Monday, September 8, 2014

The Leftovers: Season Finale

Verne Gay at recently wrote  that The Leftovers "turned out to be strangest, saddest, gloomiest -- and most addictively watchable -- TV success story of the entire summer." Even America magazine has joined in the critical acclaim, calling the show "the most thoughtful and brutally honest exploration of grief and loss every portrayed on television." I think that is not at all off the mark as an assessment of the series's first season. Certainly, it explains the eagerness and anticipation with which so many of us have been awaiting last night's season finale.

Having deviated significantly from the original book on which it was based and gone off in multiple directions of its own, the TV series' first season suddenly ended somewhat like the book - with Nora on Kevin's porch, where she has just discovered Holy Wayne's baby, which is mother has abandoned and which Tom in turn has anonymously deposited on his parents' porch. Nora's smile and her words to Kevin, "look what I found," end the season on an unexpectedly hopeful note. In a show all about the disintegration and loss of family, will this new baby's appearance help reverse the process?

The episode picks up where the story had left off two episodes previously (before the October 14 flashback episode). We're back in Cairo, where Kevin sits beside Patti's dead body, smoking (what else?). For once, however, he has the sense to call someone else - his friend, Reverend Matt Jamison. The fact that he has called a priest does not signify some serious spiritual conversion, but it does give Rev. Matt a chance to fulfill his vocation, as he has done earlier on other occasions. (I think that giving Matt such a  prominent role in the show is one of the areas where it is a definite improvement on the book.) Watching Matt help Kevin cope with Patti's suicide and his own ambiguous role in it, watching him help Kevin not only bury the body but pray over it and then process the whole experience over lunch in what amounts virtually to a confession experience, all represents another unexpected sign of hope in the midst of seemingly unremitting grief and despair.

Those default emotions are meanwhile taken to new heights when we witness the ultimate malice perpetrated by the Guilty Remnant that same day in Mapleton. As the forever miserable Meg writes when Kevin questions her, "We made them remember." That they sure did, and the result is complete chaos. The good citizens of the town have had it with the GRs, set fire to their house, and try to kill as many of them as they can. (If Rev. Matt represents religion in a positive fashion, then the GRs represent the human and social dangers inherent in pseudo-religious, cultish-like responses to tragedy. In their zeal to remember and get others to do so, the GRs seem to manage to get everything wrong.)

En route home, Kevin had encountered Holy Wayne, wounded and dying who invites Kevin to make a wish. Based on Kevin's "confession," I assume that what he wishes for is to get his family back. In the end, having saved both Laurie and Jill from the fire, he appears to have at least gotten Jill back. Laurie cared enough about Jill at least to use her voice for once, but at season's end she still seems like a lost soul. She reconnects (how seriously and for how long we don't yet know) with her son, but the two remain perversely disconnected from the only relationship that still holds any promise.

What to make of all this? 

The October 14 "Departure" was not so much a "rapture" as it was a rupture. It disrupted  -decisively and in most cases forever - what mattered most in people's lives, their families. But, as we have learned, all was not well even before October 14. (Is it ever all well?) In particular, both Nora and Kevin seemed to be already distancing themselves from their families on that fateful morning. Like the Last Judgment, the "Departure" seemed mainly to ratify an already existing rupture. But Nora, Kevin, et al, are all still alive.  So they still have a chance - not to change the past, but to change the future. (That's what repentance does, to put it in language Matt might understand, even if the others have lost that linguistic and moral universe.)

The reviewers are right. The Leftovers is certainly strange, sad, and gloomy (at times - as in Kevin's insane dream in the car - stranger than it has any real need to be). But it also points out the power of memory to lead to repentance - to be sure, not the malevolent memory project of the GRs, but something more like Kevin's confessional memory in the diner. 

The episode was called "The Prodigal Son Returns." Beforehand, I had naively assumed that that referred to Tom returning home with Wayne's baby. But it seems to me now more likely that Kevin is the real prodigal son, whose return trip from Cairo to Mapleton is meant to symbolize the entire trajectory of the show. It remains to be seen how Season 2 will build upon the foundation Season 1 has set for it.

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