The Leftovers - Part 3
Lindelof, HBO, 2014-2017
As I mentioned in the initial post, the show persistently subverts the audience’s perspective by portraying both sides of a divide - between the religious and the secular - as being both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. At the outset, this divide is staged in a heightened, dramatic fashion. The Guilty Remnant, dressed in white, literally clash, in a public space, with the ’normal’ townspeople. Again, although the trope is familiar - an ‘outside’ force encroaching upon a small community and threatening its order - its presentation is not. The initial, visual distinctions between ‘believers’ and ’non-believers’ soon gives way to ambiguity, introduced primarily through the shows central conceit - that 2% of the world population have mysteriously disappeared. If this is the case, then why should we side with the townspeople who try to continue as if nothing has happened? Why should we buy into secular forms of rationality and explanation, when they can’t account for the event that has just occurred?
A similar dynamic is established in Lost. John Locke, the ‘believer’, and Jack, the modern, ‘secularised’ figure, clash over the meaning of a series of mysterious events which are undeniable and visceral. However, whereas in Lost, much of the plot is driven by the gradual ‘demystification’ of these events and ‘monsters’, The Leftovers takes a different approach. Right up until the final moments of the show, we are encouraged to take the disappearance of 2% of the worlds population as a simple fact. It’s not what is happening that is important, it is how the characters interpret it. And, with an event as ambiguous as the ‘departure’, a multiplicity of interpretations become viable.
So, as viewers, we are left disoriented. In this way, we build a natural allegiance with the only character who is similarly disoriented - Kevin.1 Most of the other major characters claim to know something. They have certainty. The certainty of believers - whether it is belief in a secularism or religious belief. They judge. Only Kevin has no belief and does not judge. He does not have belief, because, for him, belief is not something you really have, it is something you do, something which shapes your path, almost unconsciously (it is important that many of Kevin’s actions in the first season are carried out ‘unconsciously’).2
Kevin is supremely ironic. Generally, ‘irony’ is taken to signify a master/meta form of ‘knowledge’. But it can also be taken in the opposite sense. Irony can be an expression of extreme un-knowing, of the impossibility of knowing at all. Or rather, of the pointlessness of ‘knowledge’ in the face of reality. Kafka, for example, is ironic in this opposite sense. This kind of irony is also very comedic. Justin Theroux plays this side of Kevin so well. His reactions to events tend to be tangential, non-sensical, in ways that subvert and diffuse their seriousness. For example, in the final episode of Season 2, where he arrives back at the ‘hotel’, his reaction is hilarious. He is bound to no set of conventions, neither those of the secular, those of believers, nor even those of the ‘after-life’. What, then, is he bound to?
It’s hard to say. The best template for understanding Kevin, in all his ironic and sincere glory, is Kierkegaard’s famous ‘Knight of Faith’. This rare figure, according to Kierkegaard, has miraculously established an authentic relation with God, though there are no outward signs to show this. He goes about his daily business, like everyone else, but he has achieved the highest level of human freedom through his absolute dependence on God. There is, of course, irony and humor here, but also extreme sincerity. Freedom means, like Abraham, being able to sacrifice your child without reason, because you were told to. Kevin, too, is like this. He follows the strange signals of those around him (for example, drinking poison, pushing Patti down a well, instantly forgiving John for shooting him, etc.) in an almost ‘blind’ way.
The knight of faith, who is no genius, no great theologian, is highly absurd, since they have a foundational relation to and understanding of the infinite yet find endless pleasure and peace in the finite. The infinite just is, it is no great mystery to them. Unlike all the other characters in the show, who long so desperately for some glimpse of infinite understanding and wisdom, Kevin experiences it directly (by dying in Season 2). Others are amazed and perplexed, like John who finds him still alive hours after shooting him, but for Kevin it is totally natural. Kevin’s concerns remain constant; even in the face of the infinite, he seeks always to return home to his family. Here is Kierkegaard on the absurdity of this figure:
[H]e does not do even the slightest thing except by virtue of the absurd. And yet … this man has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity. He drains the deep sadness of life in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the most precious thing in the world, and yet the finite tastes just as good to him as to one who never knew anything higher, because his remaining in finitude would have no trace of a timorous, anxious routine, and yet he has this security that makes him delight in it as if finitude were the surest thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling , p. 40
This is the irony. Even though the ‘Knight of Faith’ knows the “blessedness of infinity”, they remain, outwardly, the same as “one who never know anything higher”. In other words, all those things that religions or discourses on ‘higher purposes’ (secular forms also) tend to promise have nothing to do with this kind of faith. Since, even the one who has achieved it (Kevin), remains the same as anyone else. There is nothing special about the knight of faith, at least in conventional, narcissistic senses.
