[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
After last week's introduction to the somewhat rebooted universe of The Leftovers, the series was faced with an interesting decision regarding where the storyline would be headed, and how it would be handled. As has been a talking point around the series, now that the first season burned through most of what Tom Perrotta's book covered, the path the series is on is ostensibly now in the hands of Damon Lindelof, who, so far at least, appears to be shepherding the narrative in an interesting direction. Insomuch as what has been presented thus far that path is equally concerned with offering a compelling mystery from which a larger storyline can be built, while also continuing to build upon the defining elements of the characters left over from season 1.
It's not a surprise to say that 'Axis Mundi' was a terrific way to open up the season. The hour successfully introduced the Murphys, slowly exposing the elements that made them a compelling place for the story to start. It also introduced a number of new questions. Most of these queries were of the "Okay, where are you going with this?" variety that had to do with the deliberate opaqueness of what was being presented onscreen. Birds being released from boxes buried underground, young women running naked through the forest before disappearing along with a substantial amount of water were just two of the more fanciful uncertainties the season sought to introduce.
This week's 'A Matter of Geography' isn't as concerned with asking questions, but expanding upon them. That doesn't mean there are answers to what is or has been going on. This early in the season, The Leftovers is still establishing the setting of Jarden, and what it means to exist in a place that has been rebranded "Miracle National Park."
That might be what's so interesting about the second episode: it offers a peek behind the curtain that was put up last week. By introducing the audience to Jarden via characters already installed there, characters who already know the rules and the strange proclivities of the place and the people, The Leftovers was able to give the Garveys a grander entrance into the town and a more compelling introduction to its residents.
But, much to the credit of the episode, all of that comes later. First there must be reintroduction of the Kevin, Nora, and Jill – and the baby Tom left on their porch. Having the second episode of the second season pick up more or less right where season 1 left off is an interesting move, one that is in keeping with how the series aims to tackle its story – that is, it wants to make storytelling choices that have an equal chance of being disastrous as they do a smashing success. The strange, silent opening of last week's premiere is a terrific example of how The Leftovers choses to move around within the confines of its own narrative. There's no reason why the season had to begin with a loose allusion to the Garden of Eden, but it was there and love it or hate it, it did what this show is bound and determined to do week in and week out: make the audience feel something.
So the hour spends a good amount of time running through the series of choices made by Kevin and Nora, choices that will dramatically alter the course of their lives. The episode paints these decisions in an almost meta way, underlining how risky they are, but at the same time demonstrating how there is really no other option for these broken people but to take giant swings and hope for the best. Kevin and Nora's confession to one another is a perfect example. These revelations could easily blow up in both their faces – after all, does Nora really want to throw in with a somnambulist who, with the help of her brother, buried a dead woman with whom he had significant grievances? And for Kevin, is he really ready to take on the emotional needs of someone who hires prostitutes to shoot her?
There is a unique kind of intimacy and vulnerability exposed in that scene, which helps accelerate the altered dynamic between the would-be couple and allows it to quickly become something the audience can invest in. It also helps that these confessions happen in front of Jill. Kevin and Nora are baring their souls not just to one another but also Kevin's daughter. It seems like a minor thing, but just having another character in the scene gives the confessions extra weight and makes their acceptance of one another even more significant.
Which is why Kevin's attempt to, as the police detective he speaks with says, "Blow up his life," feel like a terrific impetus to pull up stakes and head to Texas. There's real tension in watching Kevin dig up Patti's body, seeing him hesitate before stomping on the gas pedal to get himself pulled over, and then admit to there being a body in the back of his pickup. That tension is admittedly released early and easily by the detective who seems sympathetic to Kevin and maybe even a little thankful someone like Patti is gone – regardless of how she met her end – but it doesn't prevent the build-up to the Garvey's move from being any less successful, nor does the resolution to Kevin's immediate legal problem feel out of place in slightly askew world the show has created.
To that end, 'A Matter of Geography' has more than one potentially daunting task to tackle, but it feels like, by the end of the hour, it has done as good a job setting up the new world the Garveys live in, as 'Axis Mundi' did introducing the new world the show sought to inhabit. Showing the same scenes but from a different perspective runs the risk of being gimmicky – again, demonstrating how not risk averse this show actually is – but there was enough of an exploration of Kevin, Nora, and Jill's side of things that it felt more complimentary to the premiere than anything else.
There were surprises, too, like Kevin waking up amidst the mysteriously drained water with a cinderblock tied to his ankle, and the return of Ann Dowd as Kevin's constant companion – one that expands on what Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn) might have been going through, and one that leads to the ominous realization that Kevin Jr. might have no other recourse (for the sake of his sanity and the safety of the people around him) but to listen to what Patti has to say.
Season 2 is still setting up what the storyline is going to be, and while it remains opaque at the moment, there's so much that is immediately interesting, just as a small element that may never be seen again – like the Garveys hectic entrance into the park – it's okay to just want to be swept up in the beautiful strangeness of the story, and to let it chart its own unpredictable course for us all to follow.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with 'Off Ramp' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Van Redin/HBO