The Leftovers‘ third season premiered last weekend and it’s time for a revisit to the show’s masterful second season, but what is it that makes it so much better than the first…?
(Before you read this review, you may want to check out my review of the first season, in which I address a lot of the issues I’ll be talking about here.)
When its second season premiered in October 2015, The Leftovers came back more confident, more mystical and, most importantly, more creative in its storytelling. Few other shows (if any) would dare to open with a prehistoric sequence bearing seemingly no relation to the rest of the narrative (more on that later), only to segue into a modern day story about an entirely new set of characters. It’s only when the familiar ‘Departure’ theme plays that we know we’re definitely watching The Leftovers, and only when Reverend Matt Jamison appears in the church in Miracle that we know for sure we haven’t left the original cast behind entirely.
The first season’s opening credits were moody and epic – the second (which are the first thing we see in Season 2) are relaxed and jovial, using Iris DeMent’s ‘Let the Mystery Be’. By the end of premiere ‘Axis Mundi’, we know why – we’ve moved from the chaotic Mapleton, New York to the mysterious and hopeful Jarden, Texas. The setting is much more integral to this season than the first, and the change in credits reflects this. In Miracle National Park, the show’s secrets are more enticing and illusive than ever. The mystery is no longer just about the nature of the Departure, but also about the shady underbelly of a tourist town that was ‘spared’ and the strange behaviour of its inhabitants.
The Murphy family who live in Jarden appear to be more intact than the Garveys were in the show’s pilot, but we should know from ‘The Garveys at Their Best’ that the Departure isn’t the source of many of The Leftovers‘ struggles. John Murphy (Kevin Carroll) keeps the town under a realistic hold but can’t find the noisy insect in his own home (a clever riff on Breaking Bad‘s ‘Bug’). His wife Erika (Regina King) is burying birds in a box in the woods. Their son Michael (Jovan Adepo) delivers sandwiches to a madman on a tower while their daughter Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) goes streaking. All of these mysteries are later resolved, but in ‘Axis Mundi’ they are all flashes of detail and colour for the wider setting.
When Kevin, Nora, Jill and adopted baby daughter Lily move into the house next door to the Garveys, John Murphy has already been established as a threat – soon he evolves into one of the season’s major antagonists. The driving force for conflict comes when an earthquake strikes Jarden in the middle of the night, and Evie and two of her friends go missing. This disappearance forms the backbone of the emotion for the season, replacing the post-Departure angst that was always vaguely and intangibly there in Season 1.
In the second episode, we learn how Kevin Garvey and his reformed family came to Jarden, and that he is being plagued by visions of the deceased Patti Levin, an extension of the madness and blackouts he was already experiencing. To make matters worse, when the narrative catches back up to Evie’s disappearance we discover that Kevin blacked out and woke up mere meters from where they vanished. Kevin mistakenly leaves a muddy hand-print on the car of Evie and her friends, resulting in a season-long cat and mouse pursuit by the desperate John Murphy, who wants to know where his daughter went. ‘Uh-oh,’ Patti bluntly says.
This is already far more plot than the Guilty Remnant conflict of the first season ever had, and when the GR, Laurie, Tommy and Meg are skilfully tied back into the overall arc of Season 2 as late as penultimate instalment ‘Ten Thirteen’, it makes for a stunning epic climax. Add in Nora’s own insecurities about Jarden, the strange Virgil who lives in the woods of Miracle, Matt’s quest to awaken his wife from her coma, and a background romance for Jill and Michael, and you have an impressive number of compelling and varied elements in place.
But none of this would work if they were presented poorly. One of the first season’s main issues was that the episodes involving the entire Garvey family felt cluttered and the pacing off – and the writers have noticed and fixed the issue. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of this season:
Episode 1 - Prehistory > Murphy Family Episode 2 - Kevin, Nora & Jill Episode 3 - Laurie & Tom Episode 4 - Kevin, Nora & Jill Episode 5 - Reverend Matt Jamison Episode 6 - Nora & Erika Episode 7 - Kevin Episode 8 - Kevin Episode 9 - Meg & Tom Episode 10 - Tour of Everyone > Kevin
With the exception of the first and last episodes, every episode focuses on three points of view or less, and even then characters like Jill and Michael receive relatively little screen time to themselves. What’s also crucial is that every episode is being used to maximum potential – remove a single piece of the larger puzzle and you could miss out on a character’s entire arc.
In re-watching finale ‘I Live Here Now’, it struck me how invested I was in every single character by that point in time, and the reason for it lies in this structure. The first season took far too long to become invested in each character, because it took too long for them to receive enough screen time to understand their difficult motivations. Not only does the second season build off of our investment of the first season, but it uses the spotlight episodes to re-invent and fully explore characters who were previously frustrating.
By the end of third episode ‘Off Ramp’, Laurie had become one of my favourite characters in the entire show. ‘Lens’, ‘International Assassin’ and ‘Ten Thirteen’ give Erika, Patti and Meg the same treatment. They’re strange, spell-binding character studies that cement The Leftovers as having the best ensemble cast on television, now expanded with the incredible Kevin Carroll and Regina King. And when all story-lines come together in the finale, it makes it all the more meaningful – the result is one of the impactful final episodes ever.
Here are just a few more of the detailed narrative touches that hold this season together:
- How ‘Axis Mundi’ and ‘A Matter of Geography’ re-tell the Garveys’ first night in Jarden from two different perspectives, and ‘I Live Here Now’ shows a third as well.
- How the two different versions of The Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind’ in ‘A Matter of Geography’ and ‘Off Ramp’ converge as Kevin and Laurie meet in ‘A Most Powerful Adversary’.
- The outside perspectives from which ‘Lens’ depicts Kevin’s insanity and ‘A Most Powerful Adversary’ the end of Jill and Michael’s romance.
- The cliffhanger endings of ‘A Most Powerful Adversary’ and ‘Ten Thirteen’. Holy shit.
- The huge time scale of ‘Ten Thirteen’ from the day before the Departure to the day before the attack on Miracle.
- How in ‘I Live Here Now’, Kevin goes underwater during the ‘A Matter of Geography’ blackout, only to climb out of the grave at the end of ‘International Assassin’.
- The POV tour of ‘I Live Here Now’ leading into a final twenty-minutes spent with a homeward bound Kevin. An unbelievable amount of pay off in just over an hour.
All of this is without talking about the boldest moves of the season. I’ve already touched on the prehistory that opens ‘Axis Mundi’, a self-contained fable about family and loss that mythologises Jarden before we even know its name. Yet it’s the purgatorial hotel visited by Kevin in ‘International Assassin’ and ‘I Live Here Now’ that will likely dominate the memories of anyone thinking back on the show.
Prior to ‘International Assassin’, the supernatural had been hinted at. The Departure defied scientific explanation. Patti’s appearance could be either ghostly vision or Kevin’s psychotic break. But when Kevin Garvey died, woke up in a hotel, and was tasked with assassinating Senator Patti Levin, this was something else entirely. After so many episodes of existential angst, The Leftovers‘ mythology expanded to acquire something wildly unexpected and fun.
The hotel forces the clueless Kevin to finally take action and make a decision about who he is – is he a wild, independent international assassin? Or is he Chief Kevin Garvey, family man and loving husband? When he dies again at the hands of John Murphy and chooses a police uniform instead, Kevin sets himself on a course to return home, to reform his family, and to commit to the life that he couldn’t in ‘A Matter of Geography’.
The Guilty Remnant may succeed and Miracle may be sunk into chaos, but what is so wonderfully uplifting about the end of ‘I Live Here Now’ is that the magic and mysticism has already occurred. Kevin has found a way to overcome his madness and defeat his adversary. Tommy and Laurie are re-united. Mary recovers from her paralysis. And perhaps most importantly, John Murphy finally becomes a believer.
This tonal transformation was foreshadowed all the way back in the opening credits of ‘Axis Mundi’. Rather than wallowing in the existential angst of the show’s first season, the characters were now trying to make their lives work, to re-build and find hope again in the wake of a disaster. If there’s a message behind the town of Miracle, it is that safety is something you feel, rather than something that geographically or physically exists. This middle act of The Leftovers ends on a rich, meaningful note that says everything will be okay, at least for tonight.
Having seen the premiere, the third season is already taking the tune in a different direction. There’s no formula to make The Leftovers work but one of the most important elements has to be a good balance of the strange and the grounded. The show’s first season veered too much into the latter, which was a shame since it was far better when it was at its most mysterious, but the second struck gold by ramping up the weirdness and the fun.
This is one of the best seasons of television ever constructed. The characters are more interesting and more numerous, the thematic difficulty serves the narrative rather than the other way round, and the creativity is at an all-time high. In several weeks time, I’ll review the final season of the show. It has a high bar to live up to, but if anything can hit these kinds of heights, it’s The Leftovers.
Score: Well shit Kevin, you wrote me a check for $50,000. What do you think the score should be?
Written by Tom Besley