The Confluence of the Savage and the Civilized

The season began with a mystery that demanded an explanation which we never got and likely never will. The set design, writing, dialogue and performances were compelling, richly delivered, and seemed to somehow make sense to us in spite of the lack of a definitive starting point. There was “an event,” to be sure. In most ways it matched what we culturally understand as “The Rapture,” but it seemed to lack, we learned, certain characteristics we have come to believe about the Hand of God displaying His presence in the affairs of men. The Rapture wasn’t exclusive to the innocent, or to the Godly, or to those we might deem “worthy” of being spirited away. It simply happened, and left civilization in a state of trauma recovery wherein the majority seems to simply carry on as it were – as though their loved ones had inexplicably died. Other people, not unlike the roving former family dogs, abandoned the conceits of the society that had experienced the Rapture and coalesced into packs, finding an intoxicating solace in the strength of a central, charismatic leader. Still others, particularly the Guilty Remnant, withdrew in a kind of nihilistic gesture of clearing away the ideological flotsam of their former world so as to focus solely on the stupefying magnitude of the Departure.

It all seemed so mysterious, and each week offered as many questions as answers. Some viewers and a great deal of critics – no doubt uncomfortable with the fractal-scale mystery wherein every microscopic detail offered the same puzzle as the whole – grew weary. But for those who were transfixed by the boldness of the script, the brilliance of the acting, and the fantastically enjoyable soundtrack, episode 7, “Solace for Tired Feet,” and particularly episode 8, “Cairo,” transformed what was a compelling enigma into a powerhouse narrative of contemporary as well as eternal significance. Several characters have cryptically suggested that some pivotal moment is drawing near – a sentiment the patient viewer no doubt now believes along with the unraveling cast of characters – but nowhere in the series has this been suggested more powerfully than in the wonderful performance of Ann Dowd portraying the lightning rod, Patti.

Patti, whose mysterious preparation of clothing upon the church floor – clearly another gesture by the G.R. toward reiterating the lingering memory of the Departure – mimics Kevin’s assiduous care in setting the dinner table for a date with Nora Durst. Kevin and Patti, symbolic of two opposite responses to the Great Trauma, finally collide at the end of another brilliant prologue. Falling asleep to the sound of his recently acquired feral dog, Kevin responds to that incessant call to savagery in his sleep, disappearing into yet another fugue state only to reemerge in the front seat of Dean’s truck in the forests of Cairo, New York – near a cabin where he soon discovers a beaten, restrained, and sleeping Patti who looks “softened” in the way of a prisoner or abductee prior to an interrogation. As a representative of law and order, Kevin illustrates an auto-hypnotic progression toward the cosmic insolence of tyranny. What we, as viewers know, is that the Federal Government – represented by the ATFEC – as well as his colleagues and likely everyone in town, would have happily turned a blind eye to what he’s done. His fugue-self, no doubt, clearly supports such actions, leaving only Kevin’s waking, burdened and weary self to question his own actions.

But Patti and Kevin have switched positions from the night before. Kevin is no longer the wolf of his sleepwalking life, and Patti is hauntingly self-assured and tranquil in spite of her circumstances. We learn that Dean, like Kevin Garvey, Sr., speaks to an inaudible set of voices with the same language and with the same posture of a man operating under a set of invisible directives. When Patti reveals her investigatory prowess, describing Dean as a “ghost” (yet another gesture toward the flipped roles of interrogator and prisoner in this episode), Dean reveals that he prefers the term “guardian angel.”

After Kevin has saved Patti from suffocation at Dean’s hand, we get the sense, finally, that there is a presence (or several) at work in this post-Departure world. What was merely hinted at in previous episodes, easily interpreted as either the figments of each character’s imagination or something more supernatural, is again pressed upon us through Kevin. As we watch his discussion with Patti through the broken window of the cabin, she reveals some startlingly alluring insights about her motives, methodology, and, by extension, the world they are living in.

The discipline needed to fixate one’s attention on a singular event should be given its proper due. Patti explains that the G.R. systematically strip themselves of every worldly characteristic that distracts them from their meditation. At its core, the show (along with many another great work of art and philosophy, including HBO’s recent True Detective) illustrates a fundamental binary characteristic of the human experience – that we are equal parts savagery and civilization. In our postmodern, late-capitalist era, the foundations upon which human consciousness stands is a grand pile of ideological and historