By Josh Oakley
Loss leaves a crater. More than just a hole, it is the result of an impact, whether sudden or drawn out. Shock is temporary, at least for most, but loss is a cancerous crater. It is the grave you dig for a dog, filled but never the same. You can plaster over loss with platitudes, religion, alcohol. And those things can help, some of them can even heal you, restore some sense of balance to your world. But what they can never do is return you to person you once were. Loss changes everything, from your plans for your future to the way your morning coffee tastes. There is a shift. No matter how hard you push, you can never truly get back into place.
Voices fill the black screen and the words “Three Years Later” appear. The brilliance, for both the book and show, in jumping to a near future is that it shows how the world is after everything has festered. The initial scare is gone, even the years ruled mainly by questions. The curious are still present, but the how and the why no longer hold the allure of the simple “what” itself. Lives have been ruined, and an answer as to the cause would hardly help at all.
The signs of memorial are all around. After the time transition, the camera is focused on a blue ribbon adorning a street lamp. Kevin (Justin Theroux) runs through the town, emptier than it should be. In the place of any other early risers, there are tokens littered throughout, memories manifested into stuffed animals. Kevin encounters a dog and calls for it. The dog never makes it to him, taken down by a bullet instead. The man who killed the dog, a stranger to Kevin, drives off. This is the world of The Leftovers. This is a mission statement, an alarm to viewers that the world is off-balance, and tragedy has forever altered the survivors.
Kevin is the police chief of Mapleton, a small town in New York City. His main concerns, as they stand in most of the premiere, are for his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), his son Tom (Chris Zylka), and the upcoming Heroes Day parade, a memorial for those who disappeared. The last of those is a fear driven by the Guilty Remnant (G.R.), a religious group who believe, as their own posters say, “We Are Living Reminders”. They dress in white, smoke cigarettes (not for pleasure, but for penance) and go out in pairs to follow regular people around. They act as shadows, looking to cultivate members and stop the blindness they see in those around them. They’ve crashed events before, and Kevin worries the parade could turn into a disaster.
Much of the episode anticipates this, building the world of show before collapsing it. Jill is a high school student (I’m not sure if the show said her age, but in the book she was 17), hollowed by the loss of her mother to the G.R. She rebels in common ways, with drugs and parties, but pivots away at the last second. The party she attends is one of the only real sparks of color in the episode, giving a frenzied energy to the proceedings. This is as much a cult as the G.R. in some respects; a way for a group of people to collectively deal with the grief surrounding them. The sexualized “Spin the Bottle” app that sends Jill to a room with an understanding but nevertheless horny boy exemplifies the party perfectly: bright lights, harsh sounds, and a randomness attuned to the minds of those who consider themselves lost already. Jill finds better company in the Frost brothers, Adam (Max Carver) and Scott (Charlie Carver). The three discover the dead dog, which Kevin has stuffed in his truck, and bury it. ”They’re not like us, trying to reason it all out, make sense of shit that makes no sense,” one of the brothers says of the animal, “You just go primal man. Same thing’s going to happen to us, it just takes longer.” The beasts have gone mad, a theme that will recur throughout the episode, and all humans can do is keep them at bay. But what to do when the poison has had its way with our minds as well?
There is an explosion at the parade, just as Kevin feared, as the G.R. shows up in the middle of a speech by a woman who lost her husband and two kids on October 14th, Nora (Carrie Coon). As Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) puts it in a meeting the day before the parade, “She lost her entire family, she’ll say whatever the fuck she wants.” And she does, telling a heartbreaking story of how much she longs for the worst day of her life, before the disappearance, back. Better to be sick with the family than healthy alone. Then, the G.R. descend, and hold up letters to form: “Stop Wasting Your Breath!” The crowd is enraged, and a brawl ensues. Director Peter Berg is familiar with action on both the big screen (Lone Survivor) and small (Friday Night Lights). He collapses the fighting here, keeping everything in a close-up that chops the event into chaos. Our main characters are only given as much importance in this sequence as everyone else. There is no order, at least not in a sustainable sense. The primal is beginning to overtake the reason.
Kevin understands the way of the animal better than most, even finding it impossible to reign in. He attempts to pull his gun on the man who shot the dog, but is too drunk to seem like a convincing threat. “You cannot kill our fucking dogs,” he screams. Later, watching those same creatures tear a deer limb from limb, the man replies: “They are not our dogs… Not anymore.” The episode ends with its protagonist shooting a horde of what used to be family pets, an event only slightly less cruel for happening off-screen. The Leftovers doesn’t do this to prove its pay-cable bonafides, but to make a terrifying point: grief changes some so much that they become unrecognizable. Of course, Kevin has just been reminded of this, going to the G.R. and pleading with his wife to come home. Both of them have been altered dramatically: she weeps but does not reply or follow, he beats up a man only hours after trying to stop those who were doing the same.
