'The Leftovers' Recap: Indoctrination Nation

As characters are drawn into their new lives, we can't help but feel we've seen it all before

Justin Theroux The Leftovers
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Justin Theroux as Kevin in 'The Leftovers.'
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Stop Wasting Your Breath. When the Guilty Remnant, the cult (or movement, or whatever) at the center of The Leftovers, tried to troll the good people of Mapleton out of their Heroes Day complacency, that was the message etched across its members' signs. Sure, the venue was inappropriate, and the method a little too protest-theater for its own good. But it's advice The Leftovers itself would do well to heed.

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After a haunting, subtle series premiere, tonight's episode – called "Penguin One, Us Zero" after the inflatable bird used by Chief Kevin Garvey's department-mandated shrink to help kids work out their aggression – showed worrying signs of a serious prestige-drama sin: complacency. Things happened tonight because they're the kinds of things that happen in stories like this, and no one bothered to rock the boat — or bop the penguin, as it were.

Take Meg Abbott, the Guilty Remnant recruit played by Liv Tyler and the pilot's weakest link. She's moved into the group's "pledge house," a sort of halfway home between the real world and the silence, cigarettes, and white pajamas of full-fledged membership. Abbott receives the sorta half-assed indoctrination of Laurie, played by an appropriately weary (and mute) Amy Brenneman. It's surprising just how un-surprising the results are. The earnest attempts at joining in, the ensuing freakout when it doesn't come easy, the final physical catharsis that makes her a member in spirit as well as in name — you could predict every beat here like a Ringo Starr drum fill.

Same with Jill Garvey, the Chief's junior-varsity Kristen Stewart of a daughter. In a move straight out of Young Adult Fiction 101, she does that weird thing where unhappy, precocious teenagers start following around a total stranger they're Strangely Drawn To — in this case, Nora Durst, bereaved three times over by the Sudden Departure. There's some tasteless jokes cracked at her expense, a bit of flirty banter with the Abercrombie & Fitch twins who've grown fond of her and her sardonic friend Aimee (appearing nightly in the Chief's dreams), and no one really learns anything except that ennui stalks these mean suburban streets. 

Jill's brother Tom fares little better. After a bracingly savage raid by federal agents on the compound led by the faith-healer/statutory rapist Holy Wayne, Tom's on the run with Wayne's chosen one, Christine, after killing a fed in the shootout. Like countless characters in post-apocalyptic fiction before him, Tom finds a dead body in an abandoned service station, and has a superficially friendly conversation with a charismatic cult leader that's heavy with menace beneath the surface. The storyline feels like it was surgically excised from another series, stripped of zombies or demons or superflu viruses, and transplanted into The Leftovers by doctors who are hoping for the best.

Admittedly, it was hard to predict the Chief's storyline this time out. Who knew that the mysterious dog-killer named Dean who plagued him in the pilot would be not just some one-off quirk, but the basis for a potential breakdown of sanity? It's to the show's credit that his very existence was plausibly deniable until the moment he handed the kids a six-pack to put in the fridge for him. But in giving him such inexplicable inside information about the Chief's hunt for him, and in tying him to the prophetic pronunciations of the voices in the head of his crazy dad Kevin Garvey Sr. (an unrecognizably grizzled Scott Glenn), The Leftovers has edged dangerously close to creating A Genuine Mystery, the kind that will have viewers demanding The Answers. It's exactly what co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof swore he wouldn't do, and it leaves you wondering if he can even help himself.

Despite its fundamentally supernatural premise, The Leftovers posits a world in which it's precisely this proof of powers-that-be that renders human life finally and fundamentally meaningless. Whatever's responsible for the Sudden Departure, it's not answering our phone calls. Things still just happen, and no one's responsible. But when you're a writer, the opposite is true. Everything you put on the page got there because you decided it belonged. You've got the power to take any stock character who serves a purpose, any rote plot point that exists to get you from A to B, and twist it into some new shape before soldering it into place. Meg's indoctrination could be unique. Holy Wayne could be a kind of cult leader we haven't seen before. Kevin Sr. could have simply been crazy, instead of the umpteenth potential prophet-in-disguise. But Lindelof and series writer/source-material author Tom Perrotta didn't bother. Where were the Guilty Remnant and their protest placards when we needed them?

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The thing is that elsewhere, they show it can be done. Nora's acting-out at the coffee shop felt too cutesy by half. But her friendliness toward Christopher Eccleston's Rev. Matt Jamieson, who sees it as a mission from God to shit-talk the Departed, creatively proved how serious she is about refusing to erase her missing family's real, complex lives in favor of maudlin nostalgia. And her job as an insurance agent, quizzing families of the Departed for potential commonalities between the missing as a prerequisite for receiving their benefits, added a novel, absurd, upsetting, touching wrinkle to the show's uniquely mild post-apocalyptic society. In this context, actor Carrie Coon's pleasantness reads like Nora's primary survival mechanism, and it makes for rich viewing. A similar moment arose when the Chief, tasked with looking for missing persons at the Guilty Remnant's pledge house, disarmed Meg with a simple question: "You need my help?" This brought out the best in Tyler, too, who said no but whose body and eyes all but screamed yes. 

The Leftovers takes place in a well-trod genre, in a form, the postmillennial prestige drama, that's been analyzed like few before it. The more it stops doing the things it has to do and starts doing the things it wants to do, the better.

Previously: Wish You Were Here