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Despair, Hope, and Ambiguity in HBO's The Leftovers by Donald McCarthy

When I was young, I had a nightmare about a creature living in my kitchen. The creature had three eyes, but no other features on its half-circle face other than dark hair on top of its head. It sat on the floor, moving only by dragging itself around the room. I could not speak if the creature was near me; I could not call out for help from my parents nor could I ask the creature to leave me alone.

As with many dreams, the logistics of how these events fell into place were hazy. I do remember sitting on the floor, the creature in front of me, blocking my way out. Its three eyes watched me. I was nervous, but not as nervous as you’d think, especially for a child that was anxious in his waking hours.

I woke up with that image stuck in my head. Perhaps there was more in the dream that occurred after the creature trapped me in the kitchen and it slipped from my mind. But I can, more than twenty years later, still remember the image of the creature’s eyes locking onto me.

The dream bothered me, but it also fascinated me. I’d had other nightmares, but this one stuck and my smaller self was intrigued by this creature, wanting to know why it had invaded my dream.

In general, I do not remember my dreams when I wake up. I can go a month or more without recalling one. But when I do remember one, it sticks out for a reason, usually with one specific image. Perhaps this is why The Leftovers, a divisive HBO drama, seems to call to me. The Leftoversexcels at creating a dreamlike atmosphere for its world and when the show delves into the characters’ actual dreams it nails them in a fashion that hasn’t been done since The Sopranos left television. It also excels at creating memorable images that tell a lot about theme and character in the way great visual stories do (think of the shot of the bloody elevator in The Shining as an example of an image telling much about the story’s feel and tone).

The Leftovers is based on a novel of the same name, written by Tom Perotta. The show’s head writer is Damon Lindelof of Lost, although Perotta co-wrote three episodes with him this season. The core idea of the show is this: 2% of the Earth’s population vanishes at the same time. There’s no explanation as to why they vanished or where they might have gone. The titular leftovers refer to those who remain on Earth, wondering where their friends and family went and why they didn’t go with them. Some turn to religion, such as Reverend Matt Jamison (the phenomenal Christopher Eccleston); some turn to cults, like Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman); others just stew, angry and resentful, like the protagonist of the show, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, looking nothing like he did in Mulholland Drive).

This is a great setup for a novel, but it can, at first, seem somewhat limiting for a television show. Since the big event is already over, how can a season’s worth of television be mined out of the aftermath? Would it all just be people asking where the vanished went?

The answer to the latter is both yes and no. Unlike Lindelof’s LOSTThe Leftovers is more interested in the way people handle mysteries, as opposed to solving said mysteries. If the audience is never given a concrete answer to what happened to 2% of the population, and that seems like a solid possibility, then it won’t feel like a cheat because the show has been tightly focused on character as opposed to mythology (LOST is an example of a show focused on both). Instead, the show is interested in seeing how people deal with an ambiguous world.

Some of you might be saying, “We already live in an ambiguous world so why the need for people vanishing.” Those who say that are quite correct about the world being ambiguous, but it is a fact that we try and ignore on a daily basis. We have set up a societal system that is very formulaic. We are told from birth that we fit in a system that has a very strict setup. As children, we are expected to wake up, go to school for six hours, do an afterschool activity, do homework, relax for maybe an hour or so, and then go back to sleep to do it all over again. As adults, we’re expected to wake up, go to work for eight hours, come home, have dinner, have a drink, watch an hour of television, and go back to bed. Even our life plan is put before us early on: graduate from college, find a 9 to 5 job, get married, buy a house, have kids, send them to college, and await grandchildren. That the life plan ends with death goes unspoken.

Now, ask yourself just how many people you know actually live life the way it’s expected? I know very few people who actually work 9 to 5 jobs; I know very few people who are happily married with their first spouse (or with any spouse); I know few people who have total financial stability. I do, admittedly, know a lot of people who will one day end up dying so that part is correct, at least.

