Why The Leftovers Is A Cult Hit

HBO's The Leftovers returns for its third and final season this April.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

I’d like you to stick with me, fellow geeks, because this word-train you’ve boarded is taking a rather circuitous route to its final destination. First stop, the Wild West. Or a robotic simulation of it at least.

In HBO’s Westworld, the following piece of transcendent wisdom is offered up by William, one of the theme park’s human tourists: “I used to think this place was all about pandering to your baser instincts. Now I understand it doesn’t cater to your lower self, it reveals your deepest self; it shows you who you really are.”

While the line can be taken at face value as an astute commentary on the Westworld theme-park and a savagely self-aware psychological assessment, it can also be interpreted as a piece of meta-commentary on the expectations of the show’s real-world audience. I’ve lost count of the number of online micro-reviews of Westworld I’ve stumbled across featuring phrases like “I don’t get this” or “nothing happens” or “it’s too slow.” These critics, it seems, would prefer all nuance, mystery and sub-text to be stripped from the show, to watch instead a gaggle of cardboard cut-out characters perpetually locked in violent conflict trading nothing more than fists, bullets and clunky exposition on a non-stop televisual locomotive of blood, tits, swearing and death. I’d contend that what people see when they look at Westworld – and especially the thirsts they expect to have slaked – might show them who they really are.

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HBO certainly has form when it comes to this type of audience reaction. Legion were the viewers of The Sopranos who cared nothing for the show’s metaphysical, psychological or philosophical elements, instead regarding each scene without bloodshed or beat-downs as a deviation from the show’s core remit. The Wire, too. A show with literary sensibilities that serves as both an autobiography and an autopsy of the modern city? Boring. I thought this was supposed to be HBO. When is Omar going to shoot somebody again?

The slow burn is an anathema to some viewers. I hope they’re reading this now. Especially since this is the fifth paragraph of an article about The Leftovers that is only just getting round to mentioning The Leftovers. How’s that for a slow burn?

The same criticisms levelled at HBO’s other critically-acclaimed but highly polarising shows are also routinely levelled at The Leftovers, but The Leftovers usually – and perhaps unsurprisingly – attracts an additional complaint: “It’s too bleak.”

So bleak, in fact, that for some viewers, it tips over into unrelenting nihilism: so richly, exquisitely bleak that it resembles a French art-house project or an over-wrought student film project by a depressed goth. Really, though, describing The Leftovers as too bleak is a like describing 24 as too linear. The bleakness of The Leftovers is stitched into its premise; it’s richly, necessarily, unavoidably bleak. It’s bleak because it’s true and beautiful, and it’s true and beautiful because it’s bleak. It isn’t a tale of blood, brooding and boredom, but a haunting evocation of loss and its after-shocks; a treatise on death, and an exploration of what happens when metaphysical mysteries hurl human lives out of their scientifically-calculated orbits.

The Leftovers – its first season at least – is adapted from a book of the same name by Tom Perrotta. The show may be helmed by Lost alumnus Damen Lindelof, but despite its supernatural starting-point and mixture of biblical references and weird metaphysical happenings, this is no Pacific Island Redux. The Leftovers is more interested in the mechanics of us than the mechanics of its supernatural event. It’s truly one of the richest shows to grace our screens in recent years: grounded, astounding, and immaculately conceived.

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Season one finds us in the leafy New York town of Mapleton, introducing us to Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux); local reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston); depressed and bereft government bureaucrat Nora Durst (Carrie Coon); and angry new cult convert Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), who are all still struggling to deal with the ramifications of the unexplained mass-vanishing of two per cent of the world’s population three years before – a random rapture that didn’t appear to discriminate, except against the human race itself.

The pilot’s opening flashback, to the moment of the rapture, helps us comprehend what drives the characters on a raw, emotional level. An ordinary suburban woman, phone clamped between shoulder and chin, struggles into her car with bags of clothes in one hand and a screaming baby in the other. Seconds later, her baby is gone. Not missing, not lost, not taken. Gone.

The mother scrambles from the car, choking for breath, shouting for help, unable to compute the mechanics of her baby’s disappearance. All around her the air rings out with hollers and car-horns, frenzy and fear: an unmanned shopping trolley careens down the street; two cars crash into each other at an intersection; a child wails for his parents. The mother screams.