Laurie (Amy Brenneman) is first seen as one in a row of sleeping women, all dressed in white. The sun bathes her through a window as she sits up, smoking. Her breakfast is mushy oatmeal from a communal pot, her morning disturbed by her name not mentioned on an assignment list. There is a clear order to things, and those in the G.R. appear to be consumed by the discrepancy between the current and the past. They put on intentional faces for those they follow in the town, but spend much of their time alone frowning, disturbed by the shape of the world. Brenneman, unable to use her voice, has the most difficult job of the central cast, and ably delivers in this episode. The pain at her husband’s arrival, the small joy of a new recruit (Meg, played by Liv Tyler) just moments later, the combination of banality and comfort that the G.R. provides are all accessed fully by her expressions. This show would not work if Laurie was incomprehensible, and Brenneman brings a powerful force to even her smallest actions.
So three of the pieces of the Garvey clan – Kevin, Jill and Laurie – are all in the same town, but broken apart. Jill and her father eat dinner together, but the former is disengaged and the latter only comforted by his daughter’s friend, Aimee (Emily Meade). The last member of what once was a family is far off, a member of a cult, ignoring his fathers’ calls. The role is perfectly cast; Zylka looks exactly like the all-state, friendly frat college boy Tom was supposed to be. Instead, life intervened, and he finds himself a follower of Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a man who claims to heal the broken and seemingly can. That proof comes in the form of a Congressman (Brad Leland, from Berg’s old show) who becomes unburdened in his presence. Yet there are warning signs, from Wayne’s knife-wielding threat to the population of young Asian women that sit pool-side at the leader’s house.
One of those women, Christine (Annie Q.) has a special bond with Tom, who brings her gummy worms. This is one of the few warm, gentle moments that the episode offers, but even it is treacherous. This, then, is the thing that holds Tom in the same universe as the other Garveys. Danger is all-encompassing, ravaging the sane and confounding the mental. Telling the two groups apart can be impossible, and the inability to do so is more threatening than any vague hint of god. Religion, drugs and sex are methods, but humanity lurks under all of them, waiting for its moment to pounce and tear any good thing to bits. The story that Wayne tells Tom, tears in his eyes, concerns a vision of his lost son. He has been commanded to awaken the rest of mankind, he claims to his follower, to prove what this new world is. But the world is unknowable. And the truth about grief is this: you cannot be shaken from it. The best you can hope for is finding a more comfortable position to sleep in.
- The flashbacks are an interesting, brief element of the episode, though one that is likely to return. I especially like how Laurie and Kevin’s recollections are edited to be a nightmare-ish rush, but Tom’s is slow, quiet until impact.
- A lot has been said about Damon Lindelof, who does an excellent job adapting the book here with Perrotta himself, doing another “mystery” show. But if you haven’t read the book or the interviews, you should know that answers are maybe the least important element of this journey. That’s not me telling you how to watch, just warning those who may have expectations that probably won’t bear fruit.
- I’ll talk more about the book in a spoiler section below, but something that’s fine to say to anyone: the Wayne stuff was probably my least favorite material in the book. I don’t know if it will be any better as a whole here, but Joseph’s performance during that speech certainly seems to hint so. He gives a gravitas I never truly bought in the novel.
- One more thing about the book-to-show changes: Making Kevin the chief of police was smart, giving him the chance to interact with the town in a more involved way than as mayor, and it helps that the mayor we do get here is already so well drawn.
- There’s not a lot of levity here, but enough for the time being; that’s important for a show like this so as to not become comically overburdened. It seems like the Frost brothers will play a bigger part in the show than the novel, which seems like a good call; both actors sell the line between childish and dumb well. And speaking of levity:
- “I get the pope, but Gary fucking Busey?”
BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD
- One of the main tricky things will be handling the Kevin/Aimee and Tom/Christine relationships onscreen. They never do anything physical in the book, but even hinting at that visually will come across harsher than on page (not that it’s ok in any sense, but there’s an obvious difference in seeing it). They certainly seem to be hinting that both of those will make their way to the show.
- The one bad thing about the Frost brothers being in play this early is that we won’t get that same, gorgeously simple ending for Jill.