[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Talking about The Leftovers in season 2 can be a tricky endeavor. There is a tendency to over explain its thematic elements, while at the same time the desire to treat it as Lost 2.0, complete with a mystery to be solved and clues (especially number-based clues), becomes too tantalizing a prospect to resist. This is especially tricky in the wake of the Lost series finale and the fact that Lindelof has stated on many an occasion (and has since reinforced in his choosing of a new opening credits song) that there will be no answer to the mystery of the Sudden Departure.
The desire to theorize, speculate, and search for clues often overshadows the more contemplative nature of the narrative. On one hand, it is as though the show is expected to conform to being something it is not, or at least doesn't want to be. And at the same time it can feel like those clue-hungry few are setting themselves up for disappointment, in the event the series doesn't successfully align itself with what they have built it up to be. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult not to feel the need to deconstruct the show and parse it for clues of some larger meaning or context when it presents another terrific episode that also happens to be as full of specific religious connotation as 'No Room at the Inn.'
As an episode, the hour feels most like the Matt Jamison-centric 'Two Boats and a Helicopter' from season 1. That installment delivered the first example of the sort of character-focused drama The Leftovers was capable of when it concentrated on a single story or episodic adventure. That formula proved successful enough in the aforementioned 'Boats' and again with 'Guest' that, in season 2, the series began to use it as the framework for every episode so far, establishing a strong perspective – either through an individual or group – and maintaining that focus to tell a complete story.
If anything, 'No Room at the Inn' is the natural evolution of the first Matt solo story and the storytelling device that has delivered the improved and more focused second season of the series. The structure is reminiscent of that season 1 offering, as the resolve of Matt Jamison is tested yet again for reasons perhaps of his own doing, or perhaps by the unknowable command of some higher power. Whereas Matt was first tasked with saving his church, and forced to endure countless conflicts and setbacks only to think himself and his church saved, thanks in part to his perceived ability to accurately interpret certain signs and signals, here Matt's resolve and devotion is tested through a much more arduous journey.
Earlier, Matt confided in Nora that his wife Mary (Janel Moloney) awoke from her persistent vegetative state for a few hours, and that he believed Jarden to have been the cause of this occurrence that has yet to be repeated. His search for recurrence leads to a great opening sequence wherein 'Let Your Love Flow' is played on repeat, as Matt willingly enters into a sort of Groundhog Day-like existence, dutifully reliving aspects of the day leading up to Mary's miraculous and temporary awakening. Structurally, this sequence is as well built as nearly everything else on the show, demonstrating Matt's desperation, frustration, and dedication with almost no dialogue whatsoever. The result, then, places the audience deeper into Matt's unique perspective, one where, by the time he's exited the particular state of mind brought on by excessive repetition of actions and elements, it's difficult not to be on the same tension-filled emotional wavelength as the character.
As with the previous Matt-centered installment, the story is one where every action taken by him seems to lead to more and more suffering, resulting in a not unintentional reading of the book of Job – which the series previously referenced in the season 1 finale ' The Prodigal Son Returns' and is referenced again in Matt's conversation with Brett Butler outside Miracle. The question of "Why do the righteous suffer?" may have been the underlying idea of 'Two Boats' and perhaps even the entire series itself. But it is taken a step further here, when Matt seemingly comes to the conclusion that his continued virtue may have been for selfish reasons. All of this is further complicated by the revelation of Mary being pregnant, which comes with a truck load of religious and moral questions, from which the audience has to either take Matt's story at face value or see him in an entirely different light.
These complications and more give the episode the necessary thrust to carry it from point A to point B. But before too long, stacking complication on top of complication begins to make each successive impediment feel perfunctory. It gets to the point that every choice Matt makes becomes another cringe-inducing obstacle for him to overcome. The bracelet-stealing man and his son in the red car, the impatient man with a wedding to get to, and even John Murphy – who at first seems to be Matt's unlikely savior – are reduced to mere complications or obstacles. And after a while, it can have a desensitizing effect that weighs upon the events and Matt's journey in a negative way. This is partially assuaged thanks to Kevin Carroll's electric performance, turning John into an engaging complication; especially as Justin Theroux's makes it clear through his uncharacteristically compliant performance that Kevin isn't in a place to challenge John's seemingly unquestionable authority in and around Jarden.
It all adds up to a sometimes-frustrating hour that is capped off with Matt willingly replacing a man imprisoned in a stockade, in an attempt to repent for his sins – or perhaps suggest that no one is made to suffer innocently. This act is telegraphed so far in advance it is almost surprising to see the episode actually follow through with it. Nevertheless, despite some heavy-handedness, 'No Room at the Inn' gets by on the series' always fascinating and confident composition, as well as another truly outstanding performance by Christopher Eccleston.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with 'Lens' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Van Redin/HBO