That harrowing, blood-curdling moment of loss, confusion and panic propels and permeates The Leftovers, painting its places and characters in dark hues of grief and agony; perfectly setting the show’s mood and tone. 

The wider world of The Leftovers is exquisitely rendered, and deliciously detailed. Everything looks, sounds and feels like an authentic extrapolation of how the real world would operate under these strange new conditions: from the company that sells mannequins in the image of departed loved ones for use as proxies in burials and cremations, to the helplessness of government, to the packs of wild, owner-less dogs roaming the suburbs.

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And if we as a species have a tendency to succumb to supernaturalism, then we arguably possess an equally strong predilection for rules and bureaucracy, something that the show takes great care to stitch into its narrative landscape. Hence we have Nora – whose entire family was lost to the rapture – working for the Department of Sudden Departure, a government body responsible for conducting interviews with people whose loved ones have been raptured, and using the collated data to calculate and dispense “departure benefits.” Each time Nora meets with a fresh applicant the sores of her pain are broken open and re-infected by the co-mingling of memory and masochism; this “irrevocable marriage” is one of the show’s most dominant themes.

We disappear when we die. Perhaps not straight away, but eventually, inexorably. Maybe our children will remember us, and our children’s children. Maybe the movies we’ve made, or the books we’ve written, or the statues built in our honour will endure for decades, centuries, or even millennia. But there will come a day when our name, when all of our names – the Davids, the Jacobs, the Dwights; the Sandras, the Emmas, the Hildas; even the Hitlers, Lincolns and Armstrongs – will fade and vanish into the great swallowing dementia of the collapsing universe. Finally, and eternally, it will be as if none of us had ever existed. Nothing will come of something. This is a bitter enough truth for us to confront as things already stand without an extra layer of fear and doubt being laid over our adrenal glands like a shroud. While The Leftovers has many poignant points to make about grief, loss and death, it’s this ‘extra layer’ and how it moulds us that in turn moulds the meat of the show.

Many shows with supernatural or science-fiction premises tend to shrug them off at the first opportunity, or push them into the background to be pulled forward again only when convenience or contrivance dictates. Their worlds are shallow. Many of them, by accident or design, lack the room or the appetite to explore the likely consequences of humanity being exposed to ideas and events far outside the realm of computable experience and rational expectations: namely, the wholesale retreat into religion and superstition as both a bulwark against uncertainty and a salve against fear (or else a complete surrender to bottomless, suicidal nihilism). This is a “truth” that The Leftovers embraces as if it were a defining, irreducible verse from a holy text, and I salute it for that.

It’s an interesting exercise to apply this “truth” to other bodies of work. I’m quite confident that Superman would be hated by those of faith for blaspheming against their holy texts, which he would despoil simply by having the temerity to exist – or else he’d be absorbed into the tapestries of their ancient fictions, accompanied by the loud proclamation that he’d always been a part of God’s plan. Doctor Who and his never-ending cavalcade of alien invasion forces would inspire such fear, hatred, and uncertainty in the global populace that riots and nu-religions would explode into the air whenever and wherever the TARDIS materialised. Star Trek: DS9, with its Bajorans and prophets, and Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylons and one true God, have probably come closest to capturing the pervasive nature of religion. Both shows recognise that not even space-age enlightenment would be powerful enough to lessen the stranglehold of the supernatural on our species; a mode of thought that will always find a way to mutate, adapt and overpower. But perhaps both shows are guilty of misplaced optimism: chances are we’ll wipe each other out in a faith-based apocalypse long before we’ve sketched out the schematics for the first interstellar star-ships.

The Leftovers doesn’t shrink from the idea that a shock on the scale of its rapture would indelibly transform the world and its inhabitants, sending an ugly, irreparable crack down the middle of our countries, societies, homes and souls. The world – the world as we know it, at least – would be over. We would never – we could never – forget it, and even if such a thing were possible there always would be quasi-religious cults like The Guilty Remnant to keep the wound prised open.

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The Guilty Remnant wanders Mapleton in silence. Its members don’t talk, instead electing to communicate by scribbling on notepads. They chain-smoke – it’s one of the prerequisites and tenets of their faith. They wear white robes. They hold vigils. They hold signs aloft, proclaiming “We are Living Reminders.” They target individual townsfolk, stalking them as they go about their “ordinary” lives, seeking wordlessly to proselytise them into the ranks of their holy order.

The Remnant’s plan to punish the people of Mapleton drives the plot of the first season, and bleeds into the second. Sheriff Kevin Garvey, haunted by the twin spectres of alcoholism and hereditary madness, struggles to contain the cult’s zeal, and counter its strategies. A personal connection to the Guilty Remnant clouds his judgement, and myriad problems of his own – especially his precocious, rebellious teen daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley) and his tempestuous relationship with Nora – continually divert his focus. By the time the Remnant’s end game has been revealed, threatening to plunge the town of Mapleton into chaos, Garvey’s internal chaos is more than its equal.

It’s hard to tell if The Guilty Remnant owes its existence to shared insanity; the infectious and persuasive psychosis of its damaged yet charismatic leader, Patti (Ann Dowd); or a genuine – though grossly misguided – attempt to comprehend this terrifying new world and its fresh agonies. It’s possible that Patti is merely exploiting a power vacuum, now that the books and sermons of the world’s oldest religions seem inadequately placed to answer the questions thrown up by the rapture.

A case in point is the Rev. Mat Jamison: a man who will go to any lengths to preserve and secure the relevance of his Christian faith; a faith that has been shaken both by the rapture itself, and the car accident that rendered his wife, Jill (Janel Moloney) paralysed and vegetative as it struck. Post-rapture, Jamison’s daily routine revolves around caring for his wife and contemplating his own inertia. Thanks to the changed world and the looming presence of The Guilty Remnant, he’s also a shepherd without a flock. He begins to preach, loudly and publicly, that the vanished have been taken by God – and not for their virtue. 

He combs through the minutiae of the lives of the town’s departed like a dogged detective, looking for signs of slips and stains to explain God’s wrathful judgement upon them. He issues pamphlets that proclaim the departed to be sinners, gamblers, drinkers, adulterers, abusers and murderers. Jamison does this to ensure that he and his faith aren’t forgotten. He does it to please God and also because God has forsaken him (Why punish him? Why punish his wife? If the rapture is biblical, why have the souls of his family not been chosen to ascend?). He does it because it’s the only thing that makes sense to him. It’s a ritual: like prayer, or caring for his wife. He keeps doing it and doing it despite the anger and violence his position attracts. But it’s also possible that he does it for another reason: to punish himself for the sin of wishing that his wife, too, had been taken in the rapture. To spare her. To spare him. As Jill’s condition fluctuates, the banal and the biblical begin to collide along the fault lines of miracles and madness, putting the pair at odds with God, their neighbours and their own sense of sanity.

Jamison is a fascinating, sympathetic and complex character – fully realised through a blend of great writing, and a typically powerhouse performance from Christopher Eccleston – and one for whom you root in spite of – or perhaps because of – his myriad faults. Episode three of season one, which charts Jamison’s fall, rise and fall again is almost unbearably tense, and one of the most captivating, thrilling hours the show has produced.

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The Leftovers’ maiden season is a bold, provocative and exhilarating body of work. Lindelof could have rested on his laurels, but he instead elected to be bolder still. Many elements of the second season are a significant departure from what came before. For starters, the theme song. It isn’t subtly different, like in each of the five seasons of The Wire, but entirely new. Instead of a morose, orchestral dirge, there are lyrics, and an up-beat – though still mournful and bitter-sweet – country ballad. The song, “Let the Mystery Be”, by Iris DeMent, fits perfectly with both the tweaked, slightly-less bleak mood of the show, and the new title sequence, which shows snap-shots of happy, smiling people fading from family photographs. Mood-wise, imagine if Marty McFly had been up on stage at the end of Back To The Future playing a sad Don Williams song as his family disappeared… and then imagine that there wasn’t a happy ending.

