One of the things that persistently makes me feel old is my increasing inability to keep up with popculture as it actually happens. There was a time when I’d be watching quasi-legal torrents of currently trending TV shows that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible in my country so that I could stay on top of whatever it was people were talking about online that week. But as you transition into middle age and start having jobs and responsibilities and shit suddenly what people are saying about the latest HBO drama slides down your list of priorities and you very quickly reach the point where you only really notice a TV show exists because of all the buzz about the finale. Like, seriously, I still occasionally think to myself “I really should catch up with Alias at some point.”
So it is that I finally, just as the last season finished airing, decided to have a look at The Leftovers.
I’ve got to admit I went in with a certain amount of trepidation because the premise (a Rapture-like event occurs and the story follows the travails of the ones who are left behind) was eerily reminiscent of a relatively well-known series of books with a fairly hardline Christian right slant. As an atheist I don’t want to pontificate too much about things other people believe in and I’m sure there are plenty of sensible, moderate, none hate-mongering Christians who believe that the Rapture is a real thing that could happen someday, but my perception, and I think the general perception (although, obviously, it’s very hard to tell to what extent the way you see things is the way the other 7 billion people in the world see things) is that explicit belief in the Rapture tends to be associated with more hardline groups. I mean, maybe I’ve just been looking at the wrong websites but I’ve tended to see people talking about the Rapture in the same places I’ve seen them talking about how the Catholic church is secretly run by a black pope who works for Baphomet. And I’m fully willing to accept that this might be in inaccurate portrayal but it does mean that Rapture imagery is in a slightly odd place in my head in that I’m inclined and (again, I might be self-justifying) I think popculture in general is inclined to file it alongside “kooky conspiracy theories” rather than legitimate things that reasonable people believe.
There’s sort of a weird …. I’m not sure I want to say double-standard … but I can’t think of a better way to put it when it comes to the portrayal of religious iconography and imagery. There are some things that are definitely considered quite taboo. For example, actual Jesus tends not to appear in stuff unless it’s done very respectfully (Passion of the Christ) or with the deliberate intent to shock (South Park). But there are some bits of religion (even mainstream religion) that do seem to be considered fair game. Angels are actually a weirdly good example. As, for that matter, are demons. Angels are allowed to fall in love with teenagers and the devil is allowed to solve crimes in Los Angeles, but not even mid-90s Vertigo (for the non-comics readers in the audience, Vertigo being the DC imprint that basically specialised in edgy bullshit) quite had the balls to do Jesus Christ: PI. And, rightly or wrongly, I think Book of Revelation has been put squarely in the popculture camp. We’ve almost forgotten that things like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the actual concept of Satan, the idea of an Antichrist, and the notion of a Time of Judgement are specific things that come from a specific religion.
All of which is to say that going into The Leftovers I was quite uncomfortable in a way I probably shouldn’t have been (because I associate the Rapture with a certain style of fundamentalism that I disagree with and felt a bit leery about a show that could be seen as validating those beliefs) and perhaps not uncomfortable in a way I should have been (in that, since both the author of the original novel and the showrunners seem to be treating the Rapture as an SF premise rather than an actual part of actual peoples’ actual religion there’s an extent to which I feel I should have been more bothered by the cultural appropriation).
And it seems a bit strange to go from here and say “but given these expectations I thought it handled its premise well” since I’ve just spent 750 words explaining at length why I am in no way qualified to make that call. But completely ignoring for a moment the religious implications of the premise, I thought they engaged with it in an intelligent way. For those who haven’t watched it yet (or read the book) the elevator pitch for The Leftovers is that a suspiciously Rapture-like mass disappearance happens and the stories we follow are the stories of the consequences of that event on the people left behind. Which is actually a really cool idea. SF in its purest form is about taking a “what if” and running with it. And “what if the something like the Biblical Rapture actually happened” is a pretty funky if to what.
