Imagine a world where two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears. There’s no scientific explanation and a biblical rapture is highly doubtful – what would happen to everyone who’s left? This is the dystopian reality we are introduced to in the premiere episode of HBO’s The Leftovers. This is a risky adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel by the same name, but one the author is onboard for with the infamous and often well-disliked Damon Lindelof. Say what you want about the show Lost, but we all spent six years trying to piece together remnants of information to understand what the hell was really going on, and the delivery of the finale left many viewers furious with Lindelof and the lack of explanation they were seeking. The same can also be said about plot hole heavy Prometheus, which also bore the Lindelof touch.
With Perrotta involved in the show’s creation, I find it interesting that he would link with the likes of Lindelof considering the novel’s focus is on the impact of the Sudden Departure on the people left behind – not the mystery of the disappearance itself. However, Lindelof has given indication that this will not be the case with the show. So here we go – another Lindelof adventure into the unknown. As viewers we have to trust that he will deliver a story worth our investment or there is no use in hanging on for the big ‘knowing’. Is that how everyone felt after watching the premiere episode; invested in this world and with these characters?
I know I want to know more about Chief of Police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), whose family and place of residence, Mapleton, N.Y., serves as the microcosm of what has occurred on a global scale. Chief Garvey just vibrates with the severity of his anger in this world that picks up three years after the Sudden Departure on October 14th. In the novel, Kevin was the Mayor, but Lindelof has mentioned in interviews that changing Garvey’s character’s profession to the Chief of Police made him more dynamic. I couldn’t agree more – plus, it puts a weapon in his hand. Kevin’s family actually remained untouched by the Sudden Departure. It is the unraveling of the rules that garner our social reality that rips his familial unit apart in the aftermath.
The underlying pulse of tension in the premiere episode was undeniable, but it was only delivered successfully in a handful of scenes, the rest of the 72 minute premiere relied heavily upon symbolism and piece meal hints at more to come. The acting is top notch, with Theroux about to burst at the seams with a culminating scene between he and his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) who has left their family to join the Guilty Remnant, or GR. The GR is comprised of people living in a communal setting under a vow of silence, wearing all white, chain smoking and antagonizing the residents of Mapleton who are struggling to return to life as usual, or as close to usual as possible given the impact of sudden loss, grief and mystery that haunts them all. The entire philosophy of the GR is not revealed in the premiere, but we do know that the presence of The Watchers creates social discord.
The town of Mapleton has decided to celebrate the anniversary of the Sudden Departure as “Heroes Day,” despite the fact that many of the departed are not heroes. A sad parade commemorates a sad event, with the keynote address delivered by the most grief stricken woman in the town who lost her husband and two children. It seems like the very thing that would come down the line from bureaucrats trying to maintain social structure. The GR make their anticipated appearance carrying signs with the message, “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH.” It speaks to their vow of silence, an acknowledgement of all the sound and all the useless verbiage perpetuated by those left behind. The GR are violently attacked by some of the citizens, a scene that feels authentic in American society. The people of Mapleton who act out in violence are channeling their grief through a primal urge against the nonviolent demonstrators that want them to realize life cannot return to “normal.” I’m sure as the show progresses we will learn more about the Guilty Remnant and their driving beliefs that result in a new recruit named Meg Abbot (Liv Tyler) at the end of the first episode. We’re left to wonder if The Watchers are more than just living reminders of what happened, and perhaps more like creepy recruiters. They were passing around those photos and Meg was singled out by Laurie. I definitely think Laurie is drawn to Meg’s photo because she resembles her own daughter she has chosen to leave behind.
Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley) and her friend Aimee allow us a glimpse into the hedonistic playground of the Mapleton teenage population. And you have to wonder, if you’re living in a world where more people could disappear at any moment, what would you cling to and what would you try to experience before the next Departure? It’s clear that Jill is reeling from internal confusion; she is spinning like the phone on the table designating the next inane “dare” at a drug and sex fest that provides her with zero personal fulfillment. It made me sad for the young people, because their world is so uncertain. Burning yourself with a hot fork is immediate sensation, a distracting pain from the slow effects of grief and loss.
