The Leftovers s2 ep 1

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.

Public Service Announcement 47 of 2015: The Leftovers

A quick reminder for UK fans of Damon Lindelof’s latest US drama The Leftovers: the show returns to Sky Atlantic for its second season this Monday (5th) at 10pm – ie just one day after its US return, so well done Sky Atlantic. Season one wasn’t for everyone, of course, and, in fairness, I can see why its slow pace and deeply melancholy tone turned some people off. I thought it was absolutely terrific, though, so I’ll be watching and reviewing each ep and doing my best not to ponder my own mortality / throw myself from a great height as I go.

The Leftovers s1 ep 10

imageWe begin with Kevin, still in Cairo, calling for help from an unexpected source, which leads (in a week peppered with them) to a completely bizarre yet sort of funny dream sequence. The writers of this show have a macabre sense of humour, further evidenced by an even more bizarre (non-dream-sequence) encounter Kevin has at a rest stop on the way home.

The Chief – a stunning performance from Justin Theroux, by the way – isn’t the only Prodigal Son on the road, meanwhile; Tommy and Christine and the baby are travelling too, with an air of impending doom hanging over them from the second we see them.

On the sliding scale of impending doom, however, both Kevin and Tommy fall some way below what is about to befall Mapleton and its residents at the hands of both the Guilty Remnant and themselves. I thought we’d already seen the worst the Remnant could do to the townsfolk, but I was clearly deluded: this week, they do something so incredibly, horrendously, repugnantly cruel that it leaves Nora in pieces and me aghast. The consequences, meanwhile, bear out Kevin’s warnings all those weeks ago as…. well, that would be telling. Suffice to say that, after last week’s disappointing (for me, anyway) extended flashback episode, “The Prodigal Son Returns” takes us back to the present-day for a finale as shocking, painful and explosive as it is brilliant.

I thought this was absolutely magnificent: an incredible end to what has been a fiercely intelligent, brave and powerful first season, exploring the unfathomable pain of loss and the terrible pain people can inflict on each other in trying to cope with it. It’s definitely a niche taste but since episode 1, The Leftovers has utterly captivated me with its combination of compassion, wit and stunning imagery; just as one would expect from showrunner Damon Lindelof, there are echoes of Lost in its style and religious texts in its story-telling, but the combination is like nothing else on tv. I can’t wait to see what season 2 brings.

The Leftovers s1 ep 9

imageTaking us back to the few days leading up to the Departure, “The Garveys At Their Best” starts off as a chance for us to see Kevin, Laurie, Nora and everyone else in what seem to be happier, saner times before slowly peeling back the layers to reveal deep unease and discontent brewing underneath. Yes, everything seems perfect at first glance but, even before the Departure, as the episode wears on it becomes clear to us that everything isn’t. And then, everything goes to hell in a handcart.

For those perpetually searching for answers in their tv shows, there are masses of them: where Kevin was on the day, what Laurie’s secret was (the most powerful part of the episode for me), what was going on with Tommy …. and so on and so forth. Just about every Mapleton resident we’ve met is woven skilfully into what is a beautifully-plotted, gorgeously shot and wonderfully-acted backstory; there’s no denying the intelligence and craftsmanship that has gone into this episode. It’s unfortunate then that most of it is so epically boring.

I absolutely love The Leftovers and I enjoy a few judicious flashbacks here and there to fill in the backstory, but a whole episode spent in the past at this stage is a whole episode wasted, as far as I’m concerned: I want to know what’s going to happen to the characters we know now, not spend ages hanging out with the characters they used to be. I enjoyed the last 15 minutes or so, I appreciate why they chose to tell this part of the story this way, I can even admire the courage and skill behind it, but I’d rather they didn’t do it again. Back to the future for the finale next week, please.

The Leftovers s1 ep 8

imageJust when things were beginning to look a little bit hopeful for Kevin and Nora, along comes “Cairo”: not so much an episode of serialised tv drama as an hour-long shock to my nervous system, punctuated by a series of devastating punches to my gut.

WHOA.

The ep begins in quiet yet creepy fashion, with Kevin cheerfully, optimistically laying the table for dinner, while the sinister Patti cheerfully, terrifyingly lays out scores of people’s clothes in neat little outfits, all over the floor of the church. What is she up to? We don’t quite know yet, but no way is it good; as the story unfolds, we begin to fathom just how far this woman will go and just how determined, demented and utterly monstrous she truly is.

She’s not the only monster in the episode, however, and maybe not even the scariest one, as poor Kevin – increasingly demented himself – is forced to confront the reality(?) of what he’s been doing in his sleep and, my God, what a terrible, horrifying reality it is. I don’t even know how to describe the sheer enormity of it beyond saying that Justin Theroux and Ann Dowd are particularly superb in some of the most fearless, visceral and powerful scenes I’ve ever seen on tv.

Which is not to take away from Jill’s sub-plot, either. Any other week, any other show, and her story coming to a brilliant, brutal head would be the banner headline – the dinner scene, Nora’s house, the jaggedly painful confrontation with Amy, the jaw-dropping fulfilment of Patty’s prophecy… I say again: WHOA. I’ve kept this post deliberately short and hopefully cryptic, because, trust me, you need to watch this episode spoiler-free. I know I praise the show to the skies every week but, even by Leftovers standards, “Cairo” was absolutely incredible.

The Leftovers s1 ep 7

imageI’ve always known I was super-square as a teenager but the more I watch The Leftovers, the more convinced I am that I was practically cube-shaped.

This week, Jill and pals take a break from sex games and stealing religious symbols to try a little suffocation instead, taking turns to be shut up inside an old fridge for as long as they can bear/survive it. My God. My idea of taking a risk at that age was back-combing my fringe.

Dweeb or not, though, I have no interest in ever experiencing for myself the sheer horror of the moment when the handle of the fridge breaks off, with Jill trapped inside….. My GOD. It’s a terrific scene, with Jill’s terror mirroring the increasing panic of her friends (and me) outside until REDACTED turns up and… EH?! I was as surprised as Jill was, but this arresting sequence captures perfectly both Jill and friends’ appetite for self-destruction and the nagging suspicion that maybe REDACTED, mad though he is, might actually know a lot more about what’s going on than all the sane folk.

Chief Kevin is certainly struggling to differentiate fantasy from reality. His dreams are getting even weirder, he can’t remember adopting the aggressive dog tied up in the backyard and he’s beginning – at last – to get a little wary around Amy. There have been little hints over the past few weeks that she has less than platonic intentions toward him, but they’ve been a bit more ambiguous till now; this week both Jill and Kevin seem acutely, legitimately, suspicious of her hanging round him, and her attitude towards Kevin’s relationship with Nora is definitely a warning flag.

Said relationship with Nora continues to be lovely, mind you. Their cute little chat in the car, Nora’s awesome dismissal of the GR…. it’s all so sweet. And then it all turns very HBO, if you know what I mean – this is not a show for the shy.

As Kevin tries to balance his suddenly flourishing love life with his nutty family one, however – the magazine thing is very Lost-ish – stepson Tom has troubles of his own, with the BEST development in the Holy Wayne/baby story ever. It’s not a huge surprise, but it’s still a shock, and it suddenly makes that storyline several thousand times more interesting. Hurrah! I’m running out of ways to say it but “Solace for Tired Feet” was another superb episode of one of the best shows on the box. Once again, I loved it.

The Leftovers s1 ep 6

imageTime to get to know “Poor Nora Durst” a little better, as we follow her to a convention for, I don’t know, the Department of the Departed and partners, or something. Essentially, it’s one of those work conferences held in a hotel over a couple of days, where people compete over who can drink more, then oversleep and miss their seminars/panels/the reason they’re at the conference in the first place. You know the type. The difference being, however, that the guests of honour – the “legacies” – at this particular conference are people who have family members among the Departed.

In a magnificently prosaic, totally conference-y detail, you get an orange sticker on your laminated ID for every family member you’ve lost and, as Nora points out, her 3 stickers get her a lot of sympathy. That sympathy, however, both has its limits – as Nora learns when another guest runs away from her in terror – and is its own kind of prison; when her pass is stolen, initially Nora’s outraged, but the enforced anonymity means that when she’s swept up with a group determined to have a good time, she can let go of all the baggage of being Nora and having all those orange stickers and party just as hard.

This being The Leftovers, however, it’s not quite as simple as that. Nora thinks someone is using the stolen pass to impersonate her, and (as with Chief Kevin’s Dog-Shooting Friend) neither the viewer nor the hotel staff can be sure at first whether she’s imagining it. That and the life-size Departed Doll industry are more than creepy enough for one ep. But there’s plenty to unsettle the viewer before we even get there; in particular, the incredibly sad shopping trip when Nora buys cereals, milk and eggs for her Departed children, throwing out the untouched cereals, milk and eggs she bought for them last time, and the spectacularly unnerving interlude with “Angel”;, which I won’t spoil, but freaked both “Angel” and I the hell out.

There’s light amongst all the shade though, as Nora shares some majestically awkward, yet completely adorable scenes with Chief Kevin, and it’s those scenes I liked the best about “Guest.” Not because of the shipper element – ok, not just because of the shipper element, but also because one of the things The Leftovers is brilliant at is awkwardness: the less than polished things people say and less than explicable things people do, especially when they’re grieving. In a tv landscape full to bursting with fast-talking geniuses who talk in snappy one-liners burnished to a shine, it’s refreshing to see a show where people talk more disjointedly and say things they shouldn’t, getting uncomfortable pauses and stares in return instead of more quick-fire banter. Another terrific episode of the best new show of the season then; I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know who’re watching The Leftovers, but I absolutely adore it.

The Leftovers s1 ep 5

imageEvery episode of The Leftovers so far has opened with the televisual equivalent of a punch to the gut, but the pre-credits sequence of this week’s “Gladys” pushed the envelope even further.

One of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen on tv, this was an unflinching, utterly harrowing depiction of a brutal murder, a scene so distressing that I actually whimpered and had to look away. Which was uncomfortable but probably good for me as well: it sounds incredibly patronising to say it but murder is obviously a terrible, terrible crime, and yet it’s a crime that, on tv, is regularly sanitised and stylised. Think of the number of jokey procedurals where the murder is no more than the jump-off point for the wisecracks and the sexual tension, or some of the more self-consciously serious shows where the killings are both routine and multiple, or even the “daring” psychological series where they’re almost fetishised. It’s not that my tv viewing doesn’t include some of these shows – I love The Mentalist and Burn Notice, I even went through a brief phase of watching the supremely unpleasant SVU – and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with escapism, but sometimes a dose of realism can be a healthy thing, I think. So, while I never want to watch that sequence again, all credit to veteran director Mimi Leder for keeping it honest.

Enough of the sermonising, though, and back to this week’s show. As a result of the murder, Laurie continued to struggle with both grief and doubt, the townsfolk and the Council openly rebelled against Chief Kevin and the rising tensions between the GR and everybody else threatened to boil over. Things then took an even more sinister turn when ATFEC got involved and offered to “eliminate the infestation” instead of investigating the crime, leaving the troubled but fundamentally decent Kevin as the GR’s last line of defence; the closing sequence showing ATFEC’s cold, mechanical attitude towards the victims wasn’t quite as difficult to watch as the opening one but it was still incredibly grim. There was a real sense in this episode of a world and a world view deeply, irrevocably affected by the Departure – the GR and the pushback against it isn’t confined to Mapleton, and the authorities’ reaction to it is far from benign.

All of which sounds beyond depressing but, as usual, there was some dry humour to leaven the mix (this week, not only were the townsfolk thumbing their noses at Kevin, but so were his alarm system and his dry-cleaners). And there was a little hope too. In a couple of poignant scenes, Kevin and daughter Jill edged closer to understanding each other, and, on a much lighter note, Kevin and fellow lonely soul Nora edged closer to, er, sleeping together. A ship, you guys! You know how I feel about a ship! Not that I needed another reason to love this show – this episode was terrific.

