Lindelof, HBO, 2014-2017
The Horses of Disaster
The Leftovers is about a lot of things. Too many things to write about here, unfortunately. Nora is my favorite character in the show, and Season 3 was my favorite season the first time I watched it. In attempting to write these posts, though, I ended up focusing mostly on Kevin, and on Season 2. Actually, much of the content for this review derives from the end of Season 2, when Kevin’s ‘dies’ two times. So, maybe this should just be called ‘an account of that really weird moment in that one American TV show’.
That episode, the first time Kevin dies, along with several others, like Nora’s episode in Season 1 (“Guest”), and the cruise-ship episode in Season 3, make The Leftovers exceptional. But, really, the whole way through, everything fits together so beautifully, even if it is pretty-much impossible to clearly see the larger pattern.
Below, and in two more posts to follow, is my attempt to make sense of those moments when Kevin dies and rises again. The first part, here, deals with the questions of ‘understanding’ and of ‘genre’. The Leftovers depends on many genres without really having one itself, and it depends on the need to understand, in both its characters and viewers, without providing any answers either. So, from the beginning, it is playing with us. Yet, this absence of a reliance on a single genre or a single ‘answer’ leaves the show a lot of room to experiment with its storytelling.
The second post will look at the question of ‘miracles’. The show is quite unique in its portrayal of the ‘miraculous’ or ‘fantastical’. A lot of this comes from what will be discussed more below; the shows absence of a clearly definable genre. As The Leftovers blurs the line between the religious and the secular, we are not really sure how to read the scenes in which Kevin miraculously rises from the dead. Are the miracles in the show simply examples of ’lazy’ storytelling? Or, is something deeper being expressed about our relation to mystery and paradox?
The final post will deal directly with Kevin’s character. Unlike the other characters in the show, whose arcs oscillate between moments of suffering and hope, between feeling lost and temporary relief in false promises, Kevin’s characters path is twisted, labyrinth-like. There is nothing dialectical about his journey, which can’t be said for the other characters, whose internal contradictions and hypocrisies are laid bare. Instead, Kevin’s journey embraces non-sense and the paradoxical, like Alice in Alice in Wonderland. In a show that is, at least partly, about faith, Kevin’s character will be taken as illustrative of a very particular kind of faith, one that stands against most modern understandings of the term, and reaches back, instead, to Kierkegaard, Abraham and Job.
The Leftovers is a difficult show to talk about. Toward the end of both season one and two, we are presented with a directive from members of the Guilty Remnant - the cult that has emerged in response to the sudden ‘departure’ of 2% of the world’s population. The directive is simple: You Understand.
In season one, it is delivered by Patti as she lies dying in Kevin’s arms after committing suicide. In season two, Evie scrawls the message to her mother on the bridge that separates the quasi-paradise space of Jarden/Miracle from the rest of the ‘fallen’ world. In both cases, of course, we are supposed to empathise with both Kevin and Evie’s mother, who are completely lost and have zero understanding of what is happening to their families and their reality.
Do these moments serve as an absurd meta-joke on the part of the makers of the show? Are they commanding the audience to understand, while also presenting them with no way to sensibly piece together the various threads that incorporate, so beautifully, the fantastical-religious and the ’everyday’? Perhaps. Perhaps any exercise in trying to make sense of The Leftovers is just playing into their hands. But, it is also equally true that the directive to “understand!” can be taken sincerely. Not in the sense that there is really one, central thing to understand about the show, but in the sense that the quest to understand, even in absence of a concrete end-point, is itself the meaning of the show.
I don’t mean this is the clichéd sense of the journey being more important than the destination. Instead, in order to grasp what it means to “understand” without recourse to ’end’ or ‘object’, the best place to turn to is one of the shows own central textual references - The Book of Job. This book is an extreme challenge to anyone who is faith-oriented. Job’s conviction stands as an exemplary form of faith because it works without any full understanding. It is the faith of someone who has been abandoned. It is the faith of someone in exile - between knowing and unknowing. It is a faith without recourse to explanation or platitudes. This kind of faith produces an ‘understanding’ that emerges only when shrouded in darkness.
This may sound strange to most speakers of the English language. How can we ‘understand’ without knowing? If you ask me whether I understand The Leftovers, I will instinctively say “yes”. If you then ask me what it is about, I will say “I don’t know”. If you ask me to explain it, or categorize it, I won’t be able to. So, what do I mean when I say I “understand” it?
Imagine, one night, as you sleep, a thick fog descends on your neighbourhood. You wake up the next morning and get ready for work as usual. You step outside and feel the chill of the air. You cannot see far in front of you. Your familiar surroundings have been transformed into a labyrinth. You follow the footpath as best you can. Peer intensely through the fog to identify familiar, orienting, signs - traffic lights, bus stops, shop fronts. Luckily, civilisation has provided you with these markers so that it is difficult to get too lost. But, for a moment, you feel the sense of being just slightly lost within your own home, your own space. Perhaps it is a thrilling feeling, discovering anew a familiar place, perhaps it is simply an annoyance on the way to your difficult job. Either way, for a moment you have moved from having a pre-understanding of your environment, to needing to understand it all over again. The act of deciphering, of re-orienting, in the full sense of these being acts (i.e., dynamic, process-like), is the type of understanding that the show is attempting to explore.
Understanding, then, is something you do, not something you have. You can, of course, have an understanding of something - a subject area, your spouse, your daily tasks at your job. But, as experience so often teaches us, these understandings are fragile, and can easily be overturned and rewritten, again and again. Understanding, in a deeper sense, is simply this process and experience of re-writing, re-adjusting, endlessly re-orienting ourselves. In modern language, understanding is not only about the ‘object’ (what is understood), but also about the ‘subject’.1
One of the greatest challenges to understanding the show is the genre of the show, or lack thereof. If this were some kind of supernatural fantasy, or show about religion and God, then the more confusing parts would make a lot more sense.
