The Bible tells us that over the span of a three-year ministry, Jesus used parables to capture people’s imagination for God. Stories about good shepherd saviors and Good Samaritan rescuers, dutiful stewards who get rewarded and humble believers who get uplifted. They promised abundant living to those who lived by faith and severe judgment for those who didn’t. Some described “the kingdom of God,” although the Book of Matthew used the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” a bit of periphrasis to avoid being glib with God’s holy name. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field,” Jesus says in Matthew 13:31. “Although it is the smallest of all seeds, yet it grows into the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and rest in its branches.” Then Jesus died, rose, ascended, and vanished from view, leaving us behind to make his stories work. The results have been — how to put this — mixed?
Over three seasons, HBO’s The Leftovers told parables, too — strange, shattering tales of buggy belief and heartbroken unbelief in a far-from-heaven world gone mad and sad. Inspired by Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, a poignant absurd fable of post-9/11 catastrophe culture and social fragmentation, and finessed into an intimate and ironic spiritual epic by Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, the show chronicled the aftermath of an inexplicable global catastrophe, the vanishing of 2 percent of the population, focusing narrowly on a small set of unmoored lives suddenly robbed of meaning and joy by totally rando reaping. (Among the culled: the main cast of Perfect Strangers, minus Mark Linn-Baker, who was really irked by his exclusion. Apparently, the force behind the “Sudden Departure” didn’t know that rapture was in his rider.)
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Lindelof and his writers, which included Perrotta, used the scenario to create an existential condition marked by confusion, anger, guilt, and grief. Here, unlike Lost, the problem of life wasn’t a mystery to solve and escape; it was a mystery to suffer and survive. But how? The stories gave us people trying to move on (or not) and thrive anew (or not) by putting their trust in the darndest things — or refusing to believe in anything at all. The perspective on the characters took seriously the idea that we possess a God-shaped hole — we need to believe in something — but the perspective on epistemology was such that it distrusted anyone or anything that claimed to have certain truth. There was grace for people of faith, even silly faith, and deep anger on behalf of anyone burned by it. Concluding amid a pitched moment of worry and mournfulness (as I write these words, London is reeling from yet another terrorist attack), The Leftovers ends right when we need it most. Here was a series that aspired to be a cultural friend to us in our dismay and disorientation, offering outraged witness for our pain and invitation to reflect on our remedies for assuagement. Keep the show near you; it’s a keeper that will endure. The Leftovers was, and will remain, a show for a time of sitting in ashes.
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Each season was set in a different locale — a different kingdom of heaven. Season 1 was set in Mapleton, New York, a town bedeviled by a cult called The Guilty Remnant, comprised of chain-smoking mutes clad in death-sheet white who had codified despair into a belief system of brutal truth and resolute hopelessness; their perverse fellowship was marked by non-relationship. They trolled and terrorized those who dare try to move on, as they believed most “moving on” was just running away — and they weren’t wrong. Season 2 — a winning reboot of the show’s tone and structure, reorganizing the narrative around character-centric episodes — interrogated the whole notion of fresh starts by relocating to Jarden, Texas, a.k.a. “Miracle,” a place untouched by the Sudden Departure, but a place scared of progress and regress in equal measure. Season 3 moved further south, descending into an underworld — okay, Australia — and sent the characters on walkabouts to find individual truth, only to find themselves prodigals, divorced from their only consolation — each other — and unsure if they could go home or if they even deserved to.
The parables of The Leftovers were darkly comic, emotionally searing, and defiantly humanistic. They described a realm of anguished subjects made unbearably Other and alienated by the felt remove of a distant, silent, governing agency. The kingdom of God is like… Kevin (Justin Theroux), a lawman in perpetual identity crisis, who can’t trust his mind or his happiness, who tries to kill himself — repeatedly — just to know he’s real. The kingdom of God is like… Nora (Carrie Coon), a skeptic who yearns to believe, who gets into a mystery machine to be reunited with the love she lost, only to feel like a fool for ever wanting that. The kingdom of God is like… Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn), a madman seeing meaning where there is none, who wanders the desert searching for a song to save the world. The kingdom of God is like… Laurie (Amy Brenneman), a recovering Guilty Remnant who battles daily with self-destruction, a therapist who believes the only honest advice she can offer anyone is to follow their madness wherever it goes.
Season 3 was framed by an irreverent overture, one that foreshadowed its final destinations and summed up the show’s anti-theology. We watched a 19th-century protestant family — members of an apocalyptic church — faithfully climb onto their roof in the night to wait for beam-us-up deliverance promised by their pastor. It didn’t come. Prophecies were recalculated, they did it again, and once more, they were still there at sunrise. They kept doing this, but as they did, the flock began to dwindle — and the family broke apart, leaving behind a single believer, a woman, and we left her alone, on her roof at night, waiting. In a season of extraordinary music cues, this passage was set to a contemporary Christian classic, a cover of Larry Norman’s prepare-your-soul-for-heaven rapture warning, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” There’s no time to change your mind/The son has come/And you’ve been left behind. The song is a subversive turn-or-burn soft rocker; The Leftovers cunningly appropriates it to chide any belief system that says to live for an afterlife — or anything — that comes at the expense of the here and now and those to whom you are tied.
