book to a publisher; they love it but suggest a few changes to make it better and more accessible, because that’s what publishers do. They want to know exactly why the GR does what they do (don’t we all?). More than that, they want to know how it felt to leave her family, and how it felt to first endanger Jill, and then realize she couldn’t save her. Laurie is spending an awful lot of energy avoiding thinking about how all of that felt, and meanwhile, she’s just learned that her lost sheep Susan has found her way into oncoming traffic, and all of this adds up to what might be the best scene in the episode, as Amy Brenneman shows us Laurie’s façade falling away, piece by piece. Laurie’s been so cool, collected, and well-accessorized — and so tense and terrifying — that watching her attack the publisher like a wild animal is almost cathartic.
I’m not sure I like Laurie any better than I did last season, but I do find her sympathetic, and my heart kind of broke for her. She put so much stock in that book.
It’s fun to imagine Chris Zylka’s face when he read the script for this episode. I imagine it looked a lot like mine did by the end of this episode. I’m not saying anything that happened seemed wrong, at least, not that we can tell yet; it was just very, very … surprising.
Tom, as previously mentioned, is going undercover into various GR houses to bring people out. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. For one thing, bringing one GR member out of one GR house at a time seems like kind of a slow way to combat a national movement. For another, Tom has harsh words for the “hives” when he’s out, but when he’s in, he seems to be going native just the tiniest bit. Sweet little GR homilies like “Your pain doesn’t matter” seem to resonate with him a bit more than one might wish. He asks Laurie if she ever misses the quiet. “They make sense,” he says. “They know something.” All of this worries me.
And with good reason, as Tom inevitably chooses the wrong GR member to try to save and ends up chained in the back of a laundry truck. I admit to feeling some extremely nervous feelings at this point: It would be a bold move indeed to kill off such a major character so early in the season, but we know the GR can be incredibly brutal — remember Gladys? — and if any show was going to go for the kill here, it would be this one. Meg, clearly in a position of power within the GR, has never been more terrifying than she is here, pretty dress and all: We can do anything to you, she seems to be saying, as she sexually assaults Tom and then has him doused in gasoline. We can fuck you, we can kill you, and you can’t do anything about it. She doesn’t incinerate him and she leaves him his pants, but this scene is a nightmare. The world of this show is an extremely unpleasant place, and neither Laurie nor Tom is coming out unscathed.
By the end of the episode, Tom and Laurie belatedly come to the conclusion that their way isn’t working. People need something more, Tom says, and Laurie says, “Then let’s give it to them.” The next thing we know, we’re in another meeting, and Tom is telling the assembled GR refugees that Holy Wayne visited him after Christine abandoned her baby and bestowed upon him the power of the magic hug. Then Tom rises, beatifically backlit, throws open his arms, and says, “Who wants a hug?”
On my first viewing, this left me baffled: If Tom’s giving magic hugs, that explains why he faked being sick when he saw Jill, but other than that, it’s a complete reversal of Tom’s character. He spent the entirety of last season undergoing a major crisis of faith, and by the time he returned to Mapleton, I didn’t think there was much faith left in him. The whole visitation from Holy Wayne feels a little fake-cliff-hanger to me: When we last saw our hero he was in an exploding car! Lucky for us, he snuck out the window before the bomb went off. It’s a cheap trick, and I expected better.
Then I watched it again. Early on, Tom watches a video clip of Holy Wayne using almost exactly the same language Tom himself uses in the final meeting. And maybe Tom does avoid hugging Jill, but after he bails Laurie out of jail, he gives his mom a great, big hug, and it doesn’t seem to do a damn thing for her pain. So either it only works if you really, really believe, or Tom and Laurie are running the world’s most cynical con. I guess they would probably make some sort of ends-justifying-the-means argument, but this is clearly going nowhere good.
Most of the time — particularly this season — the darkness in The Leftovers is intriguingly dark, which is why I keep writing things like, “Bad luck for so-and-so; good luck for us.” I’m glad to see Brenneman and Zylka get to do something other than get kicked around by their respective cults, but this episode was bleak. It doesn’t take magic powers to figure out that the road ahead will be tough for Laurie and Tom, but I kind of dread watching them get run down on it.