HBO’s The Leftovers does not feel like other shows. It inherited Game of Thrones’s Sunday night timeslot, but where its predecessor insisted that everything can be explained by the manipulations of the powerful or power-hungry, The Leftovers explores the disquieting possibility that the most agonizing mysteries may not be explained at all.
Set three years after a Rapture-like event caused 2% of the world’s population to vanish in an instant (known as “the Departure” within the show), the first season ponders through a year in the lives of its characters as they cope with its aftermath. The same Big Question rumbles desperately below every scene: why did this happen to us? The characters drive through each explanation and come up dry. This could not be the ascension of a chosen few—look how many were cheats and liars. This could not be a divine judgment against the wicked—how could the missing children have sinned so deeply? The rain, as it were, falls on the just and unjust alike.
To have this divine act be so removed from any divine purpose is maddening, and the characters bear it unsteadily. Nora, a woman who lost her husband and children that day, hires prostitutes to shoot her while she wears a bulletproof vest. Charismatic prophets emerge, and promise relief. Cults rise so quickly and become so threatening that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms adds them to its title.
At the edge of the story stands Reverend Matthew Jamison. His suffering after the Departure feels particularly cruel: in its immediate aftermath, his wife was struck by a suddenly-driverless car. She lives, but comatose and paralyzed. The Episcopalian congregation he led before the Departure falls apart now that its answers feel hollow, and his church goes into foreclosure. A miraculous rescue attempt falls painfully short: Matt discovers a $20,000 gift from a lost friend the night before the church is to be sold, then turns it into $160,000 on four spins of a roulette wheel in Atlantic City. He overpowers a mugger in the casino’s parking lot who has noticed his new riches. Minutes away from the bank, he stops to disrupt a hate crime against members of a cult called the Guilty Remnant—the perpetrators are chased off, but knock Matt unconscious with a thrown rock. He wakes up in the hospital and resumes his mad dash to the bank—arriving moments before it closes, payment in hand, he’s told that he’s three days late. He was unconscious longer than he could have known. In a final insult, he discovers that the Guilty Remnant bought the church—and, ungrateful, they will keep it.
The hope that surges throughout that episode—a righteous man favored by fortune—pops like a balloon. Are we forsaken? The Big Question appears to have a cruel answer in this cold world.
In the season finale, Matt once again encounters the Guilty Remnant. With their uncertain plan already in motion, their leader, Patti, commits suicide while being questioned in an isolated cabin by Kevin Garvey, whom she hopes to frame for murder. Kevin has both hounded and protected the Guilty Remnant since his wife Laurie joined them after the Departure. Innocent, Kevin calls Matt to help him dispose of Patti’s body. Matt buries her in the woods, in a chilling grotesque of his clerical duties. But he also insists on a funeral. Handing over his Bible, he asks Kevin to read Chapter 23 of the Book of Job, a long speech which crystallizes the show’s themes. Matt gives us the first and only real answer we get to the Big Question.
The quick and dirty story of Job tells of a righteous man, wealthy and surrounded by his loving family. God kvells about Job’s good heart, but Satan challenges Him: if Job were not so comfortable, would he still be righteous? God accepts the challenge, and summarily, Job’s family is killed and his lands are ruined. Everyone knows the end of this story: Job does not forswear the Lord, and is rewarded by a restoration of his fortunes. Endure your suffering, love God, and eventually, everything will work out, right? Patience is a virtue, everything happens according to a plan, justice will come to the righteous and grief to the wicked. A hopeful answer to the Big Question could emerge.
But that’s not the full story. Instead, we hear Job’s anger in that chapter—his outrage at being betrayed by God. Having been told by a friend that his suffering is proof of his own sins, Job demands an audience with God: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.” Believing in God’s morality and his own innocence, he cries, “He would pay attention to me. There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.”
Job, though, is denied an audience with God. Worse, God does not even deign to reject the request. Job only experiences God’s absence: “I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.” This pain is amplified because of Job’s outstanding loyalty: “My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.” In a stark conclusion, “I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” Asking the Big Question only reveals fear.
