I liked “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” with the exception of the coda at the end. And I didn’t even really mind the coda, but its conclusion seemed at odds with the rest of the episode, which is an unexpected deep dive into the personal life of the Reverend Matthew Jamison, whose hamartia appears to be his own faith.
In the middle of the episode, after the rock is thrown at his head and the episode smash-cuts to black, I thought that he was dead, and I was happy for him. I don’t know if The Leftovers wants his visions to be his life flashing before his eyes, or instead a kind of dream sequence that reveals clues to his subconscious. (Maybe those things are the same.) But either way, the sequence is masterfully done. Jamison the man relives his childhood, as he was first diagnosed with leukemia and then watched his parents burn and then saw his wife go braindead right in front of his eyes.
Matthew believes that suffering happens for a reason. This is at the core of his faith, and he outright says it in the episode—which would be too on the nose if it weren’t for the fact that his sister Nora goads him into it. To me that is such a tricky, slippery idea that it is too hard to touch; I guess I gave up on the idea that suffering means anything a long time ago. “Two Boats And A Helicopter” offers a lot of evidence to disprove the good reverend, too: His suffering is the chief subject of his flashbacks—and the chief topic of his sermons. He justifies what happened to him, and what happens to them all, by believing that there is a how and why to it all. God gave him leukemia because he asked for more attention. God saved the girl Emily because his congregation prayed for her. God took the “heroes” away because they did something wrong—all of them. He has proof. Their gambling debts and their adultery.
Except that Emily didn’t come out of her coma after they prayed—she woke up beforehand. And God does not give leukemia to every sibling who selfishly demands more attention from their parents. And though those who were taken might have been sinners, clearly those left on earth are sinners, too. Matthew himself seems to have either cheated on his wife or thought about cheating on his wife—with another man’s wife, Laurie Garvey. And his own subconscious knows that the rules he’s trying to live by don’t make much sense: In his dreams, he witnesses his sins and his suffering and cannot see any reason for it. He is covered in fire, and he can’t put it out—so why wasn’t he taken? (It did not occur to me until this episode that most of the remaining—the leftovers—would walk around wondering not just why others had been taken, but also why they themselves hadn’t been.)
As much as “Two Boats And A Helicopter” offers insight into Matthew’s point of view, it also slowly and surely eradicates it. As he becomes more and more frantic—responding to his vision by running to the Garveys’ backyard to dig up some stowed cash, then running to the casino to bet it all on a vision, then brutally beating up (and maybe even murdering) the guy who tries to steal it from him, and on and on—that surety in some order in the universe, that sense of justice that he is relying on, slips away. By the end he is a man running to an authority figure to deliver on a promise based on the terms that he thought he understood, that he thought were set in stone. When he shows up, bandaged and holding a dirty envelope full of cash, he has the open smile and eagerness of a boy—I got it right. But no: He is three days late. And there is some significance, I think, in the reverend being exactly three days late, three days in a slumber, three days in a metaphorical cave.
At the risk of being too on-trend, this storyline reminded me of the essential lesson of The Fault In Our Stars, a young adult book that is easy to read but difficult to accept: There is no point to suffering. Like Matthew in The Leftovers, the book deals with children who have cancer, and there is no good reason why, and they will suffer, and there is no good reason for that, either. No matter what religion you hold to, if any, there is no easy answer for why more suffering happens to some people and not to others. “Two Boats And A Helicopter” is the Reverend trying to find the answer and failing.
And this forces us, the audience, to consider this question, which is the best thing about The Leftovers. I have rambled at length about what I think about the idea of justice and what it means to suffer; I imagine that most people who are watching this also have to reckon with their own beliefs on the matter. You can believe that there is divine justice; you can believe that all life is suffering; you might even be able to believe in both. But The Leftovers, like The Fault In Our Stars, will force you to think about it. If there was ever any doubt about whether or not The Leftovers was more invested in its mystery than in the exploration of how people respond to mystery, this episode dispels those doubts. This hour is nothing except an exploration of what it means to be inexplicably—indelibly—human.
The moment I keep coming back to is the moment in his dream-vision where his wife Mary asks him, “Why do you persist?” He’s staring not at her, but past her, to a painting of Jesus or another biblical figure, who is holding his bearded head in his hands and pondering, or perhaps, atoning. Jamison can’t let that go—and it’s that same image that inspires him to take the money that Kevin’s father buried in the backyard and go to the casino. But both times, it feels like the faith is leading him astray—away from the intimate moment with his wife, away from seeing the reclamation of the church as part of another step of divine order. Throughout the episode, as Matthew goes about his day, he seems beset upon by visions and other people’s beliefs—pigeons in odd places, a gently moving swing, a face in a painting. It has the unsettled, roiling mood of madness.
Jamison is clothed in black for most of the episode, which makes the Guilty Remnant’s white-clad presence all the more jarring. They are the ones who bought the church, of course; the group of people who are definitionally about existing constantly with sadness and loss are taking this church, this idea of fighting injustice, and replacing it with a white, clean slate, where there is nothing except the emptiness of being. Maybe Matthew sees the Remnant as usurpers, here, but in my mind, they are delivering him, mercifully, from a quest that was not going to offer him any peace.
- Yeah, I copped “hamartia” from The Fault In Our Stars, too. I have no shame.
- The moment where Matthew tells his sister Nora that her husband cheated on her is in my mind more wanton, misguided cruelty than him bashing the idiot thief’s head in on the curb. At least the latter was provoked.
- It’s amazing how seamlessly this episode slipped into just telling Matthew’s story. Other characters make brief cameos, but that’s it: cameos.
- Janel Moloney plays Mary Jamison. Always good to see her on-screen.
- Visually, the Remnant’s smoking habit makes them look like teen criminals—whereas everything else about them looks nearly angelic. It’s a weird look.
- Amazing how much better the episode is without the weird Garvey kids and that other cult. I surprised myself by missing Liv Tyler’s Meg a little, though.
- Another week, another title I don’t understand.
- So: Why does he bet on red at the casino? Why not black?