The Leftovers Finds Satisfaction with Ambiguity

Major spoilers for The Leftovers in this post.

So, while the creators have been saying it since day one, it was still startling that The Leftovers ended last week without definitively explaining the Great Departure. The event was the show’s central mystery: in an instant, two percent of the world’s population vanished without a trace. Since much of the series was about the struggle to understand the Departure and find meaning in a world where such things can happen, it was a bold choice to, shall we say, let the mystery be.

This is significant, not only in light of the show’s thematic work around doubt and anxiety, but also in the current era of television, where audiences endlessly focus on solving riddles and then angrily demand answers for ambiguous moments.

Continue reading

The Leftovers Stares Down the End


HBO promotional image of Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston)

As it prepares for its final episodes, it’s time to revisit HBO’s The Leftovers, where past years of struggles and miracles give way to a looming cataclysm. In brief, the show depicts the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, a Rapture-like event where 2% of the Earth’s population vanished in an instant. The first season focused on the immediate aftermath of the event in a small town in upstate New York, and the second turned to a community in Texas, which was spared altogether.

Having already moved most of the cast across the country, the final season moves most of the action to Australia, in the days leading up to the seven-year anniversary of the Departure: a growing consensus sees this occasion as the likely beginning of the End of Days. Simultaneously darker and funnier than its predecessors, the show is very conscious that this season is its last. Absurdity and grief pair together as the characters realize that their quest to make the Departure meaningful approaches its final hour.

While the other seasons largely focused on community responses to tragedy, this final season has been atomically individual. After all, we each go into death alone, even though we are all going to die.

Continue reading

Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Leftovers Season 2

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.


I am!

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Bonus: the Ninth Doctor is in it! Remember how we all used to love that show with that guy?

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.

Continue reading

Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Job, The Leftovers, and a God Who Does Not Answer

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.


Reverend Matt Jameson (Christopher Eccleston, left) and chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, right)

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.

Continue reading