Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Leftovers: “Cairo”

Illustration for article titled The Leftovers: “Cairo”

One of the first lines in The Fault In Our Stars, which is narrated by a teenage girl named Hazel Grace, is: “Depression is a side effect of dying.” It’s an introduction to the character—she’s got cancer, she thinks about dying a lot, and she’s kind of dealing with it and kind of over it, to the point that she can crack a bleak joke about depression and dying in one sentence.

What’s interesting is that the statement has some bias built in: It implies that depression offers clarity into the human condition—something more real, more reliable, more logical.

There’s a term for this: depressive realism, a psychological hypothesis introduced in 1979 that suggested that maybe the reason certain people suffer from depression is because they’re able to see the world more clearly, without the bias of optimism. It’s a dark interpretation of the disease—and one that has been challenged quite a bit in the psychological community. But its particular insidious appeal, I think, is that depressive realism follows the logic of depression itself—this pessimism is the only sensible way to look at the world.

A few weeks ago, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson introduced the idea that The Leftovers serves, at least in part, as an examination of depression. That seems more relevant than ever in tonight’s episode, “Cairo,” which tells the story of how Jill Garvey, a teenage girl like Hazel, ends up joining the Guilty Remnant. There’s other stuff happening in this episode, but “Cairo” feels like Jill’s episode. This is the first time her struggle has felt important and real. And what it feels like is a struggle with depression.

That gets broad very quickly, because Jill’s attempt to handle the truth of the disappearance is similar to the rest of the Guilty Remnant, who have all chosen a pretty bleak and empty way of life as a way to handle this. It seems reductive to hypothesize that the Guilty Remnant is a cult of depression—but at the same time, they embody the despair of the disease so totally that the cult has become broad manifestation of depression as a way of life. Even their logic for joining and believing in what they do, as Patti summarizes at the end of “Cairo,” is sort of like depressive realism—it’s a seductive line of reasoning, but something seems a little off about it.

This is my favorite so far of the episodes of The Leftovers that aren’t about the Jamison siblings, and that might only be because I feel like this lens of depression and despair has helped me understand what the story is trying to tell us. After the first time I watched “Cairo,” I watched it again, looking for the seeds of Jill’s decision to knock on the door of the Guilty Remnant. And what it essentially boils down to is a continued use of the terms “okay” and “not okay.” Jill isn’t upset that her dad is maybe sleeping with Amy or Nora Durst or anyone else; she’s upset that he might move from being broken to being okay. Maybe because that means he, and everyone else, is leaving her behind in the land of not-okay. And maybe because she just believes that nothing should ever be okay again.


I mentioned in the first few weeks of reviewing this show that the teenagers’ behavior seemed unnecessarily nihilistic. As I’ve gotten to know them—and as their group has started to splinter—that fact makes more and more sense. Some of this group of teens is in it for the shits and giggles—and some are stuck in an ocean of loss and sadness. The twins kind of get it, when they break into Nora’s house with Jill, looking for the gun—and of course, they phrase it all in “okay”/“not-okay” terms: “If the lady who lost her family is lying about the gun, then like, nothing can ever be okay again.” The other twin digests this, and then follows up with another question: “Do you think Aimee is really fucking Garvey’s dad?” “Probably,” the other replies. “Dude is ripped.”

Aimee, like Jill, came into sharp focus in “Cairo,” too. She gets Jill’s whole thing even more than the twins. “It is possible to be okay, Jill,” she says, as the two are smoking a joint in the park next to the gazebo. “Are you okay, Aimee?” Jill asks, sarcastically. Aimee’s response cuts Jill to the quick—pretty much everyone is on their way to okay, or could be okay, if Jill would just let them be okay. And Jill’s response is really telling—she asks if Aimee is fucking her dad. (Side note: I think it’s canny of the show to leave this plot point ambiguous, right now. It doesn’t matter whether or not Aimee and Kevin slept together; it matters that Jill is asking about it right now.) Aimee’s response is kind of brilliant; a snapped-off send-up of Jill’s bitterness. She says she has, because she, and Kevin, aren’t okay and will never be okay and what’s the point of pretending? “So I fucked the shit out of him on a pile of guns.” Which is the equivalent of saying: Am I not-okay enough for you, Jill? Aimee walks away in tears. Jill is so far gone that she doesn’t seem to feel much of anything.

Illustration for article titled The Leftovers: “Cairo”

What I found ambiguous is the moment in Nora’s house where Jill finds the gun. Nora didn’t lie, at the dinner at Kevin’s house: She had a gun, and now she doesn’t need it to feel okay. On one hand, she does still have it. On the other hand, she’s clearly put it away, with the other remnants of her old life: Under the bed in the missing children’s room, in a box for a game called Trouble. So is she okay, or not okay? What was Jill looking for proof of? I’m not sure. But what she did is almost exactly what the Guilty Remnant is always trying to do: refresh the pain of the loss. She uncovers the wound and puts it out in the open, so that it can’t quite heal. It’s no wonder she ended up at their door; their mission is the only mission she’s going to understand.


Of all of the plot developments in The Leftovers, Jill showing up at the Guilty Remnant is the most fascinating—it carries with it equal possibility for pain and for triumph. We’ve seen Laurie and Jill both struggle with missing each other while trying to navigate the hellscape of life after October 14. Now they’re both in the same place, something is going to happen.

