In preparation for the final series of The Leftovers premiering on April 16th, I’m going back to review the first two seasons of the show, starting with the flawed but filled with potential debut season…
To call The Leftovers challenging and divisive is an understatement. I likely wouldn’t be writing this review if it wasn’t for the show’s second season, and even now find it hard to invest in the opening episodes, a problem that so many who tuned in on the original air date also faced. That’s not because the series is too weird from the get go – it’s because it’s so difficult for viewers to find a sympathetic entry point.
But for every group of sceptics, there was a raving critic who’d either been struck by the potential in the show or seen a few episodes ahead. Many viewers may have fallen by the wayside, assuming that the trailers and pilot were representative of the show ahead, but the acclaim secured the future of The Leftovers in the form of a renewal. This was one of television’s most grandiose, demanding and ostensibly religious creations, and even in its weaker moments it was something that TV had never seen before.
It began a few years before. In 2012, Damon Lindelof of Lost fame teamed up with novelist Tom Perrotta to adapt the latter’s novel about a ‘Departure’ event that sees 2% of the world’s population abruptly and mysteriously disappear. The story picks up three years later, by which time the Garvey family of Kevin, Laurie, Jill and Tom have been broken apart in the departure’s aftermath, both literally and figuratively.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is Chief of Police in the town of Mapleton, where the citizens are threatened by the growing numbers of the Guilty Remnant, a cult who refuse to allow anyone to move on from the Departure. The conflict builds between the ordinary townfolk and the GR members, and Kevin finds himself caught in the middle of an untenable situation. To make matters worse, Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has taken a vow of silence and joined the GR, while his stepson Tom (Chris Zylka) is miles away now devoted to a spiritual leader named Holy Wayne.
In the original novel, each of the four family members have their own storylines that never really convene. The series differs from this in two ways – firstly in that other supporting characters are far more pertinent, receiving arcs and episodes to themselves – secondly in that the series builds to a unifying climax. These are essential and clever changes, and the episodes where The Leftovers uses the novel’s four-family structure are without a doubt the weakest.
We can see this clearly upon breaking down the structure of the season:
Episode 1 - Garvey Family Episode 2 - Garvey Family Episode 3 - POV for Reverend Matt Jamison Episode 4 - Garvey Family Episode 5 - Garvey Family (without Tom) Episode 6 - POV for Nora Durst Episode 7 - Garvey Family (with Kevin Snr.) Episode 8 - Garvey Family (with Nora but without Tom) Episode 9 - Garvey Family (prequel episode) Episode 10 - Garvey Family + Nora -> Kevin -> Garvey Family + Nora
It’s not difficult to see why the most engaging episodes are 3 and 6, while the most off-kilter momentum is in 1, 2, 4 and 7. The big weak link is this season is unfortunately the aimless, rambling and unconnected Tom/Holy Wayne plotline that drags and then never really pays off. It doesn’t help that the episodes already feel over-crowded, a problem only amplified in comparison to the fantastic one-person POV episodes.
This analysis definitely underplays how integral Kevin is to the show – he’s the only one to consistently interact with every supporting character and to receive consistently strong material. Laurie and Jill’s plotlines take a while to pick up and focus, but are excellent in 5, 8 and 10 as they do so. The show would go on to perfect the episodic formula in the second season by using a combination of POV and Episode 10 style structure.
I’ve talked a lot about the flaws of this first season of The Leftovers, but only because they’re made all the more frustrating by the astronomical level of quality the show achieves in the moments and episodes that avoid them. The show is dragged down by being moored in its source material, and it is the deviations from the novel and adaptive choices that result in greatness, creating something far beyond the confines of a simple page to screen adaptation.
The cast deserve full credit for so much of the success – Justin Theroux gives a unflinchingly outstanding performance as Kevin, but the show is stolen by Carrie Coon’s devastating performance as Nora Durst, particularly in the latter half of the season and her twisty POV episode ‘Guest’. Amy Brenneman is equally brilliant as Laurie Garvey, made all the more impressive by the fact that she doesn’t speak a single line until the final few episodes. It’s a masterclass in expressive physicality, conjuring raw deep emotion without having to say a single word.
Ann Dowd delivers a confident, bubbling insanity as Guilty Remnant faction leader Patti while Christopher Eccleston brings a grounded driven frustration to Reverend Matt Jamison. The two receive terrific spotlights in the climactic ‘Cairo’ and the tour de force ‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ respectively, highlighting some sensational acting talent. Scott Glenn also features as Kevin’s father, most prominently in ‘Solace for Tired Feet’ but his character is a bit too strange and frustrating to reach the same heights.
Rounding out the Mapleton ensemble are Margaret Qualley’s Jill Garvey, a wonderful turn from such a young and relatively unknown actress, and Liv Tyler’s subtly tragic Guilty Remnant recruit Meg. The actors in the Holy Wayne plotline, namely Chris Zylka, Annie Q and Paterson Joseph, make valiant efforts with the weaker material, although it isn’t enough to save the floundering story.
These performances wouldn’t matter if the show’s direction didn’t work so excellently alongside them, and it universally does so. When The Leftovers is weak, it’s as a result of flaws in the writing process rather than in production. Viewers will no doubt immediately be struck by Max Richter’s wondrous score, weaving a series of recurring themes throughout the episodes that unify and link events.
When it falls flat, it doesn’t feel like it’s a bad show, it just feels inaccessible or pretentious. Thankfully, these moments become increasingly few and far between as the series develops, and the mythology and symbolism deepen. For instance, the show’s running metaphor concerning wild dogs remains coherent throughout, but the obtuse motivations of the Guilty Remnant only come into focus far too late on. If it was presented as a mystery this wouldn’t be an issue, but far too often big omissions detract from emotional character moments – Laurie and Meg in particular are only comprehensible in retrospect.
A big reason for this comes from the penultimate and arguably most important episode of the season, entitled ‘The Garveys at Their Best’. The episode jumps back in time to before the departure to bring new information to light, such as the deep-seated omens of Kevin’s insanity and the vanishing of Laurie’s pregnancy. I’m torn about the episode’s placement, as it comes at the perfect moment to pay off so many of the season’s events and fill in the blanks, but it doesn’t redeem the fact that there were frustrating blanks to begin with. There’s no excuse for having to wait so long to see Tom interacting with the other members of his family.
Damon Lindelof stated in interview prior to the show that the mystery surrounding The Leftovers‘ departure would not be the main focus, but the nuanced and obtuse nature of that premise is one of the most difficult obstacles for viewers to overcome. How can we relate to characters who’ve experienced such an inexpiable occurrence, with no real life equivalent? Why is a show about such a thing emotionally engaging?
There’s an answer, but where some may relish discovering where the appeal lies, others will become alienated by how much it can get in the way of the viewing process. The problem isn’t that The Leftovers is dour and depressing (it actually has a strong dark sense of humour), but rather that it takes time to operate on that same wavelength. It means that every recommendation of The Leftovers has to come with a caveat – “Episode 3 is where it gets good.”
This shouldn’t be the case for a show that has the potential to work perfectly, and that does so when it escapes the shadow of the novel it is based on. Once the sci-fi premise is overcome and we can appreciate that The Leftovers is exploring grief, trauma and the sheer strangeness of reality, it all clicks together. It doesn’t make it any less of a puzzling, mysterious show – it just provides a level of grounded-ness that is initially lacking.
It’s a flawed but brilliant season of television nonetheless, and I suspect all who see it through to the end will be able to appreciate to some extent where those rave reviews were coming from.
Score: 5 Wild Dogs out of a Dead Deer