The Leftovers is unlike anything I’ve seen on television lately (possibly ever? I did watch Lost for all six seasons). We are in an age of television obsessed with “the end.” Shows like The Walking Dead, Falling Skies, The 100 and the recently cancelled Revolution are set in post-apocalyptic futures. Michael Schneider of TV Guide talks about why television is embracing the apocalypse, possibly because of the recent economic uncertainties, anxiety over the future and the possibility that an event could trigger an apocalypse. 

What makes The Leftovers so fascinating to watch is that it is and is not one of those “the end” shows. It’s oddly somewhere in the middle, focused less on the whys and more on the whos that this has happened to. I’ve talked about that in my review of the series, but the pilot is such a striking example of setting a different path to these apocalypse shows.

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October 14

As the premiere of The Leftovers begins, a mother talks on the phone, doing her laundry at a laundry mat, paying attention to her crying baby. She straps him into the car seat — window open — gets into the driver’s seat and sees that her baby is gone. All in one take, might I add. The woman runs out, screaming that someone has taken her baby. A little boy cries for his missing father. A car crashes. 

The screen is black. We hear 911 calls flooding in. I am reminded of the first few minutes of Zero Dark Thirty in a familiar and unpleasant way. 

3 Years Later

The statistics are in (throughout the episode): 2% of the world’s population vanished — that’s 140 million people — and no one knows why. 

This show does not focus on the world so much as it focuses on Mapleton, a cute little New York suburb. Chief Police Garvey — who is super attractive — runs through town when he finds a lost dog. Look how cute the dog is! And then violently, like out of another show, the dog is shot dead. This legitimately scared me. I screamed worse than a few weeks earlier when Oberyn met the Mountain (spoilers for another show: RIP Oberyn Martell). But back to the dog. The stranger who shot the poor little dog hops into his pickup truck and drives away. Garvey takes the dead dog and puts it in his trunk. 

I can already tell that Mapleton is not a place I would like to live, thank you very much.

Next, we see a woman who we later learn is named Laurie. She wears all white, waking up next to people in a communal setting. I smell a cult. My suspicions are confirmed when we see other signs like “We don’t smoke for enjoyment. We smoke to proclaim our faith.” Also, everyone wears all white and refuses to speak, using whiteboards. So your average cult.

Next, we are in a school classroom where we meet Jill, an Emma Roberts doppelganger moonlighting as Garvey’s daughter. The pledge of allegiance occurs — no one stands to pledge — but a moment of daily silence is put aside for the forgotten. Many people pray, but Jill is not one of them. In fact, she motions hanging herself to her crush. Flirting has changed since my day. Later at Jill’s field hockey practice, she gets overly aggressive with another player. Aka elbows her in the nose, bloodying her face. At a disciplinary meeting, Jill drops the c-word and walks away. I’m sure there will be many viewers who hate Jill, but I find her to be a delight. Jill is probably going to become my favorite character, FYI.

Far, far away in the desert — so out west — Garvey’s other son Tom picks up a Congressman in the desert and drives him far. The Congressman is Buddy Garrity from Friday Night Lights and you should all realize that is a big deal (and go watch FNL). Anyway, Tom and the Congressman chat aimlessly, with Tom revealing he used to be in college, but the departure made him re-examine things. After finally arriving at their destination, Tom and the Congressman meet an array of beautiful Asian women and some scary-looking muscle. But surprisingly, Tom didn’t drive the Congressman to a brothel, but instead to the mysterious Wayne.

Later, Garvey is at a meeting with the town council for Heroes Day, to commemorate the third anniversary of the “Sudden Departure.” It’s even a federal holiday. The Mayor is a true politician, hopeful to her constituents but cynical and calculating behind the scenes. The Mayor wants everything to be perfect for the parade and ceremony, but doesn’t see the threat that Garvey sees: the Guilty Remnant, or GR, aka the chain smoking cult who doesn’t seem to get that you don’t wear white after Labor Day. 

That threat is most apparent with Liv Tyler’s character, a blue bride-to-be that seems very bored by her future hubbie. The GR has been given assignments, files of people in town and now they just stand out there, waiting. Stalking, even. Meg is so angry by their presence, by their intrusion that she slaps Laurie hard on the face. Their MO is unclear, but the GR seem like true believers. And they have something big for Heroes Day.

Back in Mapleton, Garvey checks in with his daughter Jill and asks her not to attend the Heroes Day ceremony. She agrees, and borrows his car to go to a party. He also tries to check in with his son, Tom, but cannot reach him. And finally, Garvey tries to make some progress with the evil son of a gun who shot that lost dog. Garvey, by the way, does not seem like he is in great pinnacle health.

