Hope and Heartache on HBO’s The Leftovers

 A lot of viewers, myself included, didn’t give The Leftovers much of a chance as the first season aired. To be honest, it was filled to the brim with darkness, despair and too many unanswered questions for me to feel connected. But, after I heard they were picked up for season 2 (premiering this Sunday at 9pm ET on HBO) I decided to give it another chance. There are too many unknowns and yet-to-be-determined things to say anything definite, so it would be an injustice for me to give you a blow-by-blow rundown of season one (plus this article would never end), so I won’t. Instead, I’ll share what kept me coming back after each episode.

Here’s a little background:

The first season of The Leftovers is based on the New York Times best selling novel of the same name, written by Tom Perrotta (who is also an executive producer of the show). The fictional town of Mapleton, New York is set in a bleak world that has suffered a tragic loss: On October 14, 140 million people, roughly 2% of the population, vanished without a trace. No one knows where they went and no one knows why; some people lost their entire families, some didn’t lose a single person. Perrotta lifts the curtain to a world that has been damaged so far beyond repair people are a hazard to themselves and each other. There is no such thing as normal anymore; it is a rabid, primal world that is alarmingly relatable.

It’s easy to see why some people complained that the show was depressing; the whole premise is devastating. When 140 million people vanish without explanation and you’re left to question everything you believe in, hope isn’t easy to come by.

As far as people believing it was “too slow” or claiming “nothing ever happened” I call bologna. Maybe on the surface it seems that way, but if you actually think about what you’re watching there’s a much deeper meaning to what’s going on. There are so many hidden treasures – some better hidden than others – throughout the show, which is my favorite sort of show to watch. Part of the draw of shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones (beneath the surface of the sex and violence) is the treasure hunt to get answers along the way. In The Leftovers, rabid dogs aren’t just rabid dogs affected by the departure, they are a symbol of the people. Dogs are known to reflect the behavior of their owners, so when the people of the town go primal, so do the dogs. See, all the things your high school English teacher was trying to teach you is becoming useful!

As we watch the town of Mapleton try to deal with their grief, our anchor characters are the Garveys. The Garveys are different because they didn’t lose anyone in the departure. Some say they are lucky – especially if you’re comparing them to Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who lost her husband and two kids – but their family was torn apart in a different, but maybe just as painful, way.

Kevin Garvey (played brilliantly by Justin Theroux) is the police chief of Mapleton who struggles to keep the peace between its citizens and the Guilty Remnant, a cult hellbent on making people (who are desperately trying to forget) remember their pain and loss. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, (Amy Brenneman) moves out of their home and joins the cult, leaving behind her husband, daughter, and son. She is required to take a vow of silence, wear white, and chain smoke like it’s going out of style. Laurie struggles to fully commit to the beliefs of the cult as she outwardly struggles to emotionally disconnect from her past life, especially her daughter, Jill. Somehow I find this more painful than if she had vanished altogether; her choosing to leave cuts deeper than those who had no choice and vanished, right?

For me, Jill is the most relatable character. All she wants is her family back together and to believe things will be okay in the end, but throughout the first season, we see her hope quietly snuffed out time and time again.

The Garveys’ other kid, Tommy, is college-aged and a free spirit. Like his mother, he has ventured away from home to work for a mysterious man called Holy Wayne, whose magical healing hugs can ease the survivors’ emotional burden, but has to recharge his batteries by sleeping with young Asian girls. Besides the departure itself, this is the only real “supernatural” mystery in the show: Is Holy Wayne just a coping mechanism, like a placebo effect? Or is there more to him? Interestingly enough, Tommy declines Holy Wayne’s offer to experience his magic (for lack of a better word). Does Tommy even believe? Or is he still attached to his grief?

I have a theory about the character I find most vital to the show beyond the Garveys: Reverend Matthew Jamison (Christopher Eccleston). I think he could be the link to finding out more information about the Departure. Stay with me here:

In the episode “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” as Jamison’s church is being bought out from underneath him (by the Gulity Remnant, as we later learn), he notices a pigeon causes chaos on a roulette table. Returning to the casino a few days later in hopes of winning enough money to save his church, he sees three pigeons resting on a red light. You can nearly see the light bulb go off in Rev. Jamison’s head and he demands to play on the roulette table the pigeon was on. He bets on red and doubles his money three times, earning the cash he needs to save his church.

From dogs to deer, animals carry a heavy metaphorical load on this show, and pigeons are no different. Much like Rev. Jamison, they are constantly shooed away but always return to stand their ground. Pigeons are also known for communication; they were used back in the day to send notes and letters before there was a mail system. Rev. Jamison is a communicator, too. Not only does he communicate through his flyers, but he’s a communicator of the word of God.

Which brings me to my next point: Pigeons are in the same family as doves, a sign of faith. Now, I have no problem saying Rev. Jamison has the best intentions and his faith guides him, but he’s still human, which makes him muddled and in the gray area, much like a pigeon’s coloring. Whatever his purpose was for season 1, they are bringing him back for season 2, so my theory is we’re not done learning new, perhaps vital, information via Rev. Jamison.

Perhaps The Leftovers’ critics were waiting for a big, dramatic “ta-da!” moment to arrive. But, how can it? The most traumatic thing that could ever happen has, and we are watching those who are left clean up the pieces. How could anything else compete? How can we demand answers to where or why they went? I appreciate the notion of leaving the viewers in the dark, it puts the viewer in the same boat as the characters. There is some slight resolution in episode 9, “The Garveys At Their Best.” You find a deeper understanding of the characters you’ve come to care for and at least a hint of what the departed all had in common.

I don’t want to spoil too much of season 1 in hopes that I have inspired you to give it a (second?) chance. Suffice to say, it ends on a high note of hope for the future for The Garveys and Nora. We know season 2 is completely new material (meaning they wrapped up the book in season 1) and it takes place in a town in Texas that claims to have no departures, which is located in an area is called “Miracle National Park.” If I’ve learned anything from season one, there are no coincidences and there certainly are no miracles.


Season 2 of The Leftovers premieres Sunday at 9pm ET on HBO; Season 1 is available On Demand.

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