A review of tonight's “The Leftovers” coming up just as soon as I email my manuscript to myself…
“They won't jump out of the way.” -Laurie
After two episodes set largely in Jarden, “The Leftovers” returns to the Tri-State area(*), and to the most divisive of the many divisive elements of season 1, with Laurie and Tommy taking on the Guilty Remnant in “Off Ramp.”
When Laurie's potential book publisher asks her to explain exactly what the Remnant believes and why, he's acting as a stand-in for the many “Leftovers” viewers who didn't understand and/or like what all those chain-smoking ghouls in white jumpsuits were up to last season. And with Laurie finally able to speak – she speaks so much in this episode that you can feel all those words relieved to get out after being kept inside her for so long while she was under Patti's sway – we get some articulation of what they were up to, and why. The basic core, though, is what Patti told Kevin last season: the GR's members believe the world ended, and they're offended that the rest of the world is acting like that didn't happen. The cigarettes, the wardrobe, the notepads, and the rest are more mysterious – even Laurie doesn't know their origin – but no stranger, frankly, than ritual circumcision or transubstantiation would sound to an outsider with no exposure to Judaism or Catholicism.
Because the GR flies in the face of the way our world functions, because they're willing to murder their own members to make a larger point, and because their stunt with the dummies caused so much pain and heartache at the end of last season, it's easy to look on them as the villains of the piece, and to see Laurie and Tommy here on the side of righteousness in setting up their cult deprogramming business. But in our world, 2 percent of the population didn't vanish without explanation, so our rules don't necessarily apply. And as we watch both Laurie and Tommy unravel over the course of “Off Ramp” – an episode as frantic and relentless as “Figure Eights,” the Buddy Rich/Max Roach drum battle that serves as its primary musical motif – we're left to wonder if they're not just the crazy ones, but the wrong ones.
As Tommy admits after his harrowing encounter with Meg, “They make sense! They know something!”
Of course, Meg seems to have gone off-scripture quite a bit in both raping Tommy and threatening to burn him alive – between that, her wardrobe (still white, but less utilitarian), and her ongoing willingness to talk in mixed company, she's nearly on the verge of playing Martin Luther and establishing her own GR offshoot – and the GR's hold over recent escapee Susan remains so strong that she commits a vehicular murder-suicide with her unwitting husband and son. So they're no saints.
But being away from one of their compounds hasn't cured all the sickness inside Laurie. If anything, “Off Ramp” slowly, surely, and devastatingly reveals her as crazier than before. At first, the recurring image of her washing her car seems to be a ritual of her new life, and an ongoing attempt to feel clean after nearly getting her own daughter killed. But after liberating her laptop – adorned with a sticker of the Buddha, who would approve of almost none of what happens in this episode – and driving off in triumph, we learn the real reason: she is literally running over members of the GR, less out of a desire for vengeance, but a futile attempt to prove that they're all talk, and all it takes to sway them from their doomsday convictions is to aim a car at them. Instead, they just let her do it(**), because how much more can they be hurt than they were the day they were ignored by whatever deity caused the Sudden Departure?
(**) This is an even more intensely POV-driven episode than the season's first two, and I love the way Carl Franklin shot Laurie's latest vehicular assault from inside the car. It's not exactly the view Laurie has from behind the wheel, but it's close enough to be even more chilling than if we were watching from somewhere in the street.
Laurie acts serene, and she has her new rituals – the car wash, the bagels, the bowl of nicotine gum – to create the feeling of normalcy that the Departure and her time in the GR took away, but it's just as much for show as that expensive suit she intended to wear to the publisher meeting and then return. You can dress her up, blow out her hair, and even offer to make her book a bestseller, but she's just as lost and mad as Susan, and as the publisher keeps demanding that she tell him how all the tragedy she went through felt, she goes feral on him, ruining her book career and her suit in one guy, even if her violent outburst more or less answered the guy's question.
Even for a show as upsetting as “The Leftovers” can be, “Off Ramp” was extreme – as committed to articulating its point about how these people feel to be abandoned as Laurie is to insisting her new way is better than the GR's. There are at least three deaths by auto (one of them a child), possibly two more on screen and the suggestion of many more with all the car wash glimpses. There's Meg's rape of Tommy, which is as twisted and plain messed-up as anything the series has shown us to date – not least because Tommy seems to be enjoying it on some level by the end – but entirely keeping with Meg's need to lash out at the world, Tommy's desperate search for meaning and connection, and the series' larger sense of despair and confusion. There's Laurie's cavewoman moment in the publisher's office.
And there's the conclusion, where Laurie and Tommy spin a web of lies to sell him as Holy Wayne's hand-picked successor, rather than the guy Wayne asked to protect one of his pregnant mistresses. It comes from an altruistic impulse – after the calamitous failure with Susan, and the collateral damage that came with it, Laurie realizes she can't just take these people away from the Remnant, but has to give them something new to believe in – but is as phony as most everything Laurie tells others this week. And Tommy's smile as he invites someone in for the first magical hug suggests that whatever good intentions there are at the start won't prevent their new religion from being perverted and exploited like so often happens in our own world.
The Jarden episodes haven't exactly been sunshine and rainbows – the end of last week's episode had Kevin waking up from a failed, unconscious suicide attempt – but at least there, there's some sense of hope and mystery. This was “The Leftovers” reverting back to season 1 not just in location, but in tone.
Which, since I loved the first season (and have been feeling the same about the second so far), is damn fine by me. This was as great a showcase for Amy Brenneman as “Guest” was last year for Carrie Coon.
Some other thoughts:
* Look for the third and final bonus feature from my Damon Lindelof interview tomorrow morning, where we discuss his intentions with the Tommy-Meg scene, and the complications that come from writing about that particular subject. UPDATE: And here it is.
* Last week, Kevin Sr. announced he was heading to Australia to help start the world up again; this week, there are reports of a dead man emerging from an Australian cave, alive and well. Instead of a second Departure, should the world be preparing itself for some other kind of supernatural event? Is it possible Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers” wasn't faking his disappearance?
* Other musical notes: the piano version of “Where Is My Mind” plays as Tommy enters another Guilty Remnant house. As Lindelof explained last week, both this episode and last week (which featured the original Pixies' version) were made before he saw the “Mr. Robot” episode that used the instrumental track. For a little while (including in the version originally shown to critics), he replaced it in this episode with a classical music version of “Hallelujah,” before deciding he liked the first song – which draws a line between Laurie and her ex-husband as each grapple with madness – too much to get rid of. Also, the song Laurie is triumphantly chair-dancing to after recovering the laptop (and that she puts back on after running over the two Remnants) is “Spoiler” by Hyper.
* Last week, Patti wondered if Kevin is a supporting character in John Murphy's story, or vice versa. Here, one of the women in Laurie's support group talks about feeling like a character in someone else's movie. In a world where extraordinary things happen – but not to any of these people – it can be even easier to feel that way.
* Speaking of supporting characters, there's Hey, It's That Guy! Mark Harelik – who has a recurring role on another current HBO show, as the hospital's director of medicine on “Getting On” – as the would-be publisher of Laurie's book.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org