I first came aboard this blog, oh so many moons ago, with The Leftovers, HBO’s enigmatic drama about life after the rapture-like Departure. Somehow, we’re just now getting to Season 2.
You’re probably not watching this show. Most people are not watching this show. But you should be watching this show. Yes, the name makes it hard to find on Tumblr, unless you’re equally interested in tips on spicing up last night’s dinner.
Season 2 uproots the cast from suburban New York to the small town of Jarden, Texas—the only place on Earth where not a single person was taken away. The Leftovers shares a creator with Lost, and both shows are famously stingy with the solutions to their riddles. So there are no answers to be found one episode into season two, but there are an awful lot of mysteries, with the same dark, Biblical imagery that powered the first season.
The inciting incident in The Leftovers is the sudden disappearance of two percent of the world’s population—the Departure. While the event is obviously supernatural, the show offers no explanation. Parallels to the rapture in the Book of Revelation are obvious—and the show’s characters react as such—but there is no confirmation, and dozens of competing prophets offer their own explanation. The major, direct Biblical reference is a long reading from the Book of Job, offered by Christopher Eccleston’s Reverend Matt Jameson. In that context, the season became a meditation on the arbitrary, meaningless nature of tragedy.
Season 2 appears to pivot from tragedy to miracle. Matt has a new flock in Texas, and when introducing himself, he announces that his wife, Mary, has been miraculously cured just by arriving in Jarden. A questionable claim; she still appears catatonic in her only scenes. Jarden itself was entirely spared from the Departure, which earned it the not-at-all-on-the-nose nickname of “Miracle”. Pilgrims come to Jarden seeking some kind of blessing or cure, even trying to buy vials of water from the river. Daily life in Jarden continues almost normally, but the cracks are getting harder to ignore. Literally: there are fissures in the streets, which have not been repaired, but walled off. The town is walled-off from the outside world, and visitors and migrants are carefully limited by the National Parks Service. A hermit takes up residence in a lofted hut above the town square, and goat sacrifices have become familiar in the diner. Their meaning remains unknown. The town fire department demolishes the home of a palm-reader named Isaac. The town’s population is fixed at 9,261, one in, one out.
But since the Departure, nothing supernatural has clearly happened here. A single question looms over the premiere: Is Miracle for real? There’s no answer yet. But the premiere is stuffed with Biblical allusions, pitched to a dark, ominous tone.
After all, we’re in Jarden, an apparent portmanteau of the river Jordan and the word “garden”. If that’s too subtle, most of the episode is focused on a young woman named “Evie,” and the only natural enemy of miraculous gardens are young women named Eve. Laying it on thick, Evie has a twin brother, Michael, and their new neighbors—the Garvey family of last season—have a foundling daughter named Lily. The archangel Michael, at least in Paradise Lost, expelled Adam and Eve from Eden and guarded its gates; Lily hints at Lilith, Adam’s first wife according to Jewish myth and folklore. Add a snake—seen in a harrowing-but-inscrutable sequence set in prehistoric Jarden, and we’re good to go here. That scene also recalls the punishment inflicted on women for Eve’s sin, by graphically depicting a traumatic birth. Sure enough, by episode’s end, Evie—and the Jarden river—have vanished without a trace.
But while these are grim portents of the season to come, it’s not all negative, and the show may be tracking a new course this season. Evie’s name, after all, isn’t “Eve”—it’s a nickname for Evangeline, meaning the bearer of good news; it has no etymological connection to Eve. Matt’s foil this year appears to be Evie’s father, John. Matthew and John, two of the Gospels, and once again, “good news”. Even Michael, despite ominous connotations for the Garden itself, commands the heavenly host against Satan, and he talked Adam through the upsides of expulsion by the end of Milton. And maybe Mary really is getting better—Evie’s mother Erika (Emmy-winner Regina King) observes the sudden recovery of a baby bird, and in at least some theories, all angels are named Erika.
People even appear happy for once:
So, again the question: are miracles real? Is Miracle real? I don’t know. The Leftovers might never answer it for us; we’re never going to know if Miracle is for real. The first episode keeps both possibilities in sight, and pairs hope and fear with an overriding tension. The desire for miracles to be real is inseparable from the fear that they are not. That fear generates a need to protect miracles at all costs, manifested by attributing missing miracles to a lack of faith or a deviation from a divine plan.
Isaac was a palm-reader; divination is condemned by Leviticus and becomes a possible source for losing miracles—a questionable sacrifice, given the result when Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac. The fence seeks to preserve Jarden exactly as it was, lest there be some hidden variable which destroys their protection. The population is significant: the digits in 9,261 add up to eighteen, the Hebrew symbol for life. Change the number, lose the miracle?
There’s a fable in the Han Feizi, written by a philosopher during the Warring States period in China, about a farmer who sees a rabbit run into a stump, full-speed, and break its neck, giving the farmer a free meal. Deciding that there was something very special about this stump, the farmer put aside his plow and watched the stump, waiting for another rabbit that never came.
In Jarden, they don’t know if they’re watching a stump or not. Are they waiting for another rabbit to chance on by, or is there something real that protects them?