The HBO miniseries “The Leftovers” claims to confront truth by evading it.
If you thought that “Lost” revealed its creators’ god complexes, Damon Lindelof’s next show provides confirmation. “The Leftovers,” Lindelof’s adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel, continues to derive pleasure from life’s unanswerable questions. If Lindelof isn’t playing God, then he is playing poet — constructing impossible worlds to understand the ones we inhabit.
“The Leftovers” begins with a painful premise. On Oct. 14, 2011, the world witnesses an inexplicable disappearance of 2 percent of the population. Cars crash for lack of drivers, shopping carts run into streets, mothers glance in rearview mirrors to see their babies one moment and not the next. Oct. 14 becomes the day of the Sudden Departure, as if naming the event will somehow explain it.
Season One focuses on the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, and the way this town, like all towns, attempts to rebuild. Central to this story is police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), a man who must keep order in a world cratered by unfathomable randomness. Kevin, too, has experienced loss, but his is of another kind. His wife Laurie (Amy Brennerman) leaves their family to join one of the emergent cults. In many ways, this loss is most emblematic of the series at large. Chain smoking in all white, Laurie reveals the real focus of the show: faith.
A few days after the series concluded in 2017, Jeremy Egner interviewed Lindelof for the New York Times and asked if we are supposed to believe the conclusions the finale presents. Lindelof responded with one of those rare answers that enriches the reductive task of asking an artist about intention: “It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true. The actual truthfulness is irrelevant to the emotional result of having a system of faith and belief, if it helps bring people together. ‘The Leftovers’ was all about people trying to form belief systems that explained their own role in the universe and, more important, the way they related to one another, and mitigated some of the fears and anxieties and sadness of living in a world where the people that they cared about most could be pulled away from them at any instant. Just like our world.”
Unintentionally, I started the show on Oct. 14, 2020 — what would have been the ninth anniversary of the Departure. Fiction, though, was the last thing on my mind. If Lindelof was right and human faith is a matter of meaning-making, I found myself within a parable. Instead of a burning bush, God appeared to me through my mother’s HBO subscription.
I joke because the parallels between “The Leftovers” and COVID-19 haunt me. Just like the characters of Lindelof’s imagination, we watch as people depart in enormous numbers because of something we don’t understand. So much of the series is navigating the existential fallout of an event that confronts you with your own futility.
I’m interested in how we understand the pandemic. Recently, I came across a children’s book that begins this process for the youngest witnesses. “The Great Realization,” based on the spoken poem, has an eerie rhyme scheme and an earnest conclusion:
“Tell me the one about the virus again, then I’ll go to bed.”
“But, my boy, you’re growing weary, sleepy thoughts about your head.”
“That one’s my favourite. Please, I promise, just once more.”
“Okay, snuggle down, my boy, but I know you all too well.
This story starts before then in a world I once would dwell.
It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020.”
The father goes on to recount a miserable world of pollution and politics before “a new virus came our way,” remembering the pandemic as a fortuitous turning point. I know the book is meant for kids, but I think there is a profound disservice in generating optimistic meaning from something we don’t yet understand. In the same hour, I’ve heard the pandemic called “a reset,” “a nightmare” and “a gift.” At what point is it enough to say we just don’t know and that any meaning we make is nothing more than myth?
I think we are caught between earthly presence and existentialist departure. Despite the physical threat of the virus, our world has become a purgatory of the mind, not the body. But to me, the pandemic feels more like hell: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, / I found myself within a shadowed forest, / for I had lost the path that does not stray.” I think Dante saw it coming.
I have never seen a civilization rise and fall. Neither has anyone else. It doesn’t work that fast. History cannot be willed into existence; neither can memory. Descent, despite its drama, is slow. It requires imagination, the nascent myth born of the senseless. We can only know history in stories. Fortunately, stories come both before and after their time. If we’re lucky, they won’t give answers but just play around with what’s left.
Ella Attell | firstname.lastname@example.org