Review: On ‘The Leftovers,’ is anyone to blame for their loved ones’ departures?

Senior Television Writer
11.08.15 83 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight's “The Leftovers” coming up just as soon as I ask you something stupid…

“Have you ever heard of someone being responsible for someone's Departure?” -Nora

When “The Leftovers” replaced its original theme song this season with Iris DeMent's “Let the Mystery Be,” it was the show's most explicit statement yet not to expect any kind of concrete explanations for the Sudden Departure. At the same time, season 2 opened with plenty of new mysteries about life in and around Jarden, with images like Jerry slaughtering a goat in the diner, or the woman posing for photos in her wedding gown, or Erika digging up the box with the bird all raising questions we probably shouldn't have expected the show to answer.

Yet it has, to varying degrees. Two weeks ago, Patti told Kevin that Evie and her friends Departed, though there remains the very large question of whether “Patti” is there at all, or another symptom of Kevin's fractured mental state. And “Lens” came right out and told us the explanation behind the slaughtered goats, the wedding dress, the box (and the collection of dead birds that Erika has found in the days since Evie disappeared), and even the unexpected pies being left on the Murphys' doorstep. (For that matter, we find out that Virgil is the man John went to prison for trying to kill, though we don't know exactly what Virgil did to deserve it, nor his exact familial relation to John and Erika.)

Those answers, though, aren't what makes “Lens” so satisfying. (If anything, I think the show benefits from a certain level of unexplained weirdness, but there's still plenty of that among Matt's new friends in the camp.) Instead, the episode's power rests on attempts by the hour's two POV characters, Erika and Nora, to figure out  how much they're to blame for their loved ones' Departures. And while they'll never get a concrete explanation – at least, not unless Nora wants to go along with the theory that the demon Azrael has chosen her as his earthbound instrument – they've both obviously come to the conclusion that this is all their fault.

Early on, Nora meets George Brevity from the Department of Sudden Departures (played by “Mad Men” alum Joel Murray), who shares with her the eponymous theory about how certain people acted as lenses, causing those around them to Depart. It's a theory the series has already presented in a way, as many of the Departures we know of – Nora's family, the crying baby in the series' opening scene, the woman Kevin was guiltily having sex with – involved people who were around others who at that moment were wishing on some level that they'd go away. This surely can't apply to everyone(*) – if nothing else, it happened instantaneously across the world, meaning some of the Departed and those in their immediate vicinity were sleeping (though maybe they could have wished them away in a dream?) – but when you're Nora Durst, and your last moment with your children was as ugly as what we saw in “The Garveys at Their Best,” then it's hard not to internalize it all and believe, even after the benefit of Holy Wayne's hug, that she wished Doug and the kids into the cornfield, and that she can never take that wish back.

(*) How does this explain the “Perfect Strangers” phenomenon? Maybe the cast was having a reunion and Mark Linn-Baker decided he'd had enough of everyone else (up to and possibly including Ernie Sabella) stealing his spotlight?

And as we finally get to know Erika Murphy a little, we finally understand that she's come to the same horrible, inescapable conclusion.

The Murphys and Garveys have already been set in parallel (though as a doctor, Erika matches up more with Laurie than Nora), and here the parallels between the two next door neighbors only grow deeper. But rather than bond over their shared misfortune, the recognition of it only pushes them further apart, because who would want to be around someone who confirms all the worst assumptions you have about yourself? Their confrontation after the fundraiser was a spectacular acting duet between Regina King and Carrie Coon, and a profoundly uncomfortable one. The camera keeps pushing in tighter and tighter on each woman's face, forcing us to understand just how boxed in they feel by their current circumstances – Erika now stuck living with and enabling the violent husband she was understandably planning to leave before Evie vanished, Nora sharing her life with a crazy man whom she literally has to restrain at night to keep him from running away from her – and also how angry they've become staring at their doppelganger on the opposite couch. (As the scene goes along, the actresses eventually wind up just addressing the camera directly, not because we're meant to see it as them talking to us, but them looking in the mirror.) When Nora calls Erika pathetic for believing herself to blame for Evie's disappearance, she's lashing out at a woman whom she feels has ruined her attempt to find a safe and stable haven in the world(**), but she's mainly talking about herself, because it is still exactly what she's feeling, all these years and miles later.

(**) In the moment, Nora throwing the rock through the Murphy window seemed such a non-sequitur that I had to rewind the moment several times just to make myself 100 percent sure that was supposed to be Nora doing it. It becomes clear in time, though, because Nora has traveled so far, and spent so much, to get away from the pain and fear that was all around her in Mapleton, and she somehow winds up living next door to a woman whose plight constantly reminds her of what she went through on October 14.

If this were a show about Drs. Joaquin Quarto & Allison Herbert (the espousers of the Azrael theory), then maybe we would expect “The Leftovers” to one day give us a concrete explanation for the Sudden Departure. Instead, it's about a bunch of poor, miserable bastards who have to muddle through life without answers to these big questions, and draw their own conclusions from very limited information and emotionally fraught perspectives. For our purposes, all that matters is what these people believe, and Erika and Nora have chosen to believe the least flattering, most painful theory of what happened.

And they have to live with that belief every damn day.

Some other thoughts:

* Sticking so tightly to Nora and Erika's points of view this week means we finally get to see what a Kevin/Patti conversation looks like from the outside looking in. It's not particularly surprising, but it still effectively conveys why Kevin must be failing like he's “kind of losing my mind.” Justin Theroux is always at his best when Kevin's sanity is at its most fragile, and even though this wasn't “his” episode, he was wonderful in that scene. 

* Laurie's call to Nora has me very curious to catch back up with the gang in New York to find out why Tommy has gone missing and what Laurie feels she has to apologize to him about.

* While many showrunners like to reuse the same actors from series to series, “The Leftovers” until this week had avoided hiring anyone who'd ever appeared on “Lost.” Technically, we still haven't seen a “Lost” actor on the show, but Dr. Allison Herbert's voice was unmistakable as that of Sonya  Walger. (The actor playing Not Penny's partner had a bit of a Desmond hairstyle, no?)

* I've talked before about the show's immersive sound design, and that continued here with depicting a foot chase as if we were, like Erika, hearing impaired and lacking hearing aids. Very cool, and an extra way to really put us into the perspective of one of the characters.

* Last week, I wondered how long it would be before we got another glimpse of Matt in the camp. Didn't take long at all, and he's doing pretty well for himself, having apparently ended the cycle of taco truck imprisonment by refusing to let someone else take his place.

* Nora at one point mentions claims that everyone on a carousel in Brandenburg, Germany all Departed. Lindelof discussed this with me when we talked about world-building.

* Songs this week included “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” by Jim James, “Sandman” by 5 Alarm, “FVR_1967_My_Tears_Run_Backwards” by Tommy Strange & The Features, “Goin' Home to New Orleans,” by Little Sam Davis, “Peace on Earth” by Coleman Family, “Til You Came (Great Big Thing)” by Barbara & The Browns, “Stay” by Rihanna, and, in an amusing joke over the closing credits, given what Erika and Nora have been up to, window-wise, “I Am A Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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