Today, I got into a slight disagreement with my neighbour, who brought up the topic about this being the “Kalyug” or the Dark Age. Naturally, as a proclaimed lover of humanity (for which I have also constantly self-chastised) I took offence. I grew up in the midst of the technological boom with the advent of futuristic technology, and I do feel blessed to live in this world where we’re bipeds and have opposable thumbs (it’s a Miracle, that’s what it is).
But I’ve been watching this show, and some of the issues – deeds and events that have become everyday news squashed into the sidelines of newspapers – raised by the elders, rang alarm bells. Somehow reel became reality, and the way they expressed it, like no big deal, was eerily similar to The Leftovers.
The Leftovers, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, is in a slightly post-apocalyptic and dystopian setting, from Mapleton, NY in Season 1 to Jarden, Texas in Season 2. The show focuses on the aftermath of the Sudden Departure on October 14, a Rapture-like event, where 2% of the world’s population – roughly 1.4 million randomly disappeared, three years later and onwards, on Mapleton’s residents.
Instead of charting the progress of the characters, what appealed to me was the frankly horrific nature in which depression and inability to cope turned those “left behind” into power-hungry machines, unfeeling monsters; some, pawns manipulated into psychosis, and some, caught in the crossfire between the two warring sides. Failure to reconcile with the hard truth that some disappeared, but life must go on, touched yet unencumbered by the sorrow, leads to the formation of an ascetic group, the Guilty Remnant.
They wear white, perpetually “smoke to remember”, live in isolation from the city in houses, severing all ties with family and society, and fashion themselves as “living reminders” of what happened. It’s fine to claim that life is meaningless, that there’s nothing called “family”, but what the GR insists on being is an outfit determined to destroy any semblance of a normal life wherever it exists. Its members park themselves in front of houses, smoking, in a bid to “recruit”, like an army, or worse, a terrorist outfit, which is somewhat a relevant connection in Season 2.
What the GR portrays is an absolute form of apathy towards helping society rehabilitate; it is a sanctuary for the weak, to build a facade out of being against the possibility of moving on. Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the head of the local wing, dishes out what she considers the harsh truths of life to Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). The onus of being the family patriarch watching his family tear at the seams and struggle with a psychotic break, and deal sanely with what the GR throws at him, whether it be their silent appearance on Heroes Day, something the town celebrates to remember the Departed, or their recruitment of his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), and subsequently their daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), or their terrorizing of the town – ultimately becomes unbearable for him, unable to function normally as the Chief of Police.
What struck me more was Kevin representing an entire section who are personally unaffected by the Sudden Departure, but more by the people around them who are keeling over with guilt, listlessness and anger. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, loses her unborn child in the Departure – she helplessly watches the ultrasound show a bare womb as people vanish, and this, coupled with the general blankness the Departure leaves people with, motivates her to join the Guilty Remnant. The GR provides people a reason to live, as a reminder, but it fuels those outside it to imbue themselves with hatred (for it, and for humanity) and despair, starting a trail of vicious bitterness.
Jill, too, joins it for a while – and in her, readers see a pawn caught in the crossfire between the people hating the GR for what they are, and the outfit itself which disembodies families to emphasize their own belief on the meaninglessness of relationships. She joins it, unable to cope with the missing links in her family – a normal, non-paranoid father, a mother who flees with no warning, a missing brother, and dissatisfying friendships – to reunite with her mother. There are touching flashback moments between Jill and Laurie that would have been overly sentimental had we not known the aftermath, and this underlines the need for communication and diagnosis of underlying disorders. The GR doesn’t allow space for venting; rather, it provides a haven for people to remain catatonic with grief, with no closure.
There is also the commercialization of grief – every catastrophic event comes with people milking money off it. The Guilty Remnant, spearheaded by those bent on making it a feared militant outfit – namely one of the recruits, Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), becomes an organized group, releasing campaigns citywide, and proceeds to unleash itself on Jarden, a city untouched by the Departure. Like every “religious” program that soon becomes a moneymaking machine, the group acquires a swanky headquarters, a fleet of cars and several ‘heads’, like a multi-national corporation. On the other hand, there are people gravitating towards a self-appointed spiritual guru, Henry “Holy Wayne” Gilchrist – who poses as someone who can heal through magical hugs. Through Laurie’s son Tommy (Chris Zylka), and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who seeks closure after losing her family to the Departure, one sees exactly the extent to which people are willing to be swayed by the prospect of healing. While Nora becomes a gullible customer, Tommy becomes an agent, rather a pawn, in Wayne’s sex racket, protecting a pregnant Chinese teenager (Annie Q.) with whom Wayne has “spiritual relations”, unaware that there are replicas of the same case. In Tommy, you have the lost teenager gravitating towards a strong leader figure, whether it’s Holy Wayne, who promises spiritual release, or Meg, an enticing, enigmatic and seductive figure promising a goal in the midst of uncertainty and a dwindling maternal influence.
In the end it’s Meg who becomes the diabolic proponent of the GR’s goals and destroys any semblance of belonging in the ideal Murphy family, going to the extent of brainwashing Evie, the youngest child – a straight-A student, a choir girl and a model woman – into joining the GR with her friends, the first of the Jarden recruits.
The blatant wearing of grief as a badge of honour, the angry guilt in those who survived and blame themselves as the cause, the catatonia in those who have lost entire families and the denial in those who refuse to believe the Departure was anything but a scientific event demanding explanation, signal the arrival of darkness in an idyllic setting. It is somehow akin to the Fall of Adam, or more appropriately, the Rapture, where certain chosen ones ascend towards Heaven while the rest remain to perish in the Armageddon.
In Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), you see the final form of reconciliation, in refusing to believe that the Departure was the Rapture and that this wasn’t the end of the world, for as a good Christian and a devout pastor, he wasn’t taken, and he goes on an amateur journalistic mission to out the sinners amongst the Departed. There is the quest for truth in the blitzkrieg of shock and sorrow, where people launch themselves on others to introduce them to the pointlessness they’re accustomed to.
Season 2’s finale points towards the destruction of an Eden, and the true apocalypse as the Guilty Remnant preys upon yet another town, physically destroying the Miracle Park that surrounded the town to protect it from outsiders. Extremely symbolic, there’s only guessing at what Season 3 can show that isn’t faith-shattering and skin-crawling. Like The Purge, The Leftovers focuses on showing horror at a sub-natural, humane level, intent on what terror mankind can unleash on itself, without the assistance of the supernatural, solely running on its own self-destructive rage.