The Leftovers does not always manage to convince the viewer that the creators know exactly what they’re doing. “The Garveys At Their Best” is in fact a fantastic episode, on its own. But it leads to one very obvious question: Why on earth didn’t we see this three, six, or even nine weeks ago? It’s been a season of weird hiccups and pauses, punctuated with a lot of questions about who these characters are and why their stories are important. Tonight’s episode offers a lot of helpful information in that vein. So what was the point of making us wait to see the backstories of these characters, nine weeks after the pilot, instead of making this, or some version of this, into the pilot?
Whatever the reason, what’s best about tonight’s episode is that the flashback sneaks up on you, the viewer (even the standard episode description leaves out that it’s a flashback). It has the jarring notes of a dream state when Kevin stops to smoke a cigarette, and picks up more when he walks into a beautiful contemporary mansion that is nothing like the rambling old house we know he lives in. And because we haven’t heard Laurie speak in all these weeks, it’s hard, at first, to place her voice, as she talks on the phone out of frame. Only right before the title credits does she emerge from just outside the frame to walk towards the camera, blurry at first before resolving into her own face—put-together, well-groomed, relaxed, and maybe even a little bit happy. And talking, of course.
Seeing Laurie before the Guilty Remnant is intriguing, but most of “The Garveys At Their Best” focuses on Kevin—exploring both what makes him tick and why the show is interested in him, which have been up until now two open questions. As it turns out, Kevin’s got an anti-hero shtick so predictable it puts Ray Donovan to shame: He’s frustrated with his life, but won’t talk about it to his wife (or anyone) because feelings are too hard to deal with. As a result he keeps secrets and indulges in bad habits and broods up a storm of mingled self-loathing and self-pity.
“The Garveys At Their Best” takes a nuanced approach to Kevin, offering up both why he might feel so impotent and isolated in his own life and also how much he’s digging himself into a deeper funk. In the day and a half leading up to the disappearance on October 14, the portrait of Kevin is a man with a loving family who doesn’t know who he is anymore; one whose father and wife have overshadowed any of his accomplishments in life, one who is struggling to accept that this suburban life in Westchester is the sum total of who he is going to be.
I haven’t talked much about Justin Theroux’s performance in The Leftovers because up until now it hasn’t seemed all that impressive. Seeing him in tonight’s episode, though, made me appreciate his work so far, even as he pushes some subtle twists onto Kevin to make it clear we’re looking three years in the past before we ourselves know we are. Particularly I admired the habitual carelessness with which Kevin makes his coffee while listening to Laurie; the finger stirring the coffee, the one-handed flick with which he pops off the top of the half-and-half. This is a man stuck in a rut.
The most important part of the episode is embedded in the title: “The Garveys At Their Best” is a snide little fuck-you, because as we see, “their best” really isn’t all that great. It’s fine, sure. But Kevin and Laurie are certainly not happy with each other, and in general, Kevin is not happy with huge parts of his life. We’ve seen him convinced, at times, that things were better before the disappearance. That looks like a lie, given what’s shown here. October 14 and Laurie leaving him might have sent him on a downward spiral, but whatever his issues were, they were already there. His father helpfully spells it out, after receiving a toast from Kevin that he knows is insincere:
Every man rebels against the idea that this is fucking it. Fights windmills, saves fucking damsels, all in search of greater purpose. You have no greater purpose. Because it is enough. So cut the shit, okay?
And then there’s the whole thing with the deer, which takes on a resonance and significance that implies a whole bunch about Kevin. The show has visited and revisited deer in unexpected spaces: The Garvey kitchen in 2014 is torn up because a deer got stuck inside; the wild dogs kill a deer in the pilot, leading Kevin to take up thinning their ranks. Stags are beautiful and dignified animals, and there’s a lot of subtext written into these huge beasts being trapped in houses, terrified. There’s even more subtext when Kevin introduces the idea that it’s just one scared deer that keeps getting confused. On the surface, it’s a simple story: Guy Tries To Do Right Thing For Innocent Animal. But it’s obviously not that simple. What “The Garveys At Their Best” exposes is that Kevin has a need to bring himself purpose by saving something or other—and when he doesn’t feel that, he is lost. He saved Laurie, in his mind, from single motherhood. He saves deer. He saves Tommy from the (perhaps righteous) anger of his biological father Michael, and he saves the woman who hits the deer from having to hitchhike back to the motel. And he does it all because deep down, he knows he’s a terrible person who is looking for a way out—as the woman asks him when they’re parked outside the motel: “Are you a good guy?” He hesitates, but he knows the answer. “No.”
The other half of the Garvey marriage is a lot more inscrutable than Kevin. Laurie isn’t brooding the way he is—she isn’t engaging in classically bad coping the way he is—but she’s certainly going through something. That moving in and out of focus that happens at the beginning of the episode continues throughout, as she comes in or out of view. It seems rather fitting that she’s a therapist, given that this show is often delving into the psychological; it is a bolt out of left field that Patti was one of her clients—an apparently rather disturbed one, too. Also out of nowhere: Laurie’s pregnant.
The pregnancy is deliberately coded as something more sinister in the opening of the episode—“a health scare”—leading the audience astray for a good long while until the final scene with her (which end up becoming tragic anyway). While we’re stuck thinking it’s a scary diagnosis, Patti confronts her in therapy: “You feel it, too. Something’s wrong inside you.” Laurie protests: “There’s nothing wrong with me.” It sounds like a soothing therapy statement. It’s actually true: Laurie isn’t carrying a tumor, she’s carrying a child, and all the evidence in this episode suggests she’s conflicted about its father, but not the baby itself. And then she loses it—and it seems unlikely Kevin ever even knew this happened.
