[This is a review of The Leftovers season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
The thing about The Leftovers is that it was always going to be a show that inspires a certain amount of frustration in its viewers. After all, the Guilty Remnant, with their self-imposed vows of silence, their chain-smoking, and their horrible handwriting are built to inspire frustration. It’s almost as though their refusal to speak up and be heard is a manifestation of Lindelof and Perrotta’s insistence that The Leftovers – in novel and television form – be devoid of answers to the one big question lurking in nearly every frame of the show so far.
But that sense of aggravation is also an integral part of the storyline. It’s clear when Kevin Garvey says, “nobody’s ready to feel better,” and “everybody’s ready to explode“ that a certain amount of frustration and anger felt by the characters was intended to be shared by the audience as well. And so, after two episodes of palpable melancholy swirling around all the great performances and captivating drama, an even larger question has emerged: How can the show allow for such a intense level of frustration to seep through and still offer a rewarding story week after week? The answer, it seems, lies in a fantastic hour of television that is spearheaded by the nuanced work of Christopher Eccleston as Rev. Matt Jamison.
For everything else that ‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ offers with its tightly focused story that is reminiscent of some of Lindelof’s work on Lost, perhaps the most consistently alluring aspect – aside from the way Eccleston can convey such deeply resonant levels of joy and sorrow by filling the screen with an enormous smile, or letting it drop from his face altogether – is the way in which the episode consistently paints a broad picture of what’s going on elsewhere in the world by simply showing a single man’s struggle in the fictional town of Mapleton, NY. And for the most part, that means examining how fundamentally broken and confusing the concept of faith is, especially now that many might construe the Departure as evidence of a higher power with highly ambiguous intentions.
There is a battle of theologies and ideologies raging in the background of the series. The Departure has altered the way people think of not only their own faith or belief in something greater, but also in terms of their allegiance to the institution of organized religion. So far, The Leftovers has two organizations that could be loosely described as new religions (or cults) with the Guilty Remnant and Wayne’s Hug the Pain Away Foundation. And, as is made demonstrably clear during the earlier and then closing part of the episode, the swelling numbers of those groups means an ever-diminishing audience for older, more established institutions like Rev. Jamison’s – institutions that are left as wanting for an answer to what happened as the rest of the planet. And so, the world’s religions are fighting a losing battle against not a lack of faith necessarily, but against the frustration in religion’s inability to satisfy the needs and wants of those searching for answers – which is basically everyone left behind.
Along with being the first installment not focused on Kevin Garvey or his kids, the episode is also the first to be directed by someone other than Peter Berg. Here, Keith Gordon steps in, and despite the concentration on a single character, he’s still left with plenty of scenes that run along the same broad emotional spectrum as the first two installments.
Much of the episode hinges on Jamison’s efforts to procure $135K, which he does by gambling with the money stored for him in a peanut butter jar in Kevin Sr.’s backyard. It’s an odd set of circumstances that brings out many questions, but through his actions Jamison’s motivations are made more complex when he first asks Nora for her Departure benefit, then reveals her husband’s infidelity – shattering his sister’s memory of her family – as a means to justify his asking, or to give her a reason to not want the money. There are questions as to why Jamison wouldn’t just go for the jar first. But the way the episode is set up, and the manner in which Eccleston plays the character, there’s a feeling that the reverend is willing to help himself, but perhaps only when he’s convinced he is being guided by some higher power – hence the pigeons and red lights.
For his part, Eccleston manages to perfectly convey Matt’s desperation and anger at potentially losing his church – along with his crusade to reveal the sins of some of the departed, and the tragic persistent vegetative state of his wife – without resorting to histrionics. The repressed nature of the performance builds to a single moment of unrestrained expression, which erupts after he viciously beats a man who tried to rob him of his casino winnings. But it’s the aftermath of the encounter that becomes as much a moment of release for Matt as it is for the show, which has been punching walls, choking teenagers, and shooting dogs, but hasn’t really been able to scream and laugh a little at its own dreariness. There’s a lighter side that gets exposed here – even if it’s through the exceedingly ironic use of Captain and Tennille’s ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ (one of the better musical cues on television this year).
‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ delivers a surprisingly tense, powerful, and sometimes funny episode about faith and self-determination. It offers up a sense of optimism, only to have it be wickedly undercut by the pervasive melancholy that’s central to the series. Perhaps more importantly, though, the episode demonstrates the kinds of intimate stories The Leftovers can tell from inside the framework of a larger story that may never be fully revealed.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with ‘B.J. and the A.C.’ @10pm on HBO.