If you love the Guilty Remnant parts of season 1, you will admire this episode of The Leftovers, titled “Off Ramp.” Not love, but admire. If you hated the Guilty Remnant parts of season 1, you will hate this episode. There is no in-between, much like The Leftovers itself. The first season was polarizing, to say the least, but the consensus was “depressing.”

I wouldn’t call season 2 “depressing” yet, but that’s because we’ve largely avoided the shadier (or should I say whiter?) sides of season 1: the rise of cults in the world post-Departure. There’s the cult of Holy Wayne, who could heal people of their pain by offering a hug, and the cult of the Guilty Remnant, who wear white, chain-smoke and terrorize the public.

So that’s a long way of saying that “Off Ramp” is depressing. Deeply so. Season 1 depressing, but also a bit hopeful? Or is that just the same naivete that lures the lost into cults?

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Checkin’ in with Laurie and Tom

Laurie is working on a two-man operation with her son, Tom, as cult deprogrammers. He goes undercover to recruit the souls on the edge of the cult, while Laurie consoles them with nicotine gum and therapy. 

Laurie especially seems like she’s in a good place — on the outside, at least. Sure, she’s obsessed with keeping her car clean, is scraping by money-wise and trying to write a book in her off hours, but she’s talking, wearing colorful clothing and buying things. Life looks good for Laurie Garvey, so of course it’s about to get bad.

Tom, meanwhile, isn’t so hot (though Chris Zylka still is). Going undercover in the GR is taking a toll on his soul and his liver; dude’s an alcoholic, probably. And he’s also susceptible to a lot of the GR’s thinking and messages; scarily, it’s making sense. 

But still, together they work to help doubters free themselves from the GR’s “brainwashing” — if you could call it that. We’re introduced to a woman who left her husband and son two months ago. If you’ve ever seen a story before, you know hers can’t end well it. It doesn’t. She tries to get better (with Laurie’s help), she returns to her family — and she ends up more confused and lost than ever. So she drives the family car and the family into traffic. It’s presumed no one makes it.

Though Laurie is counseling other grieving ex-GR members and writing a book, her new life venture isn’t exactly a money-maker. The commercial space she rents is too expensive after her landlord jacks up the prices and kicks her stuff to the curb — everything except her laptop with her manuscript on it. 

Since her landlord is a tool (riddle me this: aren’t all landlords?), she breaks into her unsympathetic landlord’s house to retrieve her laptop from his equally awful family. Thrilled at her little stunt, she drives away and into two GR members standing in the middle of the road. After revving the engine, she finally speeds up and runs over a couple, feeling like a bad-ass.

But that feeling is not meant to last. This is The Leftovers, after all. No. Laurie discovers the bad news about the woman and her family, which freaks out the others in her support group, right before she has a meeting with a bunch of book publishers. They love the book, but they want more from it. Like, why do they smoke? Apparently, because why not? More importantly, though, we get this answer:

“They believe the world ended.” That’s such a simple way of explaining the cult, the Guilty Remnant. 

But more than any answers, the publishers want an emotional connection to it. How did Laurie feel when Jill was left in the house to burn, sentencing her own daughter to death? Watching Amy Brenneman nail deconstructing Laurie’s facade is such a highlight. When she jumps up and attacks the publisher, it’s like watching a wild animal unleash something primal. Because Laurie’s seemingly moved on from the GR, she’s still not “okay.”

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Are They Unwittingly Creating Another Religion? 

Elsewhere, Tom is undercover, trying to turn a doubter into an ex-GR person when the supposed new recruit literally whistle blows his cover. He’s taken into a van into the desert where none other than Meg (aka Liv Tyler) arrives. Her interrogation technique? Sexual assault, and then pushing him out into the desert, pouring gasoline on his half-naked body and teasing him with a light. Seriously, this scene is gross, but it’s fascinating to watch Meg revel in her terroristic power and then tell Tom to say “Meg says hi” to Laurie. 

No wonder Tom is an alcoholic. After picking up Laurie from jail, the two figure out that maybe their way isn’t working. The cults they are fighting can give people something (or, in their case, strip it way from others), but what can Laurie and Tom offer them?

Back at their apartment with the support group, Laurie offers an emotional connection, explaining how she joined the GR via Patti. But Tom offers something different. He tells the myth of Holy Wayne, or the real story — how a man could actually take away his pain, and he did. But as Tom tells it, he also gave Tom the gift to take other people’s pain away too. He’s no longer afraid: now “who wants a hug?”

There are so many ways to read this final scene. The first is that Tom has actually been given this ability. It’s why he didn’t hug Jill in the first episode (though he gives his mom a big hug after jail). The second is that Tom has been studying Wayne via YouTube clips and they employ this trick to give people hope. The first is straightforward; the second is cynical. Either way, meet Holy Tom!

But either way, it seems like these two are going to create their own … something. With Tom’s Christ-like pose when he offers a hug to the religious symbolism throughout the show, I wonder if we’ll be seeing these two create some underlying belief system, which is interesting because then Tom and Laurie are fighting one cult with one of their own (sort of).

Other Thoughts

— Of course book publishers would capitalize on the Departure. Considering that Tom Perrota is an author, I’m guessing those publishing schmucks were not too hard to imagine.

— It’s rare to see penises on HBO, but low and behold one is on display for The Leftovers. Take that, Game of Thrones!

— Theory Corner: Meg had sex with Tom because she knows he’s Holy Tom or she wants to mess with Laurie. Either way, Meg feels more like a radical terrorist than even Patti. We should all be scared.

— The next episode is supposedly all about Nora and Matt Jamison, so we’ll be back in Miracle. Yay?

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.

(Image courtesy of HBO)

Emily E. Steck

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV