He Said, She Said: HBO’s “The Leftovers,” Season One
Here, we introduce a new FLOOD column, in which the titular “He” converses/argues with the titular “She” about a pop-culture event in the preferred forum of pop-culture enthusiasts everywhere: the Gmail G-chat.
Today’s subject: season one of The Leftovers, HBO’s freshly-wrapped mindbender from the creator of Lost, Damon Lindelof, and based on the novel by Tom Perrotta. The debut season about a small American town coping with the unexplained worldwide disappearance of 2% of the planet’s population three years prior featured a seemingly endless assault of strange characters (whose existence was sometimes questionable), remarkable dialogue (that existed sometimes only as scrawls on notepads), frustrating red herrings (that will always exist in a Lindelof show), fabulous acting, and downright captivating television.
(WARNING: spoilers abound.) Let’s begin!
She (Breanna Murphy): So for those of us who watched this odyssey, it’s been very divisive, not unlike [showrunner/producer/writer] Damon Lindelof’s other work—what made you want to watch The Leftovers in the first place? Had you read the book?
He (Pat McGuire): I hadn’t heard of the book. I read a New York Times Magazine article on the show before it premiered. I had never watched Lost and didn’t know the first thing about Lindelof except that a lot of people hated him.
She: You are very lucky, because I was in the opposite boat there. In my household, we have a saying, “Fool me once, Damon Lindelof, shame on you…” I suppose you could say I survived Lost—which I’ll probably discuss more here because, in my mind, there are a lot of parallels between The Leftovers and Lost, both good and bad. But, generally speaking, I was willing to give DL another shot because I’ll watch just about anything about the end of the world.
He: That’s quite morbid, Bre.
She: I just want to be prepared for the apocalypse, and I’ve found television is really excellent for that.
He: Do you think the disappearance of 2% of the world’s population qualifies as an “End of the World” story?
She: Good point—no, not exactly—but I didn’t realize how precise “The Disappearance” would be, or how kind of crazy it would be in execution. In the pilot, I think the first thing we see is the woman and her baby at the laundromat and it happens so slyly. The baby’s there and then he’s not. Then the car crash—which comes back around later in the season—and you’re like, “Holy shit.” It reminds me of the best bumper sticker I ever saw: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.”
He: It’s no “shit happens” but that’s a good one. I think that premise—as described in that magazine article—is what sucked me in. And I don’t think I was watching the whole season expecting or waiting for “The Disappearance” to be explained, but I didn’t know until after the finale that the creators had said in advance that it wouldn’t be.
She: Totally. I don’t know if I was expecting a grand reveal, either—I learned from Lost that even if there were any answers, we probably wouldn’t get them—but I love how quickly it turned into a character study. The people that remained were way more important than the reasons “The Disappearance” happened,and I think that speaks volumes to the level of acting all-around.
He: I think that’s a pretty highbrow concept and I definitely tried to focus on appreciating “the craft” elements of the show, but at the end of the day I think I was ultimately searching for answers, pun intended.
She: Are you upset that you didn’t get them?
He: Not at all. I think I probably enjoyed the middle section of the season more than most people, and the finale really clicked for me. Like I said, I wasn’t expecting to find out those answers about “The Disappearance,” but it was in the back of my mind as a “maybe they’ll tell us, and wouldn’t that be a nice bonus?” I think more than wondering what it was, I was wondering if those who had vanished would turn up again elsewhere, and in a way, you could argue that they did, with the Guilty Remnant’s final stunt.
She: I definitely had a lot of questions about, well, nearly everything by the end of it, but weirdly, I didn’t need to know anything concrete behind “The Disappearance”—if it was religious or aliens or whatever. I was constantly in rollercoasters from week to week either absolutely loving an episode or wanting to curse myself for falling for the huge setups with no delivery. But three episodes of this season were some of the best TV I think I’ve seen this summer: Reverend Matt’s episode, Nora’s episode, and that second-to-last one, “The Garveys at Their Best.”
He: I bet you’re in the minority there. Talk about not pushing story forward.
She: Ugh. We should probably talk about the GR. I sat through the whole season not understanding them or, especially, Laurie (Amy Brenneman)—and seeing her in that episode, I think I understood her more and I actually gave a damn about her. But you have typical cult stuff going on there—people like Patti (Ann Dowd), who are just bonkers and given dangerous amounts of power, and then converts like Meg (Liv Tyler), who really did a character 180 from start to finish.
He: I was pretty intrigued by the cult concepts based on what I knew about the show before it started, but by the end, those were probably my least favorite scenes, until the last episode. Maybe it was just the lack of true dialogue.
She: And all the smoking. Do you feel like you understand the GR at all?
He: Hmmm. I understood them to be a group dedicated to not letting people move on with their lives after losing loved ones. I don’t get the no-talking rule, and the smoking was maybe something to either cut their own lives shorter, visibly, or to make people notice them? The all-white was just because cults always wear solid colors, right? And Heaven’s Gate already had dibs on black.
She: Ha—I loved the scene where Reverend Matt apologized his donations weren’t all white. But, your point about the GR not letting people move on—I like the differences in Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) in regards to that. Nora, in my mind, was their biggest victim because mid-way through the season she had kind of been able to move on in an emotionally stable way, even if it was from a big hug from Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph)—and they took that all away from her.
