Do not read unless you’ve seen “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” the seventh episode of the third and final season of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
For my own amusement, I sometimes imagine describing individual episodes of “The Leftovers” to people who’ve never seen the show.
Let’s try it with this installment, shall we?
“A former sheriff from a small town in New York is in Australia, where his father has become convinced of the existence of a song that will stop the planet from being engulfed in a world-ending flood. The father drowns his son, and the son, Kevin, travels to an alternate realm that he has visited before, where he met God, did karaoke, and killed a woman who had been appearing to him in his ‘real’ life. When Kevin enters this realm again, he is both an assassin (as he was the first time he went there), and also the President of the United States, who was elected on a platform of wearing all-white clothes, ending marriage and engaging in the total destruction of basically everything.
“The woman he met and killed the first time through is there; she is the Secretary of Defense and she wants him to launch the nukes that will kill everyone. Another person he knew from his ‘real’ life is there — she’s the Vice President — and she tries to stop the launch from happening, and the VP also helps him find the room that will allow him to communicate with the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister, Christopher Sunday, may know the crucial song Kevin needs, and despite the fact that she helps him, Kevin kills the Vice President.
“By the way, the ‘real’ Kevin can occupy the body of either Kevin — the President or the assassin — and he switches back and forth between them by looking at reflective surfaces. Eventually there’s a showdown between the Kevins, with the Secretary of Defense urging Kevin to launch the nukes, and he does that after killing one of his selves. Oh, and God is giving Kevin instructions part of the time, and a romance novel one of the Kevins wrote — which was hidden behind a White House portrait of Millard Fillmore — ends up figuring pretty prominently in the whole thing.”
I mean, if I see one more episode of TV that follows that tired format, I will scream. The old Millard Fillmore/cloned assassin plot — who isn’t sick of it?!
I kid, of course, because that summary is so wonderfully batshit, and just re-reading it made me feel the presence of a hypothetical tinfoil hat on my head. But this show is so deep and wittily profound that the tricks and stratagems and left turns it unleashes end up being so much better than even the most loopily compelling conspiracy theory. “The Leftovers” bestows upon us lucky viewers something so rare and beautiful: The tinfoil hat of the heart.
(Which we then have to rip apart in order to find the key to the nuclear launch system. Obviously.)
I rolled into 2017 with only two thoughts, really: This year has to be better than the crapfest that was much of 2016. Hahahahaha!
The other thought: I really, really hope that “The Leftovers” does a sequel to “International Assassin,” an all-time great episode of television. Not only would the existence of such a sequel, executed with great skill, allow the show’s fans to enjoy another rollicking ride through existential crises of a confused Everyman with amazing abs, the mere existence of such an episode would fix whatever was wrong in the world. Hahhahahahaha!
“The Most Powerful Man in the World” did not fix everything wrong with the world, as phenomenal as it was. In fact, toward the end, it gave us the image of nuclear missiles streaking through the sky over a major city. It is not a sight that most of us are excited to see, given that an unhinged orange buffoon with impulse control issues now has the keys to America’s nuclear arsenal. Way to be prophetic about how afraid we would all be at this moment in time, “The Leftovers” — well done! Please never do that again.
Of course, in the weird, upside-down universe of “The Leftovers,” Kevin’s decision to launch the nukes was not an embrace of nihilism. It was the right thing for him to do. For much of the run of “The Leftovers,” Kevin has been a passive or reactive character, going along with the plans of other people or simply being tossed and turned by the unpredictability of life — and the forceful choices of the people in his life — without making his own hard choices. This time, he had to choose. And what he did was the right option for him.
Kevin chose to end the fantasy of escape; there will be no more trips to the post-death zone, no more karaoke with God, no more goading from Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), no more assassination assignments. Of course the main reason there won’t be any more of these jaunts is because the series is ending (though of course I want a spinoff about Nora Durst and Ghostface Killah solving mysteries and fighting crime, a philosophical drama with a bangin’ soundtrack titled “The Search for Raekwon.” You’re welcome.)
It may be boring to keep saying this, but by law, I must say it again: The masterstroke of this series is to offer up situations that can be read a multitude of ways, but not because they are vaguely rendered or lack thematic heft or moral conviction. There are a few different ways to read Kevin’s action — was he embracing death, an end to all choice? Or was he embracing the future, the messiness of real life, the rejection of false and ultimately unhelpful escapes? I think it’s the latter, though your mileage may vary.
