I have to admit that after last week’s episode of The Leftovers – which narrowed its scope to focus on the character of Reverend Matt Jamison – I was skeptical about what this week’s episode would deliver. Then the opening scene happened, and within minutes of no dialogue or major characters we were provided a glimpse into the sacred manufacturing of the baby Jesus. This scene sets the tone for the episode and, to a large extent, the series thus far. With the Black Keys song playing in the background with the bluesy intonation proclaiming, “I’m not the one,” we see the mass production of neurotic capitalism supplying a steady supply of baby dolls for the holiday season. It’s eerie to see their molded faces, unaffected stares, and genderless stuffed bodies awaiting the almighty purchase when they will be named and given identity. The production and creation of the dolls speaks to the production and creation of all the various constructs of reality that provide meaning and reassurance for those stumbling through the world post Sudden Departure. I’ll keep going back to this doll and its adoption as Mapleton’s baby Jesus throughout the review because this idea is well executed throughout the episode.
Even though we didn’t get up close and personal with one specific character this week, Lindelof and Peterson made a go at revealing the bond between Kevin and his son Tom. To tell the story of a father and son during the Christmas season is a pretty awesome concept. What is the biblical story of Jesus’ birth if not a story about a father and son? This is why I like the show more and more with each passing week – the level of thought that goes into the construction of each episode.
Tom and Christine are on the run from the law. A high stakes road trip becomes even chancier when a crazy German with no pants starts spouting off about a dream he had where Christine is walking over dead bodies in white. As he shouts at Christine that he knows what she’s carrying inside her, he then attempts to choke her. Tom, ever the hero but not the father, must find Christine a safe place to stay and deliver this all important unborn child. Now that sounds like a familiar story. Tom is suffering a crisis of faith in Holy Wayne as he has yet to contact Tom through the smiley face flip phone.
After Tom flees the hospital after suspicions arise that he may have been the one to hurt Christine, he holes up in a bus stop. A couple members of the Guilty Remnant (GR) stop by and give Tom a pamphlet claiming “Everything that Matters about You is Inside,” and the pamphlet is blank on the inside. Good old fashioned nihilist knee slapping humor. Tom rejects the GR (he’s a little busy with his Holy Wayne cult) and adopts another cult’s identity in order to go back into the hospital to get Christine. The Barefoot People wear painted bulls eyes on their foreheads to mark themselves so they will be visible when the maker returns to take them.
A cop in the elevator with Tom asks him what happened to him to turn him into one of these painted people and Tom answers, “my father abandoned me.” This simple line bears so much significance. First of all, the guy who asks him is a cop and Tom’s step-father Kevin is also a cop. We find out in this episode that Laurie was with someone else before Kevin, and Tom is not Kevin’s biological son. So was Tom being honest and true to his actual identity in answering the cop’s question? Are his daddy issues at the core of his fanaticism? He could also be referring to Holy Wayne, another father figure who has seemingly abandoned him, or he could even be talking about God.
As Tom confronts some deeply imbedded daddy issues, Kevin is dealing with the missing baby Jesus fiasco in Mapleton. At first, Kevin dismisses the issue of the missing nativity scene member as a petty waste of resources, but then his feelings morph throughout the episode as he deals with his feelings as a father. Kevin feels even more cut off from his family with Tom no longer even on the cell phone grid. Then he is delivered divorce papers by Laurie and that’s when we find out the truth of Tom’s parentage. It also becomes evident that Tom never healed from the wound of abandonment by his birth father when Kevin finds the picture of Laurie and Tom’s father pinned beneath a picture of Tom and Kevin. It’s a buried feeling, but it may just be the only thing that Tom claims as a part of his true identity. Beneath his loyalty to Holy Wayne and the bulls eye on his forehead is a hurt little boy trying to find his way home. Tom’s struggle with identity and belonging is not unlike the nameless dolls awaiting designation of meaning from whoever buys them.
Kevin’s suspicions that Jill has something to do with the missing Jesus are not unfounded. In a scene I didn’t really care about, Jill abandons her idea to shoot a flaming arrow onto the doll’s floating pyre. She spares the baby and we’re left to wonder what the significance is and what her struggle was in performing the destructive task. I think that in that moment when Jill has to decide whether to follow through with the act or end the game with the stolen doll – she recognizes that the destruction of this symbolic figure will only leave her empty inside. Like the rest of her headlong descent into hedonism, Jill is finding that her current mode of coping is wholly unfulfilling.
