‘The Leftovers’ on HBO

Let the mystery be

I almost didn’t bother watching The Leftovers. The HBO show is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, which takes place around October 14, 2014, the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared without explanation. In the absence of answers, cults have sprung up that offer comfort or render judgment on those who remain, most of whom have given up on finding answers but haven’t reconciled yet with their loss.

A father-daughter moment: Qualley and Theroux. (Photo © 2015 HBO)

The book is quirky and darkly humorous, which wasn’t the tone of the advertising for the show. But that’s not why I considered skipping it — it’s because the showrunner is Damon Lindelof, and I hold a grudge.

Lost was the biggest show of the ’00s, one whose elaborate mythology obsessed me. But I hated the finale with a fiery passion, having trusted Lindelof and fellow showrunner Carlton Cuse to deliver a meaningful explanation for the show’s many mysteries. They didn’t. The finale was satisfying only if one focused on emotional closure for the main characters, but Lost wasn’t character-driven; in fact, the characters were often slaves to the plot, the hallmark of a poorly planned show.

Lindelof admits that he and Cuse made up Lost as they went along, allowing the mythology to sprawl until its internal logic collapsed under the weight of so many unanswered questions. I had the same problem with the Lindelof-penned movie Prometheus, the much-awaited prequel to the Alien series. Put simply, Prometheus was nonsensical garbage that tainted the franchise.

So Damon Lindelof’s name was mud to me, yet I still gave The Leftovers a chance. After his very public expressions of regret and emotional hurt at having screwed up the ending to Lost, perhaps Lindelof had learned something.

More than one way to lose a loved one

Season one of The Leftovers introduced us to the Garvey family, who lost no one on the day of the Departure — they’d lost each other well before that. Kevin (Justin Theroux) is the chief of police of Mapleton, a position he took over after his father’s psychotic break. Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) joins the Guilty Remnant, a much-reviled cult that has made it their mission to prevent people from getting over the Departure by disrupting memorials and silently stalking those who lost loved ones. Clad all in white, chain-smoking, they stare in mute accusation.

Role reversal: Brenneman, Dowd. (© Paul Schiraldi Photography)
Role reversal: Brenneman, Dowd. (© Paul Schiraldi Photography)

Laurie’s son Tom follows Holy Wayne, famous for his power to hug away people’s pain — actually, he’s a con man who’s amassed a harem of underage girls. When Wayne falls from grace, Tom must escort his pregnant teenage paramour to safety. Kevin and Laurie’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is angry, confused, and adrift. She briefly joins the Guilty Remnant, ruled by the vindictive, sinister Patti (Ann Dowd), formerly Laurie’s psychotherapy patient.

The flip side of this coin is Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose husband and two children Departed during breakfast while Nora’s back was turned. Having lost everything, she leans into the pain by working for the Department of Sudden Departures, a government agency that gives money to those who’ve lost loved ones in exchange for answers to a detailed questionnaire about their Departed. They gather data, trying to make sense of the inexplicable.

Though Kevin and Nora find solace in each other, she’s the better adjusted of the two. Stressed, depressed, heavily medicated, Kevin has blackouts where he does violent things he doesn’t remember. During one of these memory lapses, he kidnaps Patti and takes her out to the woods, intending to terrorize her into desisting her harassment of the town. When she turns the tables on him by committing suicide, he's devastated.

Nora finds Kevin’s growing instability disturbing. She’s written him a note and is preparing to leave when Tom abandons Holy Wayne’s baby on the doorstep. Thus, season one ends as Perrotta’s book did, with a family tableau prefiguring a new beginning.

Going somewhere new

That season exhausted the plot for the book, so Lindelof and Perrotta made their own fresh start in season two. The family spends their nest egg to flee to Jarden, Texas, now known as Miracle, a mecca for those who seek a safe haven — it had zero Departures. The day Kevin arrives in Jarden, everything goes haywire. Kevin is haunted by the ghost of Patti, a literal Guilty Remnant who won't let amnesiac Kevin forget his own crime or the leftovers' survivor guilt. After a barbecue with their new neighbors, the Murphys (Regina King, Kevin Carroll), Kevin blacks out. He awakens with a cinderblock tied to his foot in the muddy crater of Jarden’s drained lake. On the shore is an empty car. Teenaged Evie Murphy and four of her friends have disappeared — or have they Departed?

New neighbors: King, Carroll, Jovan Adepo, Jasmin Savoy Brown. (Photo © 2015 HBO)
New neighbors: King, Carroll, Jovan Adepo, Jasmin Savoy Brown. (Photo © 2015 HBO)

Season one of The Leftovers was tough to watch. The show was a paean to the depression that afflicts those who have lost loved ones without closure. The change of scene to Jarden jolted the show from a meditation on grief into a crisis of conscience. The Murphys have secrets of their own that clash violently with Kevin’s, whose arrival in Jarden has broken the town’s spell, a magic that exists despite John Murphy’s insistence that it doesn’t. A confrontation between the two is inevitable.

What was the Departure?

Without further spoilers, I admit that Lindelof has sucked me in again. Forlorn Mapleton, saturated with misery, wasn’t that compelling, but Jarden is fascinating. Why was it immune to the Departure? Is Patti real or a figment of Kevin’s deranged mind? What did Kevin and Nora bring to Jarden that destroyed its magic? Will this shed any light on the show’s central mystery: What was the Departure?

Truth is, I don’t need definitive answers to these questions. As John Landis said, “The majority of horror and sci-fi films. . .are not badly written, badly acted, or badly made — until the monster shows up.” The big reveal was the downfall of Lost and Prometheus, but maybe my hope for Lindelof’s growth was not misplaced. The title sequence for season two changed from emotional violin music to Iris DeMent’s folk song, “Let the Mystery Be.”

The best literary works satisfy without over-explaining; they provoke the audience to engage with the ambiguity and complete its meaning through their own informed interpretations. If rendered with a deft hand, this can produce the most evocative, thought-provoking stories. Season 2 of The Leftovers makes that a much more intriguing prospect.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.