A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I’m a member of the indigenous community…
“I put it in the player, and waited for one last voice to tell me what to do.” -Kevin Sr.
The key scene to fully appreciating “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” is one that doesn’t occur in the episode, that the episode’s main character doesn’t even remember, and that may not have actually happened. So… Leftovers. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
For an episode littered with gorgeous shots of the Australian Outback, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” is at its most stunning during a pair of monologues delivered indoors and shot by Mimi Leder mostly in tight closeup. In the first, Kevin Sr. tells the story of his travels through this country that brought him to Christopher Sunday’s door. In the second, Grace Playford — leader of the old women gang that kidnapped and murdered Australian Kevin by mistake last week — tells Kevin Sr. the story of how her husband and children all disappeared on Departure Day, only it turned out that only her husband Departed, while the poor kids starved to death wandering the Outback while no one realized they should be looking for them.
Grace’s story is delivered with incredible power by Lindsay Duncan, and it’s full of devastatingly mistaken assumptions: that the kids had also Departed, and that Australian Kevin was the man described in the page she found in Kevin Sr’s backpack. Kevin Sr’s story is also a remarkable piece of acting by Scott Glenn — who has to carry as much of this hour on his back as anyone has in previous Leftovers POV episodes — particularly in the moment where he listens to the tape of his younger self singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to 8-year-old Kevin Jr. And it has a mistaken assumption, too, albeit one that we’re aware of but Kevin Sr. isn’t:
He did speak to God — or, at least, to Kevin Jr, who may very well be the God of The Leftovers universe.
Remember: in “International Assassin,” the two Kevins speak when Senior appears on Junior’s hotel TV set, explaining that he’s in a hotel in Perth and has just consumed something called “God’s Tongue” — the same hallucinogen he tells Christopher Sunday about here, explaining that he took it and woke up two weeks later in a Perth hotel room with no memory of how he got there or what happened.
While Lindelof and Perrotta like to leave things somewhat ambiguous as to whether anything in the show is supernatural other than the Departure itself, this one’s pretty hard to wave away. If “International Assassin” is just part of Kevin Jr’s psychotic break, then how does he know his father is in a hotel in Perth and that he’s just taken this specific, obscure drug? And if Junior was experiencing something real, then Senior — who knows about Junior’s mission and tells him to throw Patti down the well — was, too.
I bring this up not to cry foul on Lindelof’s insistence that everything but the Departure can have a mundane explanation — perhaps if we speak at the end of the series, he’ll have one for this — but to point out how differently Senior’s monologue plays from how he intends it to, because he doesn’t know what we think we know, and it completely turns his whole Australian experience on its head. He came here seeking a purpose, and a chance to talk to God, and he actually, miraculously, was able to connect to someone in the afterlife (for the sake of my argument, we will pretend that that is 100% what happened), but the drugs strong enough to make that happen were also strong enough to wipe his memory of the whole experience. So he wakes up with no awareness that he got what he wanted, nor even how he wound up on the opposite side of the continent, and then he sees the TV news story about Tony the chicken, the only survivor of a small Australian town where very other living thing Departed, and he takes this as a sign, and then takes as another sign Tony the chicken plucking one of the old cassette tapes from that father-son trip to Niagara Falls(*), and the sound of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” convinces him that a flood is coming on the seventh anniversary of Departure Day. As Kevin says all of this, you can understand how it makes perfect sense to him, but to us it plays like someone going on and on about how they found Jesus’s likeness floating in a bowl of guac while oblivious to the actual Jesus posing for selfies right next to him.
(*) Of course a show about grief would have one of its characters assume the key to saving the world lies in a recording he made as part of his attempt to cope with the loss of his wife (and Kevin Jr’s mom). And of course a man as self-confident as Kevin Garvey Sr. would take the sound of his own voice as the ultimate sign of God speaking to him.
To quote Douglas Adams, proof denies faith, and all religious faith relies on believing in things that cannot be seen, heard, or proved. You just have to decide that this thing you are feeling is correct, and not that thing, or the other thing, or the thing that guy on the street corner is shouting about with equal fervor. We look for signs to justify our faith, or to explain the path our lives have taken. The Millerites were convinced God was coming for them on a specific date in 1844, and when He failed to arrive, they became convinced He was coming on another date, and another, and eventually they built an entire new branch of Christianity out of their attempt to understand why that didn’t happen. The Yankees lost the 2001 World Series because their Hall of Fame-bound relief pitcher Mariano Rivera improbably made a throwing error in the ninth inning of Game 7; later, the devoutly Christian Rivera would say this was God interceding to spare the life of teammate Enrique Wilson, who in the event of a victory parade would have been on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed after takeoff, killing all its passengers.
