The Leftovers has always refused to be easily categorised or even easily followed – before I watched this new season-opener, I was saying to Jed I’d deliberately put it off till the weekend because it required too much concentration to be school night tv. Season 1 was brave, provocative and defiantly, uncompromisingly slow to get where it wanted to go and tell the story it wanted to tell. Having got there, however, (and rewarded the small band of viewers who stuck with it with some of the best tv of the year in the process), season 2 seems determined to go somewhere entirely different, in just as unsettling and challenging a way.
On one view, the current trend towards “anthology” tv shows like True Detective or American Horror Story, where a different cast tell a different story each season (either to keep things fresh, secure big-time movie actors for limited time tv projects or manipulate Emmy categories, depending on your point of view) makes this a good time for changing things up in sophomore seasons, even for non-anthology tv. But it still takes a special kind of confidence and courage, especially in a show that already demands a lot of attention and commitment from its audience, to essentially start all over again, both story and character-wise, and expect them to stay with you.
The jaunty, but unnervingly apt new titles and opening theme – “Some say once you’re gone, you’re gone forever; some say you’ll never come back” – are in themselves statements of intent. I’ve heard that some people gave up on The Leftovers because they thought “it’ll never explain what happened.” Of course it won’t. Nor should it. The whole point – at least of season 1 – was the not knowing, and how that affected people. As the new song says, “Think I’ll just let the mystery be.” And the new season, based on this first ep, seems to be saying “and introduce a completely new side of it, while I’m here.”
We start, bizarrely, what looks like thousands of years ago, with a loincloth-clad woman having a very difficult night. There’s no dialogue, only music and cries or screams for this first, extremely tense, deeply upsetting vignette; a story within a story, the exact meaning of which may be straightforward (this is a place where earthquakes have always been common!) or more symbolic (babies, chosen ones, miracles, what have you), who knows. That will be up to each individual viewer to interpret for themselves.
Once the cavewoman’s tale is told, we slide into modern times and the town of “Miracle, Texas. Pop: 9,261. Departures: Zero.” While the rest of the world is wounded and bewildered by its losses, Miracle is supremely smug about its lack thereof; as well as the religious/commercial aspect (modern-day pilgrims being bussed in, looking to buy miracles of their own), I was struck by the joyful schadenfreude of the school choir singing about how their purity of heart had saved them from the pain of the Departure.
But it’s clear from the second we get there that Miracle isn’t actually as pure or as joyful as all that; something very, very sinister is going on and the terrible, palpable feeling that “something bad is going to happen,” if I can quote local clairvoyant Isaac, is unshakeable throughout the entire ep.
We focus initially on an affectionate, apparently happy African-American family – Nurse Kira, Fire chief John and their teenage kids – but, even in their daily lives, there are a number of quick, sometimes mundane, nonetheless unsettling little touches that kept this viewer at least in a perpetual state of fear and tension. The Tell-Tale Heart-like chirping cricket, the father who can never wake up on his own, the naked running (there’s a lot of random nudity for what is an entirely sex-free episode) through the woods…. it’s all so disquieting that we spend every single scene waiting for catastrophe, whether it ultimately materialises or not, and the fact it takes a good forty minutes for anyone we recognise from last season to show up just adds to the atmosphere of profound unease.
I could be sitting here for days trying to unpick the layers of religious and philosophical symbolism packed into the ep, but I doubt I’d manage the half of it. I’m still trying to work out whether I actually enjoyed it or not, never mind what it all means. It was intriguing, certainly. Mesmerising, frightening and – I keep coming back to this – very brave. This ep won’t win The Leftovers any new fans, but will it repel some of the old ones? Maybe some. But I’ll be back on the edge of my seat next week, and we’ll see where we go from there.