The first season of “The Leftovers” was a captivating look at how people cope with loss and the great unknowable mysteries of life. The second season is a much more ambitious, masterful exploration of religion, the family unit, and self-delusion. The first season was a fantastic adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” novel, but the second, moving past any and all events from the novel, feels much more confident and deliberate, and engages with more complicated and meaningful themes and character arcs.
[This review contains spoilers for all of the second season of “The Leftovers”.]
The opening scene of the season 2 premiere, featuring a cavewoman’s confusion at a natural event walling off all her society from her, then struggling to survive and care for her baby until she dies of a snake attack, sets up so much of the season so boldly, creatively, and strongly. The earthquake walling off her society from her seems like an unexplained, mystical event to her. The natural comparison to make is October 14th, the departure of 140 million people from the modern world – was it not some godly event at all, but an explainable natural event that the people of the 2010s simply do not have the capability to comprehend, the same way the cavewoman does not understand what happened to her family?
In this, the season already sets in motion how it will explore the genesis of religions, of how tightly people can cling to unsubstantiated belief (not necessarily in a religious context) when confronted with painful events or things they don’t understand, and of the role the family unit (particularly the removal of one’s self from it) plays into the formation of religions. Starting the season in ancient times long before the actual time it covers points to the scope of the themes and ideas it is concerned with, and the scene so often acts as a “key” through which to unlock and understand other parts of the season.
Was Kevin Garvey Jr.’s life spared by some mystical movement to drain the water of the river, as Virgil suggests, or was it merely an earthquake such as that in the cavewoman prologue? Is the ghost he sees a true mystical vision, or product of a genetic mental disorder inherited from his father? Did the Holy Wayne truly heal people and grant Garvey’s wish (presumably of being part of a happy family), or was it all placebo and happenstance? The cavewoman prologue validates a more sceptical reading as it depicts a natural occurrence being misinterpreted as mystical, and the season follows a more complicated negotiation between mystical and scientific readings as characters continue to try and get closure for October 14th, leading to painful moments like a team of legitimate academics pursuing the lead of the demon Azrael taking innocent women as his earthbound hosts to wreak havoc.
The antagonistic Guilty Remnant of the first season put religion at something of a distance, but the second season more carefully shows how religions, even exceptionally bizarre ones, form from an understandable place. As Laurie Garvey says, “When the mind is in emotional distress, it will grasp at any construct that makes it feel better. After the 14th, the whole world needed to feel better. We were all in emotional distress. So that made us susceptible to false belief….There is no Patti, Kevin. There is only you.”
The ancient earthquake confounds the cavewoman’s worldview. October 14th confounded basically everyone’s worldview. Events like terrorist attacks confound the worldview of people who believe in a just world. Acts of great evil can confound those who believe in both a loving god and that god’s strength to stop them. The first season showed how when confounded with such unexplainable events, many either abandon faith, or they double down on it. Matt Jamison, played stunningly well by Christopher Eccleston, is very much the faithful Christian and doesn’t sway from his faith, he just adjusts himself around it rather than the other way around. The town of Jarden is confronted by a positive miracle, the fact their town was completely spared by the would-be Rapture of October 14th, and constructs their own semi-religious mythology around that.
Water, such a critical part of so many religions, is deployed as a recurring motif in the season. Jarden’s water is sold to tourists in a kind of approximation of blessed holy water. The young missing girls, the catalyst of the season’s plot, go missing while seemingly swimming in water, the same body of water featured in the cavewoman prologue. Kevin tries to drown himself in the premiere, Erika tells the story of her children flooding the bathroom (an anecdote told in the premiere that comes back, from a different perspective, in the finale), the opening titles frame the departed through water imagery (like raindrops silhouettes).
Nascent religious iconography is all over the season, as it explores the way religions form and fracture. Meg’s Guilty Remnant offshoot uses much of the same iconography of the more equalised branch we saw in the first season, but uses it to different, more direct ends, lacking many of the specific codes of conduct the Guilty Remnant of the first season held to. The “missing” girls and their odd practise of running naked, seen in the premiere, also acts as a weird sort of unified ritual of this Guilty Remnant offshoot. If the first season showed how a faith is formed in the first place, with the Guilty Remnant offering some kind of unity and purpose to lives of those affected by October 14th, the second season shows how in the early days of a religion, different offshoots and sects form, their various beliefs galvanising and calcifying as the faith is tested and practised in different ways. Matt looks for the best ways to keep serving his long-standing, unchanging faith, whereas Meg looks for the best ways to use that faith for changing ends.
