‘The Leftovers’ review: So what on Earth (or off) happened to Kevin?

A review of tonight's “The Leftovers” coming up just as soon as there's a bird loose in the lobby…

“Are you fucking serious?” -Kevin

There once was an HBO Sunday drama that ended one episode with its main character on the verge of death, and opened the next with him suddenly in a hotel, in circumstances far from what we know of him, going by a different name – Kevin, in fact – and having the damndest time trying to get home, no matter what he tried. Whether Tony Soprano was in the afterlife, an alternate reality, or simply dreaming while lying comatose in the hospital, his adventures as Kevin Finnerty proved particularly divisive among that show's fans: some saw this as of a piece with all the dream sequences, flashbacks, and other stylistic departures employed in the past; others stubbornly clung to the belief that they were watching a straightforward mob drama, where all this metaphysical nonsense had no business being.

The audience for “The Leftovers” is far smaller than “The Sopranos” fanbase, and smaller even than its low-rated first season(*). The viewers who are left, I'm assuming, have gone all-in with the show's strangeness, its unconventional narrative choices, and its unflinching commitment to its themes about grief, spirituality, and madness. And, therefore, I'd like to think that “International Assassin” – which resolved last week's Kevin cliffhanger in the weirdest, most unexpected, and more than slightly Kevin Finnerty-ish way possible – was right up their alley. But I'm going to be especially curious to see the comments on this one, because this was something unusual, to be sure(**).

(*) To answer your question, I have no idea what HBO's executives will do. They don't care about ratings, and the overall reviews have been much stronger this season (hell, even Damon Lindelof's nemesis Andy Greenwald has been converted to the cause), but is that enough? 

(**) It's also amusing to compare this to what was going on in the same hour with “The Walking Dead,” which was covering some of the same plot territory, but not in any way remotely like this. 

Where those “Sopranos” episodes were split between Kevin Finnerty in Costa Mesa and Tony's loved ones in the hospital in New Jersey, “International Assassin” stayed with Kevin the entire time. As with last week's debate over whether Patti is a ghost or evidence of Kevin having a psychotic break, we can argue about whether he was actually in the afterlife – and was saved by Michael burying him in the magical soil of Jarden (maybe an upcoming episode will tell us how long he was under there) – or if Virgil's “poison” was less fatal, and perhaps more hallucinogenic, than promised. “The Leftovers” tends to leave these things ambiguous, even as it has demonstrated that there's some level of supernaturality to this universe. Maybe Kevin really was in a version of Limbo with Virgil, Gladys, Holy Wayne, Mary, Patti, and Patti's husband Neil – and with a cameo televised appearance by Kevin Sr. – or maybe it was all a fever dream he had while waiting for the drug's effect to wear off. (You could read Holy Wayne's presence either way, for instance: having been there as that man died, Wayne might have been on Kevin's mind as he went through what he thought was a death-like experience.)

But, as with so much of the series, what matters isn't so much the true nature of an event, but what our characters believe it to be. As far as Kevin is concerned, this is happening. Part of what makes the hour so watchable, in fact, is that early on, Kevin ceases to act the way he usually does: he stops questioning everything around him and just goes with it. He wants Virgil's help getting out of here, but he believes in what's occurring, and isn't trying to fight it.

It also helps that he chooses the eponymous profession's wardrobe when presented with other options. (“Know first who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly,” as the sign outside the closet says, quoting the Greek philosopher Epictetus.) I imagine there are versions of the episode where Kevin puts on his police uniform, or one of the other choices(***), but the lunacy of Kevin being an international assassin, and getting into fights and shootouts every few minutes, gave the episode a sense of narrative propulsion to go along with all the religious symbology, like one of Senator Levin's bodyguards ordering Kevin to “make like Jesus,” or Patti bringing the season full circle by comparing the Sudden Departure to a cave collapse. The recurring use of “Va Pensiero” (aka “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”) from “Nabucco” – an opera that Verdi composed while still consumed with grief over the deaths of his wife and children – not only recalled the partial use of his “La Traviata” back when the cavewoman gave birth, but captured the heightened emotion of Kevin finding himself in (or believing himself to be in) the afterlife. (Also, since the episode at times took on the structure of a thriller, there's precedent for action movies to use classical and/or opera music as a recurring motif.)

(***) Note that at various points in the episode, he walks past a man with a hood over his head wearing what looks like Kevin's Mapleton PD uniform, and winds up sharing an elevator with a crying priest attired similarly to another item in that closet.

The episode also very carefully walked the knife edge of peppering the whole story with strange details – the loose bird (which evoked the bird that flew out of the box Erika buried), bursts of noise and static from the TV before Kevin Sr. finally turned up, the bizarre lie detector with the red bulb, the nightmare version of Jarden and its exterior – while the story itself felt relatively coherent. Kevin had a problem, and this was either his mind's way or the cosmos' way of dealing with it. While talking to the man on the bridge to Jarden, Kevin suggests that none of this is real – that it's not a big deal to try drowning Patti, even in little girl form – while the man replies that, “This is more real than it's ever been.” And whatever the nature of this place is, it wears on Kevin the longer he's in it.

For all that he wants to be rid of Patti, the experience only humanizes her in his mind. When he encounters her in her presidential candidate incarnation, he finally comes to understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the ethos of the Guilty Remnant. In his encounters with Neil, and with little girl Patti, he develops sympathy for her after learning of the other men in her life who kept asking her to be silent – a silence she never fully understood the power of until she was in that “Jeopardy” green room – just like he's been all season. In her little girl form, in fact she's so ready and willing to be punished that it pains Kevin to have to hear her suggest different ways he might get her into the well, until he has to impulsively push her in so he doesn't have to listen to more. Yet when she finally turns into the real Patti that he knows, he climbs down (and then falls into) the well, and hears her story about how – in a world that would soon come to be defined by people disappearing, in one way or another – she had the perfect opportunity to vanish from Neil's life and couldn't take it. We know from last week that she (if she exists at all in this form) is just as desperate to be free of him as he is of her, yet when they're at the bottom of the well together, she admits to being scared of what's about to happen, and she even struggles against his drowning of her, at the bottom of a hole not far from where that first cave collapsed all those centuries ago.

I don't know what I expected the show to do in the aftermath of last week's cliffhanger, but I never in a million years would have guessed, “Kevin is reborn as an international assassin who must prevent Patti from being elected president.” And yet in the context of the episode, and the series as a whole, it somehow makes perfect sense, and was just as gripping, and powerful, and strange, as the rest of this season.

Even if Kevin Finnerty is a better alias for Tony Soprano than Kevin Harvey is for Kevin Garvey.

Some other thoughts:

* In “Off Ramp,” Laurie admitted she didn't know why the Guilty Remnant asks its members to chain smoke, but Kevin figures it out in his encounter with Senator Levin: like everything else they do, the smoking is a constant reminder that the world ended.

* Whether Kevin Sr. was “really” communicating with Kevin or not, I loved realizing that the hotel fire alarms were being caused by Senior – staying in a Perth hotel room that was identical to Junior's  – and his new friends had lit an indoor fire.

* While most of the actors we saw tonight had appeared on “The Leftovers” before, that was Gary Basaraba (the awful Jaguar dealer from “Mad Men”) as Neil, and Bill Camp (currently in a recurring role as a British scientist on “Manhattan”) as the man on the bridge. I wonder if we'll ever find out in an upcoming episode what he whispered to Kevin, or if it (like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's final communication in “Lost in Translation”) will forever remain a mystery to us.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com