The Leftovers season 2 premiere recap: Axis Mundi
Meet the Miracle Murphys.
If there was any doubt that season 2 of The Leftovers would have a very different vibe than last season, which faithfully mined Tom Perrotta’s dark 2011 novel, look no further than the new opening credits. Gone are the anguish-of-the-damned paintings and strings-heavy orchestral music. In their place are some random family photos of happier times, with at least one character silhouetted out to represent his or her departure, strung together by Iris DeMent’s upbeat 1992 folk-spiritual, “Let the Mystery Be”:
Some say once gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior
If in sinful ways you lack
Some say that they’re comin‘ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be
In the Leftovers world, this new credits opener practically feels as chipper as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
The show’s creators, Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, have teased that the show is also shifting away from Mapleton, N.Y., where Police Chief Kevin Garvey lost his family in the aftermath of the baffling departure that evaporated 2 percent of the world’s population. Kevin might not be mentally stable, but he finished on a high note, reuniting with his sad daughter, Jill, and potentially piecing together a new family with girlfriend Nora and the orphaned baby of Holy Wayne, the martyred prophet (or fraud).
But before sending viewers to the new home base in Texas, “Axis Mundi” turned back the clock, Kubrick style, to the days of early man. A pregnant cave dweller relieves herself in the water under a full moon, just as a violent earthquake occurs, instantaneously killing her tribe of companions in a cave-in. Then her water breaks, and she gives birth to a healthy baby, but she’s paralyzed by her misfortune and stares helplessly at the pile of death that was once her home. Finally, a distant plume of smoke shakes her from her depression, and she sets out for it. Biblical danger, however, lurks, and she dies of a snake bite, leaving her screaming baby vulnerable in the wild. But another mother discovers the child and…well, that’s the perfect metaphorical bridge between seasons 1 and 2. It echoes the narrative of season 1, with Nora finding the baby, but it’s also a warning, too: Whether it’s a plume of smoke in the distance or the promise of a Texas town called Miracle, really bad things can happen between here and there, things even worse than the catastrophe you’re trying to escape.
Welcome to Miracle, formerly known as Jarden, Texas. Catching up with the Garveys and their extended clan will have to wait, as we get to know the new town, which has become a national shrine after zero of its 9,261 residents departed during the rapture. Is there something magical about the water? Is it the tobacco? Is it the tremors that rattle the town periodically? Whatever it is, it is an oasis that others seek, hence the park rangers who keep a close watch on the tourists who are bussed in to seek peace and understanding. In town, there’s an Homnibus-looking vagrant who lives upon a town-square pillar, a literal axis mundi symbolizing the sacred door between the heavenly and the terrestrial.
The Murphys seem to be Miracle’s Garveys. We meet Evie first, the extroverted teen who swims in the national park’s holy waters with her high-school girlfriends. She teasingly flirts with a nerdy-looking Dr. Goodheart, who’s conducting tests on the water, and she smuggles some home herself, giving it to her brother, Michael. He’s religious and he tries to give the water away to tourists in order to lure them to the Sacred Mission Baptist Church in town. Their mother, Erika, is a doctor, and their father, John, is a…well, that’s more complicated…
When we first meet John, he’s dead asleep long after the day has begun around him. His family rudely wakens him by stacking heavy books on his chest until they topple. Some of those titles from the nightstand: Lenin, Mandela, and The Road to Terror, which chronicles Stalin’s consolidation of absolute power. That’s interesting bedtime reading for anyone — especially if he or she is plotting the violent overthrow of a regime. I don’t think the show that embedded clues in a National Geographic magazine cover would present these books unless they held some important meaning.
John’s day entails visiting Isaac, a childhood friend who’s making a decent living with painted palm readings that resemble a kindergartner’s art project. Isaac also plans to rent out one of his extra rooms to bring in a few extra bucks, and John lets him know that certain fire-code modifications need to be addressed before Isaac’s rental can be approved. Approved by whom? Just for kicks, John asks for a reading, and Isaac looks like he’d love to be able to say no — especially when he predicts tragedy: “Something bad is going to happen…to you.”
John sort of laughs it off, but he’s dead serious when he asks Isaac if he’s a fraud. It almost pains Isaac to insist that he’s legit, so John pays for his fortune and leaves with an unsettling smile.