He: Do you think it’s fair to say the GR was the villain and Patti was the archvillain?
She: Man, that’s the thing about cults—and kind of about large institutions as a whole. Sometimes, it’s all about one person’s whacked-out idea or mental instability. They never established how widespread the GR was, how well organized… But I thought it was very interesting we learned that Patti was somewhat unstable before “The Disappearance”—and that Laurie was her therapist.
He: Right, or if Patti was getting orders from elsewhere. They did allude to an HQ or something somewhere else when the “cult police” branch was on the phone with the Chief.
She: Right, I think that was the FBI or the CIA. I think Patti ended up being one of my favorite characters.
He: We also know a lot about Patti based on the whole “living in sin with her brother in that decrepit southern mansion” from True Detective thing.
She: Ugh, that’s right—from Carcosa to Cairo.
He: OK, Lindelof Lightning Round! I’ll name a character, and you say immediately whether you think they were good or bad in terms of the show and enhancing the enjoyment for the viewer, or if they were a distraction. Here we go: The Twins (Max and Charlie Carver).
She: Pfft, distraction—they can get in that Prius and drive far, far away.
He: OK. How about Dean (Michael Gaston), the truck-driving, dog-shooter guy?
She: Classic Lindelof red herring, so I’m going half-distraction, half-intriguing. You know, in Lost, there is another huge moment in the series where, literally, the main character is trapped in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with people that may or may not be real. I’d have been happier if Dean was actually not real, but I feel they gave us enough to believe he is, which ultimately makes everything about him kind of disappointing.
He: Exactly. I was not a fan of that guy in the end, but he kept me intrigued. Next character, and this is a tough one: Tommy, the son (Chris Zylka).
She: Getting through the whole season, I give Tom a thumbs-up, but you needed every episode. He wasn’t in it very much, all things considered.
He: Next: Aimee (Emily Meade), the best friend with the pouty mouth and the “did they or didn’t they” relationship with Chief Garvey.
She: Distraction—unless she was the one who bit his hand. I didn’t dislike her more than Jill (Margaret Qualley), but that’s really saying something.
He: It was a total cop-out, pun intended, to leave that thread hanging.
She: There were a dozen things like that, but what makes me frustrated is I feel like it doesn’t matter anymore—that whatever explanation there is for it, it’s kind of old news, so why even make such a point about it?
He: Like a David Lynch movie, whose style I struggled with until I heard him speak once—when somebody asked him why his movies were so spacey, he replied, “Since when does real life ever make sense and tie itself up in a neat little bow?” But I think that if you lean too heavily on that as an excuse you can venture easily into The Ridiculous Zone.
She: That’s great. Maybe Lindelof should try TM. I have one for you: Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston).
He: I could probably form an argument that Reverend Matt is the true antagonist and villain of the show. In the end, what were his true intentions? I can’t figure it out. What did he want?
She: I took Reverend Matt at face value, maybe gullibly? I think he truly wanted to do the Lord’s work the best way he knew how to in the community. The flashback showed us how well-respected he once was, and I think his closeness with Kevin’s dad, ex-Chief Garvey (Scott Glenn), is why he helped Kevin. But that’s super interesting; I never thought of him as an antagonist or a villain. It broke my heart when Laurie blew that whistle in his face.
He: You could almost argue that every character could be a villain or hero, and in that way they were all very real.
She: Yes; ultimately, the show was really about humans in that all-eternal struggle of good versus evil within themselves (kind of) and there wasn’t even a supernatural God or Devil involved. I did read, purely speculation, that this show’s second season might move on to another town. Would your view of the season change at all if we weren’t ever going to see these characters again?
He: That’s really interesting. I knew that in advance for True Detective, plus that show really did tie itself up in a big bow. I think it’s probably pretty clear that this show wasn’t so much about plot as it was about the way its characters interacted. So in that sense, it wouldn’t bother me if it moved on to a new town, especially if some of our favorite characters moved there to start over as a family. Ahem.
She: But is that even possible, though? I felt like the one thing this show did succeed in proving is that you can’t ever forget. OK, so I have to know: What were your biggest leftover questions from the show, or did you even have any?
He: Many! One, was Scott Glenn really hearing voices?Two, what did Matt really want?Three, what the hell was up with the dogs?Four, did Kevin and the pouty girl cause all that havoc in the kitchen or was it really a deer?
She: The deer! I thought the deer was a sign that another disappearance was impending; I thought maybe they might make a connection between two very surreal connected events that happen in two distinct periods of time, but alas, Lindelof, no.
He: That would have been great!
She: See? I should write for the show! (No I shouldn’t.) So, overall, what would you give The Leftovers season one?
He: I give it 700 out of 1,000 twisted plot red herrings.
She: I give it a “and the Devil is 6” out of 10. Now you should go watch all six seasons of Lost.
He: I think that I will never watch Lost, and I will always have the upper hand on you poor people who did.
She: Everyone who tells you to watch Lost just wants you to get super bummed like them so you can commiserate.
He: I don’t know what I will do with those extra three-hundred hours. Maybe I will start a cult. FL