Ditching last week's single-character focus and plot-twist hocus-pocus — and much the better for it — tonight's The Leftovers episode ("B.J. and the A.C.") works best when you ignore its two title characters. Those would be Baby Jesus and the Anti-Christ, it's safe to presume – the former having disappeared from the local Nativity scene, and the latter potentially poised to spring forth from the loins of Holy Wayne's baby mama Christine. This being a Christmas episode, saying "bah, humbug" to both of those storylines seems appropriate.
As Chief Kevin Garvey is quick to point out, pranksters making off with a holiday decoration is hardly put-out-an-APB material; the weight everyone assigns to the Christnapping – including the culprit, Jill Garvey, who unconvincingly gets the blasphemy equivalent of cold feet when it comes time to stage a Game of Thrones-style funeral – feels more writerly than realistic. And with the exception of a very tall Englishman's penis, there's nothing in the Tom/Christine/baby-of-supernatural-importance segment of the show we haven't seen a gajillion times before; even the battle-with-your-balls-out bit showed up previously in films like Eastern Promises and, of course, Borat.
But if you examine where and how those storylines stick in your memory, you start to see the true strengths of this episode. Yeah, the actual Baby Jesus stuff comes straight from a sophomore-year short-story seminar. But think of it as a different kind of Christmas decoration: The tree may be dried out and scrawny, but it's covered in lovely ornaments.
The opening shot of bubbly polyurethane goop was striking and strange. Watching it pass through a long chain of happenstance to become the body of our Lord (baby version) made for a memorable montage. Though Jill's Kristen-Stewart cosplay remains unimpressive, you've got to hand it to her and her dirtbag friends for coming up with such a creative way to destroy the doll – a flaming Nerf-arrow Viking funeral sure beats the Chief's choice just to dump it on the side of the road. The missing messiah even gave the Mayor the laugh line of the night when she ordered a replacement doll: "The white one. Obviously the fucking white one."
The Anti-Christ stuff worked in a similar fashion. It's tough to imagine anyone was clamoring for more mysterious mysticism from this show, and the characters involved haven't been distinguished enough by either the writing or the performances to overcome those reservations. But without it, maybe we wouldn't have gotten that singular image of a highway strewn with bodies in white shrouds – not corpses, but the post-Sudden Departure equivalent of Real Dolls, eerily convincing replicas of the missing for grieving loved ones with no bodies to bury. And we might not have seen Tom demonstrate how true believers can be both shrewdly insightful (stopping that sheriff in his tracks by saying "I was abandoned by my father") and astonishingly self-deluding (taking a spam phone call as proof of Holy Wayne's telepathy) depending on the needs of the moment.
The point is that even if the underlying idea's shaky, tight execution can keep this show running smoothly. The teen crew can be insufferable, but a casting coup like those marvelously vacant-looking twin hunks goes a long way to making them entertaining anyway. The Guilty Remnant are even harder to take, but the behavior that the show's concocted for them is so extravagantly shitty at this point – stealing people's family photos because "There Is No Family"? Daaaaaaaamn – that it cycles back around into brilliance. Even the constant intrusion of feral canines gives the subtle but unmistakable impression that this place is going [puts on sunglasses] to the dogs [YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH].
Then there's the Chief, who when he's not busy hunting down Jesus gets the best stuff this episode has to offer. His confrontation with GR leader Patti featured the darkly funny line "If you come, I'm not gonna protect you. It's the holidays." (This is The Leftovers' answer to Dr. Strangelove's "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the war room!") Meanwhile, a new romance was a given for the show's leading man, and the obvious sexual chemistry between Justin Theroux's Kevin and Carrie Coon's Nora was a very pleasant surprise. Props to directors Carl Franklin (One False Move) and Lesli Linka Glatter, who as a veteran of Mad Men knows her way around hot romance between damaged people. The staging in particular was terrific, with Kevin standing resplendent in his uniform while Nora lounges languidly against a high-school locker, suggesting intimacy and authority and innocence and experience all at once.
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To get to that point, though, he had to endure an excruciating "conversation" with his estranged wife Laurie. Sworn to silence by the Guilty Remnant, she brings along a rookie as a ringer, having Meg read Kevin her big Dear John divorce letter so she won't have to. In the show's best single exploration of post-Departure relationships to date, Kevin and Laurie are the proverbial unstoppable force and immovable object. Amy Brenneman radiates both exhaustion and conviction through Laurie's face and body language; her eyes say the only thing that could hurt her more than doing this to Kevin is not doing it, and pretending nothing's changed. But of course this behavior is completely infuriating, and Theroux funnels that fury into a ferocious performance, first barking at Meg to shut the fuck up, then demanding Laurie speak for herself. It's multifaceted, empathetic writing, all beautifully acted. And though I wouldn't wanna live there, it made Mapleton a nice place to visit.
Previously: No Man Is an Island