By Jared Jones
HBO’s The Leftovers is a pretty damn good show, and you should probably be watching it if you aren’t already. We’ll be doing weekly recaps of the series moving forward, but since I just started working here, we’ll have to start with last night’s third episode. What you’ve missed: 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanished. Three years later, people still be actin’ crazy. Cults be amassing. Packs of wild dogs are being gunned down in the streets. Intrigued enough yet?
The central storyline of The Leftovers is very Stephen King-ian in its scope: Take a isolated community, insert an inexplicable and devastating “otherworldly” event, and use it as a metaphor to discuss how we as a people deal with things like mass hysteria, grief, and loss. This should sound familiar to anyone familiar with creator Damon Lindelof‘s work on Lost, but the fundamental difference that separates a story like Lost from that of The Leftovers is its endgame. Whereas Lost’s central mystery ultimately boiled down to why the survivors of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 found themselves on that island, The Leftovers does not appear to be building towards that “big reveal” moment which ties up all its loose ends with a pretty little bow. Lindelof has already stated that no such moment will occur, and honestly, it’s probably the best decision he could have made, because it allows The Leftovers to forgo the intense plot building in favor of contained, character-driven episodes like last night’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter.”
Centering around Christopher Eccleston’s town pastor, Matt Jamison, “Two Boats and a Helicopter” understandably focused on the religious fallback of the catastrophic event. As you might expect in a world where 2% of the population inexplicably vanishes in an instant, church attendance has waned off a bit in Mapleton, NY. Doubt in the Lord Almighty’s grand plan is at an all time high, especially given that seemingly everyone in town knows a person of questionable character who was given a fair pass into the afterlife (or so they seem to think) instead of themselves. Of course, it doesn’t help that, when he’s not leading what few followers remain in prayer, Jamison is shaming these exact questionable individuals taken in “The Departure” by handing out flyers exposing their secrets for all to see. This comes to a head in the opening moments of the episode, when an angry father comforts Jamison with one such flyer before punching his lights out during his daily service.
It’s an interesting dichotomy that The Departure has created amongst the people of Mapleton — they seem to almost universally agree that their loved ones were in fact taken in a Biblical rapture, yet have lost faith in the good book as a result. Their faith has both been validated by The Departure and destroyed due to the perception that they are clearly the ones left behind to suffer. But even those who have lost faith, or joined the ranks of the Guilty Remnant — Mapleton’s fastest-growing cult-but-not-a-cult of heavy-smoking Nihilists — seem to operate under the hope that those who left them are in a better place. Even the faithless cannot handle the idea of a world in which 140 million people vanish for no reason. Surely, there must be some greater scheme at hand.
This duality of faith is doing reverend Jamison no favors, however. In addition to the sporadic beatings he suffers on account of his flyers, Matt is both struggling to save his church from foreclosure and tend to his wife, who was left in a vegetative state as a result of the car crash depicted in the opening moments of The Leftovers‘ pilot. With a buyer already lined up for his church, Matt is given the Herculean task of coming up with $135,000 in one day, and as luck (fate) would have it, his quest to do so hits on many of the same notes (doubt, faith, and loss) as his opening sermon.
Over the course of the episode, we learn that Matt’s life has revolved around tragedy: He was diagnosed with cancer at a young age (and beat it), he lost his parents in a fire when he was a child, and his sister, Nora Durst, is the woman who lost her entire family in the Departure. Matt’s story is not unlike the story of Job (who he just so happens to have a painting of hanging from the wall nearest his wife’s bed), which fuels his need to convince everyone that the Departure was not in fact a rapture, but a test for what’s to come.
“Someone has to expose these people for who they truly were and what they truly did,” he says. “Because if we no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us -– all of our suffering -– is meaningless.”
And Matt is tested on more than a few occasions throughout the episode. He visits his sister to beg for the money, only to reveal that her husband was cheating on her under the false guise of proving his point. He hits it big at a casino, only to be temporarily robbed of his winnings, then savagely beat the man who did it moments later. His compulsion to do the right thing (or at least, prove his point about the Departure) leads him into a further crisis of faith at every turn, but it is Matt’s steadfast belief, or need to believe, that ultimately renders the somewhat foreseeable conclusion to episode 3 all the more heartbreaking. Here is a man who has been given the short end of the stick at nearly every turn in life, and just when things are looking up, he is blindsided by yet another catastrophe. What has he done to receive such vicious treatment from the man upstairs?
In that sense, episode three felt more like a mini-movie than it did an episode of television. Matt’s arch is fully realized in “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” from the reasoning behind his faith to the end result of it in the grand scheme of his own life, and the biggest question left by the episode’s end is where Matt’s once unbreakable faith now lies. After attempting to convert him, the Guilty Remnant have now taken the only thing that was keeping Matt’s faith alive: his church. Why would God allow that to happen? What has become of his wife in the three days since he last saw her? Will Matt continue to out wrongdoers taken in the Departure, no matter how many beatings he must suffer as a result?
The test has only begun.