The Guilty Remnant embodies the nihilistic spirit in myriad ways – from replacing the air they breathe with the smoke of one of modernity’s most insidiously manipulated products to wearing a uniform of all white. The G.R. are the most puzzling religious upstarts in a world mired in disillusionment, the breakdown of the symbolic order, and the lurking horrors of a society trying to maintain homeostasis in the wake of the Rapture and the rise of tyranny. The federal government, represented here by the ATFEC, has begun to make the turn toward the murderous. Rev. Matt, in my opinion an anti-Job who resists the will of God instead of absorbing it, grows increasingly menacing and potentially despotic. Chief Garvey, the everyman and arch-hero for a jaded, confused, cynical and existential age, desperately clings to a normative home in which to raise his daughter and one he might be able to offer to his wayward son (clearly pulled into the orbit of a megalomaniacal cult-leader).
Each of the above groups can be assigned an analog in our modern world – the despotism of the military order that aims to maintain and concretize its power through force, extermination, and the reduction of brutality to the level of the banal; the ancient religious order presently helmed by an individual incapable of successfully adapting the wisdom of the past to the needs of the present; and the man protecting his family against forces he cannot possibly fathom who fears losing his sanity. All of these have a historical counterpart that we can readily identify and against which we can guard or with which we can side. But the G.R. remains a mysterious, growing “other,” and the opening scene of “Gladys” operates like an uncomfortably penetrating shibboleth in a show full of ambiguities that can split the audience like an election cycle.
Their white garb and communal living arrangements defy any attempt to penetrate their deeper meaning, and we decry their calloused behaviors and their refusal to carry on a single, mainstream behavior that they openly announce as “meaningless.” We witness Gladys’ uncaring affect at being called a “c*nt” and her refusal to help the man on the street who has fallen with his groceries. Then we ultimately witness the brutality of one of the most noteworthy and popular forms of an older, more barbaric vision of religious punishment – execution by stoning – during which she pleads, like Jesus on the cross, to make it stop.
And the audience is repulsed by the visceral nightmare of a human skull crushed incrementally by jagged stones. Part of the audience feels a great swell of sympathy in the face of their frustrated need for the G.R. to explain themselves. Another segment of the viewership recognizes the pain this individual character endures, but nevertheless blames Gladys for her own fate for having taken part in pressing such a tender wound. Another part of the audience, perhaps as deeply shocked as the rest, somehow feels not only that she brought it upon herself, but also that she deserved it – that they are pleased with her fate and happy to have seen it. A shibboleth of an opening sequence indeed.
But how can a group of characters be so many things to so many people without having a clearly defined set of objectives? They replace the “pray” in the Catholic call-back to read “Let Us Smoke.” They live the life of monks, to a large degree, and resemble also the mentally ill and the homeless, haunting the streets of the town as living reminders of the systemic nature of destitution. They do touch a wound that hasn’t healed – a deep, cultural trauma that also defies definitive explanation. By their white garb, they stick out everywhere they go like ghosts, like denizens of a borderless hospital ward, or like blank slates – slates we can fill in with frustrations we feel toward those who threaten the security of a bourgeois status quo. It is the whiteness of their visage, I think, that causes us so much distress.
The whiteness of the G.R. is simultaneously a presence (a symbol of their specific protest, their withdrawal from a world with which they disagree) and an absence (a reminder of the initial trauma of the Rapture, of the things the G.R. disavow that so many, in their workaday, mundane, comfortable lives utilize to shield themselves, as one uses a religious routine, from the terror of the religious experience and perspective). Their whiteness replaces the Rapture itself, that trauma around which the whole story unfolds and the metaphor for any massive, inexplicable trauma that leads to crass marketing opportunism and consolidations of power, as the living reminder of "what happened." Then, as new memories form, and the Rapture leaves a titanic gap in the collective memory, the scariest aspects of the human condition emerge, and then project themselves upon the blank slate of the G.R.’s silent slate. They are the dispossessed, the hyper-sensitives who eschew worldly symbols as a form of penance, and they begin to operate as obvious targets toward which society directs its long-confused rage. After the conversation between Patti and Laurie in the restaurant, we recognize that they view feeling itself in the same light that the addict views the monkey – as an alluring “taste” that leads one back to madness and away from the emotionless meditation on the “real” as they understand it.
In this way, they resemble many another marginalized, politically motivated, group of earnest believers. The difference in The Leftovers is that the whiteness of the G.R. allows us to paint that canvas with any movement or collective that irks us, moves us, or shocks us from the illusions in which we take solace to ignore the unending assault on our oft repressed deeper sympathies and beliefs. How does Gladys’ stoning not remind us of any other counter-argument presented in the rhetoric of violence? A gay man mercilessly beaten, a person of color or a woman “put in her place” after they’ve been allowed to criticize the dominant ideology under which they’ve suffered, in which they no longer believe. How does the ubiquitous, galling presence of an identifiable group that specifically criticizes the symbolic order of a civilization trumped by the Rapture (again, the inexplicable mass trauma at the heart of the show) not resemble those students or environmental activists whose dreadlocks and dress announce their disposition or the “hippies” of the 1960s, themselves often beaten and harmed because they served as living reminders of the atrocities a government funded by a working-class tax base committed in a distant country.
The show’s viewership can be assumed as intelligent enough to no doubt recoil at the notion of a society hell bent on exterminating the myriad expressions of, as examples, the Occupy Movement, the Tea Party, or any other marginalized population. But The Leftovers is subtle, layered, and clever. It seems to unfold with an awareness of the serial format of a literature-deep narrative, maintaining the ability to anticipate a highly responsive viewership. The show has removed the direct political messages of the dispossessed and left them blank and us without a way to compartmentalize, define, or hegemonize them. In this way, the G.R. elicit what anxieties we, like the townsfolk in the show, secretly carry, no matter how politically correct, savvy, open-minded, or intelligent we may see ourselves. They remind us of the intoxicating illusions of our affluence, our security, and the utter fragility of our inner peace in a world of absurdities. We are left unguarded by the safety of our conceits and political affiliations – we align, as it were, as a result of these living reminders of the Rapture.