Turns out John is a fireman. The fire chief, no less. (Hence his odd sleeping habits.) But the Miracle F.D. is an odd lot. Beware their sirens, because they start their shift by debating just how severely to punish troublemakers…like people who attempt to independently add a rental apartment and then seal their fates by predicting bad news for a powerful man. John’s fellow firefighters throw out numbers: 2, 3, 2 1/2 — but John brings the hammer, 5. Are they discussing the punitive difference between a two-alarm fire and a five-alarm fire? There’s no doubt who they’re talking about: “He’s selling a lie and folks are buying it…so 5.”
NEXT: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
Isaac better have his insurance paid up. John and his firemen goons break down his front door, and John uses his blood-red palm reading to set Isaac’s home ablaze after tossing him through a glass window. “You were who you said you were, you should’ve seen it coming,” an unsympathetic Erika later tells Isaac while patching him up at the clinic where she works.
Just who are these Murphys?
Erika takes a jog the next morning before church, and she unearths another potential miracle. She digs up a small box and opens it to find a live bird that flies away. Was the bird dead when she initially buried it? Does the Miracle soil have some mystical rejuvenating power? Is my beloved childhood dog waiting for me at home?
John makes a rare appearance at church with his family. Michael reads a passage from Thessalonians that seems to acknowledge his father’s unofficial role in the neighborhood, but the devout teen later insists any connection between the reading and recent events is purely coincidental since the text was pre-determined.
The church’s smiling minister announces his upcoming surgery and introduces his substitute — Hey, it’s Matt Jamison from Mapleton! (Awww, Reverend: I’m sorry you’re going to die on the operating table in Austin.) Matt’s spent several months in Brazil and he’s thrilled to be in Miracle, especially since his comatose wife has shown signs of…
The minister interrupts Matt’s miraculous tale — but John and several of his fireman are already looking at him with suspicion. After church, Matt is savvy enough not to finish his story for John when he asks about it. John’s wide smile has quickly been established as a threatening pose, and for some reason, he doesn’t want people to be advertising the miracles of Miracle. The rare possibility that he’s Miracle’s Rick Grimes is being quickly supplanted by the likelihood that he’s their Governor.
After church, the Murphys’ brunch at the local diner is interrupted by a local who drags his goat in and sacrifices it in full view of the customers. I know that the Bible talks about goats as a sin offering in Leviticus, but that’s the extent of my random slaughtered-goats knowledge. The waitress makes it sound like it’s a routine occurrence, but is the man committing the act as tribute to John? After all, people are leaving him homemade apple pies too? But John is suspicious enough to re-gift the pie as a housewarming gift to his new neighbors.
Welcome Garveys! I suppose we will find out later how they landed such prime real estate. Kevin, Nora, Jill, and the baby pull up in their truck and move right on without nary an explanation. John tells Erika he’s going to invite the new neighbors for his birthday barbecue, and she can’t believe he’s going to “work” on his special day. What is his “work” exactly when it comes to socializing with the neighbors: recruitment or interrogation?
The Garveys and the Murphys are doomed for confrontation. Kevin’s a cop; John’s a fireman. Kevin drinks; John’s sober. Kevin is a bad liar about that ugly cut on his forehead and whatever he saw in John’s living room that stopped him cold. Oh, and John served six-plus years for attempted murder… “I’m looking forward to getting to know you better, Kevin,” John says at the end of the dinner, in a way that was hardly comforting or welcoming.
I introduced the Murphys with Evie, but I’ve skipped so much about her. She’s the apple of her father’s eye, a talented singer, accomplished softball pitcher, and no one’s fool — the kind of girl who doesn’t blink or blush at all in asking Jill if Nora had sex with a black guy. She’s also epileptic and speaks sign language with her mother (who wears hearing aids). So she’s got an Ivy League resume! But she might be the victim in Isaac’s vision for John’s future. In one sequence, she and her friends run naked through the woods while earthquake tremors rumble in the background. Did these brash girls actually do that for fun? Or is that part of what Isaac saw when he looked at John’s red hand print?
We might just have to let the mystery be, Iris DeMent style. But Evie and her friends disappear, along with all the water at the swimming hole, which is scarred by a crack in the earth following another quake. Is she gone for good? Or is she pulling a Mark-Linn Baker? Either way, this is sure to raise fire-insurance premiums in Miracle.