I think the thing I most respected about the show was its exploration of the way the consequences of an event can spiral out far beyond the event itself. To go off on a complete tangent for a moment I always get really hacked off when people complain about the “misuse” of the word decimate. Not only does it make no sense to insist that a word that has its origins in the Roman army can only be used for the exact meaning for which it used in the Roman army (a standard that “grammar” purists for some reason apply only to the word decimate, not to, for example, words like triumph, ovation, cohort or, indeed, century) but the misuse people complain about isn’t even really a misuse. When people say “decimated” these days, unless they’re being picky, they usually use it to mean “having suffered widespread destruction or devastation”. Pedants insist that the term can only be used to mean destruction of one tenth. And, in a vacuum, it seems like those two things have very different meanings. Human beings are bad at thinking about numbers and when you say “destroy a tenth of [x]” that seems like a relatively small effect. Whereas if you say “damage [x] irreparably” that seems like a very large effect. But when you’re talking about actual death and destruction 10% is huge. Think about the average high school. There could easily be a thousand students there. If the school was “decimated” in the original Roman sense that would be fully a hundred dead kids. If you decimated the population of London that would be somewhere in the region of a million casualties. The Blitz, as far as I know, came nowhere near “decimating” the city. But it was still quite a big effect.
The “Disappearance” in The Leftovers specifically took about 1.4% of the world’s population, which, from a certain point of view, is nothing. There’s even a radio broadcast at the start where a smug historian is highlighting exactly this fact, comparing the rate of loss in the Disappearance to that from pandemics in … I was going to name a specific century but I can’t remember … in, like, history. But what the series articulates very well is that because human beings are all interconnected and shit a bad thing that affects a relatively small number of people, especially if those people are relatively uniformly distributed, will affect everybody. And it will affect everybody irreparably.
The series mostly focuses on a family called the Garveys (the book seems to focus on this family exclusively whereas the TV series, having ten hours to fill, jumps around a little more). It’s clear, even before the honestly slightly heavy-handed flashback episode, that the family’s life has been completely destroyed by the Disappearance and you spend a lot of the first couple of episodes trying to figure out who they lost to catalyse that disintegration. And it isn’t until about the end of episode of 2 that you realise that they didn’t lose anyone (this is slightly undermined later on, but anyway). The entire Garvey family unit falls apart because of pre-existing tensions within their seemingly idyllic lifestyle that become intolerable in the aftermath of the Disappearance. And, indeed, it’s only on looking back on the series that you notice how few of the characters we encounter actually lost people: a relatively central figure is a woman named Nora whose entire family Disappeared and the community makes a big deal out of this because one of the themes that the show (and I assume the book) seems to be engaging with is the way in which communities and societies construct a narrative around tragic events and how such narratives co-opt or supersede the personal realities of the people affected by those events. This might just be my interpretation but from the way Nora is presented in the show it seems clear to me that her problems stem as much from the fact she is expected to publicly perform both her grief and her healing in a socially mandated way as from the fact her husband and children just disappeared one day. But most of the characters have been affected by the Disappearance indirectly. We meet Meg, who has been putting off her marriage ever since the Disappearance happened and eventually joints a cult, and we met Father Jamison who has dedicated his life to discrediting people who disappeared during the Disappearance in order to prove that it was not the Biblical Rapture. Later on, we learn that Meg is devastated not because someone she cared about disappeared but because her mother died around the same time and she felt that the Disappearance made it impossible for her to express her grief. Father Jamison is so angry that people are treating the Disappeared at heroes because his wife was paralysed by a car accident caused when a local judge disappeared while driving. Ultimately the show isn’t about how tragedies affect people. It’s about how the way tragedies affect societies affects people.
Also, I feel like an idiot because I’ve literally just this second realised this, but here we have a story about how a well-publicised event inflicts personal tragedy on a small number of people but has widespread consequences as a result of its symbolic impact on the popular consciousness and that event is really explicitly referred to by its date throughout the series.
It’s about 9/11 isn’t it?
Soo….. looking back at the stuff I’ve just written, yeah, I think that’s why I liked it so much. What I responded to positively about the show is that it explored the impact of a tragic event on a society in a way that I felt was well-thought through and realistic. And I was particularly impressed by the way in which it emphasised the indirect consequences of the event and the attempts by interested parties to characterise or co-opt the event in a way that suits them. And I liked that as an abstract comment about tragedies. I think I like it even more interpreted as a specific comment about a specific tragedy. And, obviously, I should stress (and I know this is a written medium so I could go back to stuff and I know should have worked this out sooner) that I honestly did not start this article intending to pontificate about the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche or about The Leftovers as a metaphor for the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche. Because I have no standing to talk about either of those things because I am super British.
