[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
‘A Most Powerful Adversary’ may be one of the most complicated episodes of The Leftovers the show has produced so far. It’s not complicated in terms of plot or its structure, really – the episode is actually one of the more straightforward offerings of season 2. Instead, it is complicated in the way it makes the viewer uncertain how they are supposed to feel about any given character, their situation, and the choices he or she makes to change that situation.
This isn’t necessarily new territory for the series. After all, The Leftovers is built on a foundation of its characters struggling to make sense of the world around them (their “situation”), which has become confusing and mysterious and terrifying. Those feelings trap them in situations they might otherwise not be in. And they certainly trap the characters in a state of mind that is unhealthy and static. The fear and anxiety and anger experienced by everyone is a prison of sorts; it is the handcuff on Kevin’s wrist, the vision of Patti that may or may not really be there.
Everyone is yearning to be free from the oppressive emotions they have to wallow in day in and day out, and in their pursuit of emancipation from those feelings, they wind up caught all over again, one way or another. Freedom from bad memories and experiences is essentially the reason for the Garvey-Dursts’ journey to Jarden, and it is Kevin’s journey throughout the episode. And while it is another example of The Leftovers’ keen ability to narrow its focus to a single character, ‘A Most Powerful Adversary’ is also an example of how the series can use a single perspective to illustrate the universal nature of the emotional and psychological burden that has been placed on those left behind from the Sudden Departure. In essence, it doubles down on the idea that the show is about depression by illustrating how difficult it can be for a person suffering from depression to get out of it, regardless of how badly they want to feel better.
Kevin’s potential psychotic break is front and center throughout the hour. It is the natural progression of his confession to Nora at the end of last week’s standout episode ‘Lens.’ Nora’s departure is not unlike Kevin’s the morning of the earthquake; there is a sense of confusion and a slight twinge of panic. This time, however, when Nora leaves with Lily and Mary, Kevin isn’t alone. Yes, Jill’s still in the house, and she immediately blames her father for upsetting the fragile stability of their new life in Jarden, but, more importantly, Kevin finds it increasingly difficult to escape Patti’s presence.
Patti’s ubiquity underlines Kevin’s desperation and his frantic, unstable state of mind. His need to free himself of the handcuff becomes the physical manifestation of the immediate need to be free of her company and the bizarre authority over him – whether real or imagined – that comes with it. That need makes Kevin vulnerable, susceptible to outside influence. He can no longer trust what is in his head, so he must rely on others to guide him to the next stop on his journey. Even though the final decision must be Kevin’s, it comes down to other individuals, who may or may not have his best interests at heart, to inform that choice.
Kevin’s vulnerable state, then, grants the episode an opportunity to make something more substantial out of Laurie’s appearance in Jarden, than just her search for Tom. As the season has progressed, the once distinct and separate perspectives and threads that have defined season 2 have begun to fold in on one another. The result was seen in last week’s tremendous faceoff between Erika and Nora, and now, it creates a scenario where Laurie can become both a tremendous complication and another guide whose purpose is to explain what is going on inside Kevin’s head.
Laurie diagnoses Kevin’s psychotic break and informs him his only recourse is medication, therapy, and institutionalization. It is a logical course of action in a world where logic has become illusive. Kevin’s actions seem to suggest if there is no explanation for the Sudden Departure, then how could there be such an easy explanation for Patti’s appearance? Naturally, the most direct and obvious solution is the least appealing, especially when compared to Virgil’s account, from which the episode gets its title. The idea of engaging an adversary in battle – on their turf, no less – is the far more appealing alternative to Kevin’s problem. It paints him in a different light, as the conquering hero for whom no foe is too great, no obstacle insurmountable, no mental illness greater than the mind upon which it is wreaking havoc.
This paints a harrowing picture of depression and mental illness going undiagnosed and untreated. The ramifications of which are made apparent, as the episode’s end is marked by two suicides – two attempts to escape for two different purposes. Kevin is attempting to escape from Patti or from admitting he is a psychotic like his father, meaning he will likely have to be on medication for the rest of his life and will certainly require some degree of institutionalization. While there is likely some larger purpose behind Virgil taking his own life (perhaps it is an effort to return Evie and her lost friends, which might explain Michael’s tearful complicity), he also has plenty to leave behind – his sordid past, estrangement from his daughter and her family, and whispers of pedophilia all give him reason to want to escape.
Because the episode ends where it does – with Michael dragging Kevin’s maybe-dead body from his grandfather’s trailer – the viewer is left in the aftermath of what is tragically too often the result of mental illness and depression. The difficulty of the subject matter is somewhat assuaged by the promise of a larger narrative payoff to what transpires, but the show’s willingness to approach and confront challenging subject matter is also what makes the series such a unique and compelling experience.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with ‘International Assassin’ @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Van Redin/HBO