“Sam!” She cries out. Once, twice, three times before the screen goes black and we hear the clutter of confused 9-1-1 calls. A moment before, this frazzled mother was bemoaning the evolution of the coin-op laundry to a child that is now nothing more than gone.
I like how the tragedy splinters out like a pebble in a windshield. The mother, a child crying out, a car crash and then a scream. 2% of the population gone in an instant as the camera almost seems to spin till we’re dizzy on this small space of land. They’re the only ones in the world that have just lost everything, but they’re not. 140 million dead.
A blue ribbon and a blurred jogger fill the screen next. The names of the “missing” or the “gone” or the “dead” or the whatever are read off one by one over the radio in a way that is instantly familiar to anyone who pays attention on the 11th of September as all the TV networks broadcast the ceremonies from Ground Zero. There are multiple moments where you feel like Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof are talking about 9/11 in The Leftovers.
[There are spoilers in this article.]
I like, later on, when the Girl Scout flubs the one name at the Heroes Day ceremony. That girl knows not the weight of what she is doing. She doesn’t likely know who Mr. Zindernam… Zinderman is or what loss is. The innocent and the angelic — we use them to squeeze just a little bit more ache from these moments. It’s like staging a house. It’s indecent.
I don’t like the way that they shoot that dog in the neck. It is unsettling and it made me jump. I like the metaphor, as perceived by me, that sparks from the wild dogs and the man with the rifle, though. More later, probably.
Do the networks still air the 9/11 ceremony? The whole thing or do they run a daytime talkshow instead? I don’t pay attention anymore. I feel bad typing that and I feel “the thing” on that day. The thing where that day feels different than all the other days. I mourn in that way. By feeling different. It’s probably not enough, but at least I don’t go furniture shopping.
I have my memories of watching the news on that day — that’s the closest thing that I have to an individual experience. I blinked right before the second plane hit so I got to think that it was a horrible accident for a split second longer than most others. I remember watching everyone scramble to get answers and report everything and nothing all at once that day. I remember having no idea what was going on and I remember that it scared the shit out of me. I remember, late that night, after I stopped being consumed by fears that another attack was imminent or that something might personally affect me (I was 40 miles away from Ground Zero) that I started thinking about the inevitable war and I started worrying that I would get drafted. What an asshole.
In The Leftovers, everyone is broken. Science’s official stance on the Rapture or whatever it was is, “We don’t know” and that “God sat this one out”. Theories abound and a cult has started up where everyone wears white, says nothing and smokes as an instrument of their belief. What is that belief? “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH!”, according to the single letter placards that many of them carry at the Heroes Day parade, which celebrates the 3rd anniversary of the day that that woman lost her baby outside of the laundromat. I like that the story seems to be centrally concerned with the individual effect of this loss. There are some big picture moments in the show, but in the end, individual experiences are all that really matters to people when a tragedy occurs and in the aftermath, even to those who are just observers.
Heroes Day is a day of remembrance and clowns and statues and tensions that has been mandated by a Mayor who thinks people are ready to “feel better”.
“Nobody’s ready to feel better. They’re ready to fucking explode” says Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief.
People want to “feel better” — can you imagine the hubris that exists in someone who assumes that they can lay their hands on a community to sense that and bring about that betterness with a parade? Only a politician.
There are a lot of stray moments in The Leftovers that reveal themselves to be connected later on. The pacing of the show, which is directed by Peter Berg, is scattered and occasionally off-putting.
People are sad all over and they’re trying to cope by fucking, by crying, by drinking, by living a lie, by running away and by standing still. Kevin’s son is some kind of henchman for a magnetic and intense zealot named Marcus who helps people feel unburdened. Marcus likes to put his hands on people’s heads. He fixed Buddy Garrity in a way that nothing has since his glory days as a Panther.
Kevin’s wife is a part of that cult and his daughter is damaged and bored. She goes to a party and chokes a guy while he jerks off. A single tear falls down her face. An app made her do it. Kevin is a drunk with a family history of mental illness that looks to haunt him going forward, but he gets by. He wants his wife to come back but she is only a mass of silent tears and emotions when he drunkenly tries to get her to sit on the grass with him at the compound as the cult den mother shouts at him with a grease board and underlined words.
