The Leftovers - Part 2
Lindelof, HBO, 2014-2017
No Miracles in Miracle
When I was an undergraduate, I took an English Literature class. One section of the module was on Macbeth, and the lectures were given by the Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness. He opened the series of lectures by announcing that Macbeth begins by asking us a single question: Do you believe in magic?
This question was shocking to me at the time. It is a simple question. Simplistic, even. We are so often taught to read Shakespeare as highly symbolic, heavily layered, heavily metaphorical. Shakespeare is about all those grand, human subjects - power, politics, love, revenge, jealousy, etc. We receive Shakespearian texts with weighty histories of interpretation and dissection. Rarely, as students at least, are we asked a simple, direct question like whether we believe literally, in the action of the text. You’re just not ‘supposed’ to read it like that. In general, criticism is supposed to be performed in the absence of belief.1
Yet, this question, in its simplicity, opened a whole avenue of new ways of understanding and engaging with the text. Of course it is a play about magic. Before it is about ambition - all too human ambition - it is about a wider series of processes and effects, magical, supernatural. We empathise with Macbeth, not only because we see ourselves, our darker sides, mirrored in him, but also because we see our own relation to fate and destiny and magic mirrored in him.
The Leftovers does something similar, it asks us: Do you believe in miracles?
In both Macbeth and The Leftovers the question remains a question. Yes, you can take the witches and their magic as signs of something else, something more rational - the movement of human history (which will always throw and overthrow rulers, regimes, economic systems), the inner psychological workings of a manic mind, etc. - but we can also take it literally, or as literally as possible at least (it is often difficult for us moderns to actually think magic non-ironically), and see the witches as a supernatural force, one unaccounted for, and unaccountable by, any history or science of the human. A bubbling up of matter in a cauldron, a descending fog. They lie outside science, outside conventional understanding.
Luckily for Kevin, the supernatural forces of The Leftovers are slightly more benevolent. But they are no less indecipherable, when taken literally.
As with magic, miracles are inhuman. Supernatural phenomena, whether it be eyes of newt mixtures, rising from the dead, or the quantum effects of radiation, are grounded in indeterminate processes. They are chaotic, unpredictable, entropic, at least from our, admittedly limited, perspective. Magic is typically presented more as an ‘art’ than a science. There are ‘masters’ of magic, but no magic ’experts’. As with anyone learning a dangerous craft, say bull riding, apprentices are taught to respect and bow to the force they are dealing with. They must rely on their intuition, their instincts. All those parts of the human that haven’t been fully regulated or acculturated. The same is true of miracles. You bow down to them, revere them. They are signs of danger and grace, of greater, unknowable - and therefore unpredictable - powers.
The ‘human’, by contrast, is defined by order, negentropy, hierarchy, predictability. Humans, too, are the result of processes - biological, social, existential - but they are individuated processes. There are determined, regular, bound by certain laws. At least, in most cases.
In The Leftovers, we are asked to believe that some humans, like Kevin, are part of a different process. They can die for 10 hours and come back to life. Kevin is both human and inhuman. He is bound by similar laws as the other characters; he is a family man, his job (police chief) is to literally enforce social laws, he suffers, he makes mistakes, he is a prisoner to biological processes (addiction - smoking, sleepwalking). There is nothing magical or miraculous about him on the surface. And, indeed, it isn’t as if he becomes magical or miraculous in the show. He doesn’t change. His character remains constant, whether alive or ‘dead’. It is simply that his path is more miraculous than the other characters.
There are, of course, many other ‘magical’ characters in the show, those who claim to have become miraculous. In the first season there is Wayne, who is able to ’take peoples pain away’ with hugs. In the second season, there is the man who can commune with the dead by using hand-prints, and in the third season there is Kevin’s father, who is convinced he is the only one who can stop an oncoming flood.
However, all these ‘magical’ men leave death and destruction in their wake. The suffering caused by Wayne’s cult is self-evident, the man who can read hand-prints tells Meg something that leads her on a path that will cause the deaths of many people, and Kevin’s father’s quest leads to the death of an elder Aboriginal man (as well as leading him to drown his own son in a bathtub).
