[This is a review of The Leftovers season 1, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
It can be difficult to decide whether or not The Leftovers absolutely needed to have an episode like this. 'The Garveys at Their Best' is a fantastic episode in terms of satiating some of the lingering curiosity around the Departure and, especially in this case, the experiences in the lives of its characters in the moments leading up to the catastrophic event.
Those experiences have either been casually obscured for the most part or they've more or less been known and the audience simply hasn't witnessed them first-hand before. And in that sense, the episode breaks down its information in two ways, splitting its time between Mapleton characters as it normally does (outside episodes like 'Two Boats and a Helicopter' and 'Guest,' of course), while still focusing primarily on what's left of the Garvey clan.
So, stepping back a few years, the story begins on eve of the Departure and then ends very soon after the event occurs, showing in great detail where Kevin, Laurie, Jill, Tom, and Nora were when their worlds were irrevocably changed. In essence, the episode takes a universal experience and illustrates it on an individual level.
You have to give The Leftovers credit for being able to connect so many dots in this fashion, and for finally giving Amy Brenneman a chance to use her voice – and showing not only how drastically things have changed for her and pinpointing exactly why things have changed, but also sowing the seeds of the Guilty Remnant: Mapleton Chapter by introducing a very broken Patti and framing Gladys as a simple suburban dog breeder.
In that sense, the majority of the credit clearly belongs to Brenneman's performance, as she manages to reveal a completely different Laurie than has been seen before, without the characterization being so foreign as to be jarring.
Brenneman's performance and Scott Glenn's interaction with his son – especially the "no greater purpose" speech is solid stuff. But what's troubling about 'The Garveys at Their Best,' then, is the heavy-handedness of how it delivers some of the information to the audience; the little moments underlining the tragedies to come feel too strained, too self-aware, or too extreme at times.
This isn't necessarily a dire complaint; most of what The Leftovers has presented this season has certainly been on the extreme side of somber and grief-stricken, with small bits of levity and humor thrown in on occasion. And for those who're attuned to appreciate those elements in the amounts they're doled out week after week, the show has been emotionally effective and lyrically beautiful in ways even some of the best shows on television struggle to achieve.
Maybe it's the inexperience of some of the actors that gives the episode the feeling that going full in on the inverse depictions of certain characters that makes it somewhat grating. And yes, that has to do with bouncy, giggly Jill, and the way her braces and her overalls and her love of Nyan Cat stand in such stark contrast to the dark, gloomy, Jill with the kung-fu grip who scowls at her father all the time.
Subtlety isn't necessarily something that needs to be in The Leftovers' wheelhouse all the time, but for whatever reason, this rendition of a younger Jill, and Margaret Qualley's performance therein, felt a little like overkill on a point that was clearly and effectively made by casually illustrating her being a happy, naïve teenager.
Although 'The Garveys at Their Best' was hit or miss in terms of some of its focal points and/or character depictions, it still managed to dig deeper into the idea of the Departure by exploring its edges in greater detail. That meant balancing its exploration of Kevin and Laurie's failing marriage, her inability to tell him about her pregnancy, and his empathy for the deer running amok in and around town that coincidentally leads to his infidelity hinted at in the premiere.
The details are fascinating, and their outcomes tragic, but what is most interesting about both is that it puts Kevin and Laurie (and, technically, Jill and Tom) on the front lines of the Departure to better justify their reactions to it.
But that doesn't mean some of what is presented isn't questionable. The disappearance of Laurie's fetus is just shy of being too much – even for this show. There was great restraint in not cutting to the monitor to show what Laurie saw, and because of that, the entire episode may have been saved. Emotionally, it is a harrowing ordeal and it resonates well with the themes of the series, but regardless the emotional implication, the act of the audience being present somehow rings false.
The idea of a fetus being whisked away from its mother's womb is of course devastating on a thousand different levels. And yet, watching the moment build to the point where Laurie comes to understand what occurred just as the audience does, risks coming off as grossly manipulative or too psychologically calculating – which is how that final scene felt here.
Still, the episode manages to be better than the one or two instances in which it seems intent on overdoing it or underlining concepts that don't need to be underlined. The thematic crux of personal experience being all that anyone can truly experience is deepened by the notion that certain people seemingly sensed the Departure coming. But then the concept is almost taken too far when the focus shifts to a (supposedly?) Buddhist quote: "The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground."
As the penultimate episode of the season, 'The Garveys at Their Best' was something of a novelty that offered some intriguing insight into The Leftovers' characters and their world, whether the story at hand needed them or not.
The Leftovers will conclude season 1 next Sunday with 'The Prodigal Son Returns' @10pm on HBO.