Christopher Eccleston plays Matt, a man convinced that the deification of the dead is foolish. He shouts his truths at the assembled mourners but nobody seems to care — he’s a crackpot and a flat voice in a robust choir of woe. Only the cult members can stir up the passions of the mourners, and as a Heroes Day riot ensues, Kevin is proven right and the cult members are bruised and bloodied. People fiercely protect their grief like they protect their children — no one knows what someone else’s loss feels like.
The most laughable phrase in the english language is, “I know what it’s like”. I don’t have a grandmother anymore. Maybe you don’t either, but I don’t know what it’s like for you and you don’t know what it’s like for me because I lost that whole person, not just the idea of what a grandmother is. I don’t miss the food that she would make or the birthday cards with $20 inside, I miss the conversations we had in the later years when we knew each other as adults. You can’t completely relate to those conversations without having been a participant. Fuck off about my loss and your empathy.
It’s interesting what this show says about the way that we deify our dead. People won’t like it or agree with it, but it’s interesting.
I like how the TV scrolls focus on the real victims — the lost celebrities. Apparently, the rapture/whatever took Anthony Bourdain, Jennifer Lopez, Shaq and the former Pope. 9 out of 10 news directors say that celebrity deaths are the only deaths that matter. That’s not a real statistic. It’s probably higher.
I hope The Leftovers never answers a thing because I don’t want anyone to be right. Tragedy is chaos, there is no order to loss. That person was right fucking there with a heart that pumped and a brain that sparked and then you blinked and they weren’t. If they had a tumor the size of a watermelon in their brain, you still wouldn’t know why they died in the grander sense.
So, what is The Leftovers about? This show is about dealing with tragedy and surviving and how we really don’t know how to do either. It’s about the people who think that they do and the ones who sell that to you for money and “love”. This show is about the quest to find answers when there are none to be found and how that quest can be damaging.
There is no rhyme or reason to the disappearances on the show — people who beat their children and innocent babies drifted up or faded out. The complete anarchy and randomness of who goes away undercuts the desire to think yourself a sinner who was unworthy of salvation or a saint who got another chance. It doesn’t mean that people don’t try, but it makes me dizzy and it makes me sit down and it makes my eyes bug out of my head when I try to look at the bigger picture.
At the cynical core of The Leftovers, there are wild dogs.
In the beginning, Kevin is jogging when he comes upon a stray dog. He is friendly and tries to call the dog over, but in an instant it is shot in the neck. A man in a pickup truck drives away and Kevin feels the need to get to the bottom of this mystery, because this he can make better — not the loss of 2% of the population, not his son’s abandonment, not his daughter’s distance or his wife’s decision to join a cult. Only, he can’t. The dog’s owner doesn’t give a damn about the dog — who went missing when everyone else did — or her husband, who also went off the chain around the same time. Kevin forgets the dog in his trunk and tries to get through his day. That isn’t the metaphor I like, but it isn’t half bad.
At the end of the episode, while sitting in a bar having a casual conversation with the laundromat mother from three years ago, a drunken Kevin sees the mystery rifleman with the pickup truck. “You can’t shoot our dogs!” he yells while impotently dropping his gun as the man drives away.
Kevin gets into his car and eventually comes upon a large buck standing in the street. There is symbolism here from earlier in the episode but as Kevin talks to the deer, a pack of wild dogs — who were thought to be a suburban myth about domestic animals that lost their minds when their masters went away and everything stopped making sense — go after the buck and viciously start to tear it apart. Like a dream, the rifleman returns, telling Kevin, “They’re not our dogs” before firing away at the dogs. He urges Kevin to grab his gun and help and Kevin does.
The takeaway here is, I think, that those who have lost their way following the tragedy have to get in line lest they run wild like the dogs. The takeaway is that there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with an unexplainable and unfathomably large tragedy, and that is to deal with it like everyone else does, because if you don’t, you’re a bad doggy. I think Kevin was shooting at the parts of himself that are spiraling out of control because he is afraid that he is going to go too far or too crazy and never get back to his new abysmal normal.
Or maybe they’re all in purgatory.
The Leftovers airs on Sunday nights. You can watch it on HBO