Kevin steps up his search for the missing baby Jesus after the Mayor tells him he “needs a win.” In other words, Jesus is your savior. Kevin even makes the trek out to the toy store to get a new doll to restore order to the nativity scene, but he stops himself. He can’t replace the doll, just like he can’t replace Tom or Laurie. Some things are indeed sacred, but that sacredness seems to be a narrative we invent to create meaning. When Kevin finally does get the original doll back and announces it at the holiday party and no one seems to care – the once great religious sector takes another hit after last week’s episode revealing the GR’s subversion of religion. Kevin catches the Reverend out by the nativity scene filling in the empty bed of baby Jesus with the “spare” he had lying about. It makes sense that one of the few people in town still clinging to their faith would be the one who cares the most about the symbolic representation of a vanished baby Jesus in a world post Sudden Departure. Kevin later chucks the original baby Jesus out the window of his truck. He discards this symbol of mankind’s savior; this mass produced empty toy with a superimposed meaning.
While the episode’s main focus was on the relationship between Tom and Kevin despite their distance both emotionally and physically, the episode was framed by the idea that family is another meaningless construct of the old world. The local GR leader, Patti, tells Kevin in the beginning of the episode that “there is no family.” Kevin’s response, like his response to most everything, is that of anger. He’s feels cut off from Tom, Jill and Laurie and now seems to be bending the rules in order to target the GR. I loved Patti’s stare when Kevin arrests her for trespassing (even though she wasn’t). He stare seethes with judgment and indignation. While the police are distracted by the GR at the holiday party the rest of the members are breaking into homes and removing photographs of family. This move by the GR feels aggressive. On a holiday that is supposed to revolve around family, but is commonly criticized for its capitalist overtones, the idea of family is physically stripped away in the dark of the night. The emptiness of the frames mirrors the emptiness within them all, reducing them little more than manufactured stuffed dolls.
Interesting things to note:
- Kevin’s car experiences some sort of electrical failure and he resorts to driving the dog killer’s truck. Does this symbolize Kevin transitioning into a different phase in his own identity? Has he embraced the dog killer within himself thus making some kind of transformation?
- All that white! There were a lot of mentions of the color white in this episode. First the crazy German guy makes the prediction about Christine walking over people in white. Then there is the mayor’s telephone conversation in which she tells some underling, “Obviously the fucking white one, Marlene!” in regards to the missing baby Jesus. Then there is the empty white space of the GR pamphlet. The GR members themselves are in their usual attire of all white. And then the traffic accident with all the dead bodies wrapped in white. I’m thinking this is foreshadowing.
- Speaking of those dead bodies … they were labeled as “fragile” and warned people to “handle with care.” Humanity is fragile. Everyone should be handled with care. But these bodies are no different than the baby dolls being constructed in the beginning of the episode with their frozen expressions and emptiness. In a world obsessed with the disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, these freshly dead bodies carelessly strewn about the road seem to matter even less in the shadow of the Sudden Departure.
- Kevin admits to Nora that he cheated on his wife. Is that who we saw him with in his flashback in the pilot? Is that what he was doing when millions of people vanished? If it is then his admonishing Laurie for breaking her vows seems hypocritical. I hope we learn more about this.
- Jill’s gift to Laurie, a lighter inscribed with “don’t forget me,” was a nice touch. The fact that Jill got her mom a gift and couldn’t set the baby Jesus on fire both seem to indicate that Jill is still a child at heart. Jill’s message to her mother by means of the instrument symbolic of her mother’s path to find meaning in her life is pretty powerful. Although Laurie makes a show of indifference by tossing it down the sewer grate, we see her return later to retrieve the gift. It seemed fitting that Laurie couldn’t reach the lighter.
Amanda Lowery lives, writes and studies in Baltimore where she is held hostage by potholes, stray cats and rats that make her watch way too much TV and rhyme unnecessarily. You can find her book reviews and pop culture thoughts at amandasthinkingoutloud.blogspot.com.