Let’s back up a second because I have actually distracted myself. And, in fact, I’m not a big fan of interpreting texts as being specific commentaries on specific events, especially when those texts are adaptations from a different medium because it’s very possible that the guy who wrote the book was intending one thing and the people who made the show were intending something else entirely. Or, indeed, that the multiple people who worked on the show had different intents from one another. Quite famously, if you ask Ridley Scott if Deckard is a replicant you get a strong yes. But if you ask Philip K Dick you get a strong no. Where I was going with this, before I blew my own tiny mind by making a really obvious connection, was that I liked the show most when it was doing quite focused, quite standalone character work about how people and cultures deal with bad things happening. I think I liked it the least when it started trying to have more of a plot.
This is the bit where I start talking about the stuff I liked less about the series. It’ll include spoilers for the last couple of episodes and, as always, I should stress that any criticisms I have are my own personal opinions and interpretations. They’re not, for want a less inappropriate term given the subject matter, gospel.
I’ve not read the book that The Leftovers is based on, although I did classily scan a Wikipedia plot summary just to pick up any major differences between the book and the TV series. And something that seems to come across from the summary was that the book is much clearer about being a set of vignettes about the aftermath of something. For a start, the book’s a standalone, and the events of the book are covered in the first series of the TV show, so we have a slightly odd situation in which a set of stories that were designed to be complete in their original medium are used as the beginning of a larger narrative in the adaptation. And I should emphasise that I’m not a book purist, especially not when it comes to books I haven’t, in fact, read. I don’t at all mind adaptors making changes. In fact I think it’s necessary, important and useful. Novels are not the same as TV series, and things that work in one won’t work in the other. Having said that, I do think that a lot of my dissatisfaction with the first series of The Leftovers comes from the tension inherent in converting a self-contained story (or set of stories) into the first part of a long-running plot. There’s the need for a hero and rising action and a central mystery, none of which from my (let’s be clear, very very cursory) research come from the original novel.
The Leftovers is about the people of Mapleton. And it’s at its strongest when it’s about snapshots of their lives and sketches of their community. My two favourite episodes were ‘Two Boats And A Helicopter’, which is about the town priest, and ‘Guest’ which focuses on Nora ‘I lost my whole family’ Durst. Those episodes take a detailed but ultimately isolated look at what it is like to be those people in that place and at that time. They’re simultaneously banal and profound in a way that only that kind of intense character work can be and in a way that I would argue television is uniquely suited for. Nora’s story is about someone stealing her ID badge when she goes to a conference in New York, which is seemingly trivial, but also serves as a vehicle through which we can explore her life, her identity and what it means to be someone who is literally displaced from herself by the larger tragedy that has been built around her. Father Jamison’s episode revolves around his desperate quest to raise an unrealistic amount of money to save his church, despite the fact his church is clearly dead and his commitment to it is clearly destroying him. Both stories are about people who find liberation from identities and beliefs that trap them. And it’s really good TV.
Kevin Garvey’s arc is … different. We learn fairly early on that his father is in a psychiatric institution because he hears voices, and his son and his wife have both run off with weird cults, leaving him to raise his teenage daughter (and his teenager daughter’s hot friend who seems to live with them for no reason that is ever explained) alone. And the problem is that his story appears to be two stories at once and they don’t really go together. On the one hand, it’s the same as everybody else’s: it’s how he deals with the aftermath of the Disappearance and how he constructs his identity and re-builds his life. But then there’s this parallel plot in which he’s having explicit visions of a symbolism deer, shooting wild dogs with a man who maybe doesn’t exist, and randomly blacking out and abducting women (okay, one woman, but if the best thing you can say about someone is “he only abducted one woman” you have bigger issues).
I think the biggest problem with The Leftovers, at least with the first series of The Leftovers, is that it can’t seem to make it up its mind whether it is a low-key story about the aftermath of a tragic event that happens to look a bit like the Biblical Rapture or if it’s a quasi-eschatological story about the actual Biblical Rapture. And this is an issue because these stories are very different. Nora is very definitely living in the first, as are most members of the Garvey family. Yes, Laurie (the wife) and Tom (the son) both join cults, but they join them for personal reasons. And Jill’s (the daughter’s) arc is basically just about being a sad, confused teenager. Father Jamison is strangely in the middle in that his narrative is mostly about how he deals with his faith, morality and his wife’s injury, but his specific episode involves quite a lot of things that seem to be explicit signs from God. And this sort of works for Father Jamison because he’s an actual priest and so you can reasonably assume that he is seeing the world through a religious lens and the religious imagery in his story can be seen as telling us about who he is, not about what the plot is or how the world works.