But the battle for the souls of these characters has always been between Thanatos and agape, between death and love, between death and life. Death is pervasive in this world, its aftereffects can’t be escaped. One reason the Guilty Remnant never made a ton of sense to me is that their mission — reminding people of the Sudden Departure — hardly seemed necessary. Just as it’s hard for us to go five minutes without wondering what fresh hell the orange buffoon has brought down on us, wouldn’t people in a post-Departure world think about death and loss and the Departed all the time?
It does make sense for there to be a number of death-focused cults after the Departure, of course. I can see a large chunk of the citizenry being worn down by the process of wondering what happened. In that situation, I can see the attraction of worshipping the finality and power of death, and even longing for its total domination as a way of evading the pain and doubt of life.
Apparently the Guilty Remnant did evolve even more strongly into that kind of group. And Patti Levin’s stubborn fixation on getting Kevin to end the world also almost sounds like a network executive urging the creation of a really grandiose season finale, one full of beheadings and blood and dismemberment (“We give them what they want and they want to die.”). And Patti’s urgings echo a strong thread that runs through the American psyche — a thread that seems ascendant just now. We say we’re about freedom and life and the pursuit of happiness, but almost every day there’s news of a mass shooting or some other kind of senseless destruction, which belies the nation’s loftier ambitions and reveals something uglier and more Thanatos-obsessed underneath.
So the idea of Kevin as the figurehead of a destructive, negating, trigger-happy group that had gained a great deal of power made a certain kind of sense. But “The Leftovers” wisely doesn’t make these choices impersonal and general; they’re always far more individual and personal.
If Kevin left the Assassin Realm [tm] intact, he would always have a place to retreat to, an escape hatch. Kevin’s not unlike Don Draper, a man who knew a thing or two about the average person’s unconscious obsession with death, and who bugged out every chance he got. Kevin, like Don and so many other difficult TV men, struggled because the bonds of intimacy and real friendship were too taxing and confusing for him; escape was always a more attractive option. But Kevin now understood that he could not keep dying all the time in search of the Answer. Living was the answer, a messy choice that would continue to confuse him. But living inside the confines of his real life had to be the only option moving forward, because flight and escape had cost him parts of his soul, not to mention his future with Nora.
Heavy stuff. But so much delight, so many pure damn delightful shenanigans, preceded Kevin’s final, existential choice.
I love that “The Leftovers,” a show about the most inexpressible and existential and soul-churning parts of being alive, transformed itself, once again, into an ass-kicking movie about an international assassin. I did not know that I wanted a combination of “John Wick” and “Waiting for Godot,” but I absolutely did want that and I will always want more of that, which is why this show cannot end on June 4. I forbid it.
As I have noted in past reviews, “The Leftovers” weirds me out sometimes with how predictive it is of our actual world. When a rich guy named Greg Gianforte, who was in the news for being a world-class jerk, ended up looking exactly like Dean (Michael Gaston), Kevin’s old friend from Mapleton, it almost made perfect sense. That’s how uncannily the show’s supposedly skewed reality reflects events and characters in the actual, real world these days. Not only was Dean’s presence in this world suitably appropriate and deranged, we also got to enjoy Justin Theroux’s perfect line delivery of the sentence, “I’m an assassin.” Finally, Kevin accepted his fate; there was only one suit to put on, the black suit of the well-dressed international assassin. Of course, in our daydreams and fantasies, we’re way, way cooler than we are in real life, and if Kevin has to go to this deep and scary psychological realm, at least he gets a kickass suit and and super-important mission to complete.
In the bunker, he met his old friends Patti Levin and Meg Abbott (the long-absent Liv Tyler). Ann Dowd was a wonder, of course, in this entire episode, but never more so than in the speech she gives before launching the nukes, which I watched five times. It was great to see Tyler again, but this is one of the costs of an abbreviated final season: We didn’t get to see more of Meg. So it goes.
