A flashback to before the disappearances offers some explanations.
“Man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist.’ ‘However,’ the universe replied, ‘the fact does not create in me a sense of obligation.'” —”A Man Said to the Universe” by Stephen Crane, as read by Kevin Garvey Jr.
With only two episodes remaining in its first season, The Leftovers decides to keep viewers hanging after last week’s cliffhanger of sorts found Jill showing up at the GR house to see (stay with?) her mother. No, this week we get a flashback to the time immediately before everyone disappeared—and some explanations.
It’s an episode that occasionally goes overboard setting up the tragedy to come: Jill is a bubbly teenager who loves her mom, goofy Internet videos, and listening to music. Kevin Garvey Sr. is a pillar of the community whose generosity and kindness make him beloved by everyone.
But “The Garveys at Their Best” is all about misdirects: It strings viewers along into thinking Laurie is gravely ill only to reveal she’s pregnant—then predictably takes that away at the very end. It presents Nora and Kevin’s respective home lives as generally happy, only to make it clear they are far from it.
Which we knew already, but we didn’t know exactly why. We knew Kevin cheated on Laurie, but didn’t know whether it was an affair or one-time indiscretion. We knew the elder Garvey was an important figure in the lives of his family, co-workers, and fellow townspeople, but not to this extent. We knew Nora’s husband was having an affair, but not if their marriage had other problems, too.
“The Garveys at Their Best” also makes some intriguing connections we wouldn’t have otherwise known: Laurie is a shrink who was treating Patti for severe anxiety (and maybe some PTSD following an abusive relationship); Gladys was a dog breeder who had been talking to Laurie about a potential adoption; Lucy Warburton was running a moribund mayoral campaign that Nora was interviewing to run; Kevin had met the woman with whom he cheated on Laurie the day everyone disappeared (or maybe she was one of many women—it’s unclear).
Then there are the coincidental encounters: Kevin interacting with the teacher sleeping with Nora’s husband after a deer trashes her school’s band room; a deer also trashing the home of the family whose adult son with Down Syndrome went missing on 10/14; Laurie pulling up at a stop light next to the flustered woman whose baby disappeared at the beginning of the premiere. It’s not clear how big Mapleton is, so it’s hard to gauge how often these people would have crossed paths, but it’s… well “fun” isn’t the right word, this being The Leftovers, but entertaining (?) to see these separate stories intersect.
As the episode title suggests, the Garveys are the focus, and for a while, the “at their best” seems accurate. The episode opens uncharacteristically peppily, with Kevin on a run soundtracked by an uptempo oldie (Jody Reynolds’ 1963 deep cut “The Girl from King Marie“), sneaking a cigarette on the way, because who doesn’t like a smoke break in the middle of cardio? We see him in a spacious modern house with Laurie and Jill, as they gear up for a big surprise party to celebrate his father winning Mapleton Man of the Year.
It couldn’t go better, even though the old man knows about it beforehand. After Kevin makes an ostensibly heartfelt speech, we see a slow-motion montage of people at the party enjoying themselves to underline the point “Look how happy everybody is! Sure hope some horrible disaster doesn’t ruin everything!” But the look on Kevin’s face as he watches the people around him marks the turning point of “The Garveys at Their Best” and reveals the turmoil lurking underneath the revelry.
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“It was a beautiful speech. I almost believed you meant it,” the elder Garvey tells Kevin when he catches him sneaking a cigarette. Just like Patti senses impending doom but can’t identify it, Kevin’s unable to pinpoint the source of his unhappiness. “Why isn’t it enough?” he asks. His dad has some words of wisdom: “Because every man rebels against the idea that this is f—ing it… You have no greater purpose, because it is enough. So cut the s—, okay?”
