Rev. Matt finds an even heavier cross to bear.
Credit: Van Redin/HBO

One of the best episodes from the first season of The Leftovers was “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” which delved into Matt’s backstory, the accident that cost him his wife Mary’s health, his futile effort to save his Church from foreclosure, and his brutal encounter with a smug thief who tries to steal his casino winnings. After he takes a rock to the head, he hallucinates making love to his beautiful wife — an experience that quickly turns into a nightmare that ends with him engulfed in flames.

“No Room at the Inn” is Matt’s season 2 showcase, and it digs even deeper into the minister’s strengths and flaws, his better angels and demons. Matt was the man who discovered Miracle for the Mapleton clan. After spending time in Brazil — long enough to make Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue his computer screensaver — Matt and Mary arrived in Miracle penniless. But on that first night, Mary awoke and the couple celebrated three hours of bliss before falling back asleep in each other’s arms.

In the morning, however, Mary was back to her vegetative state, and Matt has spent every day since trying to replicate the circumstances that produced the miracle. He videotapes her sleeping every night, hoping for signs of consciousness. He plays the same song when she wakes (The Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow”), takes her for a walk to the same grocery story, and keeps to a specific routine. Rewind, do it again. And again. After awhile, “Let Your Love Flow” feels like “I Got You Babe,” and poor Rev. Matt is living the worst version of Groundhog Day a husband can imagine. Finally, one night, he cracks, pleading with his unresponsive wife to look at him: “Was it a test? You can’t give that to me and take it away from me.”

Now, even at this point in the episode, a reasonable viewer has to ask the question: Did Mary really wake up that night? Or did Matt imagine it? Did it seem so real — and did he want it to be real so much — that he’s convinced himself?

Last season, there was one episode where Mary seemed to stir, but it wasn’t even acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In “No Room,” she does have an involuntary hand motion that she repeats, but I’m still waiting for Janel Moloney to snap out of it and become a livelier part of this show. She was so brilliant on The West Wing, and though I don’t want to completely undervalue what she’s doing as Mary, I’m really rooting for Matt not being insane, just for her sake.

Not getting the miraculous results he wants, Matt makes an appointment for Mary at an Austin hospital in order to see if there’s been any change in her brain activity. But her scan reports something else: she’s pregnant. One of the hospital’s administrators — likely a lawyer — breaks the news to Matt but doesn’t offer his congratulations — even after Matt explains he and Mary had tried unsuccessfully to have a child for 10 years. He just wants Matt to sign documents excusing the hospital for any culpability in hurting the at-risk fetus, and he can’t even disguise his contempt for the rapist husband he suspects is in his office.

So this is Matt driving home, and it’s the casino winnings from “Two Boats and a Helicopter” all over again. He sees a man broken down on the side of the road, with his young son sitting miserably in the backseat. Good Samaritan that he is, he stops and offers his help, and never suspects that the man will bushwhack him with that steel wrench in order to steal their treasured Miracle wristbands. Matt was blinded by his good news, but hadn’t he just witnessed the chaotic hell on earth outside the Miracle gates, where people risked being Tasered to make it into the promised land? What happened to the guy who carried a shovel in his trunk?

Matt’s more than dazed by the braining, and the desperate man doesn’t hesitate to crush Matt’s hand to pry the wristband loose. When Matt comes to, Mary finally speaks: “You have to get us back in. He won’t last out here. I’m going to lose the baby, Matt.”

Once again, real or imagined?

Matt has to wheel Mary all the way back to Miracle, and getting back in is not going to be easy. The hordes of desperate souls camping at the gates, waiting in this tent-city purgatory, are the opening credits from season 1 come to life: wicked people preying on weakness, depravity and debauchery everywhere one turns. Matt knocks on the gate, and appeals to a fellow Christian, who directs him to the Visitors Center for replacement wristbands. But bureaucratic delays and a tuxedo’d douchbag in line result in a scuffle that lands Matt in jail.

“Is she pretending?” another woman in jail asks Matt, with a wink.

Another man tells Matt, “She says, ‘If you do not get her back inside, he will die,’” seemingly confirming what Mary told Matt.

Good news: Kevin has arrived, and even better news, sorta, John is with him. John controls everything, and Matt and Mary are as good as home. But not so fast. John knows that Mary is pregnant, and he gives Matt the full-Isaac treatment. In other words, There is no magic, there are no miracles, and you’re going to admit that to me now and the town later.

Matt initially and rather reluctantly accedes — “She never woke up” — but he can’t help himself: “You were like this before [Evie disappeared]. You’re angry at this place. What happened to you?”

“Know what?” John says, looking Matt over. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get those wristbands after all.”

NEXT: Matt sticks his neck out

Cast out with the miscreants, Matt seeks out the Swedish samurai-bunned shyster who earlier offered to sneak them in to Mircle for a fee. But Matt is distracted by the horrible spectacle of a naked man locked in a medieval stockade atop a taco truck. “You want to free him?” asks a woman. “Then take his place?” Suddenly, everyone around Matt is shouting at him to take this poor man’s place, and he quickly wheels Mary away as another violent outburst distracts the hordes.

He finds the man with the plan, who goes by Elmer and will get the couple back in to Miracle for $1,000 and not a penny less. Matt’s about $600 short, but he’s persistent if nothing else. And finally, he sees a promising sign: a cross. He approaches the salty-looking woman who put it up and appeals to her Christian sense of charity. He explains his plight and the urgency of his situation, and she quizzes him to make sure he’s not scamming her. When Matt cites Job as his favorite book and correctly answers her trick question about Job’s nameless, near-silent wife — “Does thoust still retain mine integrity! Curse God and die!” — you can almost hear the Hallelujah chorus playing in Matt’s head. There is good everywhere! Even in the pits of despair!

But she returns with an oar, a chubby companion named Reggie, and an odd proposal. For $500 bucks, he has to strike this man as hard as he can with the oar. Oh, and say “Brian” at the same time.” Nothing weird about this at all.

A crowd gathers. They want to see the hellish carnival spectacle, the corruption of another man’s soul. Matt tries to get away with some mild slaps, but the lady won’t have any of that. We’ve witnessed the side of Matt that is capable of extreme violence, and when he’s properly motivated, he unloads, breaking the oar across the man’s back.

Elmer accepts Matt’s money and points them into the hidden underground water tunnel that he promises will lead them back home. He wheels Mary into the darkness, directly into a flash flood, which washes them back out. Mary’s wheelchair is lost, and Matt carries her to the nearest shelter, a canvas overhang attached to an RV. In seconds, the heartless innkeeper trailer-trash shoos them away, and the Nativity symbolism is complete: Mary and her possible miracle baby have been turned away at every door, and her desperate husband is at his wit’s end. But Nora comes through in the clutch, arranging a distraction to lower the guard at the front gates. She and Kevin pile Mary and Matt in the trunk and they scoot back across the bridge while the authorities respond to an anonymous tip about the missing girls.

But the car stops before they get home, and Matt doesn’t know what to expect when the trunk’s hood opens. There’s an overturned vehicle, dead goats, and a dying driver. It’s the same man who stole their wristbands. Matt sees the boy peeking out from the nearby woods: he’s relatively unharmed and offers up his stolen wristband when Matt yells for it.

Matt thrusts Mary on to his bewildered sister and promises to return. He takes the boy and he’s walking with him when John comes upon them in his fire truck. “I don’t want your wristband,” he tells the town’s boss. “I have no doubt that [Mary] will wake up again soon and when she does I’m going to come back, and you and I will have a talk … This boy needs help. His father’s dead.”

John doesn’t get the last word. He can only watch as Matt walks into exile, a journey that ends with him climbing the steps to replace the naked man in the stockade. “I want to free him… because it’s my turn,” he says.

Repent is etched on the stockade, and Matt has chosen this as his cross to bear. Was this an act of mercy on his part, or is he punishing himself — consciously or subconsciously — because he knows that he deserves it? Is he serving penance for smashing an oar across Reggie’s back? Or burying a woman he despised? Or impregnating his semi-comatose wife?

God only knows.

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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