Like a trap door or a rotten patch of ice, tonight’s episode of The Leftovers — “Cairo” — is where the bottom drops out. It happens directly beneath the schizophrenic feet of Chief Kevin Garvey, who wakes … actually, scratch that, he doesn’t even remember falling asleep. Let’s try this again: Garvey, who finds himself outside an abandoned cabin with no memory of how he got there and discovers Patti, the local leader of the Guilty Remnant, inside the abandoned cabin. His old pal Dean the dogkiller fills him in: Last night, the Chief jumped her, beat her unconscious, abducted her, and brought her here. So unless they end Patti’s life, Kevin’s life will be destroyed. It’s a safe bet a sizable percentage of the audience shared Kevin’s horrified reaction to all this: What the fuck?
But beneath the horror, there’s a thrill, the kind that post-Sopranos dramas at their best deliver. Any knucklehead can kill a main character, which The Leftovers did tonight. But the show did it in a way that takes a story past the point of no return. The cat-and-mouse game with Kevin’s mental illness are over, and he’s now gone full Fight Club; Patti had a chance to tell her side at long last, and used it to bet the house on the notion that there’s some special, terrible thing about Kevin worth killing — and dying for. It drew a line in the sand in blood. That’s the real good shit.
Though its pop-pulp pleasures often keep it separated from the cable shows at the prestige-drama cool-kids table, no series ever did this kind of narrative Rubicon-crossing with as much skill as showrunner’s Damon Lindelof’s starmaking series Lost. Every time it seemed we’d hit paydirt regarding the true nature of the threats faced by the castaways, Lindelof and his creative team revealed not so much new levels as whole new dimensions of menace. Curiously, “Cairo” is the only episode this season that doesn’t list Lindelof in the writers’ credits; that honor goes to Curtis Gwinn and Carlito Rodriguez. Still, the showrunner’s stamp is all over this, in the best possible way.
So too is the stamp of the director, arguably the foremost in the medium. Michelle MacLaren is a veteran of Game of Thrones (two words: bear pit) and, more to the point, Breaking Bad, the roller-coaster ride in television form for which she was also an executive producer. As the helmer behind the parking-lot shootout in the Breaking episode “One Minute,” she’s directly responsible for the greatest gunfight in TV history, full stop. And certainly, the brawl between Kevin and Dean as Patti slowly suffocates in the background felt very much like something Walter White might have been a part of.
But it’s not just the actual life-or-death stakes of Patti’s plight that MacLaren wrings for every ounce of tension and pathos. Jill Garvey grilling Nora Durst about her gun over dinner. Meg needling Laurie while breaking her vow of silence. Jill and her friend Aimee getting meaner and meaner to each other in a game of emotional chicken that Aimee eventually loses. The wordless sequences in which the Guilty Remnant prepare their big Memorial Day stunt. The climactic moment where Jill reunites with her mother in order to join her cult. “Cairo” was all about turning the screw until someone, anyone yelled “Jesus Christ, enough!”
Which is to say, yeah, it’s a pretty grim hour of television. A woman gives a lengthy monologue about how love has to be left behind, then slits her own throat – how could it not be dark? But it’s by no means a humorless, bleakness-über-alles episode. The twin bros played by Max and Charlie Carver remain 2014’s great casting coup; everything you need to know about them you could learn from the way the one dude finds a bulletproof vest and says “Jackpot!” Little moments of worldbuilding also break the tension, like the increasingly obvious fact that in the post-Departure universe, marijuana is legal enough to smoke in a public park full of frolicking kids. Even Patti gets in a few good one-liners, like the one where she responds to Dean’s pompous proclamation that he’s a “guardian angel” with “Well, shit, I think I just heard a bell ring.”
It’s also pretty profoundly insightful about how people process pain, or don’t. The after-dinner exchange Kevin and Nora have about Jill (“It’ll get better.” “How?” “I don’t know. But it will.”) is basically the mantra of anyone clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that things are shitty, but optimistic enough to believe they won’t stay that way forever. Later, Aimee takes this philosophy and weaponizes it, taunting her sad-sack, soon-to-be former friend by sarcastically saying “Just so you know, it is possible for some people to be okay.”
Elsewhere, if Meg’s berserk reaction to his flyers about her late mother wasn’t already indication enough, Reverend Matt clearly has her number. “Her grief was hijacked,” he says, and that’s a good way to understand the Guilty Remnant: If the Sudden Departure stole everyone’s ability to really focus their pain, they’re stealing it back. “I think about it every fucking waking moment,” Patti says of humanity’s greatest trauma. “I mean, come on. What else is there to think about.” The GR are forcing everyone to think about it, as directly and obnoxiously as possible. It’s trolling as religion.
And if the upcoming Memorial Day event they’ve got planned – which appears to involve using the stolen photos of loved ones and those creepy simulated corpses – is the First Church of Trollery’s Easter Sunday, some converts appear likelier than others. Nora’s still holding on to her gun. Kevin’s probably gonna be hiding a dead body. Can their pain give them purpose, or will it continue to prevent them from finding one? “You do understand,” Patti tells Kevin before she dies. Will we?
Previously: Like Fathers, Like Sons