“You need to accept it.”
Twice now, The Leftovers has delivered episodes that create an intense sense of identification. We get close to a single character, experiencing a transformative life event alongside them in what have been the series’ two strongest hours to date. Those episodes have demonstrated how rich stories in this post-departure world can be, but they’ve also had the effect of making the other episodes of the series feel like missed opportunities. When The Leftovers dives deep, it transcends; when it drops in, it can feel like aimless, speculative fiction to the point of lacking a point at all.
Coming off of “Guest,” “Solace For Tired Feet” is bound to be a disappointment. And, per the pattern, it is unquestionably a weaker episode than the one before it. However, I’ve somewhat come around to the pattern of identification and disorientation that The Leftovers has been working with thus far. A week after taking us deep into Nora’s experience at the convention in New York City, we’re transported to a point weeks after that episode ends. Nora and Kevin have been on five dates. The town is plastered with “Save Them” posters featuring Gladys’ image, which the Guilty Remnant are taking down. Tom hasn’t heard from Wayne in two months. But the episode does not begin with a montage establishing what everyone has been up to: These details come slowly, naturally, earned by the viewer through their willingness to follow the characters’ at times meandering paths through the events contained in this episode’s particular glimpse of the post-Departure world.
The challenge of this is that each episode largely has to create its own momentum: This is not so much a direct continuation of a previous episode as it is a contained story, albeit one involving many more characters than “Guest.” In this case, it becomes the story of Kevin Garvey Sr., who removes himself from psychiatric care and bursts back into the community unexpectedly. With Kevin Jr. leading the police force mobilizing against him, and with him running into Jill on multiple occasions, we get glimpses of the reasons why the former chief chose to institutionalize himself, both in his actions and in the details that emerge as Kevin goes about his search. The elder Garvey burned down the library, it turns out, and in “Solace For Tired Feet” returns to the library and attacks an officer who gets in his way. The voices in his head are telling him he needs his son to accept his place in this world, which in this case means accepting the May 1972 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Kevin Sr. provides the structure of the episode in this way, but it remains a story about how Kevin and Jill, primarily, respond to the stimuli provided by that structure. Kevin’s grip on reality continues to loosen, leading to an extended dream sequence that ends with Aimee bandaging his hand and the wild dog who attacked him tied up in the backyard. The images from that dream were all over the map: There’s Michael Gaston’s mysterious Dean encouraging him to shoot the dog trapped in a mailbox, there’s the dogs in Dean’s trunk becoming Guilty Remnant members (including Laurie), and there’s Tommy entering the house and closing the door behind him. Kevin doesn’t have time to deal with the meanings of the dream, but it clearly plays a role in how he receives his father’s invitation to “play the game,” given that he’s seeing early signs of mental illness not unlike that which gripped his father and created the situation he’s trying to clean up throughout the episode.
This is not a new development for the series (we saw it in Kevin’s breakdown over the missing shirts as well), but the close focus episodes have made perspective into a much more crucial part of The Leftovers, and have made Kevin’s struggles more purposeful in the grand scheme of the season. We know that his father is crazy, but we also saw a vision in which Kevin saw Tommy and the mailbox he delivered money to for Wayne the next day. We also saw, from Jill’s perspective, a scenario where she was suffocating in a refrigerator and it was her grandfather, of all people, who happened to be wandering through the woods to rescue her. Each week, The Leftovers presents a set of events for us to interpret as audience members, but the episodes are primarily interested how people like Kevin and Jill, who are living through this uncertain world, respond to them. In other words, it’s not about whether or not Kevin is or is not crazy, or whether Kevin Sr. is or is not talking to something more than the voices in his head; it’s about how all of this, big and small, tests the ability for anyone to keep living in this world.
That’s what’s at stake with the Guilty Remnant, who believe that people have chosen to live their lives pretending that nothing happened. We learn almost absent-mindedly that it’s the Reverend Jamison who’s printing out the “Save Them” posters, a response that is followed by a “Don’t Save Them” rally that Kevin runs through while chasing his father. We don’t see the moment when the Reverend chooses to start this campaign. We don’t see the moment when the Guilty Remnant plan their demonstration against it. These stories are simply happening in this world, events that Kevin ignores entirely while single-mindedly focused on his father’s escape. Kevin has his own problems, which makes him a relatively neutral party, and he is thus consistently reorienting himself to maintain that neutrality amidst an increasingly hostile environment.
The choice to focus so closely on the Garvey family has been an interesting one for the series. They’re a strange choice because they actually didn’t lose anything: All four members of the family survived, and although Kevin Sr. went crazy there’s no way to medically link this to the Departure. As a result, they chose their respective paths in light of the departure, rather than necessarily responding to a specific personal tragedy. Kevin chose to live on like normal, responsible for keeping order and following that line in his personal life. Laurie chose to join the Guilty Remnant, sacrificing her family for a greater sense of meaning and understanding. Tom left college and ended up following Wayne, another force who is giving wayward souls a sense of purpose in post-Departure society. Jill, meanwhile, remains an adolescent, whose role in this new world has been highlighted by the reframing of traditional teenage disobedience in the terms of the departure.
