Enough, already: Why I'm quitting 'The Leftovers'
That’s it. I quit. No more.
For weeks, I’ve stuck it out with The Leftovers, which many critics (including me) have described as one of the bleakest, most brutal, most depressing dramas on television. But it wasn’t until Sunday’s episode, “Gladys,” that I decided I’d had enough. I refuse to watch another minute of this show.
It wasn’t just that a woman (the Gladys of the title, played by Marceline Hugot) got stoned to death in the episode. I’ve seen worse on my all-time favorite show, Breaking Bad. What I objected to wasn’t the violence. It was the unnecessarily aggressive way the scene played out.
Gladys doesn’t just get hit with a rock. She gets hit thirteen times. First, you see her get hit in the face, ripping a gash on her cheek. Then the camera angle changes, and you see her head backlit by flashlights, illuminating the blood that sprays upward from her soft, grey-blonde hair. Then you see her in profile, as the stone smacks into her forehead and her neck snaps back like a crash-test dummy’s. There’s another whiplash shot. More face-smashing. More blood-spurting. Until her mouth bends into a sad-clown grimace. Her head hangs limp. You can actually hear bones and cartilage getting pulverized. The hard thwack of the first hit slowly gives way to a sickeningly soft thunk. There’s the unmistakable sound of blood dripping onto the ground. Then it’s gushing. Then it’s pouring down.
That’s when she gets hit again.
Now she’s bleeding from the hair. The nose. The mouth. Thunk. Her glasses are crushed. Thunk. Her mouth hangs agape. Thunk. Finally, Gladys, who has taken a vow of silence, starts begging. “Don’t.” she says. “Please. Don’t. Please don’t. Please. Please don’t. Don’t. Please. Stop. Please.” (Or something like that. It’s hard to understand her with all of that blood in her mouth.) Thunk.
And then it’s over. But it’s not really over. It’s not enough that Gladys is dead. Later in the episode, we’re treated to a close-up view of the corpse, still tied to that tree. Then a flashback replays the murder as it’s imagined by Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who is Gladys’s vigilance partner in a cult called The Guilty Remnant. The closing scene even revisits Gladys’s dead body, as it’s being cremated. There’s a close-up of her caved-in face as it disappears into the fire.
Gladys’s death brings new meaning to the phrase “overkill.” Yes, it’s probably also overkill for me to give a blow-by-blow recap here. But it wasn’t until I broke down every horrible moment of that scene that I realized why it bothered me so much. The scene made me feel like I was being punished for something, maybe for tuning in to watch such a grim show. You want to see people suffer? Well, careful what you wish for—take a look at this! You can’t see who, exactly, is throwing stones at Gladys. The tormentors’ faces are obscured by hoodies and the shadow of their flashlights. Though I couldn’t help but imagine that the show’s creators—Tom Perrotta (who wrote the book that The Leftovers is based on) and Damon Lindelof—were behind those hoodies. Whenever they threw stones at the camera, it looked like they were throwing stones at me, and anyone else who dared to watch.
Since the very first episode, The Leftovers has been hitting viewers over the head. It’s not subtle about its emotions. This is a show whose characters cry into pillows and dive into swimming pools to scream underwater. Its promotional materials feature its tortured hero, small-town cop Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), pounding his fist against a wall. The opening scenes follow the first rule of melodrama: if you want to make people cry, put children and animals in danger. The series opens in the town of Mapleton, New York, as a mother screams for her missing baby, who’s been torn away from this world (along with 140 million others) in a Rapture-like event called The Sudden Departure. The very next scene shows Kevin holding out his hand to pet a dog. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you,” he says, just before the dog gets shot in the head by a mystery man (Michael Gaston). Eventually, as I’ve noted before, the viewer starts to feel like that dog: just when we think that we might get some comfort from this show, it hurts us again.
I don’t mean to complain that The Leftovers is too sad. My favorite shows of last year were all fairly dark. But The Leftovers doesn’t earn its sadness, partly because it expects us to feel really depressed on behalf of characters we’ve barely even met. In the first episode, we learn that Nora (Carrie Coon) lost her whole family to the Departure. When she speaks at a rally for survivors and “heroes,” she echoes the speeches of those who lost family members on 9/11. (Perrotta told Terry Gross that the nods to 9/11 in his book were intentional.) At that point, we don’t know anything about Nora other than the fact that she’s a widow, so it’s a little too easy to make her into a cypher, using real-life tragedy to goose the dramatic effect of the scene. Then there’s Gladys, a woman who doesn’t speak more then three words before she gets bludgeoned to death. Somehow, it’s still hard to feel sympathy for her. The last time we see her alive, she’s walking down the street when a man trips and falls onto the sidewalk. She doesn’t offer help. She simply steps around him.
