Saga of the Leftovers
How do we deal with the fragility of life? How do we cope with lost love and lost family? How do we contend with the forces of nature, the forces of mortality? It took some patience, and some diligence, but I powered through the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers through all the perceptively melancholy, depressing episodes to get here: season 2.
If you for some reason don’t know, HBO endorsed and funded the creation of a series based on American author Tom Perrotta’s novel about the sudden disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, and the events that followed in a small town. That’s actually all you need to know. This series isn’t necessarily about a post-apocalyptic struggle for characters traumatized by a single, life-defining moment; rather, the series in an introspection on pathos and how to interpret the unknowable: through theological or logical reasoning. To build a show respectful of both disciplines of thinking, whilst furthering the development of characters and theme, is quite an accomplishment for show runner Damon Lindelof (yes, the same Damon Lindelof who brought us Lost).
And this is coming from a guy who drops more shows than I’ve finished based one or two perceptively poor episodes, never to return or give it a second chance. Oddly enough, I made it through the entire first season of HBO’s The Leftovers without giving up, even though I came close to ditching after season one’s relentless string of depressing narratives. And I’m really glad I stuck it out: Season two is an incredible ten episode arc that rivals the best shows I’ve ever seen.
The first season of Damon Lindelof’s mystery box series needed to set the tone and stage for the myriad of themes it sought to explore: foremost grief, but also love, pain, family, loss, connection, spirituality, and religion. And while packaged well, the first season seems disjointed — there wasn’t an underlining narrative arc that binds the story from episode one to episode 10. This is partly why season two was such a shocking experience. From the rebooted credit sequence (absolutely astounding in its simple artistic design with a meta song mockingly drumming in the background) to the wild opening segment of a cavewoman’s struggle in episode one, to the beautiful round-table close, the narrative arc is perfect and the execution extraordinary. My love for this season could also stem from my soft spot for transcending narratives that explore human existence, rationale, and being, but even without that as a reason to explore its story, The Leftovers is a spectacle to behold, albeit its composition in subtle strokes.
Season two also solidified an expectation for the show, and fulfilled an achievement Lindelof had been seeking ever since embarking on Lost back in 2004: this show (and that one) seeks to explore the nature of our connectedness with each other here on earth, even through the unexplained phenomena of life, death, dreams, and the spiritual realm. When JJ Abrams and Lindelof first explored this notion in Lost, they built a complex, overbearing mess of mysteries conjured along the way, and were never able to satisfactorily pay it off. For all its dramatic heaviness, Lost was predicated on its mysteries — a trickling of questions, clues, and cliffhangers stringing one episode to the next with a slow burn of answers over 121 forty-five minute segments. But even Lindelof admits that the audience was too smart for this underpinning of the series, and eventually Lost disappointed because it actually wanted to focus on something other than the jumbled mess of plot holes and mysteries that gradually were shat on by ambiguous (or non-ambiguous) answers and revelations. On the other hand, The Leftovers has proven that it is not predicated on its greatest mystery (why and what happened to millions of the world population, who seemingly vanished all at once at the same time on October 14); rather, it is predicated on the underlying relationships and questions of being through thematic explorations of the struggle of life.
Sure, you could argue Lost attempted to do this the entire time, but that’s not the reason any of us were watching the show. We wanted to know what happened next in the unfolding of the overall mystery of the island and its supernatural impact on all the primary characters. But not once during season two of The Leftovers did I feel I needed a clue or answer to its stage-setting mystery; neither did I feel the need to necessarily receive an answer for all the other narrative arc questions that cropped up (mostly because season one set the expectation that I oughtn’t get an answer), so it was delightful to see the narrative threads (even the foreshadowing of episode one) perfectly ladder into the final few episodes to complete the story. There are still unanswered questions, but they don’t matter nearly as much. Now that the ground rules have been written, they are fully explored and enriched in season two: you care more about the characters, the balance of interpretation between the spiritual and the pragmatic, and the delicateness of life as we perceive it.
Are there forces moving us through life? Do we believe in them to reassure ourselves, to justify our actions? Do we not because it’s illogical? And does it matter? In some ways, the answer to these thoughts about ourselves and about the world of The Leftovers is perfectly colored during every Season Two episode by the new credits sequence — and the spectacularly chosen theme song “Let the Mystery Be” by Iris Dement. The refrain rattles thus:
“Everybody's wonderin' what and where
They all came from
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go
When the whole thing's done
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be”
Our characters travel through misplacement, abandonment, death, purgatory, revenge, misunderstanding, assumption, psychosis, and, through it all, familial love. The Leftovers has become a thesis statement on spirituality — can we rationalize tragedy, loss, and love through theology, or through the explicit actions of humans beings and their impact on one another, regardless of supernatural divination? Can anything truly be explained?
The Leftovers season two’s greatest ally in its conviction is its open-mindedness: there isn’t a right or wrong, true or false binary explanation for any of the events that transpire. You watch characters do awful things to remind the rest of the population that they are not safe regardless of the mathematical perception of safety based on what we think we know about the Departed; you watch characters seemingly die and resolve their purgatorial predicaments; you watch as the world burns and family perseveres. There are no easy answers with The Leftovers (or questions, for that matter). But if you watch both of the series’ current seasons, you will have a more informed lens through which to gaze at life's tectonic shifts of emotion and tragedy.