Things just got very real for Kevin Garvey.
Credit: Van Redin/HBO

Justin Theroux has a unique gift: When Kevin Garvey is completely clueless about what is real or imagined, the actor can transform his face into one of boyish befuddlement, as if his brain is about 12 seconds slower than his eyes. It’s a look of WTF-edness that pops up in almost every episode of The Leftovers, but in “International Assassin,” he aims it right into the camera as Kevin stares at himself in the hotel bathroom mirror.

It may as well be our faces now. Because The Leftovers just got real.

Yes, 140 million people inexplicably disappeared in an instant on Oct. 14. Yes, Kevin’s been haunted by Patti Levin, the sneering leader of the Guilty Remnant cult who died in his arms. And yes, we’ve encountered our fair share of dog killers, renegade deer, and false(?) prophets over two seasons. The Leftovers has taken great care (and delight) to perpetuate enormous ambiguities about the show’s reality, but when Kevin spilled out of the bathtub like a newborn one week after he imbibed lethal poison and his supposed spirit-guide, Virgil, blew out the back of his brain with a bullet, the show pulled us to the other side.

“Know who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”

That’s from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, and after Kevin’s rebirth, his hotel wardrobe offers him four options: a rabbinical or clerical vest of some sort, a white GR uniform, a stylish suit, or his Mapleton PD jacket. He opts for the sleek James Bond number, and wearing it seems to determine his path: A hotel employee almost immediately knocks to deliver flowers to a Mr. Harvey, and before Kevin can tip him with the stash of Euros he digs out of his pocket, the bellhop pulls a knife and attacks.

Suddenly, it’s a Bourne film, and the two men bounce each other off the walls until Kevin slams the man’s head into the bathroom counter and renders him dead. But this isn’t the “most powerful adversary” Kevin was sent to confront.

Cue Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Nabucco, the episode’s recurring musical motif. With the fire alarm going off, Kevin slips down to the hotel lobby in order to learn who sent him the flowers. There’s fireman (the Jarden FD?) and a tweety bird loose (Erika’s miracle birds?), so if this isn’t Kevin’s subconscious’ stew, it’s The Leftovers’. And there’s Virgil, no hole in his head, working as the concierge. Thematically, it almost resembles the season 6 episode of The Sopranos, “Join the Club,” where Tony coma-dreams he’s a traveling salesman at some purgatory resort while he drifts in between life and death after he was shot by Uncle Junior.

Virgil wasn’t bluffing, though. He’s Kevin’s guide through this hell (See: Dante’s Inferno), and though he pretends not to know Kevin in order to keep up appearances, he arranges a secret meeting in the garage. Kevin gets there late, presumably, since he takes a detour to save a girl from drowning in the pool. The girl’s father isn’t very grateful.

In the garage, Virgil is more forthright: Patti is the target, quite literally. She’s running for president and Kevin, International Man of Mystery that he is, has been promised a meet-and-greet for his generous campaign contribution. During the meeting, he’s to excuse himself to go to the bathroom, find the gun that’s been hidden for him in the toilet, and assassinate her. “Like The Godfather?” Kevin asks. Exactly.

But Patti is not some simple soldier, like Sollozzo or the crooked McCluskey. She’s more Barzini, bound to play tricks on Kevin. “You’ve got to stop thinking in such straight lines,” Virgil counsels. “She thinks in spirals and helixes and zigzags and circles.”

Also, don’t drink the water.

NEXT: Another guest joins the hotel

A pair of white SUVs roll into the garage, and a team of white-clothed smokers tumble out. It’s the GR… and is that Gladys, the late member who sacrificed herself and her skull for Patti’s Mapleton scheming?

Kevin returns to his hotel room, and changes into the fresh suit that he never ordered from dry-cleaning — stepping over the untouched corpse of his would-be assassin. His TV flashes with static for a second time, and this time he can almost make out the image of a fire and the profane shouts of his father.

The fire alarm begins to shriek again, but Kevin’s hotel-room neighbors, the girl who almost drowned and her ornery father, are unconcerned, convinced it’s another false alarm. Outside, Kevin sees another bellhop with gift balloons, which he assumes are for him. But they’re actually for Mary Jamison, who’s recovered from her vegetative state.

Before Kevin can approach her, however, he’s thrust back into Bourneworld when a white-tuxedoed agent puts a gun to his head and pulls him into an elevator after a struggle. He’s handcuffed, pummeled, strapped to a lie-detector machine run by Senator Levin’s No. 2, Gladys, and tortured with eye-ball blasts of Windex when he answers incorrectly. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the vetting process, she says. “We just have to make sure you belong here.”

He convinces her only when he gives the GR’s rote response for why he smokes: to remember that the world ended. She offers him a drink of water, and though the lie-detector reveals he’s thirsty, he declines a sip.

Recovering from his rude reception in his room, his TV goes all Poltergeist again, and this time, his father comes through. Live from an identical hotel room in Perth, Australia, the Chief is sky-high on some hallucinogenic called God’s Tongue, but he’s got important news. He sent Kevin the flowers, and the Get Well Soon card (with a coin being tossed into a well) was a slightly discombobulated version of the true message: Get to the Well. “You’ve got to take her to the well!”

(Aside: I would really like to invite Scott Glenn to Burning Man or my office holiday party.)

Kevin is quickly summoned to meet Patti, and note the flimsy white clothes of the Mapleton GR have been upgraded to a more regal quality deserving of a pontiff or some master-race lunar colony. “Make like Jesus,” says one of the bodyguards. In other words, arms out so he can search Kevin. But also, you know, rise on the third day, I guess?

Gladys gives him his final meet-and-greet instructions: No mention of North Korea, gun control, abortion, or her ex-husband, Neil. Kevin excuses himself to the bathroom, where his hidden pistol awaits, but his plan is complicated when he finds Holy Wayne already on the throne. “I know you, don’t I?” says Wayne, who’s now working for the Levin campaign. “I feel like I was sitting on the toilet the last time I met you.”

Indeed, Wayne bled to death in a diner’s restroom stall during the season 1 finale. But he’s a different version of himself now. He’s drunk the Kool-Aid, so to speak, which, in this case, is water.

(Aside: The Godfather reference, combined with the water paranoia, makes me think of actor Sterling Hayden. Not only was he the corrupt cop who Michael murders in The Godfather scene, but he also played the insane Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, who was convinced that the water supply was tainted as part of some Communist plot in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: “Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?”

“The mind…” says googly eyed Secret Service Wayne, while sipping some H2O. “You cannot trust the mind, for it will play tricks on you.”

NEXT: Kevin’s make-or-break moment

Sen. Levin arrives before Kevin can arm himself, and she — a-ha! — declines a drink as well: “Never touch the stuff!” (Can’t you just hear Ripper’s ravings: “…conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids…”)

Patti is finally wearing the wardrobe she was always suited for: political demagogue. She can’t stop talking about assassination threats, though she vaguely acknowledges her link to Kevin when she suggests that political assassins are motivated by the same reason Kevin is here: “It’s because I stick to you, Kevin.”

Patti asks Kevin the Manchurian Candidate what he thinks her truth is, and in some moment of bizarro-Zen, he calmly answers, “You want to destroy families.”

“Write that down!” Sen. Levin says perhaps in jest, after a long pregnant pause. “That is f—ing brilliant.”

But perhaps it’s not a jest at all. Maybe Kevin’s response is one of the GR’s most important principles and Kevin’s knowledge of it makes him some kind of insider. Sen. Levin tells her story about the orphan and transforming humanity through detachment. But then Kevin touches a third-rail: Neil.

The Senator orders Wayne to shoot Kevin in the face, but she’s just kidding, folks. Even though Wayne pulls his gun and is seconds away from blasting Kevin. With a scare like that, no wonder neither the Senator nor Wayne mind when Kevin excuses himself to go to the bathroom before their photo-op — got to change out of those dirty undies!

It’s go time. Kevin finds the gun in the toilet. Steadies himself. And comes out firing. Wayne: dead. Gladys: dead. The Senator… claiming she’s not who he thinks. She’s just a decoy, a double with a slight New England accent. Kevin is torn. Does he believe her? Do we? I didn’t. In fact, as Kevin seemed to be reconsidering, all I could think of was Virgil’s words that Patti works in helixes and zigzags. Kevin seems to be thinking the same thing. “Goodbye, Patti,” he says, before shooting her in the head.

A heavy Verdi moment. The strings soar.

But there’s no deliverance for Kevin. “Why am I still here?” he snaps at Virgil in the hotel lobby. But there’s a glaze to Virgil’s eyes now, and this time, he’s not feigning ignorance. Before, he said he hoped that poor bird got away, but now, he crushes the little thing and proudly proclaims the pest is gone. You drank the water, Kevin says. “I was so thirsty,” Virgil mumbles. Goddamn Commie fluoridation!

With no place left to go, Kevin goes back to his room. At least his slashed hand is miraculously healed — or is his mind playing tricks on him? His loathsome neighbor is locked out of his room, and the two share a drink — of dark liquor, mind you, not water. They exchange some truths: Kevin’s an international assassin, the neighbor is a dead man who choked to death. Now, he just lives in the Hotel Limbo, where he’s frustrated that he “can’t find a single woman to take a dump on me.”

Yes, it’s Patti’s Neil. And that little girl who almost drowned — that’s Patti. Remember what Virgil said: spirals and helixes. “You shoulda let that fat c–t drown,” says Neil.

Kevin strangles Neil like the good international assassin that he is, and then knocks on the little girl’s door. “Hi, Kevin,” she says sweetly. “Do you now where we’re going?”

“I think so,” he says.

NEXT: Down the rabbit hole

Virgil’s final act of atonement is pointing the odd couple toward a well, the Orphan’s Well in Jarden. That’s the well that Chief urged Kevin to find, and perhaps it’s also the foundation of Jarden’s miracle. According to tribal legend, it’s a conduit between the living world and the spirit world.

This little girl, though, is a most powerful adversary, at least in the sense of what it will cost Kevin spiritually to throw her down a well. When they arrive in Miracle, the bridge is barricaded with flaming garbage cans. A man with a machete pulls Kevin from the car and tightens a noose around his neck. You have a choice, the man says: cross or jump. In other words: Kill Patti, or kill yourself.

Patti has lectured long and hard that Kevin has a death wish, and he’s constantly protested that he doesn’t want to die, though he hasn’t always been convincing. But here he is, faced with that choice: to kill himself or to push a little girl down a well. “How far is the well?” he says, making his decision.

The guardian of the bridge whispers something to Kevin, and when Patti asks what he said, Kevin — who’s been nothing but truthful in this world — says it had nothing to do with her. He carries her the last mile and when they reach the well near the Jarden swimming hole, there’s only the hint of sunlight.

When The Leftovers is over, after two or eight seasons, this will be my favorite scene, the one that “sticks to me” like Patti stuck to Kevin. Little Patti jumps right up and sits on the ledge, practically daring Kevin. “Do you want to drop me in or do you want to push me in?” she asks, as Kevin hesitates. “Pushing me’s probably easier. … Would it help if I say I deserve it?”

“International Assassin” is Theroux’s Emmy episode, and this is his Emmy scene. There are 100 emotional decisions he makes in this quick scene, and every one is correct. Just as the sweet little girl is about to say something else, he shoves her over. Just like that.

And the music stops.

A hawk shrieks.

And then… “Help… please… Kevin.”

Why! Won’t! She! Die!

He can’t resist, and he climbs in the well. At the bottom is adult Patti, bloodied from the fall and clearly injured. Kevin falls and is injured as well. With no place else to go, she tells him her Jeopardy story and her plan to win $50,000 so she could leave her husband. She went on to win more than $65,000 — despite the effectively intimidating silence of her rival — but still, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her husband and start over. She was scared. Scared of the unknown, just like she is now.

Kevin consoles her, and then pushes her under the water until she stops struggling.

The earth shakes, and the well crumbles on top of Kevin. What was it that Sen. Levin told him during their meet-and-greet? “Our cave collapsed, Kevin. Now we can spend all our time digging through the rubble, looking for signs of life. Or… we can transform.”

Is Kevin transformed? He digs himself out of a shallow grave and finds himself staring up at a surprised Michael Murphy, who presumably had buried Kevin as if he were a wounded bird, per Virgil’s instruction.

Kevin has made it out alive. But did Patti survive as well?

Either way, “International Assassin” has ripped open a hole in The Leftovers. A pathway, might be a better word. It put its cards on the table and made a dozen decisions about the type of story that is being told. Kevin will be forever changed. As will the way we look at his world.

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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