Smoke But No Fire: Is It Time to Break Up With ‘The Leftovers’?

I love ambiguity in art, but not always in my reaction to it. An artist’s journey can and should be rocky, but it’s always nice when, in hindsight at least, his or her path appears clear. After all, as a critic, it’s my job to to communicate the effect of that journey. It’s on me to be precise, even when the subject matter isn’t.

Which is why I’ve found HBO’s The Leftovers so enormously challenging. It’s not just the misery, the smoking, the whatever the hell that meathead son is doing with the bull’s-eye painted on his forehead. It’s the fact that, through seven weeks, I still had no idea where I stood with this show. Until last night, I found it to be the single most confounding series I’d encountered since starting this job — and it wasn’t close.

When I admitted my confusion in my initial review, I took solace in the fact that it was still early, that there were hours remaining to help me figure out my feelings. Because they were mightily unsettled! The single most impressive trait about The Leftovers is its unfailing ability to reach inside my chest cavity and tug. It’s not a pleasant sensation. Often, it’s the opposite. But the show is undeniably wrenching, even as it flirts with boredom and outright badness. As a project, The Leftovers doesn’t have much interest in more traditional television tropes like “pleasure.” It aims to rattle, to discomfit. Every time I felt myself relaxing into something approaching enjoyment, the show pitched a stone directly at my skull. And then, at times when I was ready to throw in the towel, it reached out like Holy Wayne and pulled me close. Do I blame The Leftovers for its inconsistency? Or do I blame myself for this inability to commit? Though I lack both the tattoos and the physique of Justin Theroux — just how in shape does an upstate cop need to be these days? — I do find myself relating to him every time he flashes his soon-to-be-trademarked look of hostile bewilderment.

Now, after eight lurching weeks, I think I’m finally off the fence. “Cairo” was by far the most momentous installment of The Leftovers‘ first season — as we learned this week, there will be a second — and, I imagine, to many it will be seen as its high point. The hour was crisply, often hypnotically directed by TV MVP Michelle MacLaren. Her intensely kinetic style stood out on Breaking Bad, one of the most visual and dynamic shows in history. Handing her the reins of one of television’s most ponderous hours was like Jesse Pinkman hot-boxing a sloth. The first half of the episode was full of the specific character beats I’ve come to almost enjoy on this show. I loved the dinner table scene in which Jill rooted through Nora’s bag like a desperate Chekhov scholar. In fact, I generally loved anything featuring Nora, the character who has lost the most and somehow, improbably, has transformed into the most substantial personality on the show. When The Leftovers launched, Carrie Coon was easy to overlook amid a starry ensemble. Two months later, she’s the clear standout. She’s an actor of rare presence and control. It’s been remarkable to watch as her suffering has slowly transformed from a rickety bridge into a bullwhip. Her tart smile as she snapped into Laurie was delicious. On a series as abstemious as this one, any pleasure is worth relishing, even when it’s mean-spirited.

I suppose there are other forms of pleasure on hand, too, chief among them the chance to watch Ann Dowd saw off the edges of her prodigious talent like a shotgun and blow great gaping holes into the scenery. But now that’s done, and so is my tango of uncertainty with The Leftovers. The confrontation between Kevin and Patti in the abandoned campground had all the elements of essential drama: two figureheads representing competing worldviews, a simmering stockpot of resentment and fury and, in the bald-headed form of Michael Gaston, what Jack Donaghy would call “a third heat” just to complicate matters further. Justin Theroux was excellent, just as he has been in nearly every frame of the series. Dowd was a force of nature. The stakes were high, tensions even higher. The raw emotion that has captivated and disturbed me since the pilot bubbled throughout. It was there in the desperate scramble for the plastic bag wrapped around Patti’s gasping face, in her final, mocking speech to Kevin, and in the way his body quaked as he cradled her corpse.

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But recognizable human emotion isn’t enough to make exceptional television. Plausible human behavior has to go along with it. And here is where The Leftovers falters. I would find Ann Dowd spellbinding if she were delivering the Sermon on the Mount or if she were delivering pizzas. But not even an actor of her caliber could sell me on the line of metaphysical hooey showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were offering here. The Kevin/Patti argument about “understanding what happened” was fraught with feeling but utterly bereft of context. What were they actually talking about? An event that will never be explained? Or behavior that continues to be inexplicable? Again and again, The Leftovers reaches for ideas on the highest shelf but only ends up knocking things over. When the show requires poetry, it either falls back on impassioned profanity — I’m no prude, but the language on The Leftovers is out of control; saying “fuck” a lot signifies anger, sure, but also lazy writing — or it just lifts language wholesale in hopes of some borrowed profundity. Patti quoting Yeats was proof that she’s well read, but not of much else. It’s a move I would expect from Jill or Aimee — teenagers always put fancy things on their yearbook page to imply depth — but not from putative grown-ups. Messiness is fine, but this was just clumsy.

The most frustrating character of all just might be Amy Brenneman’s Laurie. Rejecting a cheating husband is one thing; seeking solace in the wake of a world-shattering event another. But who willingly gives up her children to hang out with Liv Tyler? Laurie is deserving of a character-focused episode á la Reverend Matt, preferably one with some psychologically illuminating flashbacks. Barring that, I assume we’re building toward a climax in which she finally speaks. But by then I fear it will be too little, too late. The Leftovers wants to be a show about the pain of loss and the acute agony of surviving. But, as Chris Ryan wrote last week, it’s really about a MacGuffin wrapped up in a mystery. It has displayed neither the skill nor the space to say something insightful about the powerful emotions on display. It just says many things loudly.

Any hesitation I had about admitting this was gone by episode’s end. Despite his “dirty dick,” Kevin had proven his decency by cutting Patti loose. She responded by reaching for a shard of glass and plunging it into her own neck. This was shocking and awful and then, as the life drained from her body, I realized it was mostly just the latter. It was the moment that finally made me realize that the extremity of The Leftovers isn’t important, it’s just extreme. The show wields a club when what’s required is a scalpel. Every character here is suffering the effects of loss, but not one of them appears to be actually living — not in any recognizable way. They are avatars of Deep Thoughts, pliable inaction figures to be bent and broken depending on the exigencies of the plot. It’s why Kevin punches inanimate objects and drugs himself until he wakes up into story-generating events. It’s why Nora’s enormous, psychological loss has to be compounded with the ridiculous sight of her hiring a hooker to shoot her point blank in the sternum. And it’s why Ann Dowd’s titanic performance ended up as a giant misdirect. (The Leftovers’ loss is hopefully Masters of Sex‘s gain. It’d be great to see Dowd put the poetry book back on the shelf and return as Bill Masters’s mother next season.) It turns out The Guilty Remnant isn’t provocative or, really, all that interesting. It’s a murderous suicide cult with a heavy bleach bill. It’s not hot air, but it’s close: Call it secondhand smoke.

This article has been updated to correct the name of Michael Gaston.

Filed Under: TV, HBO, the leftovers, Justin theroux, michelle maclaren, ann dowd, Damon Lindelof

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald