Like the best science fiction, The Leftovers throws reality out the window for a reason. Its outlandish genre elements give voice to emotions that are present in our everyday lives, but which have an intensity our everyday vocabulary of ideas and events is incapable of adequately expressing. There’s a throwaway bit in “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” this week’s episode and a wall-to-wall showcase for Scott Glenn at his most wild and weathered, that illustrates this beautifully.
During his conversation with the ill-fated Aboriginal man Christopher Sunday (who will soon die when the titular Crazy Whitefella falls off a roof and lands on him), Kevin Garvey Sr. talks about the tape recorder he’s been carrying around during his long walkabout across Australia. It originally belonged to Kevin Jr., who received it as a Christmas gift from his mother just a month before she died of cancer. After that, the dad explains, his son brought it with him everywhere — Kevin Sr. hugs it to his own chest by way of illustration. Clearly Kevin Jr. saw the tape recorder as a totem of his mother, and brought it with him wherever he went to keep her with him as well.
All of us use these kinds of grieving mechanisms, whether or not we understand them as such. Is it really that big a leap from little Kevin using a tape recorder as a security blanket after his mom’s death to the stranger things people did to deal with the stranger trauma of the Sudden Departure? Kevin’s tape recorder contains shades of Nora Durst hiring sex workers to shoot her in the chest, or Matt Jamison writing a new book of the Bible about his weirdly durable brother-in-law, or Kevin Sr. deciding the voices in his head are telling him he’s the only man in the world who can stop the next Great Flood. The Departure and everything that happened afterward are just everyday loss and coping (or failure to cope) writ large; the metaphor works because there’s no such thing as “everyday loss” to those who experience it.
That said, The Leftovers does not shy away from spelling out just how crazy these people can get. Go back to that conversation in which Kevin Sr. reveals the origin of the tape recorder to Chris Sunday. Kevin Sr. mentions it in passing while walking him step-by-step through the process that led to his door. To wit: Five minutes after the Sudden Departure, he began hearing voices, so he was institutionalized. After fighting the voices for years, he decided to listen to them, and they told him to go to Australia. Since they didn’t specify a location, he figured he’d check out the Sydney Opera House and got dressed up for a night on the town. On the way to a Verdi performance, he was stopped by a hippie who asked if he wanted to talk to God. He said yes and was dosed with an experimental hallucinogen for that very purpose.
Several weeks later, he woke up in a hotel room all the way across the continent, surrounded by other white dudes in warpaint, without any memory of how he got there. When he looked up, he saw a chicken on the television. (The same television through which he’d communicated to his son Kevin, on the other side of a dimensional divide, though he doesn’t seem to remember that bit.) The chicken reminded him of (or maybe it was; this is unclear) Tony, the bird who hatched from the single egg from a small town in the Outback where every living thing but that egg departed.
Since Tony the chicken is now a fortune teller, Kevin gets on a train, re-crosses the continent, and goes to see it. Without knowing exactly what he’s looking for, he blurts out “purpose,” and Tony hops up on his backpack and starts pecking. His beak hits a tape Kevin Jr. recorded during their trip to Niagara Falls back in ’81. The tape is cued up to a bit where the boy had his dad sing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to reassure him during a rainstorm, at which point the rain stops. Therefore — deep breath now — Kevin’s divine mission is to spend years learning the sacred songs of the Aboriginal people by any means necessary in order to sing them himself and stop the apocalyptic flood, as predicted by the song he sang on the tape pecked at by a psychic chicken he saw on TV while tripping on acid in a country the voices in his head told him to go to.
Makes perfect sense, right?
The beauty of Kevin’s absurdly convoluted shaggy-dog story is that it actually doesn’t make any less sense than some of the wild stuff we’ve seen on this show. Remember Kevin Jr. returning from the land of the dead by singing Simon and Garfunkel at karaoke? Showrunner Damon Lindelof and director Mimi Leder have perfected a deadpan presentation of this kind of ludicrousness, whether it’s funny or scary or sad or just plain freakish. Whether or not you believe your eyes and ears is immaterial. The point is whether the characters do, and how they live their lives afterward.
Which brings us to the third and final side of the belief-and-grief triangle constructed by this episode: The tale of Grace, the woman who rescued Kevin Sr. from death by snake bite and exposure — and who happens to be the ringleader of the gang of women on horseback who drowned a local police chief named Kevin. She, too, has taken a long and winding road to get to where she is, but it’s a horrifically sad and brutal one, not the weirdo vision quest that led Kevin to her doorstep. She and her husband were religious folks raising both a church and a large family of both biological and adopted children when the Sudden Departure happened. (A checkout clerk at the grocery store vanished in front of her eyes, taking the box of cereal Grace had purchased with her.) By the time Grace got back to their home and church the next day, all that was left behind were her family’s Bibles, lined up neatly in a row. Given what she’d just said about the disappearing cereal box, this might have been a clue that something was amiss, but she believed her whole family had been united with God. In her faith and her grief, it was the only consolation she could derive from such a tragedy.
But Grace was wrong. Two years later, her children’s skeletal remains were discovered in the wilderness around her property. Only her husband had disappeared; without knowing if their mom would ever come back from town or if she, too, had vanished, the kids set out to find her and perished. Grace found Kevin right at the spot where their bodies were discovered, and in her pocket she discovered a snippet of Kevin Jr.’s story from the manuscript Matt Jamison had sent him. Believing it all to be a sign, she kidnapped the coincidental cop Kevin from the nearby town and convinced her small flock to drown him. She believed his denials were a test, and if she proved her faith — this is hard to even type, it’s so small and sad a hope — “He would have no choice but to help me talk to my children one last time.”
“It’s all just a story I told myself,” Grace says to Kevin Sr., as she breaks down. “It’s just a stupid, silly story, and I believed it, because I’ve gone a bit crazy, haven’t I?” Cue the blind leading the blind: “I don’t think you’re crazy at all,” he replies. “You just got the wrong Kevin.” Grace is ready to give up on believing, but Kevin Sr. sees in her a chance to keep his own faith alive. The self-reinforcing logic of true faith keeps the whole thing moving, until the next tragedy forces it to change or die. Whether this is chilling or inspiring — whether you think she got the wrong Kevin, or that there is no Kevin at all — it’s a real phenomenon, and grappling with it is the bravest thing The Leftovers does.