The part of the premiere that felt disjointed was Tom Garvey’s (Chris Rylka) storyline. I think this is mainly because he isn’t in Mapleton, and the only reason we know he is connected to the town where the majority of the action takes place is because his dad’s face appears on his cell phone when he tries calling him. If it weren’t for this convenient technology we would probably be wondering who the hell this kid is and why he’s out on a desert ranch leading a Congressman to the hailed healer Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph). Oh, wait, yep, still wondering who the hell this kid is and what Holy Wayne’s story is. We only get a snippet of Tom’s back story in a flashback of two people committing suicide at the college he went to. And Wayne remains an even bigger mystery; his ability to “unburden” those left behind of the heaviness of their grief has apparently elevated him into some sort of cult leader who likes the young ladies. Wayne and Tom’s scene is intense as Wayne proves himself slightly unhinged and convinced that his departed son has delivered to him a message. After this interaction we see Tom skinny dip and underneath the water he releases a mighty roar.
I suppose this is a good place to start mentioning the symbolism happening in the show, which is so important in understanding what’s going on in this new world. Tom screaming underwater is clearly a representation of the immense amount of pressure he now feels having been both entrusted with the responsibility of protecting one of Holy Wayne’s girls, and being threatened by a man that seems to be falling into madness, a man that Tom believes in. I actually thought the swimming scene was nicely executed. Where water usually represents rebirth and cleansing, Tom is under the surface of it all, screaming in suffocated silence.
The wild dogs that frame the episode are incredibly important. If anyone watched that crazy discovery channel special about what would happen to Earth as it is right now if humans suddenly disappeared, know that dogs can very quickly shed their domesticity and form their own new social unit in wild packs. Isn’t this what is happening to the world? People disappeared and now social sects are springing up with their own offering of an explanation. Some people are tuning into their more primal instincts, like in Jill’s storyline. The arc of Kevin’s character in just the first episode is translated by his interaction with these dogs. The first one he tries to pet, he reaches out to it, like he reaches out to his wife, until an act of violence interrupts both attempts. Kevin puts the body of the dog in his trunk and tracks down the owner, which turns out to be one of the departed. It is Jill who ultimately buries the dog’s body and it’s really the only scene of closure that we get in a world defined by loss.
Kevin also has that weird dream where he is fumbling with a radio that loses all reception and he suddenly runs over a deer. I have a feeling that Lindeof is going to do more with Kevin’s dreams within the series, especially given that bit of teaser about his father having gone mad after the Sudden Departure. At the end of the episode Kevin stops before hitting the beautiful buck before him, and once again that human part of Kevin that wants to reach out and connect with something since the loss of his wife and the disintegration of his known world is interrupted by an act of primal violence. This time it is the pack of wild dogs that devour the deer. Symbolically, deer represent grace and unconditional love. Native Americans prayed to the deer to give them a good hunt and in return they promised to take no more than was essential for the survival of the tribe. I mention this only because Kevin has a tattoo of a Native American on his rib cage. All of this means that at the end when Kevin is shooting the dogs, he is becoming more like them and less like the deer. We have witnessed his wild and primal awakening in an act of senseless violence that is his own underwater scream.
All in all, I liked the episode but felt it a bit dense and over-reaching in some parts. I feel like Lindelof may have tipped too far into the puzzle piecing direction when it came to connecting Kevin, Jill, Tom and Laurie as a family. Not everything should have to be pieced together – if your audience is doing too much work in trying to connect the dots you risk losing attention being paid to other elements of the story. I also found the flashbacks almost too jarring and even incomprehensible and I don’t know why. The premiere felt like a rush to get all the characters introduced. I don’t see why Meg couldn’t join the GR in the second or third episode after we have gotten to know her and understand her motivations. The show runs the risk of over-reaching, but I still want to watch. I’m not crazy about tuning into a dystopian society defined by grief, but I am intrigued by the cults and the intensity of Kevin Garvey. I’m hoping for the best, but I am prepared for the inevitable weirdness that Lindelof will deliver.
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.