It is faith in the present, in the finite, rather than faith in a kingdom to come. Most characters in the show are waiting for something or promising/prophesying something. This point is most bitingly summarised by the bestseller book that recurs in the show, titled “What’s Next”, “without the question mark”. Kevin alone is committed to the present (signified, primarily by his care for his surrounding ‘family/community’). Abraham, too, was like this. After all, Isaac represented God’s promise to Abraham, the promise of a future community, vaster than the number of grains of sand on a beach, with Abraham as the father. Abraham could not have cared much about this if he was willing to sacrifice it so easiliy:
Abraham had faith, and had faith for this life. In fact, if his faith had been only for the life to come, he certainly would have more readily discarded everything in order to rush out of a world to which he did not belong.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling , p. 20
Kevin affirms the radical uncertainty of life, and especially of the future and acts in accordance with this affirmation. Unlike the other characters, he isn’t seeking an escape from the suffering the world, he isn’t really seeking anything which is beyond his understanding, and that is why his sphere of agency and experience within the show is the most encompassing and free. Anything goes in Kevin’s reality, both the possible and the impossible, and each are affirmed equally by him, as if there is no division at all.
If I, acting, am truly to venture and truly to aspire to the highest good, then there must be uncertainty and, if I may put it this way, I must have room to move. But the greatest space in which I can move, where there is space enough for the most rigorous gesture of infinite passion, is uncertainty of knowledge with regard to an eternal happiness, or that choosing it is lunacy in the finite sense-see, now there is room, now you can venture.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 426-27
Finally, one of the major themes of The Leftovers is that of place, and this ties deeply to the themes of orientation and understanding. On the one hand, the show is constructed heavily on the concrete nature of place - the town of Mapleton, the town of Jarden, the Australian outback, etc. On the other hand, these places are also abstracted from and challenged in a number of ways. Transition spaces are just as important - hotels, bridges, ferries, piers. We are both oriented and disoriented as viewers. Places are temporary and temporal. They are fluid. Cardinal directionality no longer makes sense, everything is connected and interconnected. This conceit is summarised best by the Job verse quoted at Patti’s grave, which begins by outlining the futility of mapping space in relation to the question of God:
But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
- Job 23:8-9 NIV
Job, like Kevin, is nevertheless able to follow in the path of God:
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside. I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
- Job 23:10-17 NIV
This is that challenge of faith, the challenge that only Kevin is capable of acknowledging.
Kevin is extremely disoriented, he acts always in the dark, with little regard for the future. It is this embrace of disorientation and unknowing that enables him to overcome grief and loss in a more convincing way than the other characters. In Kevin, all the contradictions of the show exist without question. He is able to rise from the dead, run into burning buildings, lead people in a quasi-mythical way, yet, he does so with no creed, no claim to any answers, no supreme knowledge. He is vulnerable, fallible, humorous. In contrast, all the characters around him are seeking - they claim to know, claim to have answers, claim to be able to predict the future. It is these claims and this relationship to reality that causes them endless suffering, since the result is an oscillation - between the extremes of hope and hopelessness. Kevin simply acts.
Before Patti dies she offers a mirror text to the Job text above. This becomes important for understanding how Kevin is not simply a religious figure. Yes, his way is religious, in the Kierkegaardian sense, but his commitment, his absolute self-grounding relation, is somewhat more secular. At least when read in light of the shows ending. The text that Patti offers, from memory, is recited to Kevin, as a way to get him to finally understand:
O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay:
Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultous feet.\
It is from a poem by Yeats, and it is about the restfulness found in the arms of the lover. This, too, will also be Kevin’s final resting place (at least, as far as the show is concerned).
