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Monday, January 30, 2023
'The Leftovers'

'The Leftovers' stirs unsettling feelings

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is something special, a series that ventures beyond the realm of what television attempts to cover. It delves into the deep, intimidating, often terrifying questions that you have been too afraid to ask. It is a rich exploration of the human psyche with sincere thought into what makes us this way and why. It is a show that is not always pleasurable to watch, but it forces you to feel, to question and to face the unsettling reality that you most likely will never learn the answers.

The series is centered around a very simple concept: the big, cognitive question, “What if?” More specifically, what if two percent of the world population vanishes in a single moment? How will that moment affect the rest of humanity? The series is based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who is co-penning the television interpretation with “Lost,” alum Damon Lindelof. Lindelof is used to tackling large theoretical questions, however, unlike “Lost” this show is not interested in giving answers to the phenomenon but on studying the repercussions of it.

Season one centered on the Garvey family living in the small, fictional town of Mapleton when the event took place. Justin Theroux plays the father, Kevin, an emotionally conflicted, overall tormented human being ever since the event. Kevin was chief of police of Mapleton until he started sleepwalking, as well as seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. He lost his job, following in the footsteps of his father, ex-chief of police, who was locked up in a mental institution for similar reasons. Is he crazy or are the voices real? After the event, what is real? This is the type of question that sparks a reemergence of religious faith in society. Outside of Mapleton, rumors spread of a prophet in the community named Holy Wayne that can supposedly heal people’s suffering with a hug. People buy into this idea (which may or may not be legitimate) because they are desperately seeking to be healed. After such an extraordinary event, who is to question what is possible anymore?

Kevin’s wife has left the family to join the mysterious and socially destructive neighborhood cult, the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant is a complicated group with interesting objectives. It took me a while to understand why they operate the way they do. They believe the rest of humanity does not deserve to exist since the “departures” left. Each member had a special connection to the departed. They dedicate their lives to preserving the horrific memory of the event, drowning themselves and their community in grief. They view denial and moving on as selfish. The Guilty Remnant do not speak, they wear all white, they eat mush, they rid themselves of all their belongings, they block off all mirrors and, on a symbolic note, they chain-smoke. They dig up the suppressed grief of the community and rub it right in their faces, daring them to feel the pain. Their non-violence welcomes people in society to physically assault them, adamant not to defend themselves. They relish each hit because they think they deserve it and the pain makes them feel better. They have nothing to lose because they already lost everything. The Guilty Remnant spark a savagery in society that has been buried by denial; dormant until provoked.

The grief causes people to lash out and do things they never would have done before. Norah (Carrie Coon), Kevin’s love interest, is a victim of this. After her husband and kids disappeared, she gives in to the self-harm movement. She hires prostitutes to shoot her in the chest while she wears a safety vest. Jill Garvey (Kevin’s daughter) is a part of a changing teenage culture where recklessness is heightened to a new level. In the pilot, a group of them play a sick version of spin the bottle where self-inflicted burnings and sexual chokings are a deal of the draw.

The theme of religious rebirth in face of the unexplained is explored further in this current season. Season two seems to be completely reinventing the series. It features a new location, new main characters, and a new opening theme. The strange opening scene, featuring a Neanderthal giving birth, made me check to make sure I was watching the same show. The scene is revealed to be an introduction into the new location, where the cavewoman is an ancient ancestor from the area. The town of Miracle, Texas, is flocking with tourists and religious nuts because it was the only area seemingly unaffected by the sudden departure—nobody in the town disappeared. The Garveys (plus Norah and an adopted baby) decide to move there to escape the chaos of Mapleton and start anew. Ever since the event, the locale has been revered as holy ground, where even the local water is sold as a holy souvenir. The first episode of season two focuses completely on a new family, the Murphys, who are revealed to be the new neighbors of the Garveys. It is clear that their story is going to be a central focus of season two, intertwining with the Garvey’s narrative.

All the mysteries within the mystery are beyond intriguing and keep the viewers engaged. Season two continues its existential undercurrent and introduces new mysteries to scratch your head about. The rich content of the series makes it irrelevant that the overall mystery will never be solved, which is a monumental accomplishment for a generation of television that is pressured to reveal their cards when a show starts losing momentum. “The Leftovers” does not need this crutch because it is in constant momentum, continually giving more food for thought to the intricate, compelling and unexplainable characteristics of humanity. It is a show that not only demands to be watched, but also to be reflected on sincerely.

How does "The Leftovers" make you feel? Let Ben know at bagolden@wisc.edu. 

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