It may come as a surprise but my TV highlight of 2014 has been perhaps the bleakest series in recent memory. The Leftovers has nary a positive scene, and instead basks in despair and misery, reaching highs unattainable by other shows. It’s not death, infidelity or money worries which plague the characters. No, it’s the fact that 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanished three years ago.
A rapture-like event, dubbed the ‘Sudden Departure’, led to millions simply vanishing from sight. Many of those who remain feel guilt, despair, or a sense of loss.
Three years later we join Mapleton, in which the Guilty Remnant – a cult which arose following the Sudden Departure – terrorise the small town. Instantly the parallels to Lost, Damon Lindelof’s hit show, are evident. The Guilty Remnants are the Others, the 2% which vanished are the victims of Flight 815, the rabid dogs in the woods serve as the smoke monster. But The Leftovers is similar to Lost in one other, key way. It’s entirely gripping.
Yes, every episode was dripping in harrowing narratives, but simultaneously every episode had me on the edge of my seat. Instantly I grew to empathise with these characters.
The dashing Justin Theroux as Jack Shepherd – sorry, Kevin Garvey – is battling the Guilty Remnant whilst his estranged wife has shacked up with the very same cult. Smoking, dressed in white and remaining silent throughout, Amy Brenneman and Ann Dowd have to rely on their acting alone to convey a multitude of messages without speaking a single word, and both pull it off with relish.
Admittedly The Leftovers took a while to achieve this grip it had upon me, but by episode three I was captured.
‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ is sensational from start to finish. It’s dedicated solely to Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison (who is amazing, unsurprisingly) and his battle to regain his church. Likewise, episode six, ‘Guest’, follows suit and follows Nora Durst, once more producing a standout episode. Season two needs to utilise this streamlined narrative format more often.
The Leftovers is brimming with visceral images: whether its Gladys bound to a tree and stoned to death, or Patti cutting her own neck with a shard of glass, The Leftovers is positively gory, with several scenes outshining Game of Thrones! But these images make the show feel more real and put the emphasis on the characters and not the mystery surrounding the departed. That mystery probably will never be answered (after all, Lindelof is infamous for posing a multitude of questions and not answering them) but nor does it need to be. It’s not important. What happens after is.
Most characters are engaging, but some aren’t. Michael Gaston’s Dean is simply annoying; the Carver twins literally do nothing all season as Adam and Scott Frost; and the Christine sub-plot grows tiresome. Thankfully these will all be trimmed in season two, with the focus situated squarely on the Garveys, Nora Durst, Matt Jamieson, and the remnants of the Guilty Remnant.
Using another trope of Lost, The Leftovers’ penultimate episode flashbacks to days before the Sudden Departure, and in it we learn what the core characters were doing at the moment of mystery. And this helps us learn why everybody acts as they do.
Kevin feels guilty because he was sleeping with another woman, who vanished mid-shag; Matt crashed into a stationary vehicle after its driver vanished, resulting in the paralysis of his wife; Nora feels guilty too, as she shouted at her children right before they departed; and Laurie feels resentment as she bore witness to her unborn baby vanishing before her eyes.
‘The Garveys at Their Best’ was utterly brutal: Nora’s family life wasn’t as tranquil as we were lead to believe; Kevin wasn’t a saint, but was extremely sinful; and Laurie’s loss of her unborn child struck with the blow it was intended to do so. This was bold, and drew tears.
Throughout season one the Guilty Remnant are planning something, which draws the narrative on. It’s clear they have some fucked up ploy brewing, which is revealed in the final episode. Sickeningly, they have lifelike mannequins of the departed placed exactly where their real-life counterparts were situated when they vanished, resulting in an emotional Nora collapsing. Give Carrie Coon every award going!
Following this is a would-be action sequence in which the Guilty Remnant’s homes are torched, but rather the focus is the emotional impact upon the characters. Laurie, desperate, speaks her first and only word (outside of flashbacks) as she begs Kevin to save their daughter. All of season one was building towards this, and its beautifully torturous.
We have many hanging threads to ponder over until season two. What wish did Holy Wayne grant Kevin? Will Nora raise Christine’s baby? What happens to half of the characters, now that half the cast have been culled? Say what you want about Lindelof, but he knows how to deliver a stunning finale.
If you watch The Leftovers, be prepared to cry and never smile. But it’s totally worth it.