[This is a review of The Leftovers season 1, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
While the structure of season 1 of The Leftovers has favored an unhurried style of storytelling that loops back again and again on somber matters of grief, confusion, anger, and all around world-weariness, there is nevertheless a growing sense that another event was on the horizon.
This future happening being orchestrated by the Guilty Remnant is likely unrelated to – but not entirely dissimilar to what Holy Wayne has been obliquely referencing in his increasingly scattered and indirect communications with Tom. The suggestion, then, is that whatever is being cooked up (or prophesied, if you will) is primarily the work of the titular leftovers and not the mysterious force that absconded with two percent of the world’s population three years ago.
It’s no wonder then that ‘Cairo’ feels on the verge of some catastrophic event for much of the hour. As such, The Leftovers turns to Michelle MacLaren, one of the best directors working in television today, to pump some air into such potentially leaden material.
MacLaren does this by fully recognizing the melancholy tone of the series and the episode, and crosscutting between two seemingly benign acts of ritual – i.e., Kevin preparing a chicken dinner and Patti laying out dozens of sets of clothing.
Both acts are, on the surface (inasmuch as Patti’s plans remain undisclosed), vaguely innocuous; after all, what’s so threatening about a chicken dinner? And yet given what the audience knows about the series, the tone of both suggests trouble is not far behind.
The suggestion that things are not going to be okay flies directly in the face of the last two episodes, in which it seemed like certain people – especially Kevin and Nora – were preparing to move on, and to find happiness in something new, rather than sift through the ashes of the past in search of reconstructing what used to be.
Most notably, it elicits a response from Jill, in which such demonstrable acts of progression are met with a mixture of skepticism and flat out scorn, leading her to search for proof that Nora’s revitalization is not what it seems to be.
Jill’s actions are somewhat undermined by the contrived manner in which teenage rebellion has been depicted over the past seven episodes, and the way the twins’ dialogue has to spell out exactly what her search for Nora’s handgun means.
But MacLaren manages to assuage that issue somewhat by focusing more on the way Jill is motivated by a mixture of hope and fear. Hope in that if someone as impacted by the Departure as Nora can move on, then perhaps so can she. And fear that if not, she’ll be left alone to feel this way forever.
In that sense, the series succeeds in illustrating that, beyond everything else this story is steeped in, it most frequently serves as a tale about the struggles of living with depression.
There’s evidence of this in Jill’s paradoxical choice of turning to the blank slate that is the GR, knowing that her mother (a primary source of her misery) is also among them. But it is possibly made more overt in Dean’s suggestion that Kevin is in the midst of some inner conflict, which is later proven by the upsetting discovery he makes while in the forest.
With that, the strongest portion of ‘Cairo’ revolves around Kevin and Dean’s abduction of Patti, and her subsequent attempts to manipulate Kevin – which means once more going against her vow of silence. The implications of Patti and the GR’s larger manipulation are made greater when she confirms that Gladys’ death was an inside job, and that she’s willing to do the same in order to further exploit the larger situation as the group sees fit.
Ann Dowd’s performance is exceptional, as she shifts from tactic to tactic, constantly calculating the effect of her words – which plays in stark contrast to Meg’s arguably less impactful use of her voice on Rev. Jamison and Laurie – on the increasingly bewildered and incensed Theroux.
But after it becomes clear that Kevin isn’t going to let her bait him into martying her, she recites Yeats’ moody ‘Michael Robartes Bids His Beloved Be at Peace’ before taking her own life.
Still, regardless of what an individual like Kevin or a group such as the GR is doing – or not doing – it speaks to one of the prominent ideas of the series, in that everyone is searching for relief, only to find that the best they can really hope for is to develop or adopt some strategy that will help them cope with living in a world that seems forever on the verge of collapsing in on itself.
The Leftovers continues next week with ‘The Garveys at Their Best’ @10pm on HBO.