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Josh Reviews The Leftovers Season Two

I thoroughly enjoyed season one of The Leftovers.  I thought season two was even better.  I know I’m several years late to the party here, but at this point I am all-in on this show!

I’d been warned that the first season of The Leftovers might be tough to get through, because of the incredibly heavy, sad subject matter, but that seasons two and three were terrific and paid off one’s investment on the show.  On the one hand, having seen the first two seasons at this point, so far I agree with that assessment.  On the other hand, what’s impressive is how creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have managed to gently tweak the show without turning it into something else entirely.  This is still, unquestionably, the same show.  And I’m starting from a place in which I LOVED season one, even while I freely admit that it was hard to watch at times.  Season two isn’t suddenly all light and frothy!  There are still some tremendously wrenching, sad things that happen this season.  The show’s characters are, once again, put through an emotional wringer.  (As is the audience!)  And yet, the tone has been subtly adjusted, and I found more joy and humor in the show this season, to balance the grief and the horror.  I also found myself hooked even more deeply by the show’s twisty, absolutely impossible-to-predict-what’s-coming-next storytelling.  So that made this season even more riveting for me, as I felt compelled to zoom quickly onto the next episode after ending the previous one.

(I’m going to dive into this season now, so please beware SPOILERS beyond this point.  If you’ve never seen the show before, all you need to know now is that I am a convert and I highly recommend this series to you… and I think it’s best that you stop reading here to avoid having any of the show’s wonderful storytelling surprises ruined for you.)

I commented in my review of season one that I loved how unpredictable the show’s storytelling was.  That was exponentially even more the case here in season two, and the opening episode is one of the best examples of that.  There was so much craziness in the season one finale, and I couldn’t wait to see what was next for all of the show’s characters.  I’m not sure how I expected the second season to begin, but an extended flashback to caveman (and cavewoman) times was definitely NOT it!  And yet, I was absolutely delighted by that completely out-of-left-field opening.  I love how bizarre and confusing it was, while at the same time how beautifully it summed up so many of the show’s themes and explorations of moving on in the face of terrible loss, and of the (slim) possibility of hope in hopelessness… and also of babies passing from one doomed mother on to another.  Brilliant.  (I was reminded of both the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the famous all-monkey issue of the comic book series Powers.)

I assumed that, after that opening vignette, we’d then return to the show’s familiar ensemble of characters… but, nope, The Leftovers threw another delightful curve-ball!!  We returned to the show’s present day, but we were in an entirely new location — the town of Jarden, Texas, nicknamed “Miracle” because not a single person from the town disappeared on the day of the Sudden Departure — and with an entirely new family: Erika, John, Michael, and Evie Murphy.  Wow, I couldn’t believe we basically waited until the end of the episode to see anyone from season one!!  Other than a glimpse of Matt, now doing work at the Church in Miracle, we spent the whole episode with these new characters until finally seeing the Garveys (Kevin, Nora, Jill, and baby Lily) at the end and discover that they’ve moved to Jarden.  I’d never have predicted this, but it was yet another wonderfully unexpected twist in the show’s storytelling.  I loved these new characters and this new setting, and all the new crazy mysteries of this new location — from the larger questions about the nature of the town and whether it truly was a special, blessed, safe place; to why the preacher wouldn’t let Matt talk about the miracle of Mary’s emerging from her coma when they came to Jarden or why John seems so angry at the idea that anyone (like the maybe-psychic Isaac) might believe that miracles really do take place in Miracle; to what’s up with the man slaughtering a goat in the diner, to the woman in her wedding dress, to Evie and her friends running around in the nude, etc.