My favorite story was the season 3 episode “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” It began with a parable within a parable, a micro-portrait of wrongheaded zealousness run amok, a codex for the show’s self-sabotaging seekers. Set days before the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure and amid mounting hysteria that another calamity was imminent, the story opened on a man stripping down to his birthday suit. He was a sailor on a French submarine, but born again hard for some new cause, on fire for terrible purpose. We watched him, naked and most unashamed, make like a crusader, fighting his way into the control room, then contorting his body into a cross-like shape, balancing on one leg so he could use one arm and one leg to turn keys on either side of him, just to gain access to a detonator with tiny red button that could get him to heaven faster. The warheads exploded. A cloud bloomed like the largest of plants. Thy kingdom come. See what mustard seeds get you?
Naked Nuke-Me Guy wasn’t even the nuttiest part of this episode. The craziest part was the lion-worshiping sex cult inspired by a forgotten movie, Frasier, the Sensuous Lion. No, check that! It was the psychotic former Olympian wearing a Trump-red trucker’s cap who declared himself God — a really antisocial one who so didn’t want to be bothered, he communicated via “Yes, I Am God” cards! The story put them both on a ferry bound for Australia — a wink-wink Charon-ride into Hades. It winked at a Bible story that dealt with problems of epistemic distance. While Moses was away, the people made a golden calf for worship and play. It also functioned as a metaphor for secular-religious divide, with the poles represented by extremes, do-what-thou-wilt secularism and corrupt fundamentalism. Suffering this ship of fools was another one, Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a servant of the lord prone to making reckless, superstitious gambles that exposed his faithlessness and narcissism. His night crossing, in fact, was a nightmare extrapolation of his chaotic internal life.
Matt was traveling to Australia to find Kevin, whom he believed to be a messiah, and make him come back to Miracle and stave off the apocalypse. (Sending Matt on a mission to put a missing deity back in his place? That’s all of Preacher, in a single hour.) Matt’s story was also an ironic Jonah story: It put him in the belly of a figurative whale to punish him for his cowardliness. But the show’s symbol system also found a way to go after and punish “God,” too.
After witnessing “God” kill a man, Matt tried to bring this rogue deity to justice, though he first had to fight his way through an orgy of jerking, slurping, humping flesh belonging to the aforementioned sex cult. At one point, Matt said the wrong thing — or the right thing? — and they bound him to a chair, brought in a caged lion, and tried to sacrifice Matt by fitting him with a penis pump or a pneumatic suck-off machine or something. I don’t know. I clearly haven’t had enough sex to understand such things.
Matt escaped and found “God” and wrangled him into a wheelchair and tried to make him explain himself. Instead, “God” turned the tables, as the God of The Bible did to Job, and forced Matt to check himself and get real with himself. Matt had cancer; he was dying. He had a wife (recently recovered from several years’ paralysis and near catatonia) and a new child at home who needed him and wanted to be with him. What the blazes was he doing half a world away from them, searching for miraculous rescue in all the wrong places, in the most imperfect of strangers? Stripped naked spiritually, profoundly ashamed, the scales fell from Matt’s eyes and he recognized that his Australian crusade was pure self-sabotage. He was lost. He had been for some time.
The last scene of “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” was one for the ages. As the sun rose on Matt’s dark night of the soul and the ferry’s passengers disembarked, the lion escaped the cage of its kinky priests and ravaged “God” to bloody bits. It was the show passing judgment on a conception of the divine not worthy of our belief and/or any attempt to tame the wild mystery of existence by putting it in a box that degrades its meaning. Matt, now a reverend with no faith, an evangelist without a God to preach, turned to the camera (which was taking the perspective of his traveling companions), and offered an epitaph for all his dead-end notions:
“That’s the guy I was telling you about.”
“It’s A Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” was everything I loved about season 3 of The Leftovers. It was a creatively audacious hour that let rip with wild ideas, but corralled into a character-driven, character-revealing story filled with layered scenes that was on theme and emotionally resonant. It was really funny — a stunning reversal of season 1’s grueling bleakness. It was an episode made possible by a hard-fought struggle to acquire command of the show’s premise, characters, and voice. Season 3, in fact, delighted in that mastery, producing an eclectic collection of stories that expressed a wide range of tones. It was a big statement album loaded with killer singles and zero filler that represented an ode to its own invention and reinvention — the Achtung Baby follow-up to season 2’s The Joshua Tree — a quality underscored the inspired choice to overture each episode with a different theme song, from a cheeky Richard Cheese cover of “Personal Jesus” to “1-800 Suicide” by Gravediggaz. By the end, it seemed like The Leftovers could do any bananas thing it wanted — from Nora’s hotel room encounter with Mark Linn-Baker to a trip back into Kevin’s surreal spy-flick subconscious to assassinate and liberate himself — and make it sing, make it resonate, make it distinctly Leftoversian.