Note: This was meant to be a standalone blog post but my thoughts became a bit more than that. I will be posting new posts exploring some of the other themes found in this show as the week progresses. These posts deal with episodes 1-6 of the The Leftovers. I have not read the book (yet).
Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) is stumbling through a frozen midnight dark forest. Two dogs run across her path and a bald man, holding a rifle is close behind them. He pauses to shoot the dogs and turning realizes that silent as snowflakes, Laurie is just the first in a sea of white clad cult members emerging from the tears. They stop, the man and the cult, to observe each other for a moment before the momentum picks up again. There is, briefly, this sort of silent exchange between them. I’m not part of your story, they seem to say without saying. But of course they’re part of each other’s story. That is the world of The Leftovers.
HBO’s new show is six episodes in, choked full of meaning and little direction. The show is not a braid, at least not yet, deftly combining disparate plot lines to create a cohesive whole at the end. This is more like a charm bracelet. Each piece hangs from the same strand of silver, on its own still its own shape and meaningful in its own way. Each story line is fairly insignificant on its own but together, they create a broken dialogue about what happens next.
Which is the big question on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the universe of The Leftovers; what happens next? Because this is not a story about the Rapture, the Rapture, for lack of a better name for the sudden unexplained disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, this is a story about what people do next with no guidance, no explanations.
On October 14th, a random selection of people disappeared. On October 15th everyone left had to get on with their lives. Which is the hardest part. The show portrays the characters and their search for meaning in a world that still remains much the same but has seemingly gone mad.
One of the most evident symbols of the slightly shifted world are the animals. Both Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) both are lead or have encounters with animal life.
Kevin, the town Sheriff, upholder of the law and perhaps possessor of a slowly slipping grip on reality has multiple interactions with both deer and dogs in his passage through what is left of his life. He sees a deer four times, once when it destroys his kitchen, again during the time period he is attempting to return the body of the first dead dog, once in a dream where he hits it with his car, then later, dead and being feasted on by a wild pack. The deer can symbolize regeneration, life cycles, regrowth. But in the four times that we see the deer, it is still except for the time where it destroys his kitchen.
In essence, his own regeneration is stuck. He can’t, for whatever reasons move forward, he is in the worst position possible, in this case as it turns out, food for a pack of wild dogs.
The wild dogs that were once ‘our’ dogs. Loyal, faithful companions turned into something other. Something so close to what we’re used to but like all things truly horrible, very, very different. As the mysterious dog shooter from the opening said, “They’re not our dogs anymore.”
In a way though, they are. A thing once tamed will never be truly wild again. There will always be a part of it that knows domestication. That knows us. The dogs are that sort of representation of madness. Of course they’re acting out their baser instincts, lost they’re trying to form new connections, new rules because they old ones just don’t work anymore. Kevin is faced with a choice, do we destroy the new order to cling to the old or vice versa. No one else, besides the Stranger with a Rifle seems to notice that these dogs are running rampant. No one else seems to care.
Which is an interesting parallel to the teenage population of the town. Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley) is our personal Virgil into the depths of the Teenage Wasteland. Without the departed she would likely seem like an angst filled hormonal teenager but in light of the world wide tragedy, there is something about her personal grief that seems inadequate. The world she shows us is of teens let loose. There are no boundaries, no lines.
The parties and activities of the teenagers wouldn’t seem out of place in a teen movie where we expect the young people to exist in a strange world with no adult supervision but in The Leftovers, much like the dogs, no one seems to be watching these kids. They stalk the streets in groups of two or more, wreaking havoc on whatever catches their fancy.
In that way, Kevin and his dogs is really Kevin and his children. He has lost track of them. They are not children, not anymore. They are these beings that have grown restless and aimless somewhere beyond his reach. He is aware that something needs to be done but he is powerless to do all but the most destructive things because the situation, his life, is firmly outside of his control.
This is in direct juxtaposition to Matt, a preacher who runs his own truth and believes that things are very much out of his control. He is guided by his faith and convictions. He sees birds. Pigeons of all things. He sees them on a traffic light and on a roulette table in the casino. They, without a doubt, help guide him. They lead him down the path to procure the money that he would need to pay off his church.
However, that does not work out for him. Although he does get the funds that he needs to pay off the debt, he is caught by a rock meant for a Guilty Remnant, the white clad cult. He is knocked unconscious for three days, missing his chance to pay what is owed on his church. He did everything right, followed all of the signs unquestioningly and still lost what he wanted most.
Ultimately this becomes one of the larger points in this show. The idea that things don’t always happen the way you want them. Even when do you all of the right things, the universe doesn’t reward you. You do what makes you can but there are things outside of yourself and those things are other people on their own track. Part of their own stories.
In every scene that these two characters meet, they act as a sort of foil for each other. They are both men of their beliefs dealing with the fall out of the world holding on to the things they have faith in. For Matt, they are his beliefs, for Kevin, it’s his job. They both seek to provide order to the world that is not terribly interested in listening to them any longer.
They’re both looking for the answer as to what’s next. What are they supposed to do? But their reliance on the forces outside of themselves leave both men stuck, taking part in quests that do not, ultimately matter. Their actions and reactions always coming a bit too late as the case with Matt’s church and Kevin’s baby Jesus. As if the universe is saying, “It’s too late for you to choose the paths, you have to follow the one that’s set. You can’t go into the woods and then expect to find your way back.”