In addition to being an all-around magnificent hour of television, “Lens” has the best kind of ending: the soft cliffhanger. Television is an ultra-competitive medium, and storytellers can’t take for granted that the same people watching any given episode will tune into the next one. The solution for this is big, earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting final scenes that leave the audience on tenterhooks, anxious to see what happens the following week. As the man responsible for writing “Guys, where are we” and “Kate, we have to go back,” Damon Lindelof knows from a shocking cliffhanger. The problem with those, as anyone who watched Lost can attest, is that if every episode builds to a frenzied peak only for the intensity to drop off the following week, the audience becomes inured to the provocation.
“Lens” ends with Kevin telling Nora about Ghost Patti as Erika reciprocates Nora’s rock through the window, and it doesn’t feel like provocation, it feels like the end of a middle chapter in an engrossing novel. It’s surprising and rewarding, but it’s written without desperation, which is a luxury you can afford when all the audience has to do to find out what happens next is turn a page. That final scene is just the latest example of how The Leftovers’ second season feels more novelistic than its first, despite being the one not actually based on Tom Perotta’s novel.
By contrast, the ending of “A Most Powerful Adversary” is very much a television cliffhanger, and the kind that almost never feels earned because it relies so heavily on information the audience doesn’t already have. For those completely invested in The Leftovers, it’s a final note that leaves you desperate for the next installment. But for those teetering on defection, which I’d imagine is a statistically significant portion of the audience, “Adversary” could constitute the final straw. Like Lost before it, The Leftovers is becoming a show about faith that also tests your faith. Will Kevin’s shocking death have a satisfying resolution, or will you feel dicked around by the time the next episode concludes? The only way to find out is to press forward and believe there’s a net below even when the show feels like it might be in a state of free fall.
“Adversary” starts strong, if only because there’s never any guarantee with this show that the last character you see one week will be the first character you see the following week. Rather than take another scenic detour, the episode picks up shortly after “Lens” left off, with Kevin shackled to the bed and Nora nowhere to be found. “She’s gone Kevin,” says Ghost Patti, while Kevin scrambles to find the key to the handcuffs. Kevin is dubious, both because hallucinations aren’t to be trusted, and because he doesn’t want Ghost Patti to be right. Kevin and Nora have endured a lot separately and as a couple, and it can’t be easy to buy into the idea of complete transparency and unconditional love in a relationship only to find out that it’s not real after all. There are always conditions, and for Nora, whose post-Departure coping mechanism involves burrowing deeper into logic and rationality, the presence of Ghost Patti is a dealbreaker. Nora’s reaction makes sense for the character, and the fact that Patti is the person Kevin is seeing sprinkles salt in the wound. It’s like the worst parts of Mapleton have followed them to Jarden, and Nora doesn’t need to be reminded of that while the possibility that she was the unwitting cause of Evie’s disappearance is weighing heavy on her mind.
Jill’s anger feels as natural as Nora’s horror and confusion. Jarden was supposed to be an opportunity to rebuild the family she watched crumble after the Sudden Departure, albeit with different parts. Jill’s relationship with Kevin was strained all through season one, but the additions of Nora and Lily created a level of domestic security she has been craving, and now both of them are gone. It’s impossible to take out your frustrations on someone who isn’t there, so just as he took the brunt of Jill’s anger after Laurie ran off to join the Guilty Remnant, he’s taking it again now that he’s scared off Nora and the baby. Michael gets a heavy dose of Jill’s rage too, as we learn he’s rebuffing her sexual advances out of a sense of chivalry that is alien to her.
Kevin pleads with Ghost Patti to tell him what to do to get her to go away, and she tells him he has to go to Cairo to retrieve an ancient, magical chalice, fill it with semen, then drink it all down. She’s kidding, thankfully, but the real answer is even less reassuring. Ghost Patti has no idea what Kevin is supposed to do to get rid of her, and as far as she’s concerned, she’s the one stuck enduring his company, not the other way around. It’s no easy feat to write a story in which a character as skeptical as Kevin accepts that the best course of action is to drink poison to stop his heart and trust that a stranger is going to revive him a few minutes later. But Nora, Jill, and Lily are Kevin’s second chance at a proper family too, and whether or not he’s responsible for the dissolution of The Garveys version 1.0, he can’t allow the ghosts of Mapleton to destroy his family again. Jill tells him to do whatever it takes to bring Nora home, and Nora tells him she’ll believe him if he tells her he’s vanquished Ghost Patti once and for all. Kevin has solicited an opinion from everyone, including Ghost Patti herself, and Virgil is the only one who seems to have any idea which way is up. Kevin’s shopping for a solution, and Virgil’s is the only game in town.
At his wit’s end, Kevin returns to Virgil’s trailer after angrily rejecting his help earlier. He’s willing to do whatever it takes, and Virgil calmly explains the process. He’ll drink a solution that looks like rancid prison wine to mimic the effects of a heroin overdose, which will transport him to “the other place” to do battle with Ghost Patti. As crazy as all of this sounds to Kevin, Virgil is able to convince him this is the best path forward by explaining that Kevin had already decided he needed to die. Much like Erika’s thwarting of the goat slaughter last week, Virgil’s explanation of Kevin’s missing night demonstrates the attention to detail that makes The Leftovers so rewarding. I’d honestly forgotten all about the cinder block until Virgil explained that after coming to his trailer distraught over his otherworldly shadow, Kevin grabbed the cinder block and headed toward the spring to kill himself. Other than the inconsistent track record for drowning and Kevin’s lack of a guide, Virgil made no attempt to stop him from going ahead with the plan. The only reason Kevin is still alive is that the spring drained before he flatlined. Kevin is understandably concerned about Virgil’s process, but decides to give into it anyway, and with a final goodbye to Ghost Patti, he downs the poisonous sludge and spasms on Virgil’s floor until he’s foaming at the mouth.
Rather than revive him, Virgil empties his syringe of norepinephrine onto the floor and shoots himself in the head. A horrified Michael enters the trailer moments later and begins pulling Kevin’s lifeless body out of the trailer. I’m honestly still trying to unpack my feelings about the scene, and I’m also trying to get a sense of how much my resistance to it is about being emotionally uncomfortable with it as opposed to thinking it’s narratively unsound. For one thing, this is definitely yet another example of the dogged “magical Negro” trope, and though Lindelof and Patrick Somerville’s script flicks at that idea directly with some snarky dialogue from Ghost Patti, it still doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not just that Virgil is well-versed in the art of immortal combat, or that he’s so adamant about using those abilities to cure a white character of what ails him. It’s the fact that giving Kevin the poison to stop his heart—whatever his true motive for doing so—is Virgil’s final act. The part that makes it difficult to digest is that Virgil decided that whatever he did to Kevin was an important thing he had to do before he died. When Michael comes in after the gunshot, he pauses briefly after seeing his dead grandfather splattered on the wall, then immediately starts manipulating Kevin’s body. For the Murphy men, this stranger has become surprisingly important.
The bigger issue with the final scene is that it’s a bit too histronic and, again, leans too heavily on information we don’t have yet. It’s one thing to flash the image of a dude living on a pillar or a woman mowing her lawn in a wedding gown and have the audience intrigued enough to welcome more information about those people, but not desperate for it. The death of the show’s main character is a much bigger trap to spring on an unsuspecting audience, and because it comes at the hands of a character whose betrayal makes him an unreliable source of information, I know too little about what even happened to be excited about what it means.
My only theory at this point is that Virgil holds Kevin responsible for the girls’ disappearance and took the opportunity to take revenge on him. Even if Kevin didn’t interact with the girls directly, he may have indirectly caused their disappearance if Virgil is to be believed. Let’s say the girls drive to the spring for a late night dip, leaving the engine running because they didn’t plan to be in the cold water long and wanted to return to the warmth of a pre-heated car. Kevin comes to the spring with his cinder block and tries to end it all, only for his “most powerful adversary” to pull the cork out and drain the water along with the girls. If Virgil believed that to be the case, perhaps killing Kevin as his final act is his attempt at penance for having sexually abused John as a child. Michael’s job is to dispose of the body along with the evidence that what happened in the trailer is anything but a sad exit for a lonely man tormented by his regrets.
That’s pretty much all I have, and while there’s no doubt in my mind about sticking around to find out what this all means, I couldn’t blame anyone for having the opposite reaction. Lindelof and his team have laid the kind of meticulous groundwork that makes a cliffhanger like this easy to abide. But it’s quite a neat trick to make a television show feel so much like reading a great novel, and “Adversary” is like watching television. It’s HBO, but it’s TV all the same.
- I don’t mean to give Laurie short shrift. Her return is huge for the episode and for the show. She offers a more rational explanation for Kevin’s visions of Patti, as well as a brief summary of where things went wrong with Tommy. Her reunion with Jill is predictably devastating, but here’s hoping she can stick around for a while.
- The guy who lives at the top of the pillar is one of Virgil’s successful patients, though I’m not sure why that was reassuring to Kevin. The dude lives at the top of a pillar.
- “Where Is My Mind” returned this week in both its forms, The Pixies’ original and Maxence Cyrin’s piano cover.
- Maybe I missed it, but have we seen any indication that the campers in Outer Miracle know about the girls’ disappearance? It seems like if a community sprung up around Jarden based on the idea that it was spared from the Sudden Departure, the possible secondary departures of three girls from inside the town would create some kind of unrest in that community.