The Leftovers Season 1 Revisited

"Will my appreciation of where the show ultimately goes make me rethink my conflicted opinions on its beginning"

This article is meant for people who have already seen BOTH seasons of The Leftovers because the first season is discussed in relation to events and information from the second season. This is a general discussion of the first season and not a review; some aspects of the show will not be discussed because rewatching the first season has not changed my opinion of them.

I’m a firm believer that the best things in life are an acquired taste. That loving something that other people hate or dislike makes you all the more passionate about that thing you love. I guess that’s why I’ve gravitated towards Damon Lindelof’s work whether it be the ending of Lost, Prometheus, the Star Trek reboot or The Leftovers. I like his use of ambiguity and mystery, the ability to be able to theorise about what it is I’m seeing and I love the fact that while other people hate his work I take pride in enjoying it. For me The Leftovers is nothing short of a masterpiece and the best show of recent years, beating the likes of more common choices like Breaking Bad. I wasn’t always such a fan though, in fact when it first started I thought about giving up on the series and that it wasn’t my kind of thing but soon I became engrossed, not in the wider mystery (that 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared), but the characters and the almost Lynchian quirk of small town mysteries and dream logic. Since the second season of The Leftovers aired last year I’ve watched it almost endlessly but I rarely go back to the first season of which my opinions are mixed but recently I have gone back and rewatched the first season a couple of times to see whether my appreciation of where the show ultimately goes makes me rethink my conflicted opinions on its beginning.

In my mind the second season of The Leftovers is one of the best seasons of television ever produced with each individual episode having its own unique feel and yet they come together to form a cohesive narrative perfectly. That consistency of quality is absent from the first season which has some definite low points, namely ‘BJ and the AC’ the fourth episode of the season in which Kevin has to track down the baby Jesus that has been stolen by some teenagers. The fake baby is of course a metaphor for several things whether it be religion or the people who departed and that much becomes very obvious very soon into the episode which then continues to smack the audience over the head with said metaphors for the next 50 minutes. All of this is made worse by the fact that the previous episode, and most of the season, deals with the concept of religion in much better and subtle ways. When rewatching the episode having so much more investment in the show and characters I still found it a dull experience overall with a few good moments (Laurie and the lighter) although I did find Jill a more interesting character on the rewatch after growing to like her more in the second season. The episode, like the other ‘bad’ episodes of the first season, also try on focus on the ensemble cast of characters  when the show works at its best dealing with individual characters in  almost standalone episodes which we get a few of in season 1 before being used almost completely in the second season.

While the first half of the first season does feature the worst of what the show has to offer with its unrelenting bleakness and lack of an endgame – which almost made me give up on the show – it also features two of the best episodes from either season of The Leftovers. The pilot is fantastic at showing the Sudden Departure and yet also telling us that that isn’t what the show is about. The extra running time allows the more ensemble nature of the episode to work with the reveal that all the characters we have been seeing are from one family executed well by director Peter Berg. The pilot, like the best episodes of the show, feels like a short film in which we already receive a character arc of Kevin beginning the episode being outraged by “the mystery man” Dean shooting dogs and ending with Kevin joining in shooting at the wild dogs terrorising both Mapleton and the deer. This also gives us our first mystery with who Dean is and what the dogs represent (more on that later).

My favourite episode of the first season soon follows with ‘Two Boats and a Helicopter’ featuring Christopher Eccelston’s unlucky reverend Matt Jamison in an episode focused on character rather than grandiose Sci-Fi or supernatural ideas, although they do play a small part. Even during my first watch of the season I found ‘Two Boats’ to be a perfect episode, although being followed directly by the aforementioned ‘BJ and the AC’ did make me question whether to stop watching, and my appreciation of the episode has grown with each rewatch. It’s the little things that you pick up on after multiple viewings that makes The Leftovers so great like the fact Matt Jamison only ever wears black in the episode to be clearly the opposite of the white-clad Guilty Remnant and for the episode to conclude with Matt having a pure white bandage on his head after losing his church to the Remnant enforcing that they have taken part of him. Upon rewatch I also picked up on just how frequently animals are used to represent the divine on the show with the Pigeons telling Matt to bet on red to win the money he needs for the church, the Deer attempting to tell Kevin that Laurie is pregnant with the pierced balloon in episode 9 and the Eagle in the prehistoric flashback. Nora’s episode Guest is also a highlight of the season mainly because it moves the action out of Mapleton which season 2 also uses as a way to rejuvenate the show.

