Over the first two episode of HBO’s The Leftovers, we’ve been introduced to multiple characters working within separate and somewhat seemingly disjointed storylines. I would never expect a show’s arc to become overwhelming clear this early on, but with only 10 episodes, the shift in the show’s focus in its third episode “Two Boats and a Helicopter” was an electrifying departure from the multiple storyline action. I thought this episode and its narrow focus was incredibly successful. I don’t know if this character focus will continue as we move forward, but for this episode we were offered a glimpse into the life of Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston).
The episode begins with Matt’s preparation for service at his church with his sermon as a kind of soundtrack. Matt tells the story of his youth and how when he found out he was having a sister he prayed to have the attention of his parents turned back on him. It is then that he is diagnosed with cancer and he was faced with having to decide whether he was being punished or rewarded. He had to decide is he was going to be angry or be grateful that he was made to suffer, because it changed him. These are the questions that Matt is struggling to answer in the aftermath of the Sudden Departure. When we return to him back in the church we can see that his flock has dramatically dwindled. Matt’s sermon and call for prayer for a girl in a coma is interrupted by someone Matt has antagonized with his revealing newsletter obsession. He is assaulted in his own church, his preparations diminished in their simple intentions and purity by the repercussions of his ‘other calling.’ Matt has appointed himself the private investigator of those taken in the Sudden Departure to reveal their tarnished character as an effort to disprove the event was the biblical rapture.
Reverend Matt Jamison is a man whose faith dangles on a fraying string as he tries to desperately create meaning out of the events of October 14. He seems to be leading multiple lives, and ultimately we see that those lives are at odds with each other, and he is slowly imploding. After having his revelatory newsletter crammed into his mouth, we learn that the church that Matt inherited from his parents’ tragic death when he was a child is slipping away financially. A diminished congregation means a cut in the funds to run his church and apparently pay for in-home care for his paralyzed wife, Mary (Janel Moloney).
Matt’s first instinct is to turn to his younger sister, Nora (Carrie Coon). He knows that she has received money in the form of “departure benefits” for the loss of her husband and two children. Nora says she will give him the money if he stops producing his slandering newsletter. This is where we see that Matt’s obsession and sense of justification for revealing the departed’s dirty secrets is the act of a desperate man. Matt will not give up his second calling and tells Nora that the Sudden Departure was a test for what comes now. This may seem like an awful thing to say to your sister who lost her entire family and seems to be struggling to create her own sense of meaning out of it all, but it only gets worse. As if to prove to her that he is still doing God’s work by revealing these wicked truths about the departed, he tells her that her own husband was cheating on her with their children’s pre-school teacher. Nora’s reaction is to break into hysterical and incredulous laughter which seems to mask any kind of pain she might be feeling. I have a feeling that in future episodes we will learn much more about the depths of Nora’s pain, but she wasn’t the focus of this episode.
What was beautiful about this episode was the emotional range of the decisions Matt makes and the actions he takes. He hurts his sister in response to her ultimatum; her threat to take away his main sense of purpose now that his faith is being challenged by the disintegration of his once gleaming existence. But then he baptizes a baby for free and we see him in his religious garb and his actions seem soft and full of grace, and then we see him bathe his paralyzed wife with the same gentle and loving demeanor. Then later, we see him beat a man’s face into the ground followed by his intervening in the middle of a hate crime against the Guilty Remnant which lands him in the hospital. Matt seems to want to be a good man, a man of God, but he clearly struggles in defining which of his actions are ruled by his faith and which are just a desperate man’s attempt to maintain control in a life and a world that is left spinning from forces of the great unknown.
