Well, tonight’s episode of The Leftovers takes the idea of subtlety and tosses it out the window—along with a baby (and the bathwater, if we want to keep our idioms intact). It is not inherently a bad episode, but girl, it is very heavy-handed. I found myself cringing through a lot of it, even though there were moments that managed to speak to me.
Maybe my main irritation with The Leftovers is that it’s interrogating Christian theology in a way it thinks is novel and interesting, but it’s not, not really. Lots of Christians themselves do a very good job discussing and clarifying their faith, and a plotline about the baby Jesus being stolen from the nativity scene outside the town is a little too on the nose. Yes, any sort of idol worship is a manufacture of human nature. And sure, human existence is totally futile, so the baby only matters when it disappears, and of course we’re complicit in its own disappearance, and then when we get it back we realize we had it all along, like the story of fucking Christmas. Santa Claus was a twinkle in our eye the whole time, and so was the plastic baby white doll. We get it.
“B.J. And The A.C.” has story beats that can be analyzed, sure. But I can see why The Leftovers’ publicity outfit didn’t send this one out with the first three episodes. It’s missing something vital. It’s missing missing—it lacks that sense of urgency and searching that colored the first few episodes of the show. Loss is at the heart of this show. A missing doll does not really begin to speak to that.
But I think the reason the story falls flat is less because The Leftovers made a misstep with plotting and more because the show made one with character dynamics. Because I just do not care at all about the father-daughter relationship between Kevin and Jill; I care even less, if possible, about the relationship between Kevin and his daughter’s hot friend who is looking for trouble. The teenagers in this show are written very badly—they have a nihilism to them that is the kind of thing adults think teenagers are into, when in reality, those same adults are just not trying hard enough to figure out what the teenagers are up to. It’s sloppy writing that undermines the rest of the show, and it would be easier to ignore if a chunk of this episode weren’t devoted to Jill deciding whether or not she wanted to torch the plastic baby Jesus with a flaming crossbow bolt.
It’s the other two members of the Garvey family that are impressive in this episode: Laurie and Tommy (but mostly Laurie). The episode feels dead until Amy Brenneman makes it onto the screen, and it’s precisely because all that loss that the rest of the town is tiptoeing around. She is wholly and totally embodying it. Jill’s gift of an engraved lighter—so thoughtful and so fleeting—has a story of losing and finding around it that is conveyed entirely through Brenneman’s pained expressions.
Tommy is more interesting in this episode, mostly because he’s articulating the role of Joseph from what we call the Christmas story—the woman pregnant with the child of God, the man who is sworn to her but isn’t actually romantically involved with her. By the end of the episode, they are literally barefoot and marked. Again, a little literal. It would have been nice if someone would have just said, “Haha, remember this part of the Bible?”, but instead they’re all convinced of their own self-righteousness.
Tommy’s story has its moments, though. The cellphone bit was clichéd, but keeping in the mood of the show, which is all about searching and then being thwarted. And there is something appreciably eerie about the highway strewn with plastic corpses—calling back to the bubbling vat of white plastic in the first shot of the episode.
Then the Guilty Remnant goes into everyone’s houses and steals all the pictures from their frames, and I think I was supposed to care, but I didn’t. It wasn’t gelling for me, guys. Just as the show seems to misunderstand teenagers, I feel like it misunderstands religious orders.
Which is not to say I don’t get it: There is no family. Take away the photos so that no one remembers their families. So that they don’t have anyone to lose. But then Laurie goes back and digs around for the lighter that fell down the grate, because she wants family. Because it’s not as simple as just forgetting. Being human means you know when the baby is missing.
But nothing in this episode was as vital as Kevin’s minute-long conversation with Nora Durst.
“I just found out he cheated on me.”
“I cheated on my wife.”
[sighs] “Is there a good answer to that question?”
“I think I just heard it.”
It’s like a Zen koan—and one that is rather refreshing after all the hand-waving Christian allegory.
- Thank you to everyone who pointed out that the title of last week’s episode was a reference to this old joke. I’d heard some version of it before, but the helicopter bit really threw me. This seems like an excellent opportunity to point out that this week’s title also confuses me (though I am pretty sure “B.J.” is Baby Jesus).
- “Which one of you is the fucking smart one?”
- For a cult of silent people, the Guilty Remnant has surprising resources at its disposal.
- The twins’ getaway game in the Prius could use a little work.
- Have we learned what dream Christine is talking about, when she says “they’re all wearing white, just like the dream”? I’m having trouble placing it—and maybe it’s not her dream at all, but Wayne’s?
- Sonia’s speculation corner: There isn’t even anything much to speculate tonight, but it’s interesting that the news that Tommy’s biological father is not Kevin was dropped today. I would put money on Tommy and Christine rolling into town next week.