Job is utterly, completely alone. In a Universe that has subjected him to outrageous sufferings, he looked to God in his time of sorrow. And he found that for all his loyalty, for all his righteousness, for all his love—he has been left to die. Now what?
Matt stands in Job’s shoes. He has lost his livelihood and his family, taken from him without any reason. His good works for the Guilty Remnant cost him the time he needed to save his church. His body bears the wounds of his traumas. Moments of apparent favor at the roulette wheel are rendered meaningless. Now what?
The Big Question of the show now looms and the proffered answer is terrible: the Departed are gone without reason. Three years have passed, and there is no justification, no explanation, no opportunity for closure or peace. Now what? The Little Question is asked.
Job’s answer to the Little Question is to continue to rail against divine absence. “Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days… I cry to you for help and you do not answer me… Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary.” He does, ultimately, get a response—God appears but very obviously avoids answering Job’s complaint. He asserts His own omnipotence, and tells Job simply that he is not entitled to ask the Big Question. Job despairs—his Big Question has a simple answer, but God does not divulge His wager with Satan. The reader is left only to contemplate God’s indifference.
Those suffering after the Departure look for God as urgently as Job does, but they cannot find him either. The Guilty Remnant’s leader is dead, with no answers for her followers. Returning home from her burial, Kevin encounters another cult leader, a would-be prophet named Wayne. But Wayne bleeds out in a diner bathroom, professing himself to be a fraud. Matt has no church left, and his sermons, calling on Job, are now alienated from God.
Secular projects are equally unavailing. Intensive government research generates no data. Civic memorials generate no peace. And a for-profit enterprise to build lifelike dolls of the Departed is exactly as awful as it sounds. No answer to the Big Question, no meaning.
The Leftovers deliberately breaks the rules of the medium with this narrative. A mystery in the premiere should be solved in the finale—but not this time. In a narrative without justice, like Job, we watch the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. That a calamity like the Departure could occur without cause or justification thwarts conventions and, the show thereby raises profound doubts about any underlying morality in the Universe. The Big Question expands out. Can we answer the Little Question? Now what?
The Book of Job does not provide an answer—Job himself does not speak again, and only the narration tells of his restoration (without any wisdom he may have learned). For his part, Matt is oddly undiscouraged. His trials have not left him unkind, and his insight is that the meaninglessness of the Departure is a relief. Hearing Kevin’s confession that the Departure took a woman literally out from under him during an adulterous tryst, he can say, “It’s not your fault.” Not for nothing have they confronted the Guilty Remnant. Matt’s answer to the Little Question is to be freed of asking the Big Question at all.
Nora, remembering her lost children and husband, pens a long letter to Kevin, which feels more and more like a suicide note until a reversal in its last lines. Going to deliver it, she finds an abandoned infant on Kevin’s doorstep, and turns around to meet Kevin and his daughter, whom he has pulled back from her mother and the Guilty Remnant. Like Job, a family appears to be restored to Nora (and Kevin). If the Bible offers a solution to the Little Question, it may be Nora’s answer. In Ecclesiastes, grouped with Job as Ketuvim, or Writings, King Solomon preaches that “there are righteous people to whom things happen as if they were doing wicked deeds; and, again, there are wicked people to whom things happen as if they were doing righteous deeds. I say that this too is pointless.” Coming extraordinarily close to declaring God to be meaningless, he calls on the reader to “go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart” and to “enjoy life with the wife you have loved throughout your meaningless life.”
The third answer is to keep digging. To return to the Big Question. To deny Job and Solomon. To chase any prophet who can reject meaninglessness and restore underlying order or justice to the Universe. The Guilty Remnant lives on. Wayne’s self-denial may not be entirely justified. After all, the Ketuvim also encompass the Book of Daniel—the prophecy explaining all current suffering as punishment for past sins, and promising that the righteous will be brought to Heaven to shine like stars.
The second season will push these on these three possibilities, and expand further into the answers to the Little Question and continue to revisit the unanswerable Big Question.
It will keep asking.