The Leftovers is so successful at creating a dreamlike atmosphere because it takes away the idea of a “normal” life. In our dreams there is little logic and certainly nothing so simple as a plan, something we can at least fool ourselves into believing during our waking moments. No one can live a life according to any plan in The Leftovers since 2% of the population vanished, forcing everyone to face the unknown. Dealing with the unknown is not something people care to do. Just consider how easily an audience gets upset when a piece of fiction does not deliver every single answer and tie up all the threads; as a whole, people tend not to like dealing with mysteries (this is why, short of Damon Lindelof coming out with a Power Point presentation, the finale of LOST could never satisfy everyone). In terms of real life ambiguity, this is why unsolved mysteries fascinate people. Who was the Zodiac killer? There must be an answer! Entire religions have been created solely to answer questions that are unanswerable for any human being.

The Leftovers gives us the chance to see people deal with a very real mystery, what happened to all the people who disappeared, and an existential mystery, what force allowed this to happen.

The revelations of how people deal with the mystery are parceled out over the first half of the season. Chief Kevin Garvey’s daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), has become a nihilist. She walks through life grumpy and disillusioned by the loss of her mother to the cult called the Guilty Remnant and the relative loss of her father to depression (depression tends to be a recurring theme in the show, understandably). Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), sister to Reverend Matt Jamison, lost her husband and kids on the day of the Departure, the name given to the day when everyone vanished, and she manages to get by by trying to pretend life goes on as normal such as buying a family’s worth of groceries and keeping her children’s rooms spotless. Megan Abbott (Liv Tyler in a role that shows she has some acting chops) suffered a curious loss: her mother died the day before the Departure and she feels her grief was taken from her because the next day revolved around the Departure and no one was concerned about the death of her mother.

And then there’s Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) who believes he is a prophet and sees his own death on the horizon. For a thousand dollars he hugs people, claiming to remove their pain from them. Despite his questionable morality, Wayne appears in a scene with Nora that gives the viewer, and the character of Nora, a glimpse of hope. Nora, investigating a fraudulent author, stumbles upon Wayne. Wayne is fascinated by the loss she’s suffered and tells her he can take her pain away, but that she will never forget her family; she will just be able to move on without them. He takes Nora in her arms, hugs here tightly, and, apparently, takes away her pain. Whether this is an actual talent or psychosomatic is ambiguous (there’s that word again), but it does tell us that even after such a shocking event as the Departure, there is always the chance of moving on and starting new. This scene comes in episode six, “Guest,” and after the dour first half of the season, Nora’s hug is all the more potent because after all the despair we see the chance for hope, for acceptance, for relief. The moment was so powerful that, for an instance, I felt some of my own private pain vanishing at the thought of psychological redemption. I still smile when I think back to the scene.



Not all of The Leftovers is despair, though, and some of its characters have not been all that affected by the Departure. Take twins Adam and Scott Frost (Max Carver and Charlie Carver); both are klutzy stoners while still being well-intentioned and can usually be found in a pretty good mood until their friend Jill does something bizarre (an inevitable development every other episode). The mayor of the town, Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren), is frustrated with what the aftereffects of the Departure have brought to her town, but she seems unmoved by the Departure itself. The mysterious Dean (Michael Gaston) understands the world has changed thanks to the Departure and, unlike most others, is intrigued by how the rules, or lack of them, of society have changed. For one, he enthusiastically hunts down dogs that went mad when they saw their owners vanish. This brings up a subtle topic the show has alluded to- no humans seem to have witnessed any of the vanishing as their backs were turned or they were distracted.

The new reality post-the Departure is where The Leftovers’ dreamlike vibe comes from. Events proceed differently because everyone is aware of, and cannot logically deny, a mysterious event with an answer that does not appear to be forthcoming anytime soon. When we dream, we know that events will not make linear sense. We can analyze our dreams, try to decipher what they mean, but we don’t look for an explanation of how we end up from place to place in them. In the waking world, we expect such answers and not getting them is deeply disturbing. I find few stories more intriguing than those that explore how people deal with the unknown.

If you are willing to go with wherever The Leftovers takes you, knowing you’ll see characters explore both the world and themselves, and put aside worries about plot then the show is for you. I don’t say you should put aside plot because the show’s plot is nonsensical- it’s not. I say you should put it aside because The Leftovers is more interested in atmosphere than in complicated conspiracies or drastic events. The big moment is already over; now we see people deal with it.


The finale of The Leftovers airs at 10 P.M. on HBO on September 7th, 2014. It has been renewed for a second season.

Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is