And, of course, there is the place of Miracle. The town that was ‘spared’ from the departure and is a source of hope for so many people. Even here though, things are tricky. While perhaps some miraculous things do occur in the town (Mary’s ‘reawakening’ from her coma), the characters (like Matt) who mistake this coincidence for some deeper truth about the place, end up destroying their happiness. The strong belief in the magical powers of the town creates a militaristic border around the town. Evie and her friends also show how vulnerable this kind of belief can be when they turn it to chaos.
If anything is clear from the stories of the purported ‘miracle-men’ and the town of Miracle, it is that miracles are not answers. They do not cure. But in the show, they do happen. So what are they?
The show gives us three possible ways of reading its miracles:
As magical (Kevin’s journey to the realm of the undead in Season 2).
As deus ex machina moments (Kevin’s journey to the same realm in Season 3).
As a result of the effects of quantum mechanics (Nora’s story at the end of Season 3).
In the first case, as explained by John’s father, Steven, the ‘place’ that Kevin goes to in Season 2 is a space to “do battle” with your demons. The show does portray this to be truthful, since after Kevin pushes Patti down the well, he is indeed ‘cured’ of his visions of her. In this case, the ‘miracle’ of The Leftovers is close to our understandings of magic. Strange rituals are performed in order to enact a desired outcome. I’m using the term ‘magic’ here in a very loose sense. We must not confuse it with the concept of magic that we are familiar with in many fantasy-based works (Steven makes this point clear when he ironically jokes about being a “magical black man at the edge of town”). Instead, magic just means supernatural, in a more formal sense - unexplainable by recourse to ’natural’ law. This type of magic or miracle allows the text to introduce and play with different, more free, forms of logic and relation. Its effect is of producing an indecipherable, but alluring, mystery or non-sense, like in Alice in Wonderland.
In Season 3, however, the ‘undead’ realm becomes symbolic. This is markedly different from its meaning in Season 2, where it remains quite literal. In Season 2 there are no quasi-scientific explanations (for example, it isn’t a ’near death experience’ like in the T.V. show, The O.A.), nor is it a ‘dream’ sequence. It is mostly continuous with (or at least parallel to) the reality experienced by the other characters. In season 3, however, it is repurposed as more of a plot ‘device’. It becomes a dramatic space where all of Kevin’s contradictions and struggles are resolved, in particular his need to stray or ‘adventure’ which causes friction with his need to ‘settle down’. There is a ‘moral’ or lesson he is supposed to learn (“We messed up with Nora”). This familiar trope (particularly in Westerns) does indeed find an interesting, and quite visceral, mode of representation in the parallel ‘dead’ space, but its miraculous nature is quite different.
In season two, the miracle remains a proper miracle, in the more traditional sense. It is an event which is unexplainable, but which impacts and shifts the reality of those it touches. In season three, the miracle is different - it is the miracle of deus ex machina. Lindelof co-opts the miraculous, mysterious space to produce a satisfying ending for Kevin’s story.
It the history of cinema, it is difficult to find examples of the truly miraculous. That is, events which are religiously-tinged and unexplainable by recourse to the laws inherent in the world of the text. Typically, films that have fantastical elements will provide some kind of grounding for them, in genre conventions or the ‘rules’ they establish. The truly fantastical is something different. It is indeed *similar* to the effect of deus ex machina, a trope which is often seen as lazy storytelling. A strong example of the miraculous might be the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (Denmark, 1955). Even though the event - a character rising from the dead - could be seen as a deus ex machina moment, it can also be seen as the opposite - the questions and contradictions (of faith, of the movie) produce a dynamic context in which the miraculous emerges spontaneously or stochastically, i.e., it is not as if this moment is simply ’tacked on’.