Remember, Remember, the 14th of October

Before we get to Heroes Day, however, we must talk about the party scene because we have to. Jill and her friend Aimee go to this totally ridiculous party. There is an app game of a risque spin the bottle with words like f*ck, burn and choke. Teenagers are openly doing drugs and having random sex; red lights fill in the scene. It’s one of the episode’s biggest WTF moments, but it is accurate. It feels like an End of the World party.

Poor Jill. Her friend Aimee spins the phone and lands on Jill’s crush to go have sex (which she does, but not without trying to be a loyal friend). And Jill gets to “choke” with another guy in a bedroom. The boy just wants to chat, gives his condolences about Jill’s mom, before getting to business. “Choking,” by the way, is auto-erotic asphyxiation. Jill chokes him and the boy gets off, but not without a silent tear from Jill’s eye. 

Afterwards, Jill really wants to get the hell out (and can you blame her?). She runs into the twins Adam and Scott (Teen Wolf fans, brace yourselves). Together, they freak when they find the dead dog in the trunk of Garvey’s car. The trio go deep into the woods to bury it, trading quips about the Sudden Departure. To the twins, no one is ever coming back. 

Elsewhere, we finally meet the mysterious Wayne, a British man in his late 30s/early 40s who claims to hug people’s pain away. Tom, crushing on one of Wayne’s girls, is threatened by Wayne, but not after getting some life advice. Wayne retells of a prophetic dream he has had, where his son tells him of a great change to occur in three years’ time. And guess how many years it’s been since the Sudden Departure? If Garvey is Lost‘s Jack, Wayne is Locke — all spiritual, all the time.

In Mapleton, we are treated with a very beautiful score as Garvey drives around until — crash — he hits a deer. Of course, our first clue should have been that Garvey was driving at all (Jill had his car, remember?) and he hallucinated the deer. When Garvey awakes, his house looks like my house. I shall paint a better picture — his house is a mess, like someone has broken into it. 

Heroes Day

And now, we shall revel in James Blake’s “Retrograde.” Such a good song. The townsfolk have gathered for the ceremony. The GR are at their stations for whatever they have planned. Girl scouts recite the names of those who have vanished. We see a statue of a mother and son (which thematically ties in to the opening scene quite nicely). 

Reverend Jamison (the Ninth Doctor, Doctor Who fans!) shouts that everyone who disappeared was a sinner and deserved it. We meet another woman — Nora — who lost her entire family to the Departure. 

And then it happens.

The GR appear, silently protesting with the sign “Stop Wasting Your Breath.” Townsfolk become angry, enough to riot. They begin to beat the GR, who remain passive. Garvey and the police break up the riot. Garvey visits the GR headquarters/home later that night, where he bumps into Laurie. He begs her to please come home. She remains silent. So the Garvey mother is Laurie; she did not vanish but she did leave and it caused a strain on the entire family.

Laurie remains mute, even as a disturbed Meg comes to join the GR.

In the final scene, it’s not quite certain if Garvey is awake or not, much like the episode or the series. A bunch of dogs attack a deer on the street, witnessed by Garvey and the Stranger. They converse about killing the dogs. See, the dogs went crazy after the Sudden Departure, ferral even, and ran away. But somebody’s got to do it. So the strangers start shooting the dogs … and Garvey joins in.

Other Thoughts

  • This show is much more challenging to recap that I anticipated. It’s partially the structure of HBO shows, but also trying to have the recap flow in a way that isn’t chronological and fits with characters. So much happens in this pilot, and also so little happens. It was a very difficult pilot to recap, honestly.
  • Garvey hallucinates a deer in this episode. Deer seem to be the popular choice for mystic ties in television lately. Hannibal, True Detective and now The Leftovers. 
  • I though the jarring, almost violent flashbacks lasted just long enough to get a picture of what someone is feeling. Each one was beautiful.
  • Real world tie-ins: did you see the list of celebrities who departed? I counted several. Some highlights were: Jennifer Lopez, Anthony Bourdain, Pope Benedict and Shaquille O’Neal, to name a few.
  • One of Damon Lindelof’s favorite things to do on Lost was incorporate books into the show, with the subject matter often reflecting themes, plot and characters on the other’s work. This week’s sighting? The Stranger by Albert Camus. It features a very existentialist grieving process, to say the least.

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 10pm on HBO.

(Image courtesy of HBO)

Emily E. Steck

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV