It’s hard to know where “The Leftovers” is going with its mysterious opener “The Book of Kevin,” which begins in 1844 and proceeds to jump through time — from the events immediately following Season 2 of “The Leftovers” to three years later in Jarden, where Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is of course now the town sheriff. The craziest time jump, though, is not the prologue’s wordless portrayal of tested faith, but the very last scene, where amidst white doves and white sheep a much older Nora (Carrie Coon) is apparently a woman named Sarah, in Australia. When asked, she says that she doesn’t know a Kevin.
It seems that the season to come has some explaining to do.
“The Leftovers” returned in fine, upsetting form Sunday night — providing several torn souls at the tail end of what has seemed to be a brief lull of peace. The show has always opted for storytelling that jumps throughout a timeline; the three years since we last saw the main characters has led to quite a few changes. Erika (Regina King) is gone, and in her place Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has fallen in love with and married John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), kind of awkwardly taking her place in the house next to Kevin and Nora. Something happened to Nora’s baby Lily, because she’s gone; Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and Mary (Janel Moloney) now have a toddler named Noah — aptly, considering the floods of last season’s miracles. Meg (Liv Tyler) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) are dead, apparently bombed by a drone.
In a tongue-in-cheek reference to the oldest story in the book, the day that everything changes (again) is the day that a not-so-strange stranger comes to town. Dean (Michael Gaston) was the center of one of Season 1’s most upsetting plotlines, so of course it makes sense that just as everything appears to have settled down for Kevin that he’d show up to Jarden with a crazy conspiracy theory and a half-eaten sandwich. What’s interesting is that while it’s hard to believe Dean, it’s hard to not believe him, too, given how much weird stuff has happened in this show. Kevin is half credulous and half skeptical, treating Dean with wary caution. Maybe that’s just common sense, but it’s striking how unmoored Kevin is in his otherwise very grounded life: He seems to be sleepwalking. The way that the sound is mixed in his meeting with Dean offers an auditory interpretation of the competing narratives in his head. On one hand is the ramping-up paranoia of the score, and on the other is a cool, crackling silence — the sound of reasonable doubt — that intrudes upon Dean’s story.
What seems to be happening is that while Kevin’s journey to the other side — or whatever happened in “International Assassin” — was absolutely beautiful, it may be more than he can entirely live with. There seem to be gaps in his life that he’s afraid of looking at too closely, for fear that he will fall in and never emerge again. Dean is one of those gaps, and so he pushes away from Dean’s theories. The next morning, he asphyxiates himself with his dry cleaning bag and neatly packed roll of duct tape with such efficiency that it’s clearly a habit. It does not appear to be an erotic pursuit. It instead seems like maybe Kevin is more comfortable at the liminal space between life and death. When he’s called to deal with protestors at Matt and Michael (Jovan Adepo)’s baptism site, he snaps in and out of focus until he walks up to the rocks and drops himself into the river with that same lack of self-regard. Michael takes the opportunity to baptize him, in a moment that is both beautiful and put-on — Kevin whispers angrily when it’s over that it doesn’t really count, because he kind of did it for show. Minutes later, Kevin is bathed in (baptized by?) blood, when Dean tries to kill Kevin but Tommy (Chris Zylka) manages to shoot Dean in the head in time to stop it. It is hard to tell exactly what it means, right now, but it all feels like it means something.
Indeed, that nagging sense is probably why Matt, John, and Michael have been talking about a gospel about Kevin — using his deaths and resurrections from Season 2 as proof of something miraculous. The blocking in that climactic feels very symbolic; Matt, John, Kevin, and Michael are all meeting in the church from seemingly different entrances — all four seem to be facing different cardinal directions. Aside from visually establishing the characters’ differences in perspective, it’s hard to not think of the four evangelists, especially as we already are working with a Matthew and a John in our grouping. And yet on the other hand there is something so comical about the name Kevin being biblical — a comedy pilot called “The Gospel of Kevin” is literally currently in development at ABC. It almost feels like Kevin Garvey is similarly convinced of his own lack of fitness for sacred texts, because he nearly burns his own gospel outside the church. But something stays his hand — skywriting overhead, which proclaims that there are 13 days left. 13 days of what? “The Leftovers” isn’t spilling.
The tangle of fact, fiction, belief, and doubt that has characterized this show from the start is still noticeable. The cult in the prologue is looking for a date when the chosen will be taken (to heaven, presumably). One of the dates they propose is January 21 (the day after inauguration!); another is April 16 (the day the episode premiered!). They may have been wrong on timing — their calculations never work out right — but in a broader sense, they were right; a rapture of some kind was at hand. The doves they are communicating with are like the doves that Sarah/Nora is carting around sheep fields at the end. Laurie has brought John into her scheme to offer people salvation through trickery, and the two are deep in their work. Meanwhile, Matt — immersed in his own kind of salvation — is losing the wife that he spent so many years patiently caring for.
It’s hard to find the threads of justice or virtue in both cases, and maybe that’s the point. Whatever it is, “The Book of Kevin” opens this season with questions; looking ahead at the episode titles, “The Book of Nora” is going to close this season and this series. It’s not all that surprising that Nora’s legend would come to match Kevin’s. But this premiere indicates we’ll be waiting on answers for a while.