Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” the fifth episode of the third and final season of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
On March 10, I got an email telling me that episodes of “The Leftovers” had been posted on HBO’s media site. Like any fan of crying, Wu-Tang tattoos, beards and America, I watched the seven episodes HBO made available as soon as I could.
During the last two months, my patience has been tested. My endurance reached its limit more than once. There were moments when I just didn’t know if I could take it any more.
I’m not talking about the trash fire that is much of the national political scene.
No, my long struggle has involved three little words that I have desperately longed to say, scream, write in the sky, and set to iambic pentameter. For the past two months, I could not do that, because that would have ruined things for people who hadn’t seen the fifth episode of the season.
But now I can say it. Heed me, listen, hear my roar:
TASMANIAN SEX BOAT!
I don’t think you heard me: Tasmanian. Sex. Boat.
I long desperately to make the rest of this episodic review nothing but the phrase “Tasmanian sex boat,” repeated thousands of times (I’ve already made it my personal mantra, obviously). Oh my word, I love this show, because it gave us not only an orgy on a Tasmanian ferry and an array of bearded prophets, but also, God straight-up killed a dude.
Hashtag blessed. And it aired on Mother’s Day, no less.
Yes, on Mother’s Day, I got a super-special present: An sex-drenched bacchanal on an ambitious drama that wasn’t kind of gross, depressing, and chock full of creepy objectification. I have no inside information about how the directors were chosen for individual episodes of this season of “The Leftovers,” but do I think it’s an accident that a woman directed this episode? No, I do not, just like it wasn’t an accident that a woman directed the wedding episode of “Outlander” or that female directors have made the sex on everything “Insecure” to “I Love Dick” seem revelatory and fresh and real and sometimes even sexy (whaaat? It’s true.).
But I’m getting away from my main point here, which was that much of this episode took place on a Tasmanian sex boat. God is real.
(Also he’s kind of a jerk, at least the version of Him on this show; more on that later.)
I suppose sticklers for recap etiquette will expect me to discuss the substance of the episode at some point, so, fine, here you go, recap police.
It makes perfect sense that the Matt episode comes in episode 5, the hinge of the season. It’s the final run of “Leftovers” episodes, and we’re just past the midpoint. These are End Times, within the show, in so many ways. Beliefs are hardening, many people’s positions have become even more fixed than they were before, fascinations have become obsessions, the line between sanity and insanity is fuzzier than ever, the dangers and risks are bigger and scarier, and the chasms between people and factions are deeper.
No character is better suited to demonstrating these tendencies toward extremism than Matt.
That said, a French submarine sailor briefly manages to outdo both Matt Jamison and Kevin Garvey Senior and possibly even Pillar Guy in terms of sheer bloody-minded fixation. At the start of the episode, the sailor blows up a nuclear bomb in the middle of the Pacific because — well, do we even need a reason at this point?
Things have become so out of whack and so unpredictable — reason and logic are so divorced from everyday events — that at this point in the show’s timeline, some of the people on precipices are tipping over the edge. Anything is possible.
(Those sentences also apply to this moment in time — May 2017 — and there’s no way the creative team could have known that back when this episode was being written. But “The Leftovers” has always been ahead of its time when it comes to sensing tremors in the Force, so to speak. The drama was picking up on and examining all kinds of social, personal and cultural anxieties from the moment it arrived, and as it’s gotten more engaging and transfixing, it’s become an incredible vehicle for thinking about how polarized and ferociously impassioned so many individuals and segments of society have become.)
In any event, the nuclear incident was referred to earlier in the season, when Kevin Junior encountered an event that stranded him in Australia. And in this episode, even though the characters are isolated, on a boat leaving an island (what is it with Damon Lindelof and boats, planes and islands?), it became apparent that the characters were trapped inside a miniature version of the larger world. They’re off on their own, but their impassioned arguments and extreme modes of living and fighting and worshiping reflected the charged, nerve-wracked state of the planet in the run-up to the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure.
Everywhere, people were wound up, worried, more likely to take comfort in their chosen stories, more likely to believe an unlikely tale about a man who came out of a cave as God. It is a good story, after all.
But is it true? In this episode, as it so often does, the show returns to the question of whose story is “reasonable.” Laurie and Matt have an argument on that very subject as they head to Australia to find Kevin, but the most notable thing about their ongoing spat is that they start out far apart, and they don’t change their stances all that much. Curiosity and experimentation may be possible for some of these people, but grief has also made many of them tired, and real, deep change may not be within their grasp.