It’s impressive how quickly the show got me invested in this new family (rather than being frustrated that I was missing all the characters I’d gotten to know and care about in season one).  It’s a terrific combination of great casting, writing, and acting.  Regina King blew me away with her performance in Watchmen; I had no idea she’d been in another Damon Lindelof series before that!!  She’s spectacular here as Erika.  There are so many layers to this character, and I loved how the show kept pushing me to think different things about her over the course of the season, from disgust at her helping John terrorize those who fall out of his favor in the town, to sympathy as we see what she’s been through and is continuing to go through, to being impressed by her core of iron will when she confronts the entire town at the fundraiser for the missing kids.  (I loved the battle-of-wills scene late in the season between her and Nora, as they discover they have dramatically different responses to the notion that they might have personally caused what happened to their children.)  Kevin Carroll was equally great as John.  I loved how Mr. Carroll could turn on the charm to make John so likable and endearing… and then flip a switch to make him so cold and scary and dangerous.  Jovan Adepo did great, quiet and understated work as Michael, Erika and John’s devout son.  (I loved the scenes between him and Jill; it was cute to see their relationship blossom and interesting to see these very different characters find a connection.)  Jasmin Savoy Brown made a strong impression despite limited screen-time as Evie.  (She was great as both a wide-eyed innocent in episode one and a blank-eyed fanatic in episode ten.)

Had the entire season been about this all-new family and the other all-new denizens of Jarden, TX, I’d have been OK with that.  That’s how hooked I was by the season’s opening episode.  But, thankfully, that’s not the direction the show went.  While maintaining a tight focus on the Murphys and the town of Jarden, I loved the way the season carefully wove in so many of the characters from season one.  I loved how we’d shift back and forth between different characters’ points of view from episode to episode, occasionally stepping back in time to see events from a previous episode from a different character’s perspective.  That was so clever, and so well done!

I’m happy that the Garveys continued to be a central presence in the show.  I loved Kevin and Nora’s burgeoning relationship in season one, and I loved that the show stuck with that pairing and showed us these two trying to put the trauma of their past behind them to create a life together.  I was really rooting for them!!  I absolutely loved the scene early in the season in which Kevin, Nora and Jill confessed so many of their secret sins to one another!!!  Back on Lost (which Mr. Lindeloff ran along with Carlton Cuse), it was so often intensely frustrating when characters wouldn’t talk to one another about things they knew or things that had happened, because the show needed to maintain those secrets.  And so it was delightfully refreshing to see the opposite of that here, with the characters spilling their guts to one another.  It was a great way for the show and the characters to start fresh (so that we the audience wouldn’t be waiting, for example, to see if Nora would ever admit to Kevin that she used to hire prostitutes to shoot her).  (I was also impressed by how quickly and efficiently the show dealt with the HUGE lingering story-thread of Kevin’s involvement in Patti’s death.  Turns out that when he turns himself in to the cops due to his unbearable guilt, no one gives a damn about the death of a member of the Guilty Remnant!  That was a brilliant development and a great way to resolve that story.)  Getting back to Nora-Kevin, I loved their dynamic and how well the two characters seemed to mesh with one another, even in the often-unbelievably challenging circumstances in which they found themselves.  (For instance, I loved Nora’s solution to Kevin’s very-frightening blackouts/sleepwalking — she handcuffs him to her at night.)

Season one slowly revealed that Kevin, despite at first seeming like the audience-surrogate “everyman” character on the show, had deep psychological problems.  I was glad to see that wasn’t wiped away here in season two.  In fact, the show doubled down on that, opening with Kevin’s shocking suicide attempt on his first night in Jarden, and then the genius choice to have him seeing visions of Patti.  This was a great way to keep Ann Dowd — who was so terrific in season one — on the show despite Patti’s death.  Holy cow I didn’t expect Patti to become the show’s most reliable source of comic relief!!!  Her constant needling asides to Kevin were so, so funny!!!  (Her “what the fuck was that??” reaction after one of Kevin’s attempts to torpedo his life had me laughing so hard.)  And, of course, this was yet another great example of the show’s being structured in such a way to allow multiple interpretations.  Is Kevin crazy (just like his father might be), or is he really being spoken to by a divine voice from beyond the grave (just like his father might be)?  I love that, in The Leftovers, both possibilities are plausible.  It also puts the audience in a beautiful bind.  On the one hand, it seems obvious that Kevin is losing his mind, and so I was rooting for him to learn to ignore Patti and hopefully banish her.  On the other hand, because this is a TV show, we’re conditioned to believe that the character who everyone thinks is crazy maybe actually is the only one who knows the “truth,” and so a part of me as an audience member wanted Kevin to listen to Patti to see what would happen.  I was never sure what the right choice was!!

(Laurie makes a convincing argument, to Kevin, that Patti is a delusion and that everything she told him was things he could have known.  And when we learn that, despite Patti’s telling Kevin that she saw Evie and the girls Depart, that’s not what happened, it seems to confirm that Patti wasn’t really a divine messenger.  Although if the Patti Kevin was seeing really was, somehow, the spirit of the deceased Patti, it’s plausible that she was lying just to fuck with him…)

The stand-out episode of the season, for me, was “International Assassin”, the head-spinning episode in which Kevin wakes up in the tub of a strange hotel that might just be the afterlife.  There he is apparently an international assassin who gets involved in several to-the-death struggles, all in his quest to purge himself of Patti by throwing a little girl who represents her down a well.  For a show that has always impressed me by how completely unpredictable it was, this was the most head-spinning, I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-watching turn.  The entire episode had my jaw on the floor.  I had no idea what was happening or what would come next… and I was loving every minute.  The audaciousness of the storytelling, and Justin Theroux’s incredibly committed performance, had me riveted.  This is an episode I can’t wait to rewatch.  There’s so much to dissect and analyze, from Kevin’s through-the-TV psychic conversation with his father (who somehow was setting off the fire alarms in Kevin’s hotel by lighting a fire on a bed in another hotel in Australia) to the glimpses of different people in the hotel wearing the other clothes options that were in Kevin’s hotel room closet.  (Were those other people going through their own near-death journeys?)  The episode accomplished what I’d thought would be an impossible task of allowing me to feel empathy for Patti.  And yet Kevin still murders little-girl Patti!  I love how ambiguous it is as to whether that was the right or the wrong decision.  Kevin seems to be “cured” of Patti after these events, so I guess it was the right decision?  Watching the episode, I kept hoping that Kevin would ultimately choose not to kill Patti… and that that would wind up being the “right” decision.  But that’s not what happened.  I’m still not sure how I feel about that!  (Or how I feel about Kevin’s deep problems seeming to be cured by this bizarre sequence of events.)  (Another highlight of the episode: meeting Neil for the first time! He’s even more of a jerk than I’d expected.)

The only thing crazier than that crazy episode was when Kevin wound up BACK in the hotel after John shot him in the finale!  (In the running for best use of an expletive on a TV show ever: Kevin’s “motherfucker!” after waking up in that hotel bathroom tub for the SECOND TIME.)  That second visit was, perhaps, even more bizarre and emotional than the first.  I was absolutely tickled that this second visit culminated in Kevin’s singing karaoke to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”  I’ve always loved that song, and it was an amazing choice, as the song lyrics perfectly matched up to Kevin’s situation.  Justin Theroux’s performance was extraordinary — deeply moving.  I said this in my review of season one: I can’t believe what a spectacular dramatic actor Justin Theroux is!!!

One of things that kept me away from this show, previously, was having been burnt by the final season of Lost which failed to answer many/most of the show’s myriad mysteries.  And I’d been told, even by friends who loved this show, that The Leftovers would also bring up mysteries it would fail to answer.  However, I was reasonably satisfied with the resolutions given at the end of season one (despite the many unanswered questions, such as the nature of the voices speaking to Kevin Senior, that mysterious National Geographic magazine, whether Holy Wayne truly could hug away people’s pain, etc.).  I was even more satisfied here in season two.  The season premiere set up a LOT of new mysteries, but the show answered almost all of them by the end!  That includes the biggest one: what happened to Evie and her two friends.  I was fully prepared for the show to NOT answer that question — just as the show will clearly never answer the big question of what happened to everyone who disappeared during the Sudden Departure.  And so I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that we DID get a definitive answer to what happened that night to Evie and the girls!  That was great.  The show also took the time to answer many of the other questions it had set up: we learn what’s up with the goat-slaughterer (well, sort of), the woman in the wedding dress, the crack under glass in the street; we learn about all the members of the Murphy family, etc.  I was also prepared for the show to never answer whether Matt’s claim that Mary had miraculously awoken from her coma for a single night (during which they had consensual sex) was true — and yet we get an answer to that, too, in the finale when Mary awakens again and confirms that all did truly happen.  I was happy to get these answers!