What also interested me about the portion of “Cairo” that deals with the Guilty Remnant is that while it seems to be structurally enforcing some crucial aspects of depression—like being silent, and slowly killing yourself, and making despair a lifestyle choice—clearly everyone within it isn’t just depressed. I think that just as The Leftovers introduced a massive, unexplained disappearance to explore loss, it uses the Guilty Remnant as a cult/movement that explores depression. And maybe varying stages or levels of it—Patti, Laurie, Meg, and now Jill are very different people. (It’s striking, too, that all of the characters we’ve come to know in the Guilty Remnant are women—and most have related to each other in a mother/daughter dynamic. Patti and Laurie, Laurie and Meg, Patti and Meg, Laurie and Jill.) Meg, in particular, is looking ready to blow something up—though maybe it’s just her own place in the Remnant, and nothing else of consequence. Where the rest of the Remnant has embraced the despair that’s the cult’s mission, Meg is angry, and that’s not something that fits in with them. It’s shocking in “Cairo” to see her talk so much in that empty house, and to provoke Laurie so much that Laurie cracks her a slap across the face. Meg isn’t chastened, as that last lingering shot on her face indicates. She’s happy she got a rise out of Laurie. I hope that’s going to go somewhere interesting, too.


Kevin’s story this week is a bit less moving than Jill’s but more allegorically charged. It’s less infuriating than it might be, introducing the fact that Kevin has memory blackouts, because looking back at the last several episodes, Kevin losing his memory for stretches at a time is the only thing that really explains his behavior. And now that we know he was taking a bunch of anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills? It seems highly feasible that he’d be blacking out on the regular.

The question is: Who is he when he’s blacked out? He’s a more violent version of himself—he kidnapped Patti on a semi-dare. He’s a version of himself who has some kind of mission, some vague sense of a plan. He also seems to be enacting the same kind of ritual each time—going out to Cairo, hanging his shirt up, kicking off his boots.


Memory loss is a significant event for this show—a show so invested in excavating loss, with characters who build their whole lives around re-experiencing that loss. And as soon as Kevin gets to Cairo, everything that happens to him feels like a fairy tale. It’s like he’s touched by some magic for being able to forget anything at all—and now he’s gone through to the spirit world to talk to both his good angel and his bad angel, except they’re neither of them very good at giving advice, and ultimately, they both want the same thing.

Just in case that sounds totally out of nowhere, last week Jill’s interest in the fridge is pulled straight out of shamanistic ritual—sensory deprivation as a route to communing with the spirit world, in particular. (This is a messy discussion of it, along with some other shamanic practices; this is the foundational text of the field.) The darkness and confinement of the fridge offers a coffin-like, death-like experience, and the idea is that when the seeker emerges, they’ll have an understanding of the spirit world, or of life after death. Kevin’s memory loss falls into the same category, I think—in this case, there’s a part of Kevin that he literally can’t access because it’s literally in his dreams, in that, he has to go through his dreams to get to this other side of himself.


And that is a layer built on top of the fundamentally religious symbolism of Kevin being tempted by a man who calls himself a guardian angel, and then wrestling with that man to try to assert his own willpower. There’s a lot to potentially interpret from the struggle, before Patti kills herself—what I saw was that Patti and the man with the truck presented themselves to Kevin as the good angel and the bad angel that both sat on his shoulders and offered advice (Patti’s wearing white; the man is wearing a flannel shirt that is at least partly red). But when push came to shove, both of them wanted the same thing—the opposition between them was a performance enacted for Kevin’s benefit. Weirdly, some part of Kevin also wanted to kill Patti—after all, he sleepwalk-dragged her out to the cabin. But he doesn’t do it. And The Leftovers doesn’t present his abstinence like a moment of triumph for his soul, or anything—it’s just a choice made within a context of a lot of pressures, and it’s hard to tell whether or not Kevin has accomplished anything here at all.

Especially because, when Kevin doesn’t kill her, she does the job herself. Patti recites some poetry about rest, passionately defends the Guilty Remnant’s ideology, and then punctures her own throat with a glass knife, so that she might be remembered as Gladys is remembered. And though it’s a remarkable send-off for Ann Dowd, it’s not really clear why Patti is doing what she’s doing—unless the whole point was to evoke the Pieta in the last shot, as Kevin is cradling her body.


My guess is that The Leftovers’ aim is more about bringing together fantastic ideas than bringing together a fantastic story—because the subtext is way more interesting (and comprehensible) than the basic plot of the text. More than most weeks, “Cairo” has some compelling underpinnings that make it a solid episode. But especially around Kevin, the storytelling falls short of the mystery.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks to Myles for filling in last week.
  • The poetry Patti recites is from William Butler Yeats’ “Michael Robartes Bids His Beloved Be At Peace” (and there’s more on who Robartes is supposed to be, here). I do not know why Patti declaimed it at that moment—she professed not feeling love or attachment moments beforehand. But it is very powerful.
  • I might be imagining things, but some of the episode’s score sounds like “All The Pretty Little Horses,” and hearing Patti recite a poem about horses made me wonder if that was deliberate.
  • Patti calls October 14 “the clusterfuck of the modern era.”
  • “I am not weak” “PROVE IT”
  • “Cairo” is directed by Breaking Bad executive producer Michelle MacLaren—so maybe all that mounting horror was her doing. Certainly the final shot of the twins and Jill leaving the house and then, through the window, showing them stalling, then starting the Prius evoked that show.
  • “Why don’t you get in the car, get comfortable, and close your eyes? Because I need to talk to the other guy.”
  • A little tongue-in-cheek callback to an earlier episode, from Kevin: “Nora’s a guest in our house.”
  • Driving distance from Westchester County to Cairo, NY: 97 miles.
  • The opening song is a rendition of the spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked,” and that makes me think of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, so here is the company’s dance to that song.