[This is a review of The Leftovers season 1, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
In the second episode, The Leftovers continues to lay the groundwork for the series by elaborating more on the characters as they are now, and by focusing on smaller questions asked amongst the seemingly innocuous minutia of their daily lives. After last week's introduction to the folks of Mapleton and the circumstances of the world around them, 'Penguin One, Us Zero' moves along at a remarkably similar pace, demonstrating just how many potentially interconnected threads there are while giving hints as to where they may be headed.
This is an episode where the disappearance of a bagel is met with the same kind of trepidation as the mysterious and unsettlingly friendly appearance of Dean the Dog Shooter (Michael Gaston) and the potential trouble his truck causes when it's found at Kevin Garvey's house. There's even a nice moment when show leads you to think Dean may be a figment of Kevin's troubled subconscious – right up until he hands over a six pack of beer to Jill. That moment of doubt and uncertainty is mirrored when Kevin finds himself pulling off the back of a toaster in search of the potentially departed bagel.
The confluence of these small, innocuous incidents with larger events that have the potential to dramatically alter the course of each character helps drive the notion of ultimately what kind of story the show is looking to deal with. The post-Departure world is now a place where the unthinkable is possible, and even though those who remain are now three years out of a cataclysmic event, they're still understandably shaken – or in some cases, compelled to go along with it – when confronted by the questionable occurrences.
But there's also some nice character elements being tossed in with the lingering notion of so many people disappearing and the continual, upsetting growth of groups like the Guilty Remnant and events like Wayne's compound being raided by the FBI. The fact that the show can balance something like Tom killing a federal agent to save the highly prized Christine with the weirdly humorous way Kevin repeatedly talks down to Dennis, and then segue into Jill and Aimee's daylong excursion to stalk Nora Durst with the Frost twins and their Prius seems to bode well for The Leftovers, as it advances its exploration of this specific microcosm.
For the most part, the episode does what it can to keep things relatively simple from a presentation standpoint, even though the goings-on are evolving into anything but. Like the pilot, Peter Berg directed 'Penguin One, Us Zero,' so the storytelling beats remain largely the same, as does the visual style. This time out, though, there's more of an intimate feeling in the staging; it's less like being on the outside looking in and more like the reverse. This is shown in things like the way Dennis seems particularly attuned to his boss' mental state and his willingness to cover for what he likely perceives as stress-related confusion. But that also helps express what happened with Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn) without going into exacting detail about the night he lost his mind.
The same goes for the other characters, whose storylines get a little more screen time this go round. The aforementioned Nora Durst remains a curiosity for Jill and Aimee, while others regard her more as a pitiable object to be treated with kid gloves. Her taped questionnaire regarding an elderly couple's departure benefit for their son is another example of how the show balances two complex sensations, as the palpable grief and frustration of the parents is met with an underlying sentiment that Nora was getting some kind of emotional fulfillment by asking the uncomfortable questions and observing the reactions of her respondents.
Meanwhile, Meg and Laurie's pairing offers a closer glimpse inside the Guilty Remnant that's not so much about the group's inner workings as it is about what's necessary to give up in order to become a part of it. Laurie puts Meg through a Mr. Miyagi-like routine that involves taking items from her luggage and having her attempt to chop down a tree – all while communicating through scribbles and facial expressions. And speaking of expressions, Brenneman does fine work in a short scene where she and Meg seem to bond over "hot cop" Kevin, and Meg begins to understand the idea of what it means to be part of the G.R. and to leave everything else behind.
For only its second episode, The Leftovers sets the table for larger arcs and events that seem to be on the horizon with regard to Gaston's character and his coincidental association with Kevin Sr.'s delusional warnings to his son. It’s the same with Wayne and whatever he's cooking up that requires Tom to go on a prolonged road trip with Christine. What's so compelling so far is that despite the sizable plot-driven elements brewing in the background, the smaller, more personal and intimate moments resonate and linger as strongly (if not more so) than the persistent questions about the past or the future.
In the end, keeping the characters focused on each other helps make it that much easier for those enjoying what they've seen so far to do the same.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with 'Two Boats and a Helicopter' @10pm on HBO.