No, it wasn’t easy. My personal viewing experience of the first two episodes of HBO’s The Leftovers has stuck with me throughout the entire summer, and I have zero problem with telling people that watching two hours of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta‘s series actually made me feel physically ill, it was just that heavy. The Leftovers may still not be binge-watch television, but it has finally become must-watch television. With just two episodes left, it was about time that some kind of tide turned.
The HBO series, inspired by Perrotta’s novel of the same name, was never intended to be feel-good television, just by virtue of the fact that it’s entirely centered on a global-scale tragedy. The series picks up three years after some kind of “event” has whisked away 2% of the world’s population, enough time to sort of get things back to normal, but not long enough to really heal wounds. The lingering sense that something else is about to happen — and soon! — doesn’t help. Set primarily in the small town of Mapleton, New York, the series follows a medium-sized cast of characters as they (continue to) deal with the fallout from said event. Some people lost everyone that day, some people just lost one person, some people lost their loved ones later to outside forces. Still, the entire program is about loss. It’s hard to feel good about that.
Despite all that, however, I was genuinely excited to hear that the show has already been renewed for a second season. Perhaps skating on that excitement, I also found myself surprisingly engaged with last night’s new episode, the eighth of this season’s ten-episode order. “Cairo” may not pack the gut-punch power of this season’s two best episodes — both “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and “Guest” succeed primarily because each focus squarely on a single character, while still moving the entire narrative forward — but it puts into play some very compelling pieces. I actually gasped aloud a few times (very theatrical, but still honest) and even managed to yelp out a couple of “no no no no” demands to the action playing out on screen. You know where such “no’s” come from? Actually caring about a program. When did that happen?
My fandom comes with some caveats, however. I’m still not on board with the casting of Justin Theroux as Chief of Police Kevin Garvey. Although Theroux’s performance has gotten better as Kevin has gotten, well, just a lot weirder, he’s still hard to buy as a small-town police chief, and the bonds he exhibits with his two extremely damaged children scan as incredibly forced. Elsewhere, Kevin’s estranged wife has proven to also be grating, though for different reasons. Amy Brenneman‘s Laurie Garvey was entirely disposable for eight episodes — well, for seven and three-quarters of an episode, because she finally got something do during the last act of last night’s episode, the kind of thing that could signal an actual sea change for both her character and the show’s plotting.
And that plotting. There are entire swathes of narrative that should be removed — unless something major is going to happen with the “oops, maybe this hugging guy just likes to rape underage Asian girls and is not, in fact, Jesus or similar” subplot, the whole thing should be chopped and forgotten ASAP (and, yes, that demand even comes with the full knowledge of where said subplot actually goes in Perrotta’s novel). Occasionally zipping out of Mapleton to Whereeversville, USA, to check on young Tom Garvey (Chris Zylka) and his companion Christine (Annie Q.) is so far meritless and boring. Even a glimpse at what’s to come for the duo, thanks to last week’s episode, was only momentarily appealing. The lack of return to it in “Cairo” makes it seem as if the show itself could care less.
Perhaps the show’s continued interest in moving away from the events of the book is steadily setting the stage for ridding itself of Tom and Christine (and, hell, even Hugging Guy), a welcome change-up. Last night’s episode laid out a number of plot movements that are not present in the book, major changes that indicate that The Leftovers is determined to start making its own path, either by escalating the timeline of some events (without spoiling, this specifically refers to Jill’s decision at the end of the episode) or flattening out forward movement (this particularly applies to what happens to Aimee and Jill’s friendship, and the indication of what the Guilty Remnant’s next steps will be) or even possibly excising them totally (the book includes an involved second-half subplot that features Laurie and Meg moving into a cushy GR house, something that looks like it won’t happen now, at least not in the same fashion as it appears in the novel).
Perrotta’s novel is only 336 pages, and while it doesn’t end in a neat fashion, that’s still a slim amount of information to build a continuing series on. The show has to move forward, and it looks like that’s going to happen very soon — next week’s episode sure looks like it’s going to pack a major event, complete with is that fire? yes, looks like it.
Even without some major narrative changes, The Leftovers does boast something anyone can get behind: great performances. Theroux and Brenneman and Zylka may be just okay, but there’s still another Garvey left to impress: Margaret Qualley as daughter Jill. Qualley has proven to be excessively watchable since the very first episode, and while she seemed both sympathetic and compelling in that original outing, she’s started moving into much darker territory as of late. Even better? She’s taken control of her life. Sure, some of Jill’s decisions may not be great (yes, a big batch of “no no no no” spilled out during her final season in “Cairo”), but at least she’s making them. (Jill’s best pal Aimee, played by Emily Meade, also gets better and more layered with each episode.)
Elsewhere, Carrie Coon‘s work as Nora Durst is flinty and weird and unsettling, and her actions and words are the closest thing to “satisfying entertainment” the show has to offer as of now. As Guilty Remnant leader Patti, Ann Dowd has proven her ability to get under both the audience and her fellow performers’ skin with ease. She haunts. If nothing else, The Leftovers is worth watching for its awesome actresses. This week, Liv Tyler totally punched a guy.
With two episodes left, The Leftovers appears to be anteing up, and will likely leave its viewers with some jaw-dropping material (nothing good is going to happen in that church, right? also, the fire) to ruminate over until it returns for more (presumably some time in 2015). Don’t concern yourself with bingeing on this stuff, go slow and steady, and it’s possible to be surprised by what The Leftovers has to offer: not totally fulfilling yet, but enough to keep us poking around for more.