'The Leftovers' Recap: No Man Is an Island

Tonight's episode gives us 'Lost'-style flashbacks of the least satisfying kind

The Leftovers
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
The Leftovers
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Somebody's calling Reverend Matt Jamison. It's a woman, asking for some kind of supply he promises to pick up on his way home. It's our first indication that he has a life beyond his quixotic quest to reveal that the victims of the Sudden Departure weren't the secular saints they've been painted to be. Eventually we learn he has a wife, name of Mary. Hmm…he must be neglecting his marriage. That explains why he's so reluctant to tell people how's she's doing, right?

But when Matt finally arrives home, we discover that the voice on the other end of the phone wasn't his wife; she's a home care aide. And she's taking care of his brain-dead wife. Mary. You don't suppose her plight could be Departure-related…?

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Or maybe it has to do with "the accident" and "the judge" that Matt's sister Nora (surprise, they're related) blames for his prophet-of-woe schtick? Perhaps the jar of cash hidden by former police chief Kevin Garvey Sr., along with one of Matt's flyers lambasting a judge for taking bribes and the note "you deserve this" contains a clue? Why, yes – a dream sequence reveals that Mary received her injury when the departed judge's now-driverless car crashed into them. Now there's a street named after the guy, and it's driven Matt around the bend, because "if we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless." Hey, we solved the episode! 

[Sigh]

Aiming for genuine mystery, tonight’s episode — "Two Boats and a Helicopter" — feels instead like an extended Mad-Lib. Key information is repeatedly withheld just for the sake of making people scratch their head, only to be filled in later in the most predictable way possible. It mistakes intricacy for insight, sleight-of-hand for magic. It makes you jump through a series of knee-level hoops to arrive at nowhere special at all. And because it relies so heavily on a structure that showrunner/co-creator/co-writer Damon Lindelof honed during his work on Lost, it's a worrisome indication that perhaps he's learned precious little since that show's conclusion. 

The episode resembles nothing so much as a flashback segment from Lost's earlier seasons, filling you in on the life of one of the mysterious island's many castaways before the plane crash that put them there. Only Matt, and all of the other characters, have no magic, monster-stalked tropical paradise to return to every few minutes. When those cuts happened on Lost, they revealed compelling contrasts between the people the castaways used to be – generally damaged in surprising ways – and the people the Island was enabling them to become by forcing them to confront their past. The cuts also told us something thrilling or chilling or both about the science-fantasy nature of the Island itself, showing us that crippled men could walk or that seeming strangers were connected by fate rather than coincidence. 

But if you're gonna tell your story as a series of unlockable riddles instead of as, you know, a story, you'd better have a damn good reason. We know from the start that The Leftovers takes place after the unexplained disappearance of millions of people, and that it follows survivors who struggle to move on and find meaning in their lives. There's no real mystery about the plight facing Matt – it's the same plight facing literally everyone else. So what's the point of this Easter Egg hunt through his life? What does revealing the truth about his wife, his philosophy, his relationship to the four-times-bereaved Nora, his experience on the day of the Sudden Departure in this backwards, clue-finding, code-cracking way actually communicate? Does it advance the themes of the story? Does it show us something about Matt and his world we couldn't learn in some other, more straightforward way – a way that could actually allow us to dive deep, instead of skimming along the surface until the end of the episode?

Certainly very little else in the episode is any of those things. Of course the church where Matt gave his impassioned sermon about his cancer-stricken youth and the comatose little girl that reminded him of it was gonna be near-empty. Of course the church's mystery buyers (the show made a big point out of the banker not knowing exactly who they were) were gonna turn out to be the Guilty Remnant. Of course Matt's wife's coma was gonna be caused by a Departure-related accident, launching his vendetta against the sanctification of the Departed. Of course the drunken dirtbags who shouldered into Matt's roulette hot streak were gonna jack him for the cash in the parking lot. Just in case you couldn't see it coming – which anyone, especially that casino's abysmally lax security team, should have been able to do – the camera spent a pointlessly long time just staring at Matt in his car, building up a pointless calm before the predictable storm. Like the rest of it, it's a failed attempt to wring shock and suspense out of a foregone conclusion.

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And that's to say nothing of the episode's run-of-the-mill problems: a syrupy score that tells you exactly how to feel at all times; the goofy sunlit half-minute musical baptism; the emptily portentous pigeons (the show's third "uh oh, I'm being stalked by mysterious animals" bit so far); Nora as-you-know-Bob-ing her way through her conversation with Matt ("They died in a fire when I was seven," she says of their parents – yeah, we pretty sure he's aware); the horrendously corny life-flashes-before-your-eyes dream sequence. The Leftovers is starting to seem like a show with very little to say. Coming up with a clever way to say it is not enough.

Previously: Indoctrination Nation