Brutally killing characters who haven’t earned our grief can feel borderline exploitative. It turns your attention away from the human being, and allows you to be dazzled by the sheer salaciousness of the murder. Allan Cubitt, creator of the excellent serial killer drama The Fall, talked about this in The Guardian. “Violence against women, often graphic, has been part of TV drama for a very long time,” he wrote last year. “My concern has always been that because we don’t know who they are, we feel nothing for these victims—not even their fundamental humanity. One of the ways the killer is able to perpetrate such crimes is by objectifying and dehumanising their prey. Torturers do the same thing. I think it’s important that drama doesn’t do that.”
It’s easy not to care about characters like Gladys because they feel more like symbols than actual, flesh-and-blood beings. Gladys’s death is a message sent to the Guilty Remnant. She’s a martyr for their cause. The mystery man, who sometimes seems like a figment of Kevin’s imagination, proudly announces, “I’m Nobody,” as if he’s an archetype of non-personhood. The story of Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) is such a clear Biblical allegory that he’s literally shepherding a pregnant woman whose baby might be a holy prophet. Other than that, he’s kind of a blank slate. It’s telling that a member of the Guilty Remnant hands him a card that says “Everything that matters about you is inside,” and the inside is blank. How can we try to find the essential humanity of these people if they don’t seem like humans at all?
Of course, you could argue that that’s the whole point of The Leftovers: to make us feel things for people we don’t know. After all, that’s what tends to happen during international tragedies like the Departure: even people who haven’t lost anyone themselves feel devastation for total strangers. As Alan Sepinwall observed, one of the most interesting things about The Leftovers is that it focuses on a family (the Garveys) who survived the Departure, and yet they’re still grieving. Maybe it’s also fitting that the residents of Mapleton have created a market for Loved Ones, which are nameless corpses that allow the bereaved to mourn something in place of their vanished family members. It’s a good metaphor for why we’re drawn to tearjerker dramas like this one: it’s cathartic to have a stand-in for something that makes you sad in real life.
For me, though, The Leftovers is too much of an endurance test. Yes, it’s also a show about endurance: Mapleton’s self-appointed spiritual leader, Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston), believes that human suffering happens for a reason, but he’s quickly proven wrong. He believes that God saved a sick little girl because his congregation prayed for her, but it turns out that the girl woke up before they prayed. He thinks that God gave him leukemia because he needed more attention as a child, but if that were true, all little kids would get cancer. And not many people believe him when he insists that only the bad guys disappeared during the Sudden Departure. Just as the people of Mapleton are starting to question if there’s a point to their struggle (did God reject them during the Departure, or is everything random?), I’m starting to wonder whether there’s a point to mine. Why am I trying to get through this relentlessly grim series again?
At times, The Leftovers seems to be actively warning us that there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this. When Laurie orders the Guilty Remnant’s new recruit, Meg (Liv Tyler), to chop down a tree, Meg looks puzzled. “So what, it’s symbolic?” she asks Laurie. There’s no answer. By the end of the episode, she has felled the tree, but she’s no closer to understanding the gesture. It just feels like empty destruction. Meanwhile, Reverend Matt spends a lot of time searching for significance in random things: pigeons landing nearby, paintings with hidden images. He might be losing his grip on reality, and I can’t escape the feeling that I’m doing a something similar: searching for meaning in a show that might not have a grand plan.
Perrotta’s book never offers an explanation for the Departure. Some might worry that The Leftovers—just like Lindelof’s last project, Lost—will never really solve its own central mysteries. For me, the mysteries have always been the most compelling reason to keep watching. I want to know what’s going on with those dogs. I’m curious what happened to Kevin’s dad. I’d like to hear more about what led Laurie to the Guilty Remnant. And the series might answer those questions, but if it doesn’t, that’s life—some mysteries never get solved. Continuing to watch a show like this requires faith, and like the non-believers left behind in Mapleton, I’m just not certain anymore. Sometimes I imagine that the show itself is a little like the Guilty Remnant. It trades in long scenes of silence, allowing facial expressions and music to communicate how it feels. Though it’s unclear if it’s choosing to do this because silence is more powerful than words, or because it has nothing real to say. And I’m not going to wait around for the day when someone hands me a card that says “Everything that matters about The Leftovers is what’s inside”—because sadly, I fear the inside is blank.