Don’t read on unless you’ve seen the third episode of the third season of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” “Crazy Whitefella Thinking.”
The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right! — “Hamlet”
The problem with being a human being is that you can’t think nothing.
Well, you can, and we’ve all come across people whose heads appear to be empty.
But if you’re hip deep in the third season of an HBO program about mortality, loss, grief, and Wu-Tang tattoos, you are most likely a thinking, considering, wondering, doubtful person. And that’s the whole problem.
Life throws information at us, without necessarily telling us how to interpret those things or how important each bit of data should be, in the grand scheme of things. Is there a grand scheme, actually? Or is everything random? If you were looking for a specific man named Kevin and eventually found a specific man named Kevin, is that proof of the operation of coincidence, or undeniable proof of the existence of grace?
Does knowing either thing for a fact reduce your pain or confusion?
“The Leftovers” has found a way to give an enormous jolt of extremity to these kinds of questions, which is why it’s the perfect show for these times. When some unknown syndrome or entity has ripped away two percent of the world’s population — or an otherwise stable democracy has elected an orange buffoon — meaning takes a real big hit to the solar plexus.
Everything is off its axis in the world of “The Leftovers”; the time is out of joint. Everything is out of joint. And so people are left to pursue the ragged edges of meaning and try to splice them together, to make a coherent tale out of what might just be a random array of facts and events.
“It’s all just a story I tell myself,” Grace says, and she may be right. But Kevin Senior thinks she is wrong not to find a conscious, intentional plan in their meeting. Who’s to say which one of them is right?
As I tried to say in my review of the new season of the show, it’s simply incredible that “The Leftovers” can keep finding ways to dramatize this ambiguity and make it meaningful and moving, and even funny now and then. It’s one of the most powerful and surprising dramatic series of our times, because, after its rocky first season, it learned how to make this duality — these mysteries — sinuous, curious, unpredictable, and gutting. It made them sing.
Normally when a drama resists making any choices about what meanings and interpretations are right, when it won’t give any clues about where your own interpretive powers should be focusing, it’s intensely frustrating. Many a well-intention TV drama has telegraphed that it thinks it’s dealing in ambiguities and multiple meanings, when it’s actually just dinking around in an indulgent pit of vagueness that can be intensely annoying to endure.
“The Leftovers” isn’t like that, because, well, it’s exceptional in any number of ways, but what sets it apart is its nimbleness and its specificity. Somehow, especially in this tour de force final season, it finds ways to knit big, existential questions into the kind of imagery and character development that amplifies and channels its existential concerns. “The Leftovers” never forgets that it is about distinctive individuals, human beings whose dilemmas and flawed natures make them, in the hands of these directors, writers, and actors, human-scale and unpredictable and inevitably fascinating — even when they’re being jerks.
They may be hunting the big questions under enormous Australian skies, or writing an alternate Gospel, or jumping on a trampoline. Whatever they’re doing, the show gives a freshness and frisson of danger to their choices, as they continue to look for the right set of meanings, a story that makes sense and more or less fits the facts. And maybe what they’ve found will help someone else; its that combination of selfishness and selflessness that often sets these people apart and makes them tragic and lovable.
And in their efforts to convey what they’ve found to others, “The Leftovers” often finds its most poignant moments.
It’s a testament to the show’s advanced skills that it can introduce a new character and make you weep for her within the first few minutes of her first major scene. The twin towers of the quest narrative of “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” are Kevin Garvey Senior’s speech to Christopher Sunday, and Grace’s monologue to Kevin Senior.
The latter — well, damn. Lindsay Duncan, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s one thing to write an exceptional speech, which was the case with both scenes. It’s another when the no-frills, perfect performances, and sensitive direction drill right into your soul. Grace and Kevin Senior’s monologues are mostly exposition, as it happens, but when the writers spin these tales this well, and then give those words to world-class actors, mere exposition can fly past its prosaic roots and become the greatest thing in the world.
This episode was essentially a three-act drama: In Part 1, Kevin Senior, a holy man wandering through the wilderness, tried to find the final song he needed to prevent the apocalypse. The disgusted or stunned reactions of the Aboriginal people he met were perfect: Kevin Senior was indeed an entitled, arrogant white man convinced that he should have access to the rites and rituals of indigenous peoples who had already been thoroughly exploited and wronged. “The Leftovers” makes it clear that that interpretation — of Kevin as a thoughtless interloper and cultural appropriator — is absolutely true, while also doing that magical thing it does: It allowed for other, concurrent meanings to exist.
It’s possible that Kevin Senior is mentally ill: He’s frank with Christopher Sunday about the voices he has heard since the Sudden Departure. Maybe the man with the wild white hair and the tape recorder really is going to avert the apocalypse. Maybe he’s just a guy who is tormented by a lost connection with his son, to the point that he’s toting around audio tapes that are decades old. Maybe he’s just a dude who once spent two weeks doing a lot of brain-frying acid (during which he may or may not have encountered his son via a hotel TV with an afterlife channel), and never recovered. Thanks to the empathic economy of director Mimi Leder, Scott Glenn’s ferocious performance, and “The Leftovers”’ ability to make multiple truths valid without saddling viewers with an indecisive narrative, all these things could be true. One explanation is as bizarre and heartbreaking as the next.