In the case of Kevin Garvey Sr., proof was apparently there, but he was too high out of his mind to see it, so he turned to a different sign altogether, which set him on the path that makes him a wanted man by the Aboriginal authorities, traveling down the Songline to try to prevent the flood he is now certain is coming, and that no one on earth but himself can stop.
And maybe he’s right. Maybe “International Asassin” was all in Junior’s mind, the God’s Tongue thing is a complete coincidence, Tony the chicken is the real sign, and a flood of Old Testament proportions really is coming on October 14 (October 15 if you’re Down Under like Senior). After all, immediately after he warns Matt that a Noah-style flood could be coming, the sky opens up into a torrential downpour.
But it’s hard to watch Senior stumble through the Outback, unwavering in his quest even as he offends, injures, or (in the case of poor Christopher Sunday) kills everyone he meets, and not view “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” as the tragedy of a man who missed the actual sign that was right in front of him and became consumed with this utterly meaningless one because he had to believe in something. It’s a very Matt Jamison kind of episode in that way — Senior even suffers physically in the way Matt did throughout “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and “No Room at the Inn” — and Glenn has the sheer magnetism to carry it, and to keep old Kevin Sr. from seeming overwhelmed by those wide Outback vistas Leder keeps putting him in. But Senior — like many a Leftovers character in the past — is convinced he’s the main character of the story, when in fact he’s a very special guest star who only got promoted to the main cast for the final season. Matt, John, and Michael may be completely wrong about The Gospel of Kevin, but Senior doesn’t seem any more right with his theory than they are with theirs.
But Senior, like Matt, will not let go of an idea once it’s in his head, and he will not stop looking for signs, even after he nearly dies of a snake bite and exposure, and even after Grace tells him her own story of how terribly she twice misunderstood the signs that God seemed to be giving her, which resulted in the deaths of her children and of Australian Kevin. She believed the Bibles were a sign that the children had Departed with their father, when really they were dying in agony under the punishing sun. And then she found Kevin Sr. lying in a Christ pose at the very spot where her children died, with a page from The Book of Kevin in his pack describing a police chief named Kevin who journeyed to the afterlife and offered comfort to the deceased, and took that as a sign to attempt to drown her local police chief named Kevin so he would perform that service for her children. She’s not a time traveler, not a prophet, not anything but a lonely, grieving, self-loathing woman who made two mistakes — the first understandable given the circumstances, the second perhaps understandable given what these last few years must have done to her mind and spirit — but Australian Kevin’s death and non-return seems to have finally snapped her back into reality again.
“There is no message, and God doesn’t care about me,” she ruefully admits. “It’s all just a story I tell myself. It’s just a silly, stupid story. And I believed it because… I’ve gone a bit crazy, haven’t I?”
In the world of The Leftovers, it can be impossible to tell where faith ends and craziness begins, but Grace Playford happens to find herself in the company of a man more convinced than ever that the signs have led him to the proper place, and that her only real mistake was that she got the wrong Kevin.
Or, as he puts it to Christopher Sunday, right after Christopher has tried explaining that his song is meant to bring the rain, not hold it back: “Well, that’s all subject to interpretation.”
Some other thoughts:
* “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” does not remain the theme song for the rest of the run. Instead, the show is going to rotate different songs each episode, while sticking with the season two title sequence. This week’s choice: Richard Cheese’s lounge-style cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”
* Other songs this week included “King Bundawaal” by Slim Dusty, “Blue Bonnet Blues” by Shirley Thoms, “Prelude” from Act III of La Traviata performed by Ondrej Lenard & Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt, and “Rocking” by Australian Children’s Choir.
* I alluded to it above, but man oh man did Mimi Leder and her director of photography John Grillo go to town filming the Australia scenes. Absolutely gorgeous work. If you’re going to relocate your show again, this time to the opposite side of the world, you’d best get as much visual bang for the buck as you can, and Leder and Grillo sure did.
* On first viewing, I wondered if the young redheaded woman in the photo album Kevin Sr. finds at Grace’s house was somehow the Millerite woman from this season’s opening sequence, perhaps having lived an incredibly long life on this world she had expected to leave. It’s just a photo of the young Lindsay Duncan, but there is something of a connection between the two women: Grace’s last name, Playford, is the same as Thomas Playford, who was a leader of the Millerite movement in Australia (Adelaide, specifically) in the 19th century.
* The man who burns himself and his VW bug while Kevin Sr. helpessly watches isn’t explained here, except as one more ordeal preventing Kevin from getting where he needs to be, but he seems torn up over the idea that “they didn’t take me” — whoever “they” are — after he apparently answered a question about whether he would kill a baby if it would cure cancer (like Kevin, he wouldn’t).