Rev. Matt gambles to save his church, refuses to turn the other cheek.

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated July 14, 2014 at 03:03 AM EDT
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

The Leftovers

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You know the parable, the one about the man in the flood who turns down the help of neighbors while the waters rise and clings to the steadfast belief that God will save him? Then he drowns and so afterwards, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God responds, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter—what more were you looking for?”

In “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” the first episode of The Leftovers not centered around embattled Chief Kevin Garvey, Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is tasked with saving his Episcopalian church, whose flock has scattered after the Oct. 14 “departure” and now is in foreclosure and about to be sold to “some corporate LLC” that probably just wants the land to build apartments. Matt is the metaphorical man on the church’s roof while the floodwaters rise. His current mission is exposing the Departures as sinners, in order to demonstrate that they weren’t chosen because of their heavenly credentials, and thus, those left behind aren’t abandoned or cursed. While others mourn their loss and the town marks the anniversary with a Heroes Parade, Matt peppers the town with “WANTED”-style posters that defame vanished local citizens for abandoning their family, dealing prescription drugs, or taking bribes. “If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless,” he says.

Eccleston—best known perhaps for his celebrated work as the ninth Doctor on one season of Doctor Who and fierce warriors in movies like Elizabeth and Thor: The Dark World—is a surprisingly convincing beleaguered Man of God. At least 40 percent of that credit has to go to his ears—seriously, have you ever met a priest or minister who didn’t have supersize lobes. Then, combine his hawkish facial features with true-believer eyes, and he has the perfect demeanor of a man who could easily follow the Voice to some dark places.

It must be difficult for Matt, more so than the other Leftovers, as a man of God who didn’t get the call. After all, if you think you’ve dedicated your life to His word and helping others, and then 120 million people vanish in an instant, you might be crushed to still be here, telling the same tired sermons to empty pews. People are looking for answers and meaning in the wake of this global phenomenon, but they’re not turning to God. And Matt’s crusade to demystify and slander the Departures is hardly Christian is it? In fact, his misguided vigilance and growing desperation have knocked him off the path.

His muckraking project invites violent blowback when a rugged relation to the Departure “drug dealer” interrupts mass and pummels him senseless near the altar and stuffs one of his posters in his bleeding mouth. But there are a few who are amenable to his message: A young father sneaks his newborn son into church one morning for baptism—against his wife’s wishes—and then repays Matt with a tip that one of his co-workers was a degenerate gambler who squandered his children’s college fund. Unbowed by his recent violent encounter, Matt hurries to the Indian casino in Connecticut so he can properly “out” this fiend. While there, in that 24-hour den of quick-money and broken dreams, he observes two birds, gray pigeons, frolicking on the roulette table. It is an odd sight, but especially to Matt, who recently encountered similar birds at his church. Is it a promising sign? Or is it merely symbolic of the two Guilty Remnant witnesses who are also stalking his compound?

NEXT: An angel investor

Unfortunately, Matt’s foundation of faith is about to be pulled down. He’s been essentially squatting at the church since he stopped paying the mortgage—no congregation, no money—and the bank finally accepted a cash bid. Unless Matt comes up with $135,001 by tomorrow, the church will be gone. Desperate, he turns to his younger sister, Nora, the local celebrity who lost her husband and children on Oct. 14 and who is conducting her own investigation of sorts into the mass disappearance. Apparently, she has a small fortune, due to the government’s “Departure benefit.” Matt insists he’s only asking for a loan, one that he can pay back soon because “things are changing,” he says. “People are ready to come back [to the church]; I just performed a baptism this morning.”

Anyone who’s watched the past two episodes of The Leftovers knows how unrealistic that really is; the only group adding members is the cul-de-sac cult, the GR. Nora tries some tough love: give up the crusade because it’s hurting people. Matt refuses, saying the Departure was a test, “not for what came before, but for what came after.” She says he’s failing that test, and declines to write him a check. Hurt, Matt gives what he must think is his version of the hard-sell: Your husband was having an affair with the kids’ pre-school teacher. It’s the softest, weakest, most useless attempt at blackmail ever attempted by a minister against a sibling. And he didn’t get the $135,001.

When he gets home that night, we meet Mary, his wife, who’s been mentioned by Chief Garvey, Nora, and the friendly banker. We suspected Mary wasn’t well, but it turns out she’s near-comatose and requires 24-hour care. Nora had blurted, “It’s [all] about the accident!” and later we learn that Mary, the beautiful Janel Moloney (The West Wing), was at the wheel on Oct. 14 when a driverless car slammed into her and Matt. (They were the crash that occurred during the premiere’s opening sequence, while a panicked mother screamed for her missing baby in the laundromat’s parking lot.) After bathing a vacant-eyed Mary and putting her to sleep, Matt studies the religious painting on his bedroom wall—does anyone recognize it?—stifles a sob, and pleads, “Help me.”

The Lord helps those who help themselves, and the painting sparks an idea: there’s $20,000 buried under the Garvey’s gas grill, left for him by the old chief, Kevin’s dad—either for his help in outing a corrupt judge, or for his suffering at the hands of a corrupt judge. But 20 grand is not 135 grand, so when he’s stopped at an intersection and sees pigeons cooing from the traffic light, Matt decides that God must be telling him to head to the casino. He insists on playing roulette at the bird-marked table and puts everything he has on Red. He wins, doubling his money. He lets it ride again: 40 grand on Red. He wins again. A yahoo and his broad come over to watch him bet again, everything on Red for $160,000. And he wins again. The Lord works in mysterious ways. The Rev. can save his church after all.

He collects his envelope of cash, walks back to his car as slowly as possible—hurry, Matt—gets in the car, exhales—HURRY, Matt—smiles, basks in his good fortune—WILL YOU DRIVE AWAY, MATT!—just as the casino yahoo knocks on his window. Can Matt spare some of his winnings so this poor schmo can get back to Niagara Falls? What’s the saying: A fool and his money will soon part? Matt’s generous offer of $200 is declined, but the yahoo will take the whole envelope. He drags Matt out of the car, beats him, and steals the cash. But this is no longer a Matt willing to turn the other cheek. In a rage, he tackles the thief, repeatedly slams his face against the parking lot pavement, and confiscates his blood-stained cash envelope. He may have killed the man. He definitely left him severely injured, perhaps as badly as Mary. But he has his money to save his church. All he needs to do is get to the bank before closing.

It’s not to be.

NEXT: A revved up reverend

Reverting to Good Samaritan mode, he stops in town to help two GRs after a Jeep pelts one of them with a rock. As he’s calling for help, the perpetrators return and nail him as well, sending him into a surreal nightmare of the past, present, and future. He picks himself up and follows the music to his packed church, where one of the bespectacled GR members, speaking and wearing blue, welcomes him. He relives moments of his youth, when he was diagnosed with cancer, when his parents burned alive in the church, and when Mary was injured on Oct. 14. The minutes after the “rapture” evoked something biblical, with a giant wailing cry of human suffering piercing above the shrieking alarms and sirens. If you told me there were gnashed teeth, I’d believe it. He makes love to a pre-injury Mary, who melds into Chief Garvey’s GR-member wife and the same bespectacled member of the cult after he becomes distracted by the painting on his bedroom wall. Like Chief Garvey during his nightmare last week, he finds himself on fire, in a hell he can’t escape.

When Matt wakes, he quickly races to the bank to meet the deadline and save the church. But it’s too late—three days too late. He was in the hospital for several days recovering, and the church has been sold. The buyers? The GR, the group that he was trying to help. When he gets to the church, he finds them dumping church books into trash bags and painting over the stained-glass windows. Patti, the chief GR, is taking down the letters from the roadside bulletin board that once read, “He is always with you.” They lock eyes, and neither flinches. Matt might be heartbroken, but he is more dangerous than before. After all, he’s got a pissed-off attitude and $160,000 to spend on undermining the competition.

I assume Matt and his church’s misfortune is pulled directly from Tom Perrotta’s novel, but I have doubts that if such a global cataclysm actually occurred, that the leftover population would flee the church as exhibited here. In fact, I think religion might really prosper as desperate people look for answers, especially answers that fulfill their personal desires and needs. As insensitive as Matt’s mission is, it’s providing an explanation that hurt people might be eager to accept—the Departures were not chosen after all and we have not been abandoned. That tastes a whole lot better than, We are condemned so f— it. On the flip side, even if many are inclined to believe that the Departure was the actual, biblical Rapture, that might prove to them the existence of a higher power. Even if that power seems to have abandoned the leftovers, his existence and possible eventual forgiveness might spark religious revivals in all faiths and sects, not just chain-smoking mutes and hug-giving lotharios.

An episode specifically focused on Matt’s personal drama and scarred history evokes episodes from Lost that delved into a character’s past, revealed surprising links to other characters, and explained the personal baggage that made them who they are. Future episodes might give other Leftovers characters similar treatment, but unless it’s all building toward something cohesive, don’t expect the Damon Lindelof naysayers to grow silent.

Episode Recaps

The Leftovers

A “rapture” drama from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, whose book of the same name served as inspiration for the series.
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