Of course, the show did keep some answers to itself.  I was a little annoyed that we never learned what Meg’s mother was going to tell her before she died.  (I’d assumed we’d find out at the end of that Meg spotlight episode.)  We never learned what the man on the bridge whispered to Kevin in “International Assassin.”  I don’t believe we ever learned anything about the weird dude apparently living up in a tower in the Jarden town square.

Then, of course, there were the other questions that the show clearly kept vague intentionally, because The Leftovers exists in a world in which at least one religious or paranormal event has taken place that no one can explain: The Sudden Departure.  And so we never learn what caused the water to vanish from Jarden.  Was that divine intervention to save Kevin’s life when he attempted suicide, or an explainable scientific phenomena caused by the earthquake?  For that matter, were the earthquakes that occasionally affected the town the result of natural processes or an act of the divine?  Was Mary’s recovery from her coma — and her pregnancy — the result of something special/magical happening within the borders of Jarden?  Would she have lost the baby if Matt hadn’t managed to get her back to Jarden in time?  Did Kevin Garvey really die and get resurrected, twice?  These are all questions that I am OK with being left up to the viewer to decide.

Other thoughts on this season:

* I loved the new opening credits and theme song.  This was a significant improvement on the dour opening of season one episodes, and a great example of the subtle shifting in tone towards something a little more audience-friendly and a little less grim here in season two.  Extra points for the delightfully meta “let the mystery be” line in the song.  Message received.

* Meg (Liv Tyler) was a major character in season one, but she was absent for most of season two.  But when she was on the show: wow.  Her rape (is that the right word?) of Tommy in episode three was a shocking moment, and her spotlight episode in episode nine was extraordinary.  It was great to finally learn more of Meg’s backstory.  I feel like I finally understand what drove her to the Guilty Remnant, something I never quite got in season one.  And it was an unbelievable surprise that Meg morphed into the main villain of season two!!  I did not see that coming!!  Liv Tyler was SO GOOD playing scary and deranged!!  That was amazing!  (I also loved Meg and Matt’s steely-eyed showdown when they met in the camp outside Miracle.)

* I loved seeing Steven Williams (who was so memorable as Mr. X on The X-Files, and who also popped up last year on Stumptown) as Virgil, the old man with a terrible personal history with the Murphy family, who also might have some sort of psychic powers.  (I was OK that, as with Holy Wayne or Kevin Senior, the show never clarified whether he was crazy or in touch with something divine.  The show works either way.)

* Like Meg, we didn’t see nearly as much of Tommy or Laurie this season, but I was very satisfied with what we got.  The Tommy/Laurie spotlight episode — showing how troubled they both were, despite having broken away from the two cults in which they were enmeshed in season one — was sad.  (The revelation as to why Laurie had been obsessively washing her car was quite a shocker!!)

* After the incredible episode spotlighting Matt in season one, we got another episode this season showing poor Matt having another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  This one didn’t top the season one episode, but how could it?  Speaking of Matt, a highlight of the season was getting to see his wide grin, in the season finale, when Mary wakes up.  Once again, Christopher Eccleston just knocked that moment out of the park.

* I loved the way the season’s storytelling slowly revealed previously unexpected connections between characters and moments.  I loved discovering that Kevin was at the water on the night when Evie and the girls disappeared.  I loved discovering that when John burnt down Isaac’s house, he also destroyed the place where the Garveys were planning on staying, setting into motion their becoming the next-door neighbors of the Murphys.

* I was intrigued by the handful of mentions of Australia this season!  Kevin’s dad heads down there, apparently because the voices in his head — which he’s decided to stop fighting and listen to — told him to.  I hope we learn a little more about this in season three!

* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would be remiss if I didn’t praise the delightful continuation of the series’ fascination with Perfect Strangers.  I loved the news report — featuring the real Mark Linn-Baker!! — suggesting that Mr. Linn-Baker had faked his Departure!!  Amazing!!

This was an extraordinary season of television.  I’m so glad to have finally seen it.  I am totally hooked on this show at this point.  I can’t wait to watch season three!

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