Once the titles of the opening episode fade, we discover that not only is the action refusing to pick up immediately after the events of the previous season, but is instead jumping back tens of thousands of years to the dawn of man. We watch as a confused and frightened human female is forced to give birth in pain and solitude after she’s separated from the rest of her group by a cave-quake. All the while a bird of prey screeches its augur from the heavens above. Her subsequent journey with her new-born through a landscape laced with uncertainty and peril is awe-inspiring and heart-breaking in equal measure. Her story ends as she succumbs to a poisonous snake bite, and lies dying under the merciless glare of the sun. Another woman, a stranger – her face filled with horror and pity – takes the baby from her body, and clamps it to her breast.

The sequence draws parallels with the present-day world in which The Leftovers is set – the portents, fear and mysticism of a suddenly unknowable world; the endless cycle of birth, death and re-birth – and provides a thumping juxtaposition to the scene that follows: a gaggle of over-privileged twenty-first century teenage girls laughing and preening themselves on that very same spot. But as with everything in The Leftovers: nothing is ever quite as it seems. Those opening minutes had me staring at the screen in slack-jawed awe. I genuinely can’t remember the last time a TV show left me so – forgive me – enraptured.

When the dust settles on the second season proper, we find ourselves thousands of miles from Mapleton, this time in the town of Miracle, Texas (formerly plain-old Jarden), where not a single soul was lost to the rapture. Thanks to this statistical anomaly, Miracle is now perceived – and run – as a modern-day holy town, complete with myths and legends, and tightly-regulated admission and immigration policies. Its perimeter is lined with walls, fences and gates, beyond which lies a makeshift settlement of revellers, chancers, prophets and wannabe-refugees. Pilgrims from the world-over plough through the town in coaches, buying up charms and trinkets and drinking its blessed water. Rituals rule the day, as the people try to determine which of their actions on the day of the rapture was responsible for sparing them, the most startling of which is a man who regularly slaughters a goat in a host of public places (even more startling is the way the townsfolk greet his regular appearances with a shrug).   

A new family shares the limelight, the Murphys of Miracle, whose world is turned upside down by the sudden disappearance of its youngest member, Evangeline (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Their lives are further complicated by an entanglement with the Garveys and the Jamisons, Miracle’s newest and most troublesome immigrants.

Murphy patriarch John (Kevin Carroll) is the town’s fire chief, but he also acts as its Grand Inquisitor, punishing with brutal force any who would dare embrace or promote supernatural explanations for Miracle’s ‘miraculous’ status. This was the perfect time for The Leftovers to place a warrior-sceptic like John front-and-centre, as this is the season where things take a major turn to the Lost-like. Not everything here can be explained away quite so easily by recourse to reason or logic. Mystery, madness, and miracles abound, although the tight writing, bravura performances, and the consistency and verisimilitude of its imagined world all help keep the action plausible and anchored in ‘reality’.   

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That being said, when the following exchange between John and Kevin occurs towards the end of the second season, against a backdrop of blood and violence, it’s hard not to feel that the words have been taken straight out of your mouth:

John Murphy: I don’t understand what’s happening.

Kevin Garvey: Me neither.

How’s that for verisimilitude? I don’t know about yours, but that certainly sums up my existence.

The Leftovers‘ third and final season, set to debut later this year, is moving the action yet again, this time to Australia. I’m hopelessly intrigued, and immeasurably excited, to see where Lindelof is going to take us next: even if his grand finale ends up eschewing reason and enlightenment in favour of some Battlestar Galactican notion of the everlasting. I’m ready. I’m in. I’m sold. I’m hooked. This is one old, secular sceptic – a life-long devotee of Hitchens and Dawkins – who’s happy to proclaim: in The Leftovers I trust.

If you haven’t already, I implore you to gorge yourself on this brave, brutal and beautiful body of work. Despite its requisite HBO smatterings of sex, swearing and violence, this is unquestionably not a show that caters to the lower self. It serves as a stark reminder of our place in the great tapestry of the infinite and unfathomable universe. It speaks to the truth of who we are, where we came from, and how we’re only ever one loss or doubt away from heading back there. We’re lucky. We’re doomed. We’re blessed. We’re cursed. We’re big-brained beasts brooding on a tiny little rock in a lonely corner of the cosmos.

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Whether we like it or not, or even realize it: we’re the leftovers.