In the Absence Of Answers: Why You Were And Probably Still Are Wrong About The Leftovers
Any canonical artistic-masterwork, all religious and secular mythology and each and every catastrophic act of natural and unnatural violence in the whole of human history has formed in the same vacuum: an absence of answers. Science detangles mystery in cautious increments whose fragmented narratives seek out and slowly traject tangible answers that will only beg more. With enough time and effort, these cliff-hangers may scale mini arcs to summit an epic origin, one day allowing humanity as an audience to span the Cosmos. While most of us will remain The Walking Dead, offering our brains up for comfort food in a zombie apocalypse, others prefer to exist in an infinitely more challenging state, one that at every turn asks us again if we really know anything. That state is, in fact, reality. Not in the Vérité sense meant to decry or marginalize escapism but an un-marginalized, internal reality of which, by virtue of consciousness, none of us are spared.
And The Leftovers spares no one. Not its characters nor its audience, and least of all, its critics. Openly defying criticism at inception, its very conception proved adept at handicapping detractors into approaching from the petrified prospect of being wrong. Decimating the “mystery of faith” through the prism of character instantaneously saw naysayers deign to unearth the extraneous pop-culture context most easily excavated: LOST. Uprooting a barely buried umbilical cord of calcified comment-thread lead to common denominator and Tiki-God of troll-torture: Damon Lindelof; the easy excavation ascribed to the fact that the dig had long since been crowd-sourced. And isn’t that precisely how humans behave in the absence of answers, by clinging to safety, not only in numbers but also of the affirmed and its shared fear of change?
“It’s scary huh, not knowing what’s gonna happen?” – Meg Abbott
Easily the bleakest of HBO’s myriad dramatic achievements, from the opening moments of season 1’s pilot, we are shown at our most vulnerable, when the only way to cope is by screaming into the void. And the silence of change is no respite, instead revealed as a feared constant: the experimental control. Unlike previous trials, the approach is not cautious elucidation but trenchant internalization, its findings made manifest by a crucial further complication whose influence cannot be overestimated. The Leftovers’ mission statement and most singular innovation is its lensing of themes through false context/presumed context and lack of context and as such the show can be described as maddening. That is, if you feel TV fundamentally unworthy of aspiring to High Art, Cubism, or worse. Before David Simon, no one really understood the form’s potential to affect change. Before David Milch, no one really understood anything. If after the advent of Deadwood, you still fail to fathom series television’s potential as boundless, above the conceit of curiosity as conformed compassion and beyond even the catharsis of the communal consciousness, then I should like to point out: Two And A Half Men is now in syndication. Have at it.
“Sorry you didn’t find whatever you were looking for here, no one ever does.” – Evie
The conceit here is the impossibility of accepting the unknowable and the lengths human beings will go to fill that void. This is as close to the heart of why we watch TV, ingest literature, or do most anything as themes get and how The Leftovers has remained so effortlessly compelling in the face of conceptual editing that would make Brakhage blush. The contentious part of an endless debate really starts here, where psychological motivation is intentionally obscured by chronological reframing with symbolism being left as open to interpretation as possible for the sustained time crucial to sensing its weight from a character’s point of view. But it is in that very moment when the approach fractures the almighty “plot” that it becomes sacrilege to TV junkies.
“I don’t get it.” – Kevin Garvey
“No, Dad. You don’t.” – Jill Garvey
A higher class of binge-watching Soap-Opera addict has been weaned in a television Golden Age where the well-acted and handsomely-mounted have conspired to gussy up a spoon-feeding. When the beats are blunt and repetitive enough to follow from the cheap seats, a lack of actual engagement is applauded. Before long, leaning in may be asking too much, particularly when the reward resembles slipping into the void or doing battle with the unflattering in ourselves. While those outcomes may be equally unappealing, either seems preferable to confusion, a state, which has been sublimely curated from the onset of the series and as such needs to be commended rather than condemned. That this meticulously variable and intentionally uneven footing has assured its audience a less-than-confident vantage from which to stand in judgment should be considered transcendent invention rather than impetus for summary dismissal. That this sustained tone of madness never succumbs to the titillating fetishistic but lingers in the melancholic, deeply-felt and yet hard to put a finger on, is a revelation disregarded in a medium where the mortality of a character is routinely traded on in lieu of a true twist. Here, the twist is character, the fractured facets of which can only manage highly subjective glimpses into events our sanity struggles to process from a missing omniscient. The closest retreat is our own perspective which can extend beyond content parameters and may result in second guessing the provided context, because, after all, any creator whose premise propagates in the aftermath of 2% of the Earth’s population disappearing is inherently untrustworthy, as would be a God reveling in a rapture.
“It was a test. Not for what came before but for what comes after. The test is what happens now.” – Rev. Matt Jamison
And that’s what separates The Leftovers from the flock. All extended metaphors are extrapolated from the existential predicament of the characters whose slivers of perspective are psychological puzzle pieces in a metaphysical mystery. And while the discussion of where the pieces go or went is designed to reveal us, the pieces themselves are not simple pawns but culled from the common to convey complexity en passant and in shorthand as the paradigm-shifting concept demands. And a concept this demanding needs to keep company this commanding. The decoding of a cryptogram this dense would be downright drudgery with anything less than a cast this unassailably complimentary and crushing. Wading, waist deep in emotional wreckage is what these characters wake up to and have to sleep with. Within the undertow of depression, duress, and melancholy crests rage, insanity and brutality, all buoyed by an unsparing and acutely daring ensemble performance demarcating the choppiest waters with a near fathomless clarity.
“I don’t understand what’s happening.” – John Murphy
“It’s okay.” – Kevin Garvey
The main cast of Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Christopher Eccleston, Liv Tyler, Chris Zylka, Margaret Qualley, Regina King, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Kevin Carroll, Jovan Adepo, Scott Glenn, Paterson Joseph and Janel Moloney have set their collective sights on a horizon they continually eclipse, backlighting for a depth of field and focus atypically associated with such abstract interiors. Through the damaged but hopeful lens of the spared, we survey an abyss simultaneously descended from and ascended to, transmigrating into a symbolic afterlife where a monolithic morality is immaterial. Thus, the grotesque distorted renaissance fresco of the original opening title sequence. Self-serious to the point of parody but initially swallowed at face value for championing some sort of Catholic mythos; it set the stage for the misinterpretation to follow. While in a practical sense its imagery allowed for a Christian contextualization of the show’s clues, its morbid sense of humor was a case of “too soon” causing many a mind to sacrifice that aspect at the altar of the unrelentingly bleak. But even if enveloped by its own blackened core, a mordant playfulness was present primordially, forming from the molecular strands of Tom Perrotta’s source material and not some surgical implant to Season 2 as some have suggested.
“Let the mystery be.” – Iris Dement (theme song to Season 2)
The fact that in the midst of a deluge of undeserved criticism, rather than retreat, the creators of this deliriously challenging televised tome decided to double down on every aspect of its polarizing nature, replacing, relocating and re-contextualizing all that came before, has restored one’s faith in the left hand path. The Leftovers’ tooth and nail ascent into the pantheon of the medium’s masterworks was revelatory for all who were wholly present to bear witness. Will it be praised for ushering in a new Golden Age where looking ourselves in the mirror and knowing we may be wrong about what we see is our communion; a first step away from zealotry or sainthood and toward a legacy of grace? Will the new critical class reconcile the laziness and lack of visual literacy that lead to their fall? To their credit, many have already come forward. And so it is written that faced with Season 2’s remorseless reminder, a number of the lost submitted to the error of their ways, repented, and returned to the fold.