A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I go from being a sports announcer to Yahweh…
“Because there has to be a reason!” -Matt
Let me tell you the filthiest joke I knew as a kid:
This guy dies, goes to Hell, is greeted by Satan in front of three doors. Satan smiles and says, “I’m feeling generous today. I’m going to let you pick the room where you’ll be condemned to spend all eternity.” The guy opens the first door, and sees people standing on their heads on a floor covered in shards of broken glass. He opens the second door, and sees people standing on their heads on a hard cement floor while a taskmaster whips and beats them. He opens the third door, and sees a group of people standing knee-deep in excrement, drinking coffee.
“Yeah, I’ll take the third door. I can learn to handle the smell,” the guy tells Satan, without a moment’s hesitation. Satan asks if he’s sure, the guy nods, and Satan disappears, laughing.
The guy wades into the room, pours himself a nice tall cup of joe, and is just about to drink it when a taskmaster walks in and screams, “Okay, maggots! Coffee break’s over! Back on your heads!”
Like that one? Okay, here’s another that may sound more familiar:
There’s this guy. He has devoted his entire life to telling people about the wonders of God, even though his relationship with the Almighty hasn’t been the healthiest.
When he was 10, he was so envious of the attention his baby sister was getting, he asked God to give him some of it back, and God responded by giving him a nearly fatal bout with leukemia. And still he believed, and still he tried telling others about God. When he was a teenager, his parents burned to death in the family home while he and his sister sat on the curb watching, him insisting the entire time that their parents weren’t suffering and this was all part of God’s plan. This guy grew up to be a charismatic and influential reverend, preaching a gospel that would then be forever undermined when a random two percent of the world’s population vanished in a way that went against any scripture he’d ever read. Worse, one of the people who vanished did so while driving his car, which crashed into this guy’s wife, rendering her permanently catatonic, according to the doctors. So now the guy became obsessed with spreading the good word that many of the Departed were bad people, and received many punches to the face for his troubles, and lost his church itself to a new cult that had sprung up and already started picking off members of her rapidly-dwindling flock. And the guy’s focus changed, again, to saving the souls of the members of this cult, none of whom wanted saving — at least not until they lit the town on fire metaphorically, and the town responded by lighting them on fire quite literally.
At this point, the guy quite wisely decided it was time for a fresh start, and now his religious fixations turned to what had improbably become the safest, holiest place on the planet: a small town in Texas where nobody Departed. The guy went there for what was supposed to be a brief visit, and was stunned when God granted him a miracle on his first night there: his wife woke up and made the sweetest of love to him. But once again, God was like Lucy Van Pelt with the football, and the wife went back to her catatonia — somehow pregnant, even though they’d never been able to conceive before her accident. This guy told his loved ones about the miracle, and they of course thought he was both crazy and a sex criminal, and as penance for his many sins, the guy wound up doing time — some of it fully nude, in stocks on top of a taco truck — in the tent city outside of town, separated from his wife and unborn son. Still he suffered, and still he believed, and still he preached, and after all of that, he was again rewarded when she woke up for good, told others the truth about the night the baby was conceived, and gave birth to a healthy boy.
This guy should have been happy. He should have been content in his family and in his faith. His miracle wife and miracle son had made him a charismatic and influential man of the cloth once again, but he became convinced that the town was the only reason both were okay, and he forbade them to leave until she decided to go, for good, and take the boy. And this guy’s belief has refocused — again — on a family friend whom he has decided (with some decent evidence) is the new Messiah, only the friend has no interest in the position and flees to Australia rather than playing whatever his appointed role is for what our guy has decreed to be the most important day in the history of creation. So this guy follows him halfway across the world only to get stranded on a boat filled with the most sinful of heathens, and it’s there that this guy meets…
Who is really kind of a jerk.
Laughing yet? No? Have I mentioned that God — after making this guy re-examine every belief he’s ever had, and ever bad choice he’s ever made — gets eaten by a lion who was set free after being the beloved totem of an orgy? And this guy we’ve been following — who has been trying to convince everyone around him of the existence of both God as a concept and this man claiming to be He — watches the lion eat Him, then turns directly to the camera and says, “That’s the guy I was telling you about.”
Now that’s comedy.
