The Leftovers and The Book of Me

When I was a teenager I came up with this theory of life that I’m sure is not unique. Basically, the idea was that from your own perspective you live until you grow old and then accept death. While someone else may perceive that you, say, die in a car crash, from your point of view you survive the crash, or maybe you were never in that crash. It was a perfect teenage theory in that it was inane and neither provable nor dis-provable.

The human mind tries to bring order to chaos, which explains why we think we can beat slot machines and why we come up with religions. As the universe is based on the laws of physics, of action and reaction and equilibrium, the human mind seeks equilibrium, creates explanations to fill in where there are none. I don’t know what was going on when I came up with my theory. Maybe I was bored. But it was a natural action, an effort to fill some of the space in my world.

I thought of this while watching the third and final season of The Leftovers, a series that takes place after the Departure when two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears without explanation. Or at least there is no explanation until people start creating their own. The series is about grief and loss, of course, and its also about relationships and what they are built on, but especially in the final season it’s about what we need to believe about things that can’t be explained. Kevin Garvey believes that he needs to die to really live. Nora Durst believes she needs a scientific-ish explanation for why her husband and two children disappeared. By the end of the series Kevin and Nora are at peace, ready to love each other in whatever time they have left. The explanations no longer matter.

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My World Ended When You Departed/Turned Into A Zombie

A lot of television shows are about the end of the world, mostly because we use “world” as a synecdoche for things that aren’t really the world (lovers, apartments, blogs). So you can say that Mad Men was about the ending of a certain world in which white men ran everything or that Breaking Bad was about how Walter White’s world was ending so he decided to end it first. These are fair but they are no more useful than my favorite idea that all TV series are about identity.

Two current series are more explicitly about an end of the world; The Leftovers and The Walking Dead. In The Leftovers, 2% of the world’s population disappeared without explanation. In The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse has transformed the world (or at least the southern United States) into a state of accelerated Darwinian evolution. While The Walking Dead seems less interested in how society responds to the collapse of social norms, both series are most interesting when they contemplate what it means to live, what the purpose of faith is, and what the “world” really is.

In season two of The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey’s father, Kevin Sr., explains how he was able to get released from a psychiatric facility. It wasn’t because he stopped seeing people who weren’t there but because he decided to start listening to them. “God I love this town. But now everywhere I look all I see what’s gone. So, I can sit around and cry about how the world fucking ended or… I could start it up again.”

In The Walking Dead, we get an episode which is mostly a flashback filling in the blanks between when we saw Morgan until he showed up last season. During that time, Morgan meets Eastman who tells him about finding peace through aikido and believing all life is precious. It’s not a message Morgan is ready to hear given the loss of his wife and son. Eastman’s wife and two children were killed by a sociopath seeking revenge on Eastman. Later Eastman kidnapped the man and starved him to death. When Eastman went to turn himself in, he couldn’t because “the world had ended”. “But the world didn’t end,” Morgan responds.

Of course in neither The Leftovers or The Walking Dead has the world really ended, but as opposed to Mad Men or Breaking Bad, the “world” has ended for almost everyone equally. And the question about how to respond when everything is different forever is an interesting one.

In The Leftovers, it is possible to draw an analogy between the Departure and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Although the Departure is orders of magnitude greater than 9/11, in both cases it is possible to see the world that existed before the events in the current world. Indeed, it would be reasonable to suggest that people who don’t visit the sites of the attacks or fly on planes may not notice the difference between our world and the pre-9/11 world. In The Leftovers, it is not possible to ignore the Departure, even in a place like Jarden in season two where no one departed.

As I wrote earlier, The Leftovers is very interested in the role that faith, old and new, plays in the new world. Kevin’s father wants to move to a place where he can no longer see the old world and start a new one. Kevin himself is eager to start over again with Nora Durst and find a place where they will never have to be afraid again. At the end of the latest episode, Nora’s brother Matt decided that it was his time to atone.

The Walking Dead is not as interested in faith, other than the faith that it is possible to create a new world out of the ashes of the old one. Part of the lack of interest is due to how obsessed the series is in showing zombies getting killed, but part of it is the suggestion that religious faith is a luxury in a world as dangerous as that of The Walking Dead. Last season and this season have been primarily set in Alexandria, an idyllic community with walls to keep zombies and anarchists out. When Rick and the gang arrive, their goal is not to assimilate into the culture of Alexandria. Instead Rick and his followers are determined to show the residents of Alexandria what the world really is, and if necessary take Alexandria for themselves.

