I perpetually find myself in the process of understanding what The Leftovers is trying to do but unsure as to why the story it is telling matters. This was one of the reasons last week’s story, centering on the baby Jesus-Macguffin, frustrated me so much. The symbolism is all clear—essentially laid out on a silver platter. But to what end? What is The Leftovers trying to do?
When “Gladys” first started, I thought the episode was going to be another slice-of-life episode like “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” this time for a fringe member of the Guilty Remnant. I was wrong. Gladys is just a plot device for the rest of the characters to work through; she is dead before the title credits roll. Aside from the fact that her name is the title of the episode, her name is barely spoken at all—I caught Patty say it once, but she is almost always referred to as just “the woman” or “she.”
The Leftovers thinks that the Guilty Remnant matters, which is interesting. In and of itself, the Guilty Remnant, at least in this incarnation on television, is hard to care about. They’re mean-spirited, and sometimes, outright cruel. (In the opening montage, Gladys and her companion are shown disdainfully stepping around a man who has tripped and fallen.) They’re affronting—inherently polarizing, because they’re refusing to play by any rules we understand.
It struck me that Patty insinuated to Laurie, in the middle of their bizarre brunch-date at the motel restaurant, that the point of the Guilty Remnant was to no longer feel. That the suffering of the world could be handled by deadening yourself enough that nothing hurts anymore. There’s clearly some feeling there—Patty is impassioned when she’s talking to Laurie, as upset we’ve ever seen her about the horrible death of one of her own. It’s hard to tell whether or not she’s upset that Gladys has died or upset that Gladys’ death makes Laurie doubt her commitment to the Guilty Remnant.
I don’t know if the Guilty Remnant is supposed to be a kind of suburban America monastic order, or a fringe religions order like the Shakers, or a more modern and sinister cult like the Scientologists. Either way, I know one thing: They’re not really for me. The Remnant might be interrogating something powerful for a lot of viewers of The Leftovers, and I respect that. But the lens it’s going through is so particular that it means very little to me.
I don’t want to hijack the review completely by talking about my own experience with The Leftovers, but this show gets up in the viewer’s face with morality and personal beliefs. That is totally fantastic, and I applaud the show for doing that. The problem is just that it’s gotten up into my face and has so far done little else; I am aware of it being in my personal space, but that’s it.
It occurred to me tonight that the characters I am most like in this episode are the two men who work behind the counter of the dry cleaners in Mapleton. They are both Indian immigrants just trying to survive. The story doesn’t care about them beyond making them an object of Kevin’s rage—first they’re questionable, speaking in a different language, keeping a secret from him. (I don’t fully understand Hindi, but as far as I could gather, they said: “Hey, can you look for a shirt for this guy?” “The asshole is trying to steal from us.”) Then Kevin storms back into the clerk’s life and threatens him, to the point that the man is desperately just giving his belligerent police chief any white shirt that he’s got on the rack. This is a man in power bullying a man that isn’t, and yet somehow, “Gladys” expects me to care about the life and family of Chief Kevin Garvey, professional asshole.
I get that Kevin has a story, here—but that moment for me crystallized so much of my irritation with the show. It’s just not for me. The town is full of white people. The Guilty Remnant is full of white people. And not just white—everyone we talk to is raised in a Christian framework. I’d go so far as to say Protestant, actually. Of this vast ensemble of characters, three are not white: the Asian girlfriend of a cult leader described as having a fetish for Asian girls, that same cult leader, who has Magical Negro written all over him, and the mayor of the town, who is so improbably cast and drawn that she is the embodiment of this trope. I appreciate that all three characters have depth. But Christine and Wayne are really just foils for Tommy, and the mayor serves to characterize Kevin. The main struggle of faith and belief is happening in the context of a bunch of Protestant white people in a suburb so affluent it is called Mapleton.
I watch a lot of shows that deal with concepts I didn’t grow up, ideas I don’t understand. I watch a lot of white people on TV. I’m not angry about that. But it is difficult for me to rustle up interest in a show that has no particular interest in reaching me and yet is perfectly happy to make me cast about the culture of Protestant white people to find the answers to its leading questions. I think I’m pretty up on cultures that aren’t my own, and yet often, the episode titles leave me searching, the sudden glimpses of figures in paintings entirely confuse me. And this, in an unsubtle show that is happy with an episode where a girl plays with fire, a woman talks about fire, and a dead crone is sent to burn in fire. It’s not subtle—it’s deliberately playing one note for one audience.
And it’s the whole show—not just the casting, not just the setting. The final shot of the episode, for example reads very differently if you grew up in a culture that values cremation. Fire is seen not as torment, not as corrosive, but as purifying. In that light, Gladys’ cremation is the best possible way for her to have gone out. And yet the dramatic music, and the juxtaposition with Kevin sobbing? The loss of her body to the ATFEC compound, after the Reverend wanted to pray for her soul? It seems like we’re supposed to feel bad. Or, like the Guilty Remnant, maybe we’re not supposed to feel anything. But I put the responsibility for that ambiguity on the show. And fine, if The Leftovers wants to play with ambiguity, it should. But that doesn’t make for very satisfying viewing in the long-term.
There are a lot of types of religious life out there. A lot of types of people. And a bunch of those people even watch HBO. (Hi, network executives, I exist.) It’s ridiculous that the show isn’t trying to reach me—isn’t trying to reach across the counter and tell the story of Faisal (which is the credited, never-spoken name of the Indian clerk). There’s a bunch of us who understand the world differently. And as the leftovers of Mapleton said in the bar in the first episode: “We’re still here.”
- “I say ‘fuck,’ too.”
- I don’t really know what to grade this episode. It’s a B for showing up, but also a B because my own idea in the potential of this show is dropping, which ends up inflating the actual grades.
- Kevin’s phone call with the ATFEC guy was extremely creepy—and had me wondering if Kevin was hallucinating the phone call, like hearing his worst impulses through the lens of someone else.
- Kevin/Nora shipping continues apace. (And next week is a Nora-centric episode, which is very exciting.)
- This show could use a little more lighthearted fun—where the dumb twins? They and the Reverend could go around telling lots of great jokes.
- On the subject of Protestantism: It’s odd that there are no black Protestants in this show, considering what a powerful force the church is for so many black people.
- On the subject of “hate crimes”: It’s very, very interesting that this show would have a crime perpetrated against a white person called a “hate crime.” I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s a bold decision to make.