There are moments when this perspective seems like a mistake. This is particularly true for Tom, who despite a solid performance from Chris Zylka has felt the most adrift in the sea of aimlessness that has been Wayne’s storyline. This episode benefits from greater focus, as we learn that Wayne has been isolating the human incubators bearing his children, spreading the money among them while waiting for the moment when everything will fall into place. We’ve never had a clear reason why Tom has been following Wayne, both because the show wants to keep things mysterious and because it seems likely Tom has no idea why he’s doing it either. Tom was never hugged by Wayne, unlike his fellow “handler,” and therefore he mainly seems to be following these orders because he needed to be doing something, and at every interval where he’s doubted—at the bus stop, for example—he’s been given a reason to stay on this path. But now that Christine’s baby has been born, albeit a girl as opposed to a boy, there is finally the promise that Tom’s blind devotion to Wayne has at last led us to a point of revelation.
Those are going to be few and far between with The Leftovers. In my Lost reviews, I’m in the midst of the episodes testing Locke’s faith in the island and Jack’s stubborn adherence to science, so I saw a lot of parallels in this episode’s interest in belief. But what’s different in this case is that there is no dichotomy: With every sign indicating there is no simple explanation for what has occurred, everyone is left to find their own cause to believe in. Kevin Sr. believes the voices leading him to back issues of nature magazines. The Guilty Remnant believes in the power of silence. The Reverend believes in the power of speech. Wayne and his followers believe in the “the bridge,” perhaps between the world of the departed and the world we know. The majority of the population, meanwhile, chooses to keep living their lives in the way they were before: These are not castaways, they’re just the normal people who survived, and who still have access to the same livelihoods they had before the departure. All that’s changed is the context; it’s context—“Context is everything, son”—that is constantly forcing them to adjust in response to the changing world around them, much as we are being forced to adjust to episodes that jump forward in time and switch between close character study and broader town stories.
The Leftovers wants us to be disoriented. It wants us to be like Kevin and Nora, whose five dates nearly end in sex until they realize that they don’t know how to talk to each other. He stumbles over her departed family; she stumbles over Laurie’s presence within the Guilty Remnant. But by the end of the episode, Kevin has faced off against his own disorientation, flushing his medications and facing his father’s mental illness head on. It’s a messier journey than Nora’s trip to New York City, but it brings them together with a desire to move on, although not without its challenges. As they start to have sex, he’s out of rhythm and stops—it’s only when she meets him part way that he’s able to fall back into the moment. It’s the series’ first outright sex scene, but we’ve seen where these characters are coming from, and their convergence works to help them confront their own disorientation. When he wakes up in the morning, awake and aware in contrast to the drowsy awakening earlier in the episode, he admits he might be going crazy, and Nora just smiles and tells him to join the club.
There are moments when The Leftovers’ desire to disorient forces me to raise an eyebrow: Everything with Wayne has been left frustratingly vague, for example, and I’m waiting for some logic for Wayne’s exclusive use of women of Asian descent beyond the ease with which it others his cult-like strategizing. But in light of how “Gladys” worked to dive deeper into the Guilty Remnant, and in the same way that Nora and the Reverend’s points-of-view came into focus through their episodes, I have to believe that there is identification still to come. As much as The Leftovers isn’t invested in answering every big question its characters are asking, it’s invested in making their engagement with those questions meaningful and resonant for those willing to accept the push and pull of its narrative structure. While not the kind of transcendent episode we know the show is capable of, “Solace For Tired Feet” shows the long-term value of such a strategy, and is the series’ best piece of transition work to date.
- So while I didn’t have enough lead-time to hunt down the actual May 1972 issue of National Geographic since I’m filling in last minute for Sonia (I’m tempted to check the campus library in the morning), I’m going to take a stab based on the cover and say that the story on the island of Thera and the “Riddle of the Minoans” seems the most thematically on-point.
- The idea of the fridge as “The Crossing” was a bit overwritten, but I admittedly love the idea that one of the departed disappeared under those circumstances. It’s a beautiful urban legend, and I can see it taking on a mythic quality among local teenagers whether or not it’s actually true.
- Have we talked about which twin is our favorite yet? Because Scotty’s early panic in the fridge certainly gives the edge to… the other one. I admittedly do not know the other one’s name. But he’s in the lead!
- “So?”—While Meg may be fully integrated into the Guilty Remnant, she’s not yet embraced the idea that Laurie—who instigated the divorce and made the choice to stay with the Guilty Remnant—might not be all that concerned with Kevin moving on. While we see her affected by Jill, as she’s never going to stop being her mother (and she did go back for the lighter), I think she’s accepted she ended her marriage long before she even filed for divorce.
- On that note: Are we presuming that Kevin’s daddy issues regarding his father’s abandonment came due to Laurie’s choice to join the Guilty Remnant? That was how I read it, but I figured there’s the chance of a deeper past he’s returning to in that moment.
- The preview for this episode gave me the impression that Aimee and Kevin had potentially slept together, but I didn’t get that vibe from the episode itself—there’s no doubt he said something to her, but I think reading it sexually was a red herring.
- I loved the way Kevin stops in his tracks when he spots Janel Moloney as he bursts into the Reverend’s home, as I had the same reaction in remembering she was a part of the show.
- After his altercation with the laundry clerks, interesting to see Kevin’s ability to drop into enough Spanish to be able to discuss his father’s break-in at the library with the maintenance worker—it’s an interesting choice in regards to disorientation, pushing the dialogue into subtitles when they could have had the maintenance worker speak English without too much of a logical leap.
- Unexpected The Leftovers/NBC Comedy Crossover No. 1: Was anyone else thinking of Haldeman every time they cut to the mailbox in that dream?
- Unexpected The Leftovers/NBC Comedy Crossover No. 2: I have to think Leslie Knope approved of Kevin Sr.’s targeting of the public library.
- Sonia will be back next week—thanks to American Airlines for making it possible for me to work through some thoughts about the show.