While we all want to know what happened to Glenn on The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here” may be the most important episode of the series in that it brings faith to the fore. The only character of faith in Rick’s gang is a priest who locked himself inside his church with the community’s supply of food because he was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough. But can the world go on without faith? There’s a reason that the most popular religions in the world were born centuries or millennia ago; life was difficult and confusing. It was appealing to imagine that all this suffering had a point. In The Leftovers, it didn’t take long for people to turn to faith to comfort themselves. In The Walking Dead, we’ve mostly seen faith centered on the idea that Rick will lead them to a better life. The Governor peddled a related idea but both faiths have the idea of killing those who don’t agree running through them.

What has Morgan brought with him to Alexandria, and what effect will that have on Rick and his people? Rick and his people believe all life is precious, but some lives are more precious than others. What kind of world can be built on that? And is faith a luxury that can only exist when you can still see the old world? I’m interested to see what The Leftovers and The Walking Dead have to say about faith.

Indistinguishable From the Miraculous: The Leftovers Season Two

I’m not religious, or at least I don’t admit to being religious. I believe in The Big Bang, in evolution, in everything happening for a reason except that the reason is probably trivial. I believe that the Earth orbits the sun and our solar system is part of the Milky Way which is part of something bigger and so on and so on. I believe there is life on other planets and I’m pretty certain that this will not be proven in my lifetime. There is plenty of wonder in the world, and most of it can be explained by science or a belief in chaos or a conviction that the answer has yet to show itself but is either science or chaos. I can believe this because I have never had to live in a world like the one in The Leftovers.

The Leftovers was created by Damon Lindelof (previously of Lost) and Tom Perrotta (based on his novel of the same name). The series and the novel both start two years after two percent of the world’s population disappeared without a trace or explanation (the “Departure”). The reactions are as you’d expect; some try to use science to find an answer, some try to move on as if it never happened, and some start to believe that it is not possible to understand the world only through reason. Just as our ancestors came up with explanations for the moon and seasons and the meaning of life, some in the world of The Leftovers take the opportunity to polish up the old religions or to start up some new ones. The post-Departure world is as fertile for belief systems as the Holy Land of five or two or one and a half millennia ago.

The most interesting choice in The Leftovers (and I believe also in The Leftovers) is that no attempt is made by the series to explain the Departure. This allows us to watch the series and imagine ourselves in it. What would it mean to me? Who would I be in that world? Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two children, needs to believe that the Departure was a one-time event and will not happen again. Kevin Garvey, Nora’s boyfriend, wants to keep his new family together and move on even as he is haunted by someone who killed herself in front of him. Nora’s brother Matt Jamison is a pastor who thinks he can shoehorn the Departure into his faith. John Murphy, new in season two, does not allow that anything supernatural exists in his world, all evidence to the contrary.

The only thing that all the characters share in The Leftovers is grief. They grieve for the ones who Departed. They grieve for parts of their lives that were destroyed by the Departure. They grieve for the world that no longer exists. What do you hold on to when the world has proven to be so unreliable?

We will never know who is right, just as our ancestors never knew if they were right. One of Arthur C Clarke’s “three laws” is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Leftovers shows that any sufficiently unexplainable occurrence is indistinguishable from the miraculous. What would you do in response to the miraculous?

The Leftovers Season Two

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The first season of The Leftovers was divisive. Some thought the show took itself too seriously. (The opening credits didn’t help.) But those who stuck around through episodes three and especially episode six were rewarded with a series as good as any other last year. Now it’s back for a second season and if the critics are to be believed, it’s even better. Watch it. Read the recaps. Spread the word.

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The Leftovers Two Boats and a Helicopter

Credit: HBO

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A devout man whose house is going to be washed away in a flood waits for God to save him. The man turns away two boats and a helicopter, telling the would-be rescuers that he has faith. The man dies and when he asks God why he didn’t save him, God replies that he sent two boats and a helicopter.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A man is bothered by the chaos in the world and constructs a belief system to bring order to the chaos. This man interprets everything that happens through this belief system and convinces himself there is order in the universe despite evidence to the contrary.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A man is convinced that he sees things the way they are, and he can’t understand why others don’t see things the same way. He is frustrated that he acts on his knowledge while others do nothing.

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The Leftovers

Credit: HBO

The two networks for which I most look forward to new series are HBO and FX. If I were to make a top ten list of my favorite current TV series, HBO and  FX would take up all but a couple of spots. This means that I will watch The Leftovers when it debuts on June 29 unless the reviews are mostly disappointing (you know, like for FX’s Tyrant).

Lucky for me, and for all of us, the reviews are not disappointing. It appears that HBO has another show we will all be talking about.

Season Reviews

Matt Zoller SeitzAlan SepinwallAndy Greenwald, Todd VanDerWerffWilla Paskin and Mo Ryan.

Also, Alan Sepinwall interviewed Tom Perrotta, on whose novel the series is based, and show runner Damon Lindelof.

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