'The Leftovers' Recap: Stoned, Immaculate

Faiths collide with shattering force in an episode that explores the meaning of martyrdom

Christopher Eccleston Justin Theroux The Leftovers
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Christopher Eccleston and Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers.'
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He lost his wife to the Sudden Departure. He lost his church to the Guilty Remnant that formed in its wake. Still, Rev. Matt Jamison thinks he's got it all figured out. Dragged in for questioning over the brutal murder of Gladys, a GR who'd stood her silent smoky vigil around him for months, his only thought is to pray for her. Sure, he knows for a fact that he's not guilty, but that's beside the point. Not only did he not murder a member of the cult that stole his church out from under him, he believes there'd be no point. As he tells Chief Garvey, "They're already dead." That's his mistake. You'd think a man devoted to a martyred messiah would see this, but no matter how nihilistic or ascetic the cult in question might seem, death in its service is what makes its members feel most alive. "Gladys," an episode named after the woman who is stoned to death in horrifying detail during its opening minutes, makes this point with real emotional and intellectual power.

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"I don't understand your faith," the Reverend tells the Guilty Remnant when he comes to their houses to pray for Gladys. "But I understand commitment, and I respect it." His understanding and respect are undermined in the very next sentence, though: "But we are all of us, no matter how we've suffered, still alive." As if they didn't know! Rev. Jamison believes that by stripping away their friends, families, clothes, voices, even their health, they've cut themselves off from life itself. But to the GR, these acts of sacrifice are living. Whether they've chosen the slow-motion martyrdom of chainsmoking or had the fast track of stoning chosen for them like Gladys did, their sacrifices have made their individual lives literally the only thing they have to give anymore. What could be more valuable?

The episode itself implicitly sides against Rev. Jamison in this matter long before he even shows up. In its harrowing, unflinchingly gruesome stoning of Gladys, it forces us to witness every blow, every terrifying and disorenting moment of her abduction, every vulnerable and humiliating moment of her execution. Violence and gore on film are often held up as crass and dehumanizing — many examples of these things often are. But when done properly, their repulsive spectacle is as humanistic as filmmaking can get: This is how vulnerable we are as humans, and this is how incredibly wrong it is to exploit that vulnerability. In this sequence, The Leftovers sees Rev. Jamison's claim that the GR are "already dead" and preemptively calls bullshit.

But it's not just the value of life that martyrdom highlights – the martyr's unique philosophy about life gets its shot at the spotlight as well. Such is the circular logic of martyrdom's emotional appeal: If you are willing to die for something, you must have found something worth dying for, right? Whether it's faith, family, country, or love, your devotion to that something is inarguable – and that's the kind of connection, real and true and deep and meaningful, that everyone searches for in a world where such connections are so frequently shattered. That the GRs voluntarily did much of that shattering to themselves is immaterial. They found something that gave them meaning amid the meaninglessness, something so meaningful they're willing to die for it as a demonstration.

That demonstration is the highest calling of the true believer, because it's a way of demonstrating that there are, indeed, true things to believe in. Black-and-white thinking exerts a powerful attraction because it implies an order within the chaos: No matter what it looks like, there is a right thing and a wrong thing, there are ideas that are objectively correct and objectively false. The martyr makes the argument with her body that she has found the objectively correct position, and that it is now easier to die than knowingly embrace the false one. What a relief it must be to know you're right about anything! We speak of the courage of our convictions, but the comfort of our convictions is just as important.

It's this comfort that attracts Meg to the cult more powerful than ever the morning after Gladys's body is found. Continuing to follow the cult-initiation playbook to the letter, Meg responds to an attack on one of her fellows by outsiders as an affirmation of everything they stand for, and as an invitation to embrace those values herself. She starts smoking, stops talking, dresses in white; her small sacrifices are a cosplay reenactment of Glady's greater one.

But in her final moments, Gladys herself feels no such solace. "Please," she murmurs through her broken face in a lull between assaults. "Don't." In the face of her own impending annihilation, she can no longer stand to bear silent witness. She must break her vows and attempt to reforge human connections, even though those humans are about to become her killers. This is the nightmare shadow side of martyrdom – the haunting fear that, in those final seconds of agony, you'll wonder if it was worth it at all.

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Whatever meaning Gladys's death may hold for her fellow GR members, it's ruthlessly denied by the government agency assigned to monitor them. When Chief Garvey fields a phonecall from the agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Cults – the ATF's remit apparently has expanded in the wake of the Sudden Departure – it's unclear at first if the agent's offer to send a squad of secret police to Mapleton to exterminate the GR "infestation" is one of the Chief's possible hallucinations. But then we see what happens when a body is shipped to the agency for "analysis" – it's taken from the back of an unrefrigerated truck straight to an oven, disposed of forever. This is our first frightening indication that something has gone terribly wrong with the government — The Leftovers' first real nod in the direction of postapocalyptic dystopia since it established its supernatural premise in the pilot. And it's a sinister reminder that the meaning of martyrdom is only available to those who have not yet laid down their lives. The martyrs themselves are just ash.

Previously: Home for the Holidays