Eccleston turns in a very moving performance as the tortured soul of Reverend Matt Jamison. When he gets into the fold out bed beside his wife and cries – I was moved by his ability to portray such conflict and loneliness. It isn’t long before Matt finds himself on what he believes is the path of faith as he interprets different signs in his life as divine insight and follows where he thinks the pigeons and blinking red light are leading him. It here that all the lines begin to blur and Matt’s motivations no longer seem motivated purely by grace. First he must retrieve $20,000 stowed away for him by Kevin Garvey, Sr. who leaves one of Matt’s newsletters about the bribe taking judge in with the cash as a reminder of the Reverend’s good work. That is the blessing of a possibly senile old man, not God. Matt takes the money to the casino to bet it on the table where he saw the pigeons. He is betting all of the money, which could be used to pay his wife’s nurse, not unlike the departed man he just finished slandering for gambling his kid’s college fund away. This is also a risky move considering early in the episode when he thought the prayers from his congregation helped heal the little girl in the coma, only to find out that she woke up before his prayer took place. He is putting a lot on faith in pigeons and a blinking red light. But he wins! This win is followed by a violent mugging where he almost loses his salvation money, but instead attacks his mugger and violently beats his face into the ground.
The money is wrapped in a bloody envelope, in his possession, but still far from the bank. So when Matt witnesses the members of GR being attacked and pulls over, we know things could quickly swing in a very negative direction, and they do. Matt is hit by the next rock thrown and is unconscious for several days, missing the deadline to save his church. The church is then bought by the GR, which undoubtedly makes Matt feel as though his good deed was rewarded with treachery. I couldn’t help but think that when Matt wakes up and finds out what time it is and then later discovers a couple days have gone by – it is the bank and church he rushes to save. We aren’t shown that he calls and checks on his wife or goes by to see if the nurse who took care of her stuck around in hopes of being paid, or if she abandoned Mary. This only helps to further reveal the layers of Matt’s character.
- “If we can’t separate the innocent from the guilty, then everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless.” It is this quote that defines Matt’s new calling. Matt is being pulled between two callings with their different motivations. One is his church, and we can see his concern about the church’s finances is important to him, because if he loses the church then he loses a huge part of his identity. He already lost his wife and is now left with only her physical shell, and now he has alienated his sister and most of the people in Mapleton. With the loss of the church, Matt’s only way to create meaning out of all that has unfolded is to continue with his damning newsletter.
- In animal totem symbolism, the pigeon is considered a nurturer and provides guidance to help one find their way home again, returning one to their roots with clarity and focus. As a biblical reference, pigeons are mentioned as among the offerings which, by divine appointment, Abram presented unto the Lord (Genesis 15:9). From either approach, it seems that the pigeon is a symbol sent by the divine to lead Matt to what he needs in order to save the church and himself. But his path is wrought with challenges the entire way.
- Matt’s unconscious dreams provided us with back story illuminating the occurrence on October 14 when he and his wife were in the car accident shown in the pilot episode. The dreams also had a lot of fire in them, versus the waking life baptism that he had performed earlier in the episode. We also find out that Matt was ill as a child but miraculously survived (probably stimulating the origins of his devotion and faith), and he and Nora lost their parents at a young age in a house fire. It seems this kind of gaining and then losing yo-yo of life events has been consistent for Matt. Also, last week Kevin Garvey’s feet were on fire and this week Matt’s hands were on fire.
- The Guilty Remnant’s rising influence. They have now bought a church and are converting it into either headquarters or living quarters. In this world post October 14, the church has lost its footing and the GR is rising to the influential height that religion once occupied. This should make for an interesting story in the weeks to come. Hopefully we will find out more about the GR’s intention and how their mission and money have usurped the “Our Savior Episcopal Church.”
All in all I thought this episode was a fantastic departure from the structure erected in the first two episodes. This was also the first episode not directed by Peter Berg. The show seems to be getting stronger as it goes along, and I just can’t say enough about the performance of Eccleston. I still think of him as The Doctor, so it was nice to see this broken man played by such a dynamic actor. I actually hope we get more of these character focused episodes, because the connection I felt to Matt is more than I felt for anyone in the prior episodes. We may not be any closer to figuring out what the hell is going on, but we know more about the types of struggle even the most devout believers are facing after the Sudden Departure.
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.