In the second section of the episode, Leder makes Kevin Senior’s journey, which amounts to an angry and anguished conversation with God, both epic and intimate. Kevin is lost within an indifferent landscape, and perhaps it is conspiring to save him — or end him. He is parched, burned by the sun, bitten by a snake and yet his obsession remained undimmed. We can feel how thirsty he is as he trudges through an endless, waterless plain. Glenn’s burning eyes and wiry energy make every choice significant and even portentous. There’s even some humor, via the scenes in which Reverend Matt talks to the one person on Earth who’s more maniacally possessed by belief than he is.
In this wide-open episode, viewers are given the space to consider whether Kevin Senior is John the Baptist, or simply a would-be prophet who’s lost touch with reality and has become consumed by the story he tells himself. The Biblical references include not only the Gospel of Kevin, but a burning bush — in the form of a burning man (and car). Eventually, Kevin Senior finds a cross in the wilderness, lays down before it, whispers “Help,” and help finds him.
In the third act (of the third episode of the third season), the show returns to an intimate scale. There’s a dog and cheese and a windy breeze that neither character remarks on, but even it feels like a sign.
Grace, the woman Kevin meets, and Kevin, a man far from everyone he knows, both killed men. Because of Kevin Senior, Christopher Sunday is dead. Because of Grace, an Australian cop named Kevin was drowned. Extreme beliefs can make people do things that look insane from the outside. And Kevin may well be off his rocker, but Grace’s pain is so deep and unbearable that it’s hard not to understand, if not forgive, her search for meaning, and where that desperate quest has taken her.
When Kevin’s face lights up in the closing seconds of this burning bush of an episode, it’s very difficult not to feel your heart lighten for her. He’s about to tell her the story she told herself wasn’t entirely inaccurate — she just got a few details wrong. Her interpretation was partially off, but Kevin tells her she didn’t make a mistake when she made those connections (unless, of course, she did).
Meanings that join up and make for a satisfying story can lighten our existence on this planet. We need them. We need frames around the pictures in our head, handles on the stories that we tell. We’d be as lost as Kevin — either Kevin — without them. But when do we go too far? When do we elide too much, compress too much, distill imperfectly, pick out the wrong messages, and find the wrong meaning in things that may or may not be clues? Those are the questions that possess this series, which examines them with rigor and compassion but with a flexibility that sometimes eludes its characters.
Grace, like Nora, has suffered an unimaginable loss. But unlike Nora, she must live with the knowledge that she could have prevented the death of her children, which I frankly can’t imagine living with for more than a minute, let alone years. Of course, Grace did nothing wrong; she just had incomplete information. She made an assumption we all would have made, most likely. To find out years after the Sudden Departure that your kids weren’t taken in a (hopefully) painless flash, but died slowly of exposure out in the wild? It’s hard to imagine how she has survived any of piece of that story. The one certainty, the one hard fact she had left — that her kids went with their father to a merciful God — was ripped away from her. Who wouldn’t go mad?
She survived as Kevin Senior did: She searched for some indication that there was a plan, a rationale, a reason — somewhere. She chose to find it in Kevin Senior and his scrap of unofficial Gospel. Something in her brain melted, became twisted under the weight of suffering, and she made a series of choices. Does it matter that they might have been the wrong ones, if she and Kevin can connect through their shared belief that this set of weird coincidences were not coincidences at all?
People choose their meanings, and if people pick what brings them relief from pain, is that so bad? Well, yes, if that choice hurts or kills others. That’s bad. A lot of people have suffered because of the Garvey men. Every character on this show has brought suffering to others. And yet, even if we haven’t killed, we’ve done what they’ve done: Knowingly or unconsciously gone with an interpretation of a situation that allows us to feel less pain, or takes away from the accumulated weight on the most tender and vulnerable parts of our psyches.
We’re malleable, we’re frail, and we can’t think nothing. The time is out of joint, and maybe one of the Kevins, or Nora, or Grace, was born to put it right.
“So, I thought you were sent by God,” Grace says.
What is God? A chicken? A guy selling drugs? An ancient song? Six Bibles, all in a row? A fire in the desert? Portents of a terrible flood? A man who rises from the dead? A man who drowns and is reborn many times? Is God in the bones of dead children?
In one sense, it’s a little bit hilarious that some characters in an ambitious drama believe that a handsome, bearded white guy is the Savior of mankind. Laid out like that, it sounds like the height of Prestige TV arrogance. In the wrong hands, a version of “The Leftovers” that was heavy-handed about its prophets, portents, and saviors would be insufferable in 57 different ways.
But it’s not, and not just because Kevin Junior emphatically rejects his status as anyone’s savior. “The Leftovers” works so gracefully, and is so far from insufferable, because it captures what we look for in religion, in stories, in sacred books and songs and dances, in desert-dwellers who see visions and hear truths.
Each episode of “The Leftovers” is like a memorable passage from a holy book: Its language is rich and beautiful, it vibrates with pain and hope and longing, and it’s subject to multiple interpretations. It’s the tree of knowledge and the snake that bites.
This show is what you need it to be, whatever your deal is. What are the chances of that?
For a podcast interview with “Leftovers” executive producer and showrunner Damon Lindelof, go here.