Meg seemed doubtful of Kevin’s ability to save the world, and her fears weren’t unrealistic. “The Leftovers” has always been aware that it is more than a little ridiculous for its narrative to revolve around a white male savior. The show is only too aware that Kevin is hardly a perfect vehicle for his own salvation, let alone anyone else’s. But it still has fun with the idea of Kevin as some kind of prophet, to the point that, in this episode, he has the voice of God in his ear, literally. Of course, Kevin eventually rejects the voice of God, leaving Him complaining on the floor of the bunker. Probably a wise choice, in this instance.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter: We do not deserve the blessing of the dick-measuring scene.
Since I first saw this episode two months ago, I have been chortling at the fact that HBO was going to air an actual penis-measuring sequence. The irony is too good, too rich, too wonderful. I mean, one of the core foundations of the post-aughts TV Golden Age was that what men do — and where they put their junk — is the most interesting topic of all time. Obviously TV has moved on — the best TV shows at the moment are about a lot more than the evolution of American masculinity, and sometimes they don’t explore that subject at all, which is a relief. The era that ended when “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” wrapped up was a wonderful time to be writing about TV, of course, but some topics were just flogged to death, and then flogged 100 more times for good measure.
“The Leftovers” has enough self-awareness to dig into some of those ideas about manhood and masculinity in somewhat fresh and thoughtful ways. And in this episode, it used humor to signal how silly so much of TV drama can be when it comes to the sanctity of narratives about dudes. This perfect show gave us two scenes in which Kevin had to pull out his member so that it could be measured and assessed by an indifferent scanner. God is real.
Someone back up a truck full of Emmys to the house of Damien Garvey, who played the head of President Kevin’s Secret Service detail. The reactions of Garvey (who played an Australian cop earlier in the season) were sublimely hilarious; the way he averted his eyes but then slid them back over for a peek was nothing short of insanely funny. Comedy gold, my friends, comedy gold.
More seriously, it’s hard not to read a lot of the Kevin vs. Kevin arc — and the Kevin Sr. and Kevin Jr. story — as a critique of the limits of traditional masculinity. What prompts Kevin Sr. to say “I love you” to his son? The prospect of killing him so that he can go on a quixotic mission. The world literally has to be ending for these men to reveal their deep love for each other. The scene itself was heartbreaking and beautifully acted, but the fact that things have to be this extreme for these men to connect — maybe that’s just a little messed up.
Evie’s disdain for President Kevin is apparent: She doesn’t think he’s the one leading his own administration, and she’s probably right. Kevin has often been a passenger on this strange ride, not the one leading the charge. Much of the episode, and the character’s overall arc, is about admitting the truth to himself without somehow breaking himself further in the process. Kevin plunges into the Assassin Realm — in which the stakes are as real and as challenging as they are in the “real” world — to find the truth through a prism, through a reflection, because maybe it’s too hard to confront that truth head-on in the real world. Once in the Assassin Realm, however, he asserts that he just wants to go home. Does he?
Let’s look at his past: He is far more often leaving, evading and finding methods of escape than he is homeward bound.
Kevin lied to himself about why he was going to the Assassin Realm, but on some level, he probably knew the truth. He told himself and others that he was going to send messages and ask question for others, but those weren’t the real reasons. He was forcing himself to look in the mirror — in many different reflective surfaces — to see his own failings. Not to condemn those flaws, not to engage in another orgy of self-hatred and negation. But to see how his lies and evasions were holding him back.
In the end, Kevin read from a book, not a holy book, but a book of truth.
In the novel, the real Kevin became apparent. The Kevin hiding behind the abs and the suit and the messianic possibilities and the failings came to the fore. He finally spoke openly about feeling weak, alone, stupid and unworthy. He messed up with Nora because on some level, he didn’t think he deserved her, and so he sabotaged their relationship. The only thing more frightening than being unloved is being loved. Like Don Draper before him, Kevin didn’t know how to handle someone seeing who he really was and loving him anyway. Can he rectify that screwup?
Maybe he can. Maybe he can sit on the roof with his fragile, uncertain father. Maybe he can leave the suit and the fantasies behind, and accept that he’s not only not the savior — he’s just like everyone else. Maybe he can stay, he can be patient, he can wait, not to be told what to do, but for the right time to decisively move forward, with purpose and some hope. He had to go far away to learn what he already knew: Everyone’s weak, everyone’s afraid. While he was far away, ending it all, the world spun on without him.
What happens next? God only knows.
For previous “Leftovers” recaps and coverage, look here.