The Leftovers: “Penguin One, Us Zero”
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Annie Q, Paterson Joseph (HBO)
Annie Q, Paterson Joseph (HBO)

The Leftovers: “Penguin One, Us Zero”

Dealing with loss (of bagels and of the ones we love)

It’s beginning to make more sense why the pilot of The Leftovers looked the way it did: “Penguin One, Us Zero” is a perplexingly titled hour, but it’s more satisfying than the show’s first episode. In part that’s because it’s taking the scattered, meandering threads of the pilot and pulling them taut—it’s wasted no time in bringing some characters to a position of reckoning, forcing them to make choices that are defining and eventful.

The episode starts with offering up some background on Wayne’s cult out in Nevada, the one that Kevin’s son Tommy is a part of. Last week it was just gummi worms and weird, blindfolded Buddy Garrity; this week, the outpost/ranch is an organization with mysterious, deadly influence and an FBI squad trying to kill them. It’s still not totally clear why a man who promises to “hug the pain away” would be so menacing—in the FBI’s eyes and in our own, as nothing about Wayne is cuddly or trustworthy—but putting Tommy in a car with pretty Asian girl No. 1 (she has a name; the name is Christine; it is said once in this episode) promises some kind of plot development, even if it’s just the age-old classic of forbidden love on a treacherous journey.

I like that The Leftovers is a tiny bit predictable at times—in the way the characters respond to their world, primarily—because it makes the events of the show feel disturbingly normal. Sure, Tommy has a crush on his boss’ girlfriend—just like Jill’s booze-soaked, boy-teasing teenage rebellion, and Aimee’s obvious crush on Jill’s dad, it’s all a little par-for-the-course in a suburban, upper-middle-class drama. These stories would have a good home on The O.C. What makes them different is how the everyday drama is undercut by the much broader and more terrible burden of not-knowing that haunts our characters—such that the trials and tribulations of the everyday become fraught with actual violence. The Leftovers is not a carefree show; it can never be carefree. It is like the chronically depressed person at a party. It goes through the motions of normalcy, but everything reminds it of its own terrible sadness.

“Penguin One, Us Zero” reminded me of an odd phenomenon that I experience when I lose something—I keep looking, even though I know it is gone. I’ve gotten a little better at letting things go, but as a teenager, I’d retrace my steps obsessively, well after it made sense to keep looking. It is maddening—it was just here, where could it possibly have gone? Once even when my computer crashed—meaning I’d lost all my photos on my hard drive—I kept returning to my desk, subconsciously looking for the photos I’d last seen while sitting there. Maybe they’re under something. Maybe they’re over here. It doesn’t make any sense. But there is a sense not just of irritation or sadness at loss—there’s also a frustrating sense of the world being briefly out of order, of our own certainty being briefly attacked. It’s not just that it isn’t there, it’s that you thought you’d put it there, and if it isn’t there, you thought wrong.

That’s what I read into the bagel parable, anyway, where Kevin Garvey is so haunted by the bagel that the machine ate that he goes back to it and opens it up, desperately looking for some trace of its existence. It’s such a basic instinct—today it is the bagel, tomorrow it is a lover, the day after it is a job. How did it all turn out to be something besides what I believed? And yet the bagel plot (is it even fully fleshed-out enough to be a plot?) ends hopefully: They were lost, but now they are found. And meanwhile, Kevin Garvey is on his knees in his place of work, holding a few sacred objects that returned from an unknown ether to reassert their place in the world. Not everything you lose can’t be found.

I wonder if that moment is the show tipping its hat at the greater mystery of the series—the idea that these people who are all lost might be lost for a reason. “Penguin One, Us Zero” offers both possible solutions: Kevin finds the bagel, but Meg gives everything away. The Guilty Remnant has questionable methods—I was shocked to realize that they stalked their targets in order to get them to join the cult, as in the pilot it seemed like they might just stalk everyone—but I admired their own acknowledgement of the treachery of things, like Meg’s mother’s cashmere sweater, because things get lost and leave holes in our lives. If you have nothing, you can’t lose anything. Meg is onto the Remnant about the tree-chopping exercise—“So what, it’s symbolic?” she asks a mute Laurie, while nursing blisters. But though she gets it intellectually, it’s another thing entirely to embrace the meaninglessness—the rage—the act of trying and failing, trying and failing, chipping away at a much larger consciousness. Meg’s face is near-elated in the last shot. Apparently embracing the futility of attempting to understand is exhilarating—perhaps it’s even a kind of enlightenment.

