'The Leftovers' Recap: The Shape of Things to Come

Flash back to the day of the Departure in a harrowing, horrifying episode

Justin Theroux  Amy Brenneman The Leftovers
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Justin Theroux and Amy Brenneman in 'The Leftovers.'
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You never forget where you were when it happened. They say it's true of all tragedies, and they may be right. The Leftovers, it turns out, is not going to take any chances. Tonight's thoroughly harrowing episode — titled, with cruel irony, "The Garveys at Their Best" — is an hour-long flashback covering approximately one 24-hour period in October, three years ago: from the morning of the day before the Sudden Departure to the first moments after it happens. And as an act of storytelling, it's tear-down-the-sky shit. We never actually watch anyone Depart – the camera is always pointed elsewhere – but that is the show's sole nod to modesty. From the moment you hear Nora Durst's children say "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" to our discovery of just how catastrophically the Departure hit Kevin and Laurie Garvey, every ounce of grief, fear and sadness will be left exposed.

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So too are the connections between the lives involved. Laurie was her future Guilty Remnant mentor Patti's shrink, dismissing what her patient thought were premonitions as symptoms of internalized abuse. Her future GR partner/martyr Gladys was her dog breeder. The runaway deer Kevin hunted (and whose memory haunts him) made its last stop in the home of the first people we saw Nora interview regarding the Departure earlier in the season. The woman whose car killed it was about to fuck him in a motel bed when she vanished. Kevin Sr. and the future Mayor Warburton, whose close relationship had previously gone unexplained, were probably fucking; they were certainly flirting. And oh yeah, Nora was gonna be her campaign manager. The last recipient of the Man of the Year award (which Kevin's dad had received) was the judge whose Departure caused the brain injury of Reverend Matt's wife. This happened when they were on their way home from Matt receiving a clean bill of health from the same sonographer who showed Laurie her baby in utero — just before it disappeared from the world.

The effect is uncanny. It's also deceptive. Keep in mind that this is a small suburban town, not some remote island populated by international travelers who happened to be on the same flight. Naturally, many of the characters we know would have known each other before, some in ways an event as life-changing as the Sudden Departure would naturally alter considerably. Tonight's episode didn't present any of these tiny revelations as big "a-ha!" moments. Nor are they played like proof that IT'S ALL CONNECTED, since people in small towns usually are. Rather, like the many lines that take on new meaning knowing what we know now (Gladys telling Laurie it's okay for mothers and puppies to be separated; Kevin Sr. telling Kevin Jr. "You have no greater purpose"), it's just a way to take an audience used to seeing things one way, and showing them something that feels…off. Uncomfortable. Wrong.

There's a lot of that going around in this episode, after all. Nora's tired of her husband's absenteeism; she may not consciously realize he's having an affair, but she doesn't appear to buy that it's all a matter of trouble at the office. Kevin chafes at the life he's built for himself, a life where he's not just suburban but subordinate: to his son Tommy's biological father; to his own dad, who doubles as his boss; to Lou, the loudmouth detective who mean-girls him at the police station and the pool party; and most importantly to Laurie, the wife who earns the lion's share of the family's money and, it appears, shapes their lives. Notice how little in common the Roseanne-like Garvey house we've gotten to know in the future has with this splendid, sterile modernist mansion. Kevin may have been miserable about Laurie leaving, but the home he built in her absence was a very different one than what he had before.

But when it comes to marital dissatisfaction, Kevin's running down a two-way street. Laurie fronts happy at first, just as Kevin does when the idea of ditching plans for a dog is put to him. But she didn't adopt the dog, did she? Nor did she tell Kevin about their baby until it was too late. (If she told him at all.) "You can feel it too, can't you," Pattie tells Laurie in their session. "I know you can. Something's wrong. Inside you." "There's nothing wrong with me," Laurie lies. But when she and Kevin have their brief, brutal fight in the kitchen the next morning, their marriage all but crumbles in a handful of five- or six-word sentences. They knew something was on the way.

The question is, did anyone know it was the Departure? It's unclear if we're to take Patti's claims at face value: As Laurie points out, she's saying the kind of things a sick person would say. They just happens to have been true, this time. Kevin's experiences are more disconcerting. There's definitely a deer running around town in full view of dozens of people, so that's not a hallucination or apparition. But what about his first glimpse of it, as the light of the morning sun shines from between its antlers? A stag's horns, the Morningstar: this is some please-allow-me-to-introduce-myself symbolism right here.

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Creepier still: the carload of smiling people who stop in front of him as he sits smoking. "Are you ready?" the passenger asks? "Excuse me?" "I'm sorry," she finishes, the smile briefly flickering on her face. "I thought you were someone else." They drive off. Seconds later, a manhole explodes in a gout of flame right where the car was idling, making you curious as to what they were wondering if he was ready for – shades of every scary story to tell in the dark about an elevator full of passengers who beckon "Room for one more" before plummeting to their doom. But it's that smile, and the good-natured, completely inexplicable exchange that went with it, that make this arguably the scariest scene on TV this year. Sudden, unearned familiarity from a middle-aged stranger is a hallmark of horror from The Shining to David Lynch, and it works as well here as anywhere.

So does The Leftovers. Using frightening supernatural imagery to coax realistic emotional pain out of a cast of multifaceted characters, 'The Garveys at Their Best' took the series' concept and lived up to that promise. That terrible promise.

Previously: Cabin Fever