[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]

Season 2 of The Leftovers has largely been one of surprise. These surprises do not come solely from the content of the storytelling – though the mysteries of Jarden, the Murphys, and, certainly, what’s going on inside Kevin Garvey’s head have all been a compelling addition to the series’ narrative. Instead, the surprises have been largely of the structural kind. They have come from the interesting way Damon Lindelof and his creative team have chosen to tackle their story and to depict its unfolding in the aftermath of what happened in season 1. It is interesting, then, after two weeks of largely terrific episodes directed by Mimi Leder to see the series make such an abrupt about-face and head back to Mapleton with the help of director Carl Franklin, to remind viewers of all that has been left behind.

The shift to Mapleton and to the perspective of Laurie and Tom Garvey is jarring, to say the least – and not just because Amy Brenneman delivers actual lines of dialogue and isn’t clothed in white and cigarette ash. Instead the jarring nature of ‘Off Ramp’ comes from how quickly it snaps the viewer back into the mindset of season 1 and how it explores the repercussions of those ten episodes with such a specific and intimate field of vision. Like last season’s ‘Two Boats and a Helicopter,’ which took on the perspective of Matt Jamison and was startling because of how successfully it could narrow the scope of the show, is a similar demonstration of the depth of the writers’ understanding of their characters.

While the focus of ‘Off Ramp’ is not nearly as narrow as ‘Two Boats,’ it also doesn’t need to be in order to deliver the same level of character-driven intensity. The Leftovers has a much less daunting task in season 2, primarily because of all the world building that was done in season 1. There is a rich history here, a storyline built upon an immense emotional framework from which new narratives can be added or old ones revisited. To a certain degree, ‘Off Ramp’ combines the two with its focus on Laurie and Tom. But it also centers on the idea of how people cope when the foundation upon which they have rebuilt themselves completely falls out beneath them.

Amy Brenneman and Chris Zylka in The Leftovers Season 2 Episode 3 The Leftovers Continues to Surprise in Season 2

There is so much of the previous season’s story and emotional tenor built directly into the episode that it is free to explore where these characters are now without having to remind viewers of where they were. There is not a whole lot of exposition going on, so when you see Tom wearing white, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, it is curious and maybe a little confusion. But time and time again, the events of the story pay that curiosity off in unexpected and sometimes confounding ways.

One of the most engaging aspects explored in the hour is the unspoken rhythm of Laurie and Tom’s relationship. It can hardly be described as a mother-son interaction. These two characters are so broken by their previous experiences – both from the immense impact of the Sudden Departure and the choices they made in its wake – that for them to come together as anything other than two shattered people making sense of their lives by attempting to put others back together would ring terribly false. So instead, they fall into a pattern of infiltrating the Guilty Remnant, pulling from their ranks and attempting to reintegrate those silent chain smokers into the society and the lives they left behind.

It’s curious work. It feels bitter and angry and sad in a way the best episodes of The Leftovers do. It explores the emotions that marked so much of season 1 – that sense of characters being adrift, despairing, and just looking for something concrete on which to tether a feeling or belief. And yet the episode gives those emotions a vehicle, a driving purpose for the characters that is not only more concrete for them, but also for the audience. Tom’s infiltration of the Guilty Remnant and his subsequent run-in with Meg gives the hour an incredible source of tension. The same an be said of Laurie’s scramble to cover rent to her shady landlord and recover the laptop on which she had her only copy of the book she’d written.

Chris Zylka as Tom Garvey in The Leftovers Season 2 Episode 3 The Leftovers Continues to Surprise in Season 2

Laurie’s book plot might have been a little too deliberate in its execution – especially breaking in to the landlord’s house to recover the laptop – but the payoff with the publisher, her explosion at him, is worth it. Brenneman is so successful in keeping Laurie’s anguish simmering subtly beneath the surface the entire episode that her outburst in the office feels like necessary catharsis. The same goes for Tom’s experience with Meg. The way she’s apparently assumed Patti’s position with the GR is interesting. How that position of power is demonstrated in her treatment of Tom feels both successful and unsuccessful at the same time. In a way, Meg’s actions do to Tom what Laurie’s flare-up did to her: it forces the characters to change course (to take the off ramp, if you will) and to explore a new course of action. In essence, the events of the episode, up to and including the double homicide/suicide of the woman Laurie helped recondition, helps drive the plot of these two characters into a far more interesting place.

With Laurie and Tom being so far removed from the primary story going on in Jarden, there was some concern that the characters could not sustain their own story thread. ‘Off Ramp’, with its centralized focus (and continued hints and something strange going on in Australia), decidedly puts those fears to rest. Tom’s attempt to fill the void made by the death of Holy Wayne is the kind of knotty thread that is as promising for the characters future as it is a fascinating glimpse of the desperation they feel in having anything to hold onto.

The Leftovers season 2 continues next Sunday with ‘Orange Sticker’ @9pm on HBO.

Photos: Van Redin/HBO

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