Whereas family is integrated deeply into long-standing religions, the early days of a religion see family less as a positive, joint force in harmony with the religion, and more as a competitive threat. Those joining new cults often find their families trying to discourage them. The “missing” girls of the second season joined the Guilty Remnant seemingly partially out of spite of the attitude of their families towards October 14th and Jarden in general. Kevin struggles to balance his new family that is less based in blood and tradition, and more in shared experience and mutual commitment and love. In the wake of October 14th, the family unit cannot coast off inertia or tradition, it demands work more than ever. The show pushes people so hard, showing them trying if not to recover than at least to feel something, some connection or purpose, in a world giving them so many reasons not to. Some find that meaning, purpose, or connection through faith, others through family, some through both.
The first season concentrated more on the idea of the traditional family unit’s uselessness, as something that doesn’t necessarily or inherently work. The second season builds off the closing, hopeful moment of the first season, where the joint family of Kevin, Nora, Jill, and Lily is formed, and the premiere of the second season where they open up to each other in a potentially painful way is where the strength of that new family really begins calcifying, culminating in Kevin’s brilliant, surreal karaoke rendition of “Homeward Bound” in the finale, where these strengths are honed in on, working as his bridge back to life, love, “family”. In terms of the show’s tone, I think the near-unrelenting darkness is vital for these successes to have any meaning. The moments of happiness in “The Leftovers” aren’t airless or weightless, they aren’t escapism, they’re earned through all the relatable pain the characters go through. Only through pushing these characters so hard do their successes mean anything beyond televised diversion.
Using John, the father of the neighbour family to the “Kevin / Nora / Jill / Lily” family, as a contrast and counterpoint was a smart move. Starting the season off from his viewpoint positioned his family’s story as a kind of “first season” for their own show. As we see Kevin go through his second story, John goes through his first story, lending him relatability he might not have earned if the first season didn’t exist. John’s struggles with faith work as a natural evolution to the struggles with family depicted in the first season. Kevin’s eventual successes in the season, born mostly of the stunning eighth episode set in a kind of Lynchian dreamworld afterlife, intertwine with John’s plot to make a comment on how much Kevin has grown, culminating in the final where Kevin’s new type of family unit has grown to encompass Matt Jamison, Mary Jamison (restored to consciousness), even his ex-wife Laurie (presumably temporarily), and the offer stands to accept John himself. The role of religion is certainly made more understandable through the events of the second season, but the role of forgiveness and common empathy is made to be a more inherently positive one.
The way that the disappearance of the three Jarden girls acts as a sort of microcosm for October 14th – three girls go missing from a town of a couple thousand, 140 million people go missing from a world of a couple billion – lets the departure be reframed and examined in a new, different way. “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter the scope or scale, human psychology largely remains the same. The departure didn’t touch Jarden, but that doesn’t make the residents any more blessed or moral than other people. Evie being drawn to the Guilty Remnant and their status as blatant reminders that the world is not perfect makes perfect sense in that context, and examining her family’s reaction to her disappearance and eventual reveal of her religious allegiance both softens the harsher way viewers were inclined to view the Guilty Remnant of the first season, and helps frame them in a more understandable way (keeping the Remnant themselves at bay was a masterstroke of plotting though, in how it allowed Liv Tyler’s glorious resurgence to work so well and so surprisingly).
I certainly don’t hold the Remnant in any greater esteem than I did in the first season (which was remarkably little), but I understand the motivation to join them much more after the second season. They remind the world constantly that, effectively, “the world ended” on October 14th, but it literally didn’t. It span on. October 14th can’t be undone, but are people expected to just chain-smoke and waste their lives away? The scars of October 14th will remain, but scars don’t prohibit healing outright. Kevin’s new “family” demonstrates the ways people can make a new, good life out of the ruins, as does his descent into the dreamlike reality where mindfulness is one of the few ways to stay alive. John’s admission of “I don’t understand what’s happening” in the finale demonstrates similar acceptance of lack of control, that one can’t exert control over reality regardless of past events.
Miracle isn’t necessarily inherently blessed, but miracles can happen in Miracle. The world was wounded after October 14th, but people don’t have to just waste their lives away smoking and dwelling on their mortality. The key part of any life isn’t the world in which it’s lived as much as the lens through which it’s experienced, a person themselves. You can change towns, religions, families, but there’s no escaping one’s self. The eighth episode, where Kevin plunges into a sort of dream-reality, is the clearest expression of this, as the only way for him to escape (either time) is to mindfully mentally commit on a course of action.
The first season of “The Leftovers” was great television, but the second season was outright transcendent. I give it five karaoke wheels, and a wristband.