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In an otherworldly The Leftovers, Kevin fulfills his purpose but loses his heart

You wanna go where everybody knows your name

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Justin Theroux (Photo: Ben King/HBO)
Justin Theroux (Photo: Ben King/HBO)
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The Leftovers

"The Most Powerful Man In The World (And His Identical Twin Brother)"

Season 3 , Episode 7

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The final season of The Leftovers wouldn’t have been complete without another visit to the other side, the terrifying, exhilarating alternate reality first introduced in season two’s “International Assassin.” Kevin Garvey’s adventures in the beyond lead the show to some of its most arresting visuals and storytelling that works emotionally even while the logic behind it remains elusive. “The Most Powerful Man In The World (And His Identical Twin Brother)“ is yet another impossibly dense, lovably off-kilter assignment for Kevin Harvey, the afterlife’s most put-upon hitman. Somehow, the episode manages to feel exactly like “International Assassin” and also be its own thing. What the episodes have in common is the ability to make you call a friend and pray they’ve seen it, and that feeling of “Jesus, I need to talk to somebody about The Leftovers right now” is what I’ll miss most about this show.

I’m more excited than usual to hear what people think about “Powerful Man” because it comes in such a different context than “Assassin,” which took place before we took for granted Kevin Garvey’s ability to flit between states of consciousness. “Assassin” took full advantage of the element of surprise, throwing curveball after curveball until the audience is as disoriented and delirious as Kevin is. It’s a television episode designed to resemble a hallucinogenic trip. “Powerful Man,” also written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Craig Zobel, throws just as many curveballs, and it’s written with an awareness that the audience needs to be surprised anew. It wouldn’t have been enough for Kevin to check back into the hotel with the bird trapped in the lobby. Everything’s on a larger scale, and the “life” of Senator Patti Levin isn’t the only one at stake. This time, Kevin is suddenly in charge—in a sense, anyway—of the fate of a world he doesn’t remotely understand.

Unlike “Assassin,” “Powerful Man” doesn’t stay in its alternate plane of reality with any consistency. It begins in another world, though not another plane, with Kevin and Nora enjoying a romantic bath in Miracle back during what now looks like the good old days. The quaint flashback cuts to present-day Kevin submerged in the lake, unilaterally pulling the trigger on the plan even before Kevin Sr., Grace, and The Murphys have awakened from their medicated slumber. Kevin gets one more chance to bow out when his father pulls him out of the water prematurely, but instead, he goes back over the plan. He’s to locate Evie and the Playford children to make sure they’re okay, then he’s supposed to track down Christopher Sunday and retrieve the song that will help Kevin Sr. prevent the flood.

Once he flatlines, Kevin washes up naked on a beach and nearly gets clobbered by what looks like another international assassin, only to be saved by Dean. (Dean actually doesn’t seem all that different from how he was on Earth, to be honest.) Dean explains the new rules of engagement, with the most important one being the importance of Kevin avoiding his own reflection. Kevin hears the voice of “God” through his ear piece, telling him to immediately break the cardinal rule like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He peers into a shard of mirror and goes from being one Kevin Harvey to another, the latter being none other than the President of the United States. Kevin’s now the head of the ruling class version of The Guilty Remnant, which has reimagined the world without marriage or religion of any kind.

From there, Kevin shifts between the two incarnations of himself on the other side, but he’s able to come back to check in with the home team before his next trip. “Assassin” was intense because it was so concentrated, a long, unbroken introduction to this hyperspecific, unfamiliar world. But “Powerful Man” is actually more intense because it interrupts the alternate reality action with regular intervals to remind us of the real world stakes. There’s a certain urgency that gets lost once it’s established that everything we’re seeing is not “real” in a physical sense. While it’s easy to get lost in “Assassin” as a self-contained story, that episode almost feels like reading fan fiction without being able to understand its full significance.

Because the real-world stakes are higher—regardless of whether Kevin Sr.’s flood is actually on its way—”Powerful Man” has the same hypnotic quality as “Assassin” but with much more urgency. This time, Kevin isn’t flying completely blind. He at least has a list of tasks and understands more or less how to achieve them. So now when Kevin interacts with this strange landscape, there’s suspense to each moment because there’s no way to know which wrong move will prevent Kevin from accomplishing the task he’s literally dying to do. It’s a fun suspense though, since Lindelof and Cuse pack these episodes with so many unexpectedly absurd elements like the biometric penis scanner that Kevin has to use to get into his presidential bunker.

The specifics of what Kevin witnesses and experiences in the other world are as dense and thoughtful as usual and could be dissected and debated for hours. But The Leftovers has managed to achieve what Lindelof and Carlton Cuse tried to accomplish with Lost. It’s a show with an elaborate, layered mythology for those interested in delving into it, but works so powerfully on an emotional level that obsessing over the details isn’t required.

When Kevin returns from the other world, which has been obliterated by a nuclear strike he ordered, he finds the Playford farm still in tact and his father up on the roof. “What now?” says Kevin Sr., and his son doesn’t have a good answer. Because for all Kevin has accomplished in the other world, whatever that might have been, all he’s managed to do is save a world in which he screwed things up with a woman both willing and uniquely able to be his partner.

Stray observations

  • As usual, terrific performances from everyone involved, including Ann Dowd and Liv Tyler who returned as Kevin’s Secretary of Defense and Vice President, respectively.
  • Justin Theroux especially killed it this week. There’s probably no greater challenge than playing slightly different versions of the same character, and Theroux excelled at acting opposite himself.
  • The opening credits revert back to its season one theme, which is really frightening over the more joyful images.
  • If that was Jasmin Savoy Brown belting “Love Will Keep Us Together,” she can really sing.
  • I wasn’t crazy about the Beach Boys needle drop in the key removal sequence. I love “God Only Knows” as much as the next guy, and I get the idea of the clashing tones, which is precisely why I loved the Wu-Tang moment in episode two. But this felt over the top and score would have probably worked better.