[This is a review of The Leftovers season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
If nothing else, the first ten episodes of The Leftovers have proven the show to be unpredictable and emotionally moving in ways that are pleasing to some, and unbearable to others. It is a show that doesn't merely seek to push people's buttons, but to lay a hand on that button and refuse to let up. In some ways that hand can be oppressively heavy, while at other moments it is surprisingly light, funny, and affectingly smart. Depending on your perspective, the series is either dedicated in its pursuit to make the audience feel something, or it is ruthlessly bleak.
Love it or hate it, this has been fairly effective on either account for ten straight episodes.
As the season draws to a close in a remarkably well-paced hour, The Leftovers does what it had promised to do from the very beginning – which is to deny any answers to the lingering questions of the Departure. What's surprising, then, is that it managed to keep that promise of denial, while still granting some sense of fulfillment and closure to the season at the same time.
'The Prodigal Son Returns' delivers everything the series does well thematically, demonstrating that its emotional range can be far greater than its usual aim, while wrapping it all in a beautiful package by episode director Mimi Leder. And as the season ends in a strange concoction of sorrow and anger and peacefulness and hope, it is the unexpectedness of that combination of emotions, and the fact that they resonate at all, much less so soundly, that makes the show such a distinctive presence on television.
There is a theme of renewal and rebirth achieved through the help of others running throughout the episode, which pulls in everyone from Kevin and Rev. Jamsion to Jill and Laurie, and even Tom. It's a spiritual cleansing in a way that is often delivered overtly and through elements like water and fire, as in the case of Kevin's water jug shower and especially the torching of the Guilty Remnant's suburban compound. And yet in the face of such explicit symbolism, 'The Prodigal Son Returns' manages not to replicate the lumbering delivery of 'The Garvey's at Their Best' that denied the episode much of its intended significance.
This time around, the episode glides like it's on rails. There are a few shaky sections – the slight of hand with Kevin's nightmare being one of them – but even then, as the tension of that particular detour builds, precise elements like Scott Glenn's suddenly well-kempt features and the eerie quiet of the facility justify the deviation. By and large, 'The Prodigal Son Returns' works to deliver a sharp, succinct, and satisfying episode that blends the rawness of the show's sentiment with some slight, but gratifying conclusions to many of the characters' season-long arcs.
And with any show receiving such a late renewal notice, the finale feels like it could easily have been the end of the road for The Leftovers. On the other hand, though, that shift in mood and tone does generate a desire to see more, and to understand whether the break in the bleakness will stick, or if the show will see its characters drift back into the familiar place where the audience first met them.
That's the thing about The Leftovers: it relies almost entirely on the audience's ability to tap into a particular, sometimes unpleasant ambiance. There's still a story there, but it comes second to sentiment and sensation. And people are either gripped by what they've experienced or they've already walked away. That's probably not a great thing in terms of constantly building an audience, but considering the network the series landed on, it's also much less of a concern.
The Leftovers will never be a consensus show for HBO, but that's precisely what makes it rewarding for those who have managed to find its style of storytelling so gripping and emotionally affecting. Yes, it is divisive, but did anyone expect any different?
Damon Lindelof has (perhaps inadvertently) made a name for himself as a divisive writer. He has moved into his post-Lost career with projects that have divided fans as much as the ending to the series that made him a recognizable name - first with Prometheus and now The Leftovers. It's clear now that Lindelof is not for everyone, but it's also becoming clear where his artistic tendencies lie. Like anyone who is inclined to revisit strong themes again and again, Lindelof still has a few proclivities that may not always work in his favor but they at least make his voice more distinct.
Sure, these inclinations can be seen as indulgences that sometimes don't just border on being indulgent, but just leap over the line of discernment and set fire to the notion of restraint. Yet, in a series like The Leftovers it seems like a lack of restraint can be more justifiable than on other shows. A lack of restraint may have produced some of the poorer moments in last week's episode, but it also results in things that are great about the show, like the wonderfully tacky opening credits sequence or the closing moments of the finale.
Despite the misfires that may come as a result, this isn't a show that's meant to be restrained. This is a show where Kevin and Jill can walk down the street and be greeted by a once feral dog, and it doesn't feel out of place. It's a show where Nora Durst doesn't question the appearance of a baby on her boyfriend's front porch, she picks it up and starts loving it, because she needs to care for something as much as the child needs to be cared for. It's all very overwhelming, but it fits.
In a way, that's what makes this dour series so unique. It is unfiltered Lindleof as much as it is straight from the tap of Tom Perrotta's mind. And that combination has resulted in a series that is more a looping orchestration of raw emotion than it is a tried-and-true television narrative. If nothing else, the series should be appreciated for its dogged determination to usher in such strong emotions. It certainly doesn't resonate the same with everyone, but for those who are in tune with it, The Leftovers is strong stuff.
The Leftovers has been renewed for a second season and will return to HBO in 2015.