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

The Leftovers: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

Image for article titled The Leftovers: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

The last 20 minutes of tonight’s The Leftovers feels like an entirely different show from the nine hours and 40 minutes that precede it. Or to be more exact, it feels like the entire season has been building up to the moment in which Kevin and Matt’s idyllic drive back to Mapleton is suddenly destroyed by the two men finding that the town has descended into pure chaos. From a purely cinematic perspective, it’s a powerful, gripping conclusion. Mimi Leder directed “The Prodigal Son Returns,” and her work yields masterful stuff: Kevin running into the burning house of the Guilty Remnant to look for Jill elicited the most engagement I’ve had with the show all season.

In fact, the episode doesn’t quite come together until minute 40. “The Prodigal Son Returns” is in fact astonishingly slow, meandering through cigarette-based imagery as Jill initiates herself into the Guilty Remnant and Kevin and the Reverend Jamison bury Patti in a makeshift grave out in the woods of Cairo. And then, all of a sudden, when Kevin and Matt get to the diner, it clicks into a groove. That conversation in the diner, over cheeseburgers, might be the most important scene in the episode—Kevin finally says something that portrays his own feelings about why the disappearance happened, after spending the last nine episodes (and three years, in the timeline of the show) focusing instead on how other people are handling it. Immediately following, he finds Wayne in the bathroom, and that man’s dying wish is to grant Kevin a wish. And then the rest of the episode is Wayne’s will slowly but surely coming to pass. I’m not totally sold on whatever The Leftovers is trying to get me to buy, but the last chunk of this episode is magical.

A lot of that comes down to Justin Theroux’s performance. Carrie Coon is the big find from this show, but rediscovering Theroux’s talent has been part of the experience for me as well. Kevin is broken down and remade in this episode, and Theroux makes it work—from the not-so-subtle self-baptism as he’s washing the blood off of his hands to his confession to Matt in the diner. He emerges on the other side shaken but far more resolute than the man we saw in episode nine, “The Garveys At Their Best”—he knows who he is. And that is a man who is terrified that he is not a good man.

A lot of it, too, is the consistently powerful imagery of the show, coupled with musical direction that for once feels restrained and thought-out. It feels like Kevin is searching through hell for his daughter, and it feels like the Guilty Remnant have turned back time in a horrible, frozen way, when the sun rises on the Loved Ones dolls posed all over town, and it feels like a huge triumph, when Laurie finally screams from her disused vocal cords, “JILL!” and points back at the burning house.

It feels like a lot of things. And that is really the best way to summarize this episode: It feels like a lot of things. As I said a bit for the last episode, it’s throwing up Rorschach ink blots and waiting to see the reaction on its audience’s faces. So it’s not particularly coherent, and I’m beginning to believe that it’s not really trying to be coherent. There’s something to be said for forcing the audience to hover in the space between knowing and feeling the beats of a story—which is what The Leftovers asks us to do, when it layers a totally bizarre, bait-and-switch dream sequence in the midst of Kevin’s already erratic behavior. But at its most basic level, it makes the show awfully difficult to watch. At its best, the ambiguity opens the show up to moments like the ones with Wayne, where the show allows some doubt for whether or not Wayne really does have the powers people ascribe to him. And at worst, the ambiguity offers basic comprehension questions, like: How did Wayne get that huge wound in his stomach? What was Nora going to do before she found the baby? Of course the answer to both questions is “it doesn’t matter,” but you still have to try to figure it out.

Because, to be honest, as beautifully shot and directed and executed that last 20 minutes is, it’s thematically kind of a mess. Absolutely nothing is resolved: Rescuing your child from a house doesn’t repair your relationship with her; speaking your child’s name in a moment of crisis doesn’t fix anything, either. The Guilty Remnant went far out of its way to get the crap beat out of them, to get shot at and burned down. Patti died, and her death meant… something. And Tommy finally came home, as we have long expected he would.


I was fond of one little twist to the title, “The Prodigal Son Returns”—because while Tommy is the prodigal son of the season, Kevin is the prodigal son of the episode, kind of. He’s certainly fled from Mapleton in a kind of disgrace, and the episode forces him to center himself again and return to his community to do the work of repairing it, somehow.

And that dream sequence of his is another kind of return—returning to the legacy of his father, in the asylum of his nightmares. I don’t know what to make of Patti straddling him and sloppily kissing his face—it frustrated me beyond belief to get the smash cut of “and then it was all a dream!” right after that—but the National Geographic issue sliding under the door, where a meal tray ought to be, is kind of brilliant.


But I’m focusing on the trees, and leaving the forest unexamined. And that’s kind of because The Leftovers can’t really see the forest for the trees. It’s offering up interesting little nuggets—sometimes absolutely captivating ones, like Nora Durst walking into the tableau of her missing family, or the last look of desperation Christine gives Tommy before she abandons her baby and runs away. What it all means? That is something the show is leaving up to the viewer.

I’ve been turning over in my mind the idea that Kevin introduces at the diner to Matt—that the reason he wasn’t taken, he knows, is because he wanted to leave his family. What if he’s right? What if the only sin that this God punishes is that which doesn’t appreciate the people they’re connected to? Or: What if that’s so important that God would put humans through crisis, so that they’re pushed back towards each other? It could sort of make sense. And then the reverend clasps his hand and tells him, “It’s not your fault,” and that whole line of inquiry falls flat. It doesn’t matter what God did or did not decide to do, for Kevin or for any of us. It only matters what we do now.


It’s quite beautiful that in Kevin’s case, what he does now is simply hope for his family to come together again—and lets himself want that without anger or hope. It’s a loving acceptance that permeates all religions—from the Buddha to Job. And that revelation of loving, grateful acceptance makes the episode’s final emphasis on family, and in particular, children, very apt—after all, there is little else that offers such profound and innocent love than a newborn child, eyes first opening to the world.

Episode grade: A-
Season grade: B

Stray observations:

But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
My feet have closely followed his steps;
I have kept to his way without turning aside.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

But he stands alone, and who can oppose him?
He does whatever he pleases.
He carries out his decree against me,
and many such plans he still has in store.
That is why I am terrified before him;
when I think of all this, I fear him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me.
Yet I am not silenced by the darkness,
by the thick darkness that covers my face.

  • The ambiguity of The Leftovers explains why the takes on this show are so incredibly divergent. I generally have felt like the show is too messy and unfocused; other critics, like Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, have raved about its performance so far. And that is perfectly valid, but I’m just not seeing it. But in the show’s defense, it’s raised so many ideas that even when it hasn’t been satisfying, it’s been worth engaging with.
  • I found it particularly creepy and wonderful that one of the pages in the National Geographic in Kevin’s dream is a map of Cairo.
  • “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is a perfect song for this show, isn’t it?
  • “If you touch her, we’re in this together.” “Then let’s be in.”
  • Nora’s letter to Kevin is masterful; “the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization” is devastating. I liked that she also turned his statement around on its head—not we’re still here, but you’re still here.
  • Matt observes that Kevin can’t borrow his clothing because they have different “physiques.” A moment of almost-levity in an otherwise grim show.
  • Thanks for reading, as always. We’re still here.