This is an older series on HBO I thought I would review because it is just such a good show and in a world where most television these days just sucks, this one is worth watching. A lot of people have discussed this show already, and it has long-since gone to pasture in the rotation on HBO streaming and on-demand. The Leftovers is about a post-apocalyptic world–quite possibly the literal Apocalypse–and a myriad of characters all surviving in a time shortly after 144 million people around the planet just vanished in their tracks.
There will be spoilers.
From weird religious cults (the Silent Remnant, the Holy Wayne guy who hugs people to take away their pain, and others), to people just completely unable to cope in life. Nora is a woman who works for an organization that investigates disappearances and validates who has actually been taken away in a Rapture-like event. Kevin is a small town police chief whose life always seems to be just on this side of running off the rails. Then there is his wife, Laurie, who has joined a cult of people trying to smoke themselves to death, and all they do is stand around in white sweatsuits, chainsmoking, and annoying people. There is Nora’s brother, a minister, whose wife is in a catatonic state. Various family members who are their own special blend of crazy, and everyone in between.
Each has their own weird way of showing that things are no longer right with the world. Nora hires people to shoot her while wearing a bulletproof vest. Her loss is significant because the event took her entire family. Kids, husband, everyone. Kevin’s loss was during the act of cheating on his wife, and then there is a subplot about his own father dealing with mental illness, which may be hereditary.
There are three seasons of this show, which are too hard to summarize. Characters come and go. There is even a move to a town that was unaffected by the event, and the third season is more or less an exploration of Kevin’s mind and the possibility that he may be some kind of messianic character. Nora’s brother, thinks so anyway, and starts a chronology of his life and experiences. Which mostly just pisses Kevin off.
The reason I want to talk about the series is to paint a broad brush about what it is about. I’ve heard YouTube channel reviews about how it’s the typical literary trope about everything being imagined by Kevin or Nora, and there was no Rapture. Which is pretty standard in theory and criticism since freakin’ Freudian psychology got introduced to English majors back in the 80s and 90s. It’s exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s one way of looking at it, but it’s also lazy.
The nice thing about fiction is when you write it, you can take an idea and run with it. I think in the case of the Leftovers, the premise was “What if this Rapture happened and what would it mean to everyone left behind?” I think that’s fairly easy to imagine. If you have ever read the comics and pamphlets some churches distribute about airplanes suddenly being without pilots or cars without their drivers. Children. Teachers. Everything else, where people are taken at seemingly random and the spaces they leave behind, and the chaos which ensues.
But that’s only the surface. The Rapture event is just the device to bring the story on a universal level that gets our attention. The truth of the matter is that the world of the Leftovers isn’t much different than the real world. This is because the events of this story are happening every day. The theme of the Leftovers is simple: loss.
Each of us has experienced or will experience loss in some way in our lives. The loss the characters experience are just ways to investigate a different element of loss. For Nora, it’s sudden loss of her husband and children. For Kevin, it’s the loss of his family because the trauma fractured everyone and pulled each of them apart, even though they all still exist somewhere in the world. Laurie abandons her family and clings onto a cult, creating a new family, who doesn’t necessarily want her for altruistic reasons. Their children spiral out of control, the center no longer able to hold together.
Matt the reverend loses his wife to a catatonic state, to where he has to become her full-time caretaker. It is what happens to everyone, every day in the real world, but the story strips it down to its skeleton and forces us to examine an entire world that is reeling from loss, openly. Even to the point to where each year, they relive the event in their minds with a festival, where many people expect the event to happen again and take even more people. The Event becomes something everyone fixates upon.
Some have a need to make sense of it. Others demand that it be ruminated upon to the point of a cult focus, begrudging any who refuse to obsess over it. Terrorizing them. Harming others for their need to hold on to this trauma (the Smokers).
Our world, like the world of Kevin, Nora, Matt, and Laurie is filled with loss. And like a game of Tetris, when blocks are taken away, the order of things changes. Everything falls to the next level, affecting that place as well. A chain reaction of how people deal with loss is happening all around us.
Whether it is the loss of a loved one to death, there is confusion, regret. Maybe that last moment of arguing with someone, only to realize that anger and sour words were the last things you shared with that person. Or maybe it was just something as simple as dropping a child off at school and never seeing them alive again. Maybe it was someone you expected to lose, but it hurts no less than something that was sudden. Loss isn’t always death. Sometimes it is something like divorce or estrangement. Abandonment. Retirement. A loss of a job. Moving from one town to another and feeling like a stranger. A brief stint in prison or jail. A tour of duty in a war zone. Or just the inevitable act of a child growing up and leaving home. It’s any experience that leaves you feeling changed. Unable to connect with the life you once knew.
We make choices in how we deal with loss. Some handle it stoically, pragmatically. Others turn to vices. Affairs. Risky behavior to overcome the feeling of numbness or depression. And others might just shut everything out and pretend that nothing has changed. Others might choose to take their own lives or harm themselves in other way, unable to process the grief.
The emotions are the same. Guilt. Anger. Sadness. Regret. Isolation. Relief (and even guilt associated with that). Depression. Numbness. Anxiety. Euphoria. Religious/emotional catharsis/crisis. The pieces that once fit together so well are like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing pieces. The picture can never be complete. Those of us who remain…are the Leftovers. What do we do with a world that is broken? A life that is shattered? What can we do?
I think the characters, complete train-wrecks in their own right, personify literally every way we deal with this every day. It just puts a name and a face to it. Sometimes they handle it, sometimes they don’t. They yell, they fight, they weep, they exist. Some are haunted by their deeds, or those they have hurt. Some reach out to God or some other higher calling. Some just fade out of the story. There are characters who just want to be left alone. Some make a point to never give up. Others that take drastic measures to make sure they never risk losing their loved ones again.
Of course some of them join death cults, some of them shoot stray dogs, some take Aboriginal hallucinogens, some drown themselves in a lake and come back from the dead, some sing karaoke in Purgatory, and some find each other and do whatever they can to fill the gaping holes in each other’s lives.
But the event has also broken up the fabric of the norm. New connections, new relationships, new beginnings are all starting over again. Dynamics between parents and children, old lovers, family, community are all forced to shift. People in the Leftovers are getting on with their lives after the Event. They are coping. They are finding each other amid this chaos and confusion, just like real people do.
At the end of the series, Nora actually travels to the place where everyone was taken and the realization that in her world, they lost 1% of the world’s population, but in this parallel world, the people she encounters lost 99% of everyone they knew. And they still come together and start anew. She comes back and drops off the grid. The final episodes where this is explained give closure to everything.
In our own way, we are all leftovers. We each suffer loss. Our world is always changing. Loss continues to pick the keystones out of our lives. Maybe not necessarily in the dramatic way of Kevin and Nora’s world, but significant nonetheless. But we manage to continue on as well as we can.
And with that, comes hope.
Anyway, watch the show. Stick with it through all three seasons and remind yourself, this story is about all of us. It’s about loss. And yes, sometimes when the characters do something completely asinine, that’s us too.