“It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” is, like the series’ two previous Christopher Eccleston spotlights, one long, sick joke about the cruelty and capriciousness of belief, of the Almighty, and of life itself. And, like the previous two, it’s also the story of a rampant narcissist whose ever-changing, never-ending search for meaning — which inevitably leads to great physical and emotional suffering — is really about justifying his own choices and his place in the vast universe.
So Matt again runs into great difficulty getting from place to place — if grief, spirituality, and madness are The Leftovers‘ chief themes, then the wretched hellscape that is contemporary travel lingers not far behind — again endures both a beating and a harsh interrogation of his faith, and again has everyone who cares about him questioning his decision-making process. But — perhaps because this is the final season, and the final Matt POV episode — the story has a happier ending, up to and including the sick punchline where “God” gets eaten by the lion, and Matt is finally relieved to point him out to the horrified Laurie, John, and Michael. Yes, Matt’s illness has come back, in seemingly incurable form this time. And yes, Matt’s encounter with former decathlete David Burton — who looks exactly like the man Kevin encountered during his two visits to the afterlife last season(*) — ends with him convinced that most of what he’s devoted his life to believing has been wrong, and a waste. But these beliefs — and his manic insistence on telling everyone about them, whether they wanted to hear or not — have brought him nothing but misery. They pushed away his sister, and later his wife and son. They turned him into a cosmic punching bag, and sent him halfway across the world at a time when his flock back in Jarden really desperately needs him(**). They made him completely insufferable. In this episode alone, he’s exasperated that John brought his skeptical wife along on the trip, and it doesn’t even occur to him that he might want to check in on Nora once he makes it all the way to Australia. So when he tells the ship’s captain he has no pressing business in Melbourne, it’s as if he has finally been relieved of an enormous weight that he’s been carrying on his back for most of his life — as if he finally gets to enjoy that coffee break for a few minutes, rather than immediately standing on his head and suffering.
(*) The use of Bill Camp as Burton would seem to be more proof of Kevin’s divine abilities, since how would this exact person whom Kevin had never met before now appear in the real world with his girlfriend’s brother — playing a God-like role in both places? But to play devil’s advocate, Burton’s apparent resurrection was a big deal in The Leftovers world when it happened — there was a news report about it back in season two’s “Off Ramp” — and it’s easy to imagine that Kevin saw the coverage, stored the guy’s face in the back of his mind, and unwittingly called it up from his mental database while he was in the midst of a psychotic episode about the world beyond our own. I’d say odds are greater than not that all this business with the hotel, God’s Tongue, Burton, etc., fits into Lindelof’s rule that if two percent of the world’s population disappeared, then two percent of The Leftovers can be supernatural, but it’s not hard to imagine this all being one massive coincidence.
(**) Matt assumes he’ll be able to make it to Australia and back before Departure Day, but him choosing Kevin over the town as his priority does feel a bit like the business with Kevin Sr. and Tony the chicken: a damaged zealot betting big on what could very easily be the wrong choice, while missing out on the one right in front of them.
It is, even by Leftovers standards, a bizarre and memorable episode. We open on a French nuclear submarine, where a naked sailor manages to lock himself in the launch room with both missile keys, setting off a nuke — the explosion the hotel bellman told Kevin about at the end of “G’Day Melbourne” — for reasons unknown, all while his understandably terrified shipmates try and fail to stop him. Then there’s the lion orgy, which felt like Lindelof and co-writer Lila Byock had read all the complaints about how boring and repetitive HBO orgy scenes (like the Westworld one) had become and said, “Challenge accepted.”
Mostly, though, there is God, or David Burton, or possibly both in the same person.
Matt is, of course, offended by Burton’s claims of divinity, because our man has already hitched his theological wagon to the idea that Kevin Garvey Jr. is godlike. But Burton is also a difficult deity, uninterested in interacting with His flock if it keeps him from reading a Louis L’Amour paperback, and he tosses one passenger to his death because he can. We know from “Two Boats and a Helicopter” that Matt Jamison is a man capable of great violence if he feels his faith and his followers are being threatened, so it seems perfectly in character that he would club this apparent impostor over the head with an ax, tie Burton to a wheelchair, and call him to account for all the suffering that the world — and Matt Jamison in particular — has endured.