Patti skips the beginning of the poem but, in light of the Book of Job passage, it must have also been in the mind of the show’s writers:
I hear the Shadowy Horses, their long manes a-shake,
Their hoofs heavy with tumult, their eyes glimmering white;
The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night,
The East her hidden joy before the morning break,
The West weeps in pale dew and sighs passing away,
The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire:\
- W.B. Yeats, He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace
As with Job, we have a vision, a hallucination, unfolding within the cardinal points. This movement, this chaos, is what the lover soothes in the second half of the poem “hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.”
Kevin is paradoxical. He is supremely disoriented, to the point of humor. His decisions are non-sesnsical, ill-advised, and often carried out unconsciously. He knows nothing - except that he has to be there, be present, for his community. He doesn’t know exactly how, and his mode of presence is often misunderstood and misjudged by those around him, but somehow, as if by divine will, he manages to always be in the right place at the right time. And this is where the paradox arises - through his extreme disorientation, his buffoonery without pretension to anything else, he becomes the most oriented character of the show. We trust him, we follow him, even as we laugh at him or are at a loss to explain his actions. He is like Alice as she explores Wonderland, all logics, all realities are equal, are one, because all are finite (or, finitude and infinitude collapse onto one another - anything is possible as long as it is happening now). His character, and Alice’s, don’t waver, they “come forth as gold”. There is no terror, no hope, only freedom. This is the secret of faith.
Kevin humbly places his faith in the finite, in the endless possibilities of reality to produce novel, miraculous configurations, and he is rewarded for it. This comes at the end of the show and is anticipated by Patti’s quoting of Yeats. But this ‘reward’ is not really important, it wasn’t the point. It is incidental. He could have ended up with anyone. But, there had to be someone, some community (two lovers are also a community, a tradition). For Kevin, a wanderer in the finite, God has to become concrete. Romantic love, and the tangible commitment it implies, is perhaps a fitting place for Kevin’s journey to end.
Over the course of these three posts, I have focused on only a handful of aspects of The Leftovers. I have tried to choose the most general themes - orientation, faith, knowledge, miracles. Of course, there are so many small moments of beauty in the show that I have completely overlooked. This is the thing about modern television shows. Given their length, their scope, much of the pleasure we gain from them are in the micro moments, the single exceptional episodes. The Leftovers has these small moments and exceptional episodes in spades. Yet, it also does the larger questions better than many other shows.
This is why its ending, in my opinion, is much more satisfying than many other shows. Somehow, as if by magic, the creators manage to beautifully and symmetrically tie everything together. There is a twist, though. The final 'explantion', which grounds everything that came before it so wonderfully, is delivered by Nora. It is entirely spoken, without flashbacks. We see her face and hear her voice. We listen to a story. We don't have to believe her but, after witnessing everything that the show had to offer in the preceding 27 episodes, we do believe her. We believe her because, now, we believe in the power of storytelling. We believe in the endless possibilites it offers.
The show which, as I said, depends so heavily on the concept of place, fittingly ends in the middle of nowhere. And yet, even this ’nowhere’ place is real - it took Kevin many years of real searching and sacrifice to find it (two weeks every year during his vacation period). By the end, we still don’t really understand Patti, or Evie, or Meg, but we’re not supposed to. If we’re supposed to have learned anything, it’s that faith is inscrutable, just like the show. Somehow, after following Kevin and Nora accross continents and accross different realities, that seems okay.
You think you’re destined for some greatness and this isn’t enough. You aren’t, and this is enough.
- Kevin Sr.
Nora, to a certain extent, follows a similar path to Kevin, but with a different - and no less important - ‘mood’. Her character also stands ‘outside’ many of the others, as is shown by her frequent willingness to be combative and hostile on matters of principle. Yet, it is precisely these principles that make her path different to Kevin’s. This point is acknowledged by Nora herself in the poignant moment in which she tells the story of the beach ball at the baseball game in Season 3. She is longing to embrace chaos, yet something stops her. Kevin, on the other hand, is entirely chaotic. Yet, both are much deeper, more unpredictable and complex than the other characters. ↩︎
Here, ‘unconscious’ doesn’t mean ‘asleep’ or ‘unenlightened’ (unless we take ’enlightened’ in the sense of modern and secularised, in that case ‘unconsciousness’ can be taken as an ironic gibe at that kind of ’enlightenment’). ↩︎