[This is a review of The Leftovers season 2, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is a testament to just how consistently well made and confident The Leftovers has become in its second season that the show can enter into an episode like 'International Assassin' without so much as a hint of self-doubt. But it may be an even greater testament to the strides the already-plenty-good series has made in its second go-round that Damon Lindelof and his crew could deliver an episode that takes the already heightened reality of the post-Departure world and turns it into a frenzied fever-dream filled with symbols and messages, all in an effort to bring Kevin Garvey back to the land of the living.
Last week's episode ended with two deaths – one of which was apparently Kevin Garvey and the other was his would-be guide, Virgil. As has been the norm with television as of late, portions of the Internet that follow the goings-on of The Leftovers were admittedly taken aback by what was presumably another high-profile character death that may or may not be dialed back in the next episode or weeks to come. There was, admittedly, some weight behind the perceived dismissal of such a major character. Although season 2 has demonstrated the ways in which the series isn't really told from any one character's perspective, Kevin has, for the most part, been the audience proxy. That's no small task for a series with such a specific point of view, so when a character like Kevin is put in a position where his term on the program and in the story is called into question, there is inevitably going to be a response.
Although last week's episode took a surprising turn, wherein Virgil emptied the syringe of epinephrine (which was probably not even epinephrine to begin with) and then shot himself, there was enough evidence to suggest this was a simple misdirect, but not a malicious one against the audience. One of the reasons why this feels true is because 'A Most Powerful Adversary' explained the rules of what was going to happen long before anything actually occurred. The misdirect didn't nullify any of these rules; it just let to a predictable emotional response – one that was heightened by the unpleasant manner in which Kevin's body contorted on the floor of the trailer, shortly before Virgil took his own life. The episode told the audience everything that was going to happen, but ended the hour with just enough ambiguity that viewers were left to question whether or not the story was going in the direction they were told it would.
Rather than act as a complete surprise or become something the series would have to walk back. Virgil's description of what Kevin must do in 'A Most Powerful Adversary' loosely details what is going to take place in 'International Assassin.' And although it feels like the show is pulling a fast one, the ongoing story is actually playing by the rules it previously laid out. As a result, one of the most interesting aspects about 'International Assassin' isn't necessarily the way it extends the supernatural boundaries of The Leftovers – though that is part of it – but rather the way in which the series successfully primed its audience to accept an episode that is filled end to end with dreamlike happenings and often teeters on the brink of being hallucinatory.
Structurally, the episode most resembles 'No Room at the Inn,' in which Matt Jamison's Job-like ordeals lead the plot from point A to point B. Here, as Kevin journeys through (presumably) the underworld, his quest to rid himself of Patti carries with it several references to Greek mythology and symbols of death and resurrection. Some of the references seem to be very distinct, while others are more general, making the episode less obvious than 'No Room.' Here, Kevin's story begins with him emerging from a tub of water, an obvious symbol of rebirth in film, television, and literature. There is also the matter of the bird in the hotel lobby (a creature symbolically linked with death in many cultures), which at one point is a major distraction for everyone, until Virgil, who made the mistake of drinking the water, kills it. The act of drinking water is a clear reference to one of the five rivers flowing through Hades that would cause forgetfulness in those who imbibed from it.
Because of the nature of the series, and the way in which it has approached similar thematically rich material, The Leftovers makes 'International Assassin' into something more than just a surreal trip. For one thing, the series plays it straight even while it's hitting them with powerful chords from Va, pensiero. It makes no attempt to sell the events as just a dream or the illusory experience of someone hovering on the brink of death. There seems to be a correlation between what happens to Kevin there and what happens to him in the "real world." The episode even goes so far as to end things with Kevin emerging from the ground, much to the surprise of Michael (Jovan Adepo), whose frank response suggests there to have been a certain amount of skepticism on his behalf regarding the whole affair.
More surprising, though, is the way 'International Assassin' plays it straight in terms of following through on what it described to the audience the week before. Kevin's struggle against his many obstacles, in an attempt to confront and vanquish Patti on her own turf, is exactly what Virgil described and that's precisely what transpires. After Kevin drank the poison and Virgil emptied the syringe before killing himself, it seemed as though The Leftovers might have something else up its sleeve – perhaps something with regard to Evie and the missing girls. And it still might. But after taking a digressive trip into the afterlife and presenting it in such a straightforward manner, The Leftovers earns a lot of credit for the way it tells its story seemingly at face value.
Justin Theroux is as good as always, proving himself equally adept at playing an international man of mystery, as he is the afflicted Kevin Garvey. And if this is the last time we'll see Ann Dowd in the role of Patti, she certainly exits on a high note. The scene with Theroux and young Patti at the well is followed up by an equally strong moment between the two characters that have literally hit rock bottom. After nearly two seasons of being primarily a shifty and engaging antagonist, Dowd's performance elicits sympathy from the audience, proving once again that, in the world of The Leftovers, the stranger it is the more likely it is to happen.
The Leftovers continues next Sunday with 'Ten Thirteen' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Van Redin/HBO