The Leftovers s1 ep 4

imageIt’s Christmas in Mapleton, but October in the UK – which doesn’t seem all that strange for us, since we often get Christmas eps of US series around March, but must’ve felt a bit odd if you watched this week’s Leftovers when it aired in the US in July.

Anyway, yes, it’s Christmas in Mapleton, somebody’s stolen the Baby Jesus doll from the Nativity display in the town centre and Chief Kevin wonders “Am I supposed to give a shit?” Which makes me laugh, with a hand over my mouth, because it feels like maybe I shouldn’t, but it’s funny.

This pretty much sets the tone for a surprisingly daring, completely uncompromising episode; for all tv nowadays is so blasé about sex and violence, it can be somewhat more reluctant to push the envelope quite as far in terms of religion. But the gamble pays off this week: “BJ and the AC” is very, very funny. And it’s also very sad, highly disturbing and utterly mesmerising.

The theft leads to some hilarious scenes (Lucy giving Kevin cash to buy a replacement doll like she’s his mum, Kevin at the supermarket, the Ping-Pong twins’ attempt at a drive-by drop-off) as well as some acutely uncomfortable ones – Jill has some issues, y’all. There is also layer upon layer of symbolism and metaphor and I could spend hours trying to unpick them without getting close to doing them justice. It may be a minority view but, for me anyway, this is some of the most ambitious, profound storytelling on tv.

But for those underwhelmed by the subtext, there’s plenty of plot to go around this week too, with both Laurie and the Guilty Remnant behaving with quite astonishing cruelty and coldness, while Tommy and Christine continue being Tommy and Christine and therefore annoying the living reminders out of me.

In fairness, Laurie and the Guilty Remnant are truly appalling people, but in such a way that I’m totally engrossed in their storylines. Tommy/Christine/Wayne? Blergh. No amount of wrestling with pantless lunatics is going to interest me in that triumvirate. I’m not entirely sure why; the T/C/W stuff is all very cleverly woven in this week with Christine’s pregnancy and the “special baby” parallel, it’s definitely improved by the lack of actual Wayne on screen, and the sea of REDACTED that stops Tommy and Christine’s bus is one of the most arresting images in an episode that is packed full of them. But I would still rather spend time with Chief Kevin – his scene with Nora was superb – or Jill and Amy or Laurie and Meg (although we’d be having words about their shenanigans this week) or Father Matt or even the Ping-Pong twins than bloody Tommy and Christine. Not that that makes any difference to how I felt about the episode overall: I thought it was absolutely fantastic.

The Leftovers s1 ep 3

imageAfter a couple of weeks hanging out with Chief Kevin and setting the mood, this week’s The Leftovers switches focus to Christopher Eccleston’s Father Matt and switches tack at the same: “Two Boats and a Helicopter” is much more of a linear, straightforward story in itself than episodes 1 and 2, and is probably much more accessible as a result. We learn a lot about Father Matt, his connections and relations with the other people we’ve met (and he’s married to Donna Moss!) and where exactly he fits in with the rest of the story in a way that may well mollify some of the people who weren’t entirely on board with the more expansive style of episodes 1 and 2.

Which is not to say ep 3 is easy viewing or that it’s limited in scope or imagination. While some of it is a little too neat – the identity of the buyer, for instance, is obvious to anyone who’s ever watched tv before – and a little too cleverly sewn up, the pervasive, dreamy air of bleakness that is ever-present in this show keeps the viewer (well, this one, anyway) anxious throughout, desperately wanting things to work out well yet absolutely convinced that they will not. It’s this quiet desperation which makes the episode’s truly shocking moments – the horrible car park incident and the awful thing Father Matt says to Nora – even more visceral and hard-hitting.

There’s an argument, of course, that The Leftovers, and this ep especially, is just mystical bobbins with nothing of substance underneath. I think there’s much more to it than that but, either way, it’s my kind of mystical bobbins: the writing is intriguing, the music is both beautiful and beautifully used, the flashbacks judicious, and the acting excellent (even if Christopher Eccleston’s American accent is a bit dubious). And the cinematography is gorgeous. The pilot is still my favourite of the three episodes we’ve seen, but this week’s was still head and shoulders above anything the other freshmen shows of the season have had to offer thus far.