It’s an amazing scene, because Matt is at first just determined to get Burton to admit that he’s a liar — it’s the most we’ve seen him resemble his sister — but Burton gracefully parries each question until Matt doesn’t even realize he’s begun to take him at face value as, well, Him. Even if he doesn’t really believe Burton’s claims, Matt has spent his whole life believing in a deity who has heaped frequent, crushing abuse upon him, and here sits a man claiming to be that deity. Matt needs answers — needs testimony that his entire life hasn’t been in vain, hasn’t just been the mean joke it so often seems — and Burton provides them, albeit in far harsher, if honest, words than Matt might have expected. If Burton is God, it’s the angry Old Testament version who is not here to comfort Matt, but to make him realize that all his prayers and sermons and speeches were never really about service to God, but service to Matt Jamison. The words ring so true that Matt can’t help but believe in God/Burton at this moment, and can’t resist — while Max Richter’s score is at its most overpoweringly sad and ominous — asking for salvation. And it’s there that the punchline comes for Matt, as Burton delivers a smug, half-hearted, “Ta-da. You’re saved,” and wanders off. Either Matt has once again put his faith in the wrong place, or Burton really is God, but not a God worth devoting oneself to over a whole life. But that realization finally sets Matt free, even if his illness — and/or the chance of something apocalyptic happening while he’s still in Australia on October 15 — means he won’t get to enjoy that freedom for very long.
Matt has spent much of this season revisiting the apocalyptic passages of the Book of Daniel, but as he flies in Arturo’s cargo plane, he’s reading the famous part about Daniel in the lion’s den, where prayer kept him from being devoured. Matt has spent his life praying to a God who either doesn’t exist or has a nasty sense of humor, and if that life is coming to an end soon, at least he got to see a man claiming to be God get devoured by a sensuous lion named Frasier. It’s not what he wanted out of the trip, but he’s in a more peaceful state of mind, even as David Burton is very much not.
Thank you. You’ve been a great audience. Try the veal, and don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode’s title is an homage to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the 1963 all-star comedy about a group of people — played by, among others, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, and Mickey Rooney — racing to get to a buried treasure. Like Nora and Matt, they encounter many, many problems along the way. Some examples:
* Also, there really was a 1973 movie called Frasier (The Sensuous Lion), inspired by a real-life early ’70s animal celebrity. Here is a poster for it. You’re welcome.
* Doing eight episodes instead of ten (a compromise to give the low-rated show a proper finish) meant some sacrifices had to be made, and the Murphy family has been unfortunately marginalized, after season two treated John and Erika as narrative equals to Kevin and Nora. Regina King’s only made the one brief appearance, and John tends to linger in the background of other people’s stories like this. He went through one of the biggest transformations of anyone during the three-year gap — it’s hard to imagine the John Murphy of season two so calmly taking the news that his wife hadn’t told him that Kevin saw a hallucination of Evie — and it’s a shame we haven’t seen more of him in this new context, nor learned more about this change.
* This week’s theme music is a performance of the traditional Hebrew prayer the Ashrei (about the justness and fairness of God) by Benzion Miller, whose renditions of the Avinu Malkenu and B’Motza’ei M’Nuha chants pop up later in the episode. Other songs: “Je Ne Peux Pas Rentrer Chez Moi” by Charles Aznavour, “Frasier (The Sensuous Lion)” by Sarah Vaughan and the Jimmy Rowles Quintet (and then a version just by Vaughan), “CMI22023 Hey Mama” by The Katz Project, “Do You Believe” by Supreme Jubilees, and “Que C’es Triste Venise” by Charles Aznavour.
* The news report from “Off Ramp” wasn’t actually the first we heard of David Burton. In the season two premiere, the Pillar Man gives Michael this letter to mail:
* I wonder what the casting sides looked like for the role of the French sailor who triggers the nuke: “Must be comfortable with full frontal male nudity, and flexible enough to start a nuclear war with one hand and one foot.”
* Benito Martinez from American Crime seems a bit overqualified for the small role of Matt’s pilot friend Arturo, but I was glad to see a face from one of my all-time favorite shows (The Shield) pop up on another that I suspect, when all is said and done, will also rank incredibly highly on my personal list.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org