Kevin, in what could ironically be seen as an interesting metaphor for the hypostatic union, is wholly in both camps. His personal plot about losing his family, meeting Nora and trying to get back on his feet is a completely character-driven story. But then there’s the visions and the abducting people and the woman from the cult giving him a portentous speech about how he, and he alone, understands what has happened before legitimately stabbing herself in the neck. Leading to a whole episode of flashback, which, it is strongly implied, is not merely a narrative device but is actually an epiphany that he is having about the nature and purpose of the Disappearance. All of that is pretty much the opposite of a character-driven story. It’s pure, freebased metaplot. The drive in those sequences isn’t to do with Kevin as a person, it’s do with Kevin’s quasi-messianic role in events. Pretty much every other part of the series (except for some elements of Tom’s story, as he carts a pregnant girl across America) makes it fairly explicit that it does not matter why the Disappearance happened, only that it happened. But Kevin’s visions arc (and the “this could be the Antichrist” parts of Tom’s arc) directly invite the viewer to speculate about the potentially supernatural underpinnings of what’s going on. Which is either pointless misdirection or undermining all the really good low-key character work and nuanced depictions of the aftermath of tragic events. Either they spent half of the first season apocalypse-baiting us for no reason or else they spent it building up subtle stories about human responses to something senseless that are going to look pretty silly when the Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun show up.
It doesn’t help that Kevin Garvey just strikes me as quite a generic protagonist. He’s a conventionally attractive white man in early middle age who, before the Disappearance, experiences a sort of vague ennui because his seemingly idyllic white picket fence lifestyle isn’t satisfying him the way he feels it should. And who afterwards experience a slightly different sort of ennui because his socially mandated role as provider and family guardian has been undermined by his wife joining a cult. It’s particularly problematic because, at the very end, after all his vision quest stuff, after his father and the woman he abducts and the voices in his head tell him that he has this great purpose and this unique insight into the Disappearance, his conclusion is that it happened because we didn’t appreciate our families enough. Which is not only is an utterly anodyne lesson to take away from such an event but also seems to imply that a hundred million people worldwide vanished just to teach one guy from small-town America to be less of a self-absorbed prick. Which is ironic when you think about it. Hell, there’s even a bit in about episode 7 where Patty, the woman that Kevin abducts and who kills herself in front of him, and then speaks to him in visions after she’s killed herself in front of him, specifically praises for him for realising it’s not all about him.
No. No, it is all about him. You don’t get to stage elaborate vision sequences in which a man talks to the ghosts a woman who committed suicide just to prove a point to him and then try to claim that it’s not about him. That is the definition of protesting too much. That is the central irony that has made “who is You’re so Vain about” one of the most compelling questions in popular music.
One of the other things that put me off watching The Leftovers for a while was that the image that Amazon uses for the first series is a black and white picture of a man with his shirt off, punching the wall in intense manpain. And I was really impressed for the first six episodes that it didn’t seem to be especially about intense manpain so much as about human pain in general. Then the last few episodes seemed to decide to make up for lost time and we get two to three episodes of Kevin being sad, reminding us what he’s sad about, being told that his sad is the key to the universe, and ultimately resolving his sad by reconstructing the family that he has, at last, learned to appreciate (and if he’s learned that, then clearly those millions of disappearances were worth it).
My understanding is that the second two series of The Leftovers were much more critically acclaimed than the first. My hope is that they’ll double down on either the low-key personal storytelling or (and I think this is more likely) on the Book of Revelation stuff. And, actually, I think I’d probably enjoy a story that was explicitly “how do the people in this small town deal with the actual Biblical apocalypse, given that one of them seems to be the Messiah” if that’s what they decide they’re doing. It’s just that I don’t feel they’d fully made that decision in the first series.
I sort of feel I should have a better conclusion than this, but I don’t really. I did genuinely like the first series of The Leftovers. I found it compelling enough that I watched it over a long weekend. And I am going to watch the second series to see where it goes from here. I would recommend it to people who are interested in that kind of HBO drama, I just felt it was sometimes pulling in slightly contradictory directions. Still fully worth checking out.