Matt and Laurie’s attitudes soften a little — one’s time with an Australian sex cult will do that — but there is one hardened and incontrovertible fact that is true: They’re all going to spend the anniversary Down Under.
John Murphy points this out — and unlike some of the more hysterical or fixated characters, John doesn’t need to shout his truth. He’s certain of the reality of his statement, thus he does not have to elaborately defend it. In that sense, he’s a little bit like God.
Of course, the “God” we meet on this show does actually explain Himself — Burton/Possibly God hands out F.A.Q. cards answering some of the most common Big Questions He gets. In His defense, it must be really tiresome to the same answer questions over and over, when all He went out to do was to get some coffee or shop for paper towels or ride a ferry. I mean, God doesn’t have all day to defend Himself (or maybe He does? It’s unclear).
In any event, God is apparently a cranky Australian Olympic bronze medalist, as was foretold in the old prophecies.
(The old prophecies being, of course, previous episodes of “The Leftovers”: The actor who played God/Burton, Bill Camp, has been in two previous episode of the show, “International Assassin,” in which he spoke to Kevin Garvey on the Jarden bridge, and in the Season 2 finale, in which he was hanging out in the afterlife karaoke bar, as is God’s wont.)
As is so often the case with “The Leftovers,” a series of questions and conundrums that could have come off as turgid and overly doom-laden are actually both light and profound (I love the running joke about how God’s third-place finish in the Olympics is a bit pathetic). The show’s creative team, including the episode’s writers, Lindelof and Lila Byock, and director Nicole Kassell, understand something that so many other shows don’t: Varying the tone and mood, and injecting some self-aware humor and small, messy moments that ring true, can actually underline the deepest themes of a well-crafted episode, not undercut them.
The show’s lighter moments act as a a pressure relieve valve even as they enhance our understanding of the characters’ reactions to extreme behaviors and situations. The questions are big, but the reactions are on a human scale, even when they’re coming from the bearded Reverend Matt, who looks extremely Biblical in several of Kassell’s expertly framed shots. But he is not, in this episode, some remote, inhuman figure, in part because his fatal illness gives substance to the vulnerabilities that were always lurking below his sometimes strident surface. Matt is not a prophet, but an apostle, and his path is not an easy one.
[Modernist poetry dance break]
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
God snickers at Matt, but that comes later. The episode opens with total extremity. We see the horrific act of the French sailor (so much full-frontal male nudity! It’s almost as if a very few ambitious programs are trying to right the skewed scales of TV-drama nakedness, which for so very long have been breast-stravaganzas).
Less extreme but still suspenseful was the prickly and even amusing quest to get to Australia, and then from Tasmania to Melbourne, a journey that offered the satisfaction of Laurie repeatedly telling Matt to his face that he’s kind of a jackass (an assessment delivered with at least a dollop of exasperated affection now and then).
Things got weird during the long middle section with the Frasier folks, whose leader was, it must be noted, very clear about the rules on the boat and the limits of their friendly Australian tolerance. There was the wonderful delivery of the line, “There’s going to be a lot of sex on this boat.” (Internet, I need a GIF of that, thanks.)
She wasn’t wrong, and the rampant sex served as a generally celebratory and casual counterpoint to the rigidity (er, as it were) of Matt’s new and old obsessions. New obsession: God/Burton killed a man. Old obsessions: Kevin is the savior (because sure, that makes so much more sense than the idea that he is experiencing mental illness); Kevin needs (and wants) to be rescued from Melbourne; something important will happen on the seventh anniversary of the Departure.
Matt doesn’t have proof of any of those hard-and-fast beliefs, but he doesn’t need it, because he has faith. Many of the events of this episode (and the show) are about going too far in one direction or another. The French sailor had clearly lost his sense of proportion. The sexytime Australians embraced pleasure and escape, but some of them let those pursuits cloud their compassion for the poor soul who was tossed overboard.
Matt has faith without wisdom or proportion, and that makes him a bit terrifying. It’s a tribute to Christopher Eccleston’s performance that you still feel for this guy, three seasons in, despite his stubbornness and arrogance. There’s a sincerity and a deep, aching need behind Matt’s beliefs, and Eccleston conveys that with beautiful, slightly scary focus and unflinching, singular conviction. No matter what, you feel for Matt, especially when he is kneeling before God — while wondering if this man really is God. You want this strange man who may or may not be God to have the ability to bless Matt, or forgive him, or cure him, or simply bring him comfort.
