Monday, August 25, 2014

Apocalypse Eve

With just one more episode left of The Leftovers, Sunday night's pre-finale stepped back from the psychotic darkness increasingly evident in recent episodes (especially the previous one), stepping back in time to the eve of the "Departure," giving us a glimpse of what life was like in Mapleton before everything changed. Watching it, I couldn't help but think of what a show about ordinary people in Manhattan on September 10, 2001, and the early morning of September 11 would look like. Having been there then myself, of course I know the answer, but that is the point. Seeing a character's past with eyes that have seen what happens next makes all the difference. That's the effect The Leftovers seems to be aspiring to in this episode set on October 13 (and the morning of October 14) three years earlier.

Maybe it was in part just relief from the psychotic behavior on display the previous week, but it was really a relief to experience this episode, where everything seems more colorful, more harmonious, more normal, more - dare one say it? - happy. Of course, we know what lies in store. so there is a looming sense of sadness and dread. But it is nice to see what the folks in Mapleton used to be like. We have already seen some scenes from the actual moment of the departure (and those scenes - the disappearing baby in the car, Mary Jameson's accident - are alluded to again), but this is the first episode really to take us back to what it was like before. It's nice to see "the Garveys at their Best" (as the episode is called). It's nice finally to get filled in on some background information that begins to clarify why different people reacted in such surprisingly different ways to what happened on that infamous October 14.

My only disappointment with this otherwise wonderful episode begins as soon as the (at that point still just a candidate) forever, foul-mouthed Mayor Lucy opens her mouth (while conducting a job interview, no less!) after which the routine repetition of obscenities on the part of almost everyone also resumes. For the writers to have resisted that temptation might have made a nice contrast with the post-Departure vocabulary of Mapleton's citizens! I suppose it might be asking too much to expect HBO to do Downton Abbey. but could it try at least to have people talk like normal people with some modicum of civility - as ordinary people do in fact typically talk?

In this episode, we learn among other things that Laurie is a therapist - well paid enough, presumably, for the family to live in a much more beautiful home than one might otherwise expect an ordinary cop's family to live in. More interestingly, one of her patients is none other than Patti - the future GR leader, who expresses anxiety that something is about to happen. And Gladys, the GR martyr, turns out to be a dog breeder. 

We know already that the Garveys and the Dursts did not know each other before, but the Garveys do seem to know almost everyone else. Garvey, Sr., is still the successful and much admired police chief, so much so that Rev. Matt has nominated him for Mapleton's "Man of the Year." So a central event in the episode is a party at the Garveys' house for Garvey, Sr., at which much of their circle of friends is present. The joy of the guests is meant to serve as a stark contrast to their lives ever since the following day.

But there are already dark clouds. Jill and Tom seem normal and happy, but Tom is preoccupied with contacting his natural father, which provokes Kevin's first display of disproportionate rage (at Tom's father). We already know something about the Durst family's problems. So we are not surprised by signs of Laura's unhappiness or that her husband seems to be a bit of a jerk. But it is Kevin who is already definitely in distress - as he clarifies in a talk with his father.  Despite the fact that he seems to have it all, he for some reason wants something more - leading to his adultery with a stranger he meets, thanks to her car's encounter with a deer. (The deer's inexplicable invasions of people's homes and other buildings is presumably a foreshadowing of the imminent tragedy.)

When we finally get to the moment of "Departure," we are ready. We have been waiting for it. Laurie (who, we have been led to suspect, may be ill) is actually secretly pregnant and is having a sonogram, during which we get to see her baby and hear its heartbeat. It is during this precious moment that in some motel somewhere in town Kevin is committing his adultery. (We don't know for sure if this is a one-time thing, or if he's done this sort of thing before with other women.) In the course of the sonogram, we suddenly hear a scream from some other room. And right away we know what has happened! At school, Tom and Jill see one of Jill's schoolmates disappear. Laura, already seeking some temporary escape from her husband and children, suddenly turns around to see her entire family gone for ever. So now will never have a chance to erase her remorse for that final anger. Kevin's impulsive sex is suddenly interrupted by his partner's disappearance during the very act. And the episode ends as Laurie looks in horror at her sonogram, where (presumably) her baby has completely disappeared.

In a more conventional world than that of contemporary artistic fashion, this would, of course, have been the actual first episode. Then we would all better understand what has actually happened to these people - internally as well as externally - and so would be better prepared for the various bizarre ways in which they behave afterwards. In some ways, it makes them at the same time both more and less sympathetic. We identify with the normality that has been snatched from them. But we also wish that they had made better use of those final 24 hours of normalcy to start fixing things they will never get another chance to fix!

Does that mean Laurie should have listened to Patti and taken her seriously before, rather than after?

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