In lieu of a ‘genre’, the show has a ‘premise’, a proposition. The premise itself is not original, but its mode of presentation is new. A number of people on earth have ‘departed’, presumably to heaven, leaving everyone else behind to question their own fitness and standing in the eyes of God. This is, of course, an already-established trope within Christian genres. The difference here is that this show does not take place within these genres. Instead, the show borrows from both Christian traditions/genres and classic, more conventional T.V. and movie genres (Westerns, family dramas, spy thrillers, etc.). In many ways, The Leftovers is much more conventional than, say Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) or Watchmen (HBO, 2019), the other two Lindelof juggernauts. Both those shows lean far more heavily into the fantasy aspects of Lindelof’s storytelling.The Leftovers remains rooted in contemporary Americana.
Still, it stands apart from those genres too. In essence, it is sui generis. In this sense it feels more Christian than other Christian stories that deal with the theme of the rapture, since, as with the Bible, it is not concerned with addressing a particular type of audience, but with exploring deeper questions of faith, loss, etc., using whatever discourses and styles are necessary.
Along with these, more biblical, questions, it incorporates questions that dominate the medium of television (U.S. Television) - family, madness, seriality, community. Modern television shows, simply through the scope afforded to them by time, tend to incorporate broader casts of characters, locations, themes, than cinema does. The Leftovers takes the freedom and scope seriously: it is international, intercommunal, interracial, intergenerational. It follows in the footsteps of the oldest ‘series’ - the Odyssey - each season ends with a ‘homecoming’ scene, which somehow is meant to root all the chaos of the journey that preceded it.
Its two major stylistic strands, the religious and the ‘conventional’, create a central dynamic in the show. The ‘religious’ constantly pulls characters away from their familiar, mostly gloomy, realities (Nora - especially her encounter with Wayne in Season 1 - Laurie, Patti, the woman who is ‘rescued’ by Laurie in Season 2, Tommy, Evie, Matt, etc.). Many of these characters end up returning to their everyday lives and their traumas without having learned much. Instead, their religious excursions are mostly shown as lapses in sanity. This is the case, for example, for both Nora and Laurie. Nothing is really solved or gleaned by their detour. Some characters, however, can’t return, most notably Patti, Meg, and the woman from from Laurie’s support group in Season 2. Instead, these characters opt for particularly destructive forms of suicide (Patti kills herself in front of Kevin, taunting and terrorizing him, the woman from Season 2 drives her family into oncoming traffic, and Meg takes a whole ‘chapter’ of the GR with her.)
In these cases, we can say that the show is deconstructing contemporary forms of faith and belief. Belief, or even simple hope for something better, deeper, some relief from grief and suffering, is shown to be misguided and destructive. At its heart it is narcissistic - the characters who seek answers in religion and alternative ideologies are constantly reminded that their beliefs are hurting those around them, but they choose to ignore this. Belief systems, funneled through cults, churches, etc., are shown to close us off to rationality and empathy. This is most visceral in the case of the Guilty Remnant.
Yet, at the same time, the show also deconstructs contemporary American life and its own, secular, forms of ‘rationality’ and empathy. Because, we do understand these characters who stray. Their protest is simple - shit has started to go really wrong, and no one is even acknowledging this reality. Instead, people just continue playing their roles and consuming their products. This kind of complaint, as ‘adolescent’ as it perhaps is, can’t help feeling more and more real as the world hurtles toward, to name just one example, climate catastrophe. Also, beyond these broader, social concerns, the we are also shown the depth of grief, for example through Nora, and the genuine need to be rescued from it, especially in the case of a society that doesn’t offer many means of processing this grief in an effective way (aside from hiring prostitutes to shoot you).
Amidst this conflict, we are asked to try to understand something. To try to understand those who ‘stray’, who seek alternative answers to the meaning of existence. Yet, we are also shown, unambiguously, the dangers and destructiveness of these ‘quests’. The tension here is summed up perfectly toward the end of Season 3, when Nora tells a story about a beach ball being thrown around by the crowd at a baseball game.
The story beautifully illustrates the structure of the show. There is deep grief (Nora and Matt have lost their parents tragically), which is temporarily eased by the opportunity to ‘play’ and embrace spontaneity. Then, an external, ‘policing’ force emerges which puts and end to the play. Finally, the reason for this regulating presence is made clear; there would be “fucking chaos” on the real field of play without it. Who are we supposed to side with here? There is no clear answer. There is also no clear way to understand who we should side with in the show either; those trying to invent new ways to deal with legitimate grief, or those whose lives are being disrupted by these efforts?
Standing outside this cycle of suffering, this endless oscillation between (false) belief and consignment to the mundane and problematic, is Kevin. He is, of course, suffering too. He has lost his family in serious and tragic ways - his wife to a cult, his son to yet another cult, his father to mental illness - and he is undergoing his own trials of sanity. However, in contrast to all the other characters, he does experience the miraculous. Why is this?
The modern terms ‘subject’ and ‘object’ can be useful here, but must be contextualised properly. Understanding is firstly a relationality. To conceive of this relation, it is incorrect to presuppose the existence of a ‘subject’ and ‘object’, separated from one another. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that, understanding, as an activity, produces the concepts ‘subject’ and ‘object’. So, these concepts are derivatives of the process of understanding itself, rather than vice versa. ↩︎