So one option is to look for answers. Another is to laugh at the human need for understanding. A third is, as Nora Durst offers, to live in the feeling of loss forever. (My assumption here is that Nora started working for a federal benefits agency, or an insurance company, after the disappearance on October 14, as a way to handle the sudden emptiness of her own life. If she’s pretending to be a representative, that’s a whole other ballgame.) Nora doesn’t seem to be asking the elderly couple questions because she’s interested, or because it’s her job. It’s more like she is determined to not forget in her own way—she is eager to revel in the details of the forgotten people. And maybe it brings closure to those she’s interviewing (though it doesn’t seem like it) but it seems to bring nothing like closure to her. She still has jellybeans in her car for her children; she still has their Chipmunks CDs in the passenger-side seat.

And a fourth, I guess, is to hug it out. Though Tommy won’t take that option, for some reason, we now know why Wayne’s scrappy cult is so loyal: His hugging took the pain away from them. It’s insanity, but it’s an insanity that seems all too familiar—the faith in the messianic quality of a man is not new, after all.

The only option that doesn’t seem possible is to forget. No one really forgets. Everyone in this show is haunted, and The Leftovers literalizes their haunting with the ghost-like, white-clad Guilty Remnant, who are busy painting houses white and training new converts, and Kevin’s near-hallucination friend who shoots dogs in an unmarked pickup truck, who stops by to say he’s going hunting again. Unexplained, unwelcome, and not leaving. Memory, too, breaks into the frame, interrupting Kevin’s recollection of the night depicted in the pilot. The result is something that looks eerily like our own lives—The Leftovers uses a television setting that is so bland it adds to the horror, the upscale small town buried in snow—shot through with moments of bewilderment. Even just the way the raid on Wayne’s compound is shot is dark, choppy, and disorienting: The suddenness of the violence is totally at odds with the casual dialogue of the first scene.

The Leftovers is walking a line between parable and science fiction—sometimes the story reads like a fable, and other times, it’s deeply rooted in its own universe. What’s incredible is how it manages to be both. The mystery man’s appearance at the Garvey house is a stellar example—on one hand, he is speaking in riddles, calling himself “Nobody” like he’s in an Emily Dickinson poem, telling Kevin they’re doing the Lord’s work, making creepy insinuations that he might be totally in Kevin’s head. And on the other hand, he hands beer to Jill and Aimee; he’s got chaw stuck firm in his bottom lip; and he sheepishly tells Kevin that he wants company while he’s hunting because he’s lonely. Then Kevin’s father tells him that one of his voices said someone was being sent to guide him, and you’re forced to wonder: Is this man a literary device? Magical? Or just some guy? The ambiguity is a delightful sweet spot—it lets the story be what it needs to be to the viewer, which is the best kind of story. Like the religious texts it’s borrowing from, The Leftovers is open to interpretation. 

Stray observations:

  • This show is extraordinarily rich. There are odd little visual motifs that are repeated: This week, a smiley face pops up twice, which made me think of Watchmen above all else. And there is something also to be said of the variations on the phrase “we’re still here” that pop up. This week, it’s Meg’s incredulous “The hot cop? And you’re here?” directed at Laurie.
  • Kevin’s father still is mostly a mystery, but at least we know he’s funny: “It wouldn’t kill you to show a little vulnerability now and then. People love that shit.”
  • A little exchange that gave me chills: “It’s going to be okay.” “How?” “Wayne told me.”
  • Sonia’s speculation corner: Why does Christine matter? Is it as simple as Wayne having a penchant for nameless hot Asian girls? Or is there something else going on? Wayne keeps repeating: “This girl is everything.” I feel like sacred wombs of some kind are going to enter the dialogue soon.
  • Life with the Guilty Remnant is white on white on white—white clothes, white snow, bland white food (with whipped cream!), white smoke, white cigarettes. 
  • I’m not so rusty on the Bible, but I’m sure that The Leftovers is pulling more obscure stuff from scripture than I can identify. Tell me what you’re seeing, theologians! And while you’re at it, what do you think about Laurie and Meg seeking enlightenment? Is that what’s happening, or is it a more nihilistic endeavor?
  • I am at a total loss about the title of this episode. I get that there was a penguin in Kevin’s therapist’s office, but… why does it matter?

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