At the key moment, this possible manifestation of God, who is kind of a dick, merely snaps his fingers, breaks the exceptionally intense mood, and snaps Matt out of his profound spiritual yearning with a curt, “Ta-da! You’re saved.” God/Burton wanders off to another part of the ship, and a while later, He’s eaten by a lion, and Matt is not even a little sad about it. “That’s the guy I was telling you about,” he said, a dry observation delivered after we see a shot of the back of Matt’s head (which reminded me of “Mad Men,” another show that mixed louche behavior with moral explorations and sly humor very, very well.)
Matt’s near-cheerfulness in that moment could have been grotesque, but Possibly God had just jerked Matt’s chain in the Reverend’s hour of need. (In fairness to Burton/Possibly God, Matt had tied Him up in the middle of the night, made Him sit next to a lion, and tossed overboard his Louis L’Amour paperback, and those are all dick moves).
The beautiful, joyous, surprising wonder of this show is how it mixes the sacred with the profane, the mundane with the ecstatic, the extreme with the grounded. On board the Tasmanian sex boat, suddenly an Agatha Christie mystery turned up (why was that mystery man thrown overboard? Detective Matt is on the case!). Inside this sex-positive cult was something darker and possibly scary. Laurie’s apparent devotion to honesty didn’t extend to telling John about Kevin’s vision of Evie. No law can govern the lioness, but people still want to be treated with human decency, and that’s not always easy to find, let alone dispense.
Again with the perennial, unsolvable questions — the celebration of the possibilities they contain, the imaginative illustrations of how haunting and draining they can be. Throughout this episode, there were references to old tales and forebodings, the kind that feel like they come from the ancient bones of the Earth, beyond old books and Scriptures and folk tales.
There was choral music that exuded spiritual yearning; a lion; a prophet of the Lord (and maybe the Lord himself); passionate believers of every kind; disciples; faith and the testing of faith; and random and seemingly meaningless deaths at the hands of the strong and powerful. There was even a ritual (in which poor Matt was physically and sexually assaulted, it must be noted). That moment felt like something from a very old culture; a fertility ritual met a Burning Man rave met a frat party gone wrong. An unsayable name was said after midnight.
This terror and humor, this mix of profundity and need and magic and silliness and sadness — it all reflects how real life, real grief and real loss operate. When people feel they have nothing to lose, they’ll do anything. When they have lost much, they want great certainty. They’ll pray to a bronze medalist. They’ll fly halfway across the world on a moment’s notice (and say whatever else you want about Matt, he’s certainly persuasive). They’ll open themselves to the possibilities of a floating sex party. They’ll tell themselves a story that they need to hear, and double down on that explanation the worse things get. They’ll find meaning in the weird cracks and crevices of doubt and curiosity.
“It can’t all be for nothing,” Matt wails at one point. But what if it was? And what if nothing was actually something, if only you could change your point of view?
Matt got nothing from God — or maybe he got the confirmation that he’s always wanted: That he has more faith than the big guy upstairs.
A tenet of fictional storytelling is that people have to be changed by what they go through. I don’t know if Matt was changed by hearing God’s assessment, or by anything he experienced on that Tasmanian sex boat.
What did Matt think when he heard Possibly God say that everything Matt had done had been for his own benefit, not anyone else’s (and speaking of great dramas, this pronouncement recalls a certain key monologue in “Breaking Bad”). Is it even remotely possible Matt was changed by this encounter? Are people with strong beliefs and insistent personalities capable of change? Is moral evolution possible within the kind of dogmatic headspace Matt inhabits? Matt told the captain that he didn’t have pressing business in Melbourne, so maybe he’s not going to search for Kevin Junior. But can this obsessive leopard change his spots after some time spent in the lion’s den? (I’m going to hell for that mixed metaphor, I do know that. I deserve it.)
It’s worth noting that “The Leftovers” resembles a fine comedy with a lot of important questions and stubborn individuals at its core: Like “The Good Place,” “The Leftovers” asks whether we’re good in order to be seen to be good, or whether we try to be good because it’s the right thing to do. Frasier and his descendants have no answer for that, and who knows if anyone else does.
Does Matt believe God/Burton saved him — or damned him? It all depends on what story strikes him as the better tale, I suppose. And I’m ending this recap now.
Because I can.
All Variety’s coverage of “The Leftovers,” including episodic recaps, season reviews, and interviews, can be found here.