Another episode that broke from the norm of the show was the penultimate instalment of the season ‘The Garveys at their best’ which proved to be the flashback episode I never thought I needed until I watched it twice. The first time I watched the season I think I was just a little impatient and the fact that I was going to have to wait to find out what was going to happen after the events of episode 8 annoyed me to the point I disliked the episode but upon rewatch I loved the flashback. It seems to be The Leftovers’ thing to give a flashback episode as the penultimate instalment of the season after they did the same thing in season 2 so I’m prepared for if it happens in season 3. ‘The Garveys at their best’ really gives the audience information which makes the whole show feel more tangible, the mysteries of the show should revolve around the supernatural aspects rather than the characters we are being told to be invested in each week; we learn what Kevin and Laurie’s relationship was like, how Nora was before the departure and what Kevin SR was like before he became psychotic (or an agent of unseen forces). We even kinda learnt what the deal was with the deer that was plaguing Kevin’s dreams. Coming to appreciate this flashback episode helped me to appreciate the season on a whole in a way I hadn’t before but I still have concern over the placement of the episode. I believe the information it holds should have been shared sooner and having the episode where we hear Laurie speak just before the episode in which she speaks for the first time in almost a year diminishes the effect it should have had.

The dream sequences really work in season 1 giving us valuable insight into Kevin’s fractured psyche without revealing exactly is going on with him as well as adding to the possibility something supernatural is occurring with him and the voices his father hears. The theme of Kevin becoming some sort of shaman or even a Jesus type figure definitely start here before being vastly extrapolated on in the second season. If you think I’ve come to the Jesus thing by looking too far into it just look at what season 3 might hold: the fact that there is rumoured to be a three year time jump making the season start 7 years after the Sudden Departure which, if the departure is the Rapture, the earth is prophesised to end and the second coming of Jesus to occur. Kevin died and was resurrected in season 2 which certainly sounds familiar. Plus the seven years between the Rapture and Armageddon is known as the great tribulation and some scenes have been filmed at the Cape of Tribulation in Australia for season 3. Also Kevin has a beard in season 3 and if that doesn’t scream “this guy might be Jesus” in this bizarre version of the biblical rapture I don’t know what does.

I like the ambiguity of the supernatural elements of the season overall, such as the voices and Kevin’s night time exploits, because you can analyse them as either symptoms of mental illness or some kind of holy mission or something else entirely. With what we discover with the ‘Hotel’ in the second season I go towards that Kevin is being led down a path or sent on a mission by some sort of higher power although we still don’t know what that mission is. Despite my passionate writing I don’t buy that the Jesus theory is true, although I do think the writers have put that information in the show to theorise with and hint that may be a possibility. What we know is that Dean makes Kevin kill dogs which represent those driven back to their primal instincts by the departure and are also representative of The Guilty Remnant who are trying to break the peace Kevin is trying so hard to maintain but it can’t stop there. Why would God or a higher power want the GR murdered? Do they represent evil? Why would God initiate the rapture if he takes issue with the consequences? Maybe the talk of the departure being caused by the demon Azreal doesn’t seem as stupid as it once did when it was first mentioned in season 2.