If only it were that simple. As petulant as Kevin seems, Laurie has something going on inside her, too. When she gets a little too lighthearted during her session with Patti, Patti says, “I know whey you’re telling jokes: Because you can feel it to, can’t you? I know you can. Something’s wrong inside you.” It’s a glimpse into the future power dynamic between the two of them and the first real indication of something going on with Laurie. We don’t know why she breaks down at the breeder’s. Or why she missed Jill’s presentation the previous year. But the problems in her marriage aren’t all on Kevin.
Over at Nora’s house, they do seem to be mostly on her husband, Doug. The episode shows he and Kevin forgetting to do something for their wives: Kevin forgot about the breeders; Doug forgot he was supposed to take the kids to school so Nora could go to her interview. Neither seems like a big deal when they happen; Doug takes the kids, and Kevin says he’ll be there (but misses it when he has to pick up Tommy after the kid has a run-in with his birth father). But then Doug rolls in late (“You said 6,” says a defeated-sounding Nora), forgets that she had her interview, and looks completely uninterested when she reminds him about it. We don’t know if he’s already hooking up with the teacher at this point, but it’s safe to assume.
Then again, Nora is happy to make her family her No. 2 priority in order to get the job running Lucy’s campaign: “As far as you’re concerned,” she tells the candidate, “for the next four weeks, I don’t have a family.” She confesses she wants the job because she needs “something for myself.” Behold, the recipe for life-consuming guilt: Just before her family left her, presumably forever, she felt a little smothered. Then we see what was happening when they disappeared, and Nora’s sad old habits—not replacing the paper towels, buying the same groceries—make more sense. The guilt must have been unbearable. (Good thing Wayne hugged her.)
The orange juice still dripping off the kitchen table would be the most haunting image from the episode’s final moments, but Laurie’s face as she looked at the suddenly empty ultrasound screen trumps it. The moment we learned she was pregnant, the endgame of “The Garveys at Their Best” became obvious. Whatever was going wrong inside of Laurie had no chance to correct itself after that. And because she was the only person besides her doctor who knew she was pregnant, she had to carry that loss alone. Since The Leftovers debuted, the refrain has been “Don’t expect your questions to be answered”; but Damon Lindelof just made it clear how Laurie went from hard-working mother to cult member.
And while the press around The Leftovers has reiterated that explanations will be in short supply, “Cairo” and “The Garveys at Their Best” have connected a lot of dots. The slow build of the series to this point has picked up speed, nicely setting up what looks to be an engrossing season finale.
• I can’t buy Kevin rocking an obscure oldies song during his runs. He seems like more of a Zeppelin kind of guy, no? Plugging Jody Reynolds into Spotify, it recommends Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy, Carl Perkins, Dale Hawkins, Sanford Clark, and Johnny Burette & the Rock ’N’ Roll Trio to round out that playlist.
• Jill was listening to “Young Bloods” by the Naked and Famous, a song you’ve undoubtedly heard before, maybe unknowingly. It has appeared in roughly 1 million commercials, TV shows, and movies.
• The perplexing quote on Laurie’s page-a-day calendar, “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground” is frequently—and erroneously—attributed to Buddha. What does it mean? Well, I Am Sirius over at Yahoo Answers says, “The foot, untouched, would not ‘be’ unless it had an experience of itself, much as we ‘are not’ (except in our conditioned duality minds only) until we fulfill our divine agency as Source, fully aligned and ‘conscious’ of Its presence as us.” And yes, I Am Sirius is the kind of person who signs his/her messages “I bow to All That Is. Namaste.”
• The video making Jill giggle is known as Nyan Cat or Pop Tart Cat, a meme that became a thing around when this episode is set.
• Maybe we’ll never know the extent of what, exactly, Tommy’s birth father did to him and Laurie. I get the sense there’s more to it.
• Kevin thinks one deer is responsible for the mayhem in town, which could be rationally explained if it were rabid or something. Knowing what will happen to his kitchen, though, means we’re not dealing with a rogue deer.
• “Are you a good guy?” “What?” “Are you a good guy?” “No.” “You wanna come in?”