The difference here is slight, but important. In one case, where miracles are ’lazy’ examples of storytelling; the claim is that things that contradict cannot be resolved logically, so we turn to magic instead. And here, ‘magic’ means make-believe or child’s play. 2 In the second case, logic is understood differently. The non-sensical is a necessary feature of sense. It is the aporias and paradoxes inherent in logical thinking that spur genuine decisions and actions. One thing is not necessarily following from the other, but that is the point. Without a clear, easily unravelled end-point, all that is left is freedom. The freedom to jump between life and death, for example, with the aid of a Simon and Garfunkel hit.
When comparing the excursions to the undead realm in Season’s 2 and 3, the former examples seem to express more deeply the questions of faith, miracles and paradox. The focus on Kevin’s inner conflict in Season 3 moves closer to the understanding of deus ex machina as a ’lazy’ way to resolve conflict.
In Season 2, the ’explanation’ (getting rid of Patti), isn’t really an ’explanation’, since we don’t really know why Patti is there in the first place, nor how pushing her in a well in this mysterious zone really gets rid of her. We are just asked to believe it. Kevin does. Unquestionably. If we do believe it, what does this belief signify?
As in the case of Ordet, one would think that the first thing we turn to in order to explain a character rising from the dead is some kind of concept of God or religion. After all, historically, religious or theological discourses are the primary modes in which the question of miracles have been addressed.
However, at the beginning of Season 3, when the first reaction to Kevin’s miraculous rise from the dead is for Matt, John, and Michael to write a ‘Gospel’ about his life, this exercise is shown to be futile and misguided. Religion is not the answer here. So, if Kevin’s rise from the dead is not supposed to tell us something about God, what is the point of it? Is it simply a case of “spooky action at a distance”, as with the shows final explanation for the disappearance of the 2%? This doesn’t seem to fit either, since Kevin’s journeys to the ‘dead’ place seem purposeful in some sense, they are brought on by a ritual, they are not totally chaotic. Nor are they simply manifestations of Kevin’s unconscious, since he really does die, and the show reinforces this point by providing multiple witnesses.
Their lack of clear meaning is, of course, the point. And this is why they, like the miracle in Ordet, stand as exemplary cases of miracles in film/television. Even though we can’t explain them, we find them *convincing*. The are puzzles, paradoxes. To understand them, we have to understand better our very relation to paradox. The key to understanding this is Kevin, and this will be explored further in the next post. Here, though, it is enough to say that Kevin’s indifference to the miracles hold the key to their answer.3
Finally, the show does provide an account to tie together its central miracle - the departure event. Or, rather, in the final moments, this event is finally revealed not to be a trauma but to, in fact, be a miracle. This is because what is revealed is that this reality is the ‘blessed’ one. The shock of losing 2% of the world population is nothing compared to losing 98%. This ‘miracle’ points to yet another way of interpreting the shows mysteries, which I will not go into here. This third way is in terms of quantum physics. While this ’explanation’ might do more to satisfy the more ‘secularly’ minded viewers, we should also no forget its dependence on a certain kind of magic. In the words of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
Of course, as students, we taught the technique of ‘suspending our disbelief’ in order to engage with the text. But, I took McGuinness’ question to be asking something different. Yes, you can ‘suspend your disbelief’ when you read Alice in Wonderland, for example, and play along with the idea of a talking white rabbit and a secret world of strange creatures. However, belief is something different; there is no ‘suspension’. This is the case when Deleuze takes Alice seriously and literally, as expressing its own, unique and very real kind of logic in his book The Logic of Sense. ↩︎
A common example of this, derogatory, understanding of deus ex machina is in cases when children try to write a story and, because of their lack of ‘craft’ or rationality or something like that, they will give up toward the end and just write: “and then I woke up”. Of course, as a child, this can also bring great pleasure, since there is an experimental link being made between reality and dreams. But from a purely ‘craft’ point of view, it is supposed to be ‘bad’ storytelling. ↩︎
"Indifference" here means both his ‘casual’ attitude to the miracles, and the fact that he is not ‘differentiated’ by the expriences; they don’t change him. He doesn’t go around preaching their truth. ↩︎