Because this episode is playing ninth in the season and not earlier, every little detail in it becomes an Easter egg of sorts, an “I see what you did there” laden with portentous resonance. It’s like a stray line in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn: When the protagonist Rachel looks back on photos from her marriage after her husband cheats on her, she keeps thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” As if she could somehow pinpoint it on film, or find the exact location of the flaw. A lot of “The Garveys At Their Best” involves the audience doing that same thing. Trying to spot what went wrong for the Garveys, who didn’t lose a family member on October 14, but lost something more nebulous. Trying to spot the members of the Guilty Remnant, back before they took a vow of silence, looking for that crucial tell that would indicate how things could have possibly ended up this way. Reading a whole lot into a spilled glass of orange juice or a cracked mug that reads “MY HERO” or the exact wording of Kevin’s toast.
It’s kind of annoying. It’s interesting, but it relies a lot on suspense instead of actual storytelling, which makes it a bit hollow. And the show is still pulling its punches. What’s oddest about The Leftovers at this state in the game is it’s hovering on the cusp of drawing a very big conclusion, but unwilling to actually state it. Does the fact that Kevin wasn’t able to face the innocent but dangerous deer in that room—he tries to hold it behind the door, in panic, before crouching down as it barrels down the stairs—mean that the disappearance had to happen? Or is it because he finally embraced his true nature by choosing to have sex with the woman from out of town? Or is it due to another character: Patti’s terrible sense of foreboding, perhaps, or Nora’s frustration with the constant demands of her own children? Is it because Nora’s son pronounces that “prayers are stupid”? And what does it mean, that the stag had tangled in its antlers a mylar balloon that reads, “It’s A Girl”?
An episode of The Leftovers, it seems, is a lot like reading an array of tarot cards, or a picture book in a different language. Like trying to understand abstract art without the helpful captions. It is kind of nice to be able to pick out the moments that resonate the strongest for you, the viewer, without necessarily needing to struggle through the exact interpretation the show is trying to present. The Leftovers is very much open to the viewer meeting it partway. It requires glomming onto the viewer’s perspective to make any sense at all; without the subject, a Rorschach test is just inkblots on a page.
“The Garveys At Their Best” makes for lovely inkblots—it’s rich with detail about everyone’s state of mind right before the huge change. It’s an episode with stunning moments and portrays the characters with surprising humanity and depth. The episode is great: The way it fits in the show is confusing. The problem with this open field of interpretation is that it’s at odds with The Leftovers’ own desire to tell a story. It’s a show that has so much possibility and weight that the story skews in several different directions at once, and neither showrunner Damon Lindelof nor the episodes’ individual directors are able to narrow down the thrust of the story to just the stuff that matters for this episode. (This is why, I think, “Guest” and “Two Boats And A Helicopter” were so powerful—they were inherently, externally narrow. Both hours gave the writers and directors and actors just one perspective, one character to work with—and with that extra limitation, the heft of the show is precise, focused, clear. Diffused across the ensemble, though, it is often a mess.)
Right now, The Leftovers is less of a show and more of a maze of choose-your-own adventure symbolism. Wanna focus on deer imagery? Let’s focus on deer imagery. What about dogs? We can do that, too. Or both—a thesis titled “The First Suburban Settlers: Large mammals on the run in HBO’s The Leftovers.” Or neither—because honestly, the symbolism at play in one corner of The Leftovers has little to bear on what’s happening in another, and neither is likely to ever be fully explained.
Granted, it might be a little too soon to make that (controversial) call. It’s only the penultimate episode, and next week’s “The Prodigal Sun Returns” might bring this system of symbols together in a coherent, semiotic whole, all while preparing us for season two of The Leftovers, which was just announced. Maybe the deer and the dogs and Nora’s daughter saying her prayers and the cracks Kevin sees in the walls of the house his wife mostly paid for will come together next week. It seems like a tall order, though, doesn’t it?
- Throwbacks to 2011: Nyan cat, The Naked And The Famous’ “Young Blood,” and Jill Garvey wearing braces.
- “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.”
- One parallel I really liked: Patti was kicked out of a house because she didn’t technically pay for it, even though Laurie assures her, “That’s not how it works.” But meanwhile, the soon-to-be mayor Lucy makes fun of Kevin for doing so well for himself in a house he clearly can’t afford. Given that we see Kevin in a different house three years later, I wonder if there’s a hidden story about ownership there.
- Another good touch: Jill is clearly closer to her mother. The cops using walkie-talkies for sneaking around before the surprise party was a nice little detail, too.
- A less subtle touch: “As far as you’re concerned, for the next four weeks I don’t have a family.”
- “Get the fuck outta here, Man Of The Year.”
- “Just a theory, chief: Maybe this thing is in heat and just wants to fuck the lieutenant.”
- Gladys is the dog breeder. That’s… something.
- “I’m a terrible mother.” “There’s no need to be dramatic.”
- “Who picked this music?” “Old people.”
- And an interesting bit from the credits: The woman who Kevin (nearly) sleeps with is in the credits as just The Woman. I don’t think that The Leftovers is heading in the direction of massive creepy mystery, but the ambiguity in her name, even in the script, fascinated me, as she’s not a typical damsel in distress. The actress is relative unknown Briana Marin.