I also like that the deal with Dean is never fully explained only that he is guiding Kevin on his mission, as to how exactly we don’t know. It’s implied he is also hearing the voices but he describes himself as Kevin’s guardian angel so his possible supernatural status is up for debate. Upon rewatch I briefly pondered the idea of Aimee possibly being the same as Dean whether hearing the voices or an agent of a higher power because she is the only other person Kevin interacted with in his night time state but I decided against it, I think I’ve just been watching too much Battlestar Galactica and all the talk of ‘angels’ has gotten to me. I guess this is the right time to mention that when I first watched season 1 I couldn’t stand the teenage characters especially the dopey twins and Jill’s friend Aimee but reading the novel on which the series is based I grew to like them and what they represent in the novel, while different from the show, helped me to enjoy the characters more onscreen during my rewatch.

With all these possibly supernatural events taking place as well as the larger Twilight Zone style Sudden Departure mystery, which is surprisingly easy to forget about, it’s a miracle that The Leftovers works so well as an intensely human drama. Props for everything that works, and doesn’t, should of course be directed at Damon Lindelof and the writing team but every other aspect of production is incredibly on point especially in the second half of the season. On this rewatch of the season I had the benefit of knowing that production was halted midway through the season and Mimi Leder was brought on to oversee production of the remainder of the season; knowing this suddenly makes the season make much more sense. The second half of season 1 is a much better show than the first (with the exceptions I’ve mentioned before) with a much clearer direction of where the narrative is heading and Leder is the reason for that. It’s a shame it didn’t happen sooner in the season instead of Peter Berg directing the first two episodes and then leaving to make his movies.

There were some fantastic constants throughout the first season however namely the acting and music. How the show has yet to receive any Emmy nominations for acting is beyond me with the whole cast being tremendous in what was surely an emotionally draining show to act in. Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman and Margaret Qualley were incredible throughout with the season resting on their shoulders while Christopher Eccelston, Ann Dowd and Carrie Coon were perfect whether the whole episode was about them or if they simply had a little cameo. Paterson Joseph as Holy Wayne is my favourite performance of the first season however, maybe even the entire series with his brief but memorable encounter with Kevin in the hotel in season 2 episode 8, it’s so different from the character in the book and anyone else in the show managing to be infinitely creepy and mysterious and yet kind of comedic at the same time. Nonetheless the music is the true star of the show being both noticable for its brilliance and engrossing the audience further into the scene at the same time. Max Richter was an amazing choice to compose the show with his original music adding so much emotional depth without feeling like it was telling the audience how to feel and on rewatch I like the season 1 opening credits a lot more than I did the first time, mainly due to my greater appreciation of Richter’s music (although I still prefer the second season’s credits by a long way).

Sticking so close to the narrative of Tom Perrota’s novel is both a blessing and a curse for season 1. The positives are that it explores grief in a real and interesting way and the intentional similarities between the remembrance of those who departed and the grief of those who didn’t with actual terrorist attacks is an interesting way to take the narrative although the novel’s sense of humour is sadly missing. It’s a shame though that the show copied the book’s way of flicking from character to character when it became hugely clear very early on that the show works best when focusing on one character at a time and the writers learnt from this and employed more single character driven episodes in season 2. This flip-flopping took all the energy out of Tom and Christine’s storyline which became a little dull mid season. Spending so much time with the Guilty Remnant in the first season, just like the novel, can also make for some dull viewing; overall I find the GR fascinating but featuring a group lacking any individuality makes the human drama it contains a bit boring after a while.

To conclude, rewatching the first season has generally made me feel smarter, picking apart and theorising about the smallest detail you can only pick up on a second or third viewing (which I can do even more of now I own an issue of National Geographic May 1972) but also made me feel mightily dumb. One of the mysteries of the season is ‘who killed Gladys’ and upon rewatch its incredibly obvious who killed her. The very first scene of the episode ‘Gladys’ shows use the titular character nod at Patti essentially giving her approval to be stoned to death. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on that blindingly obvious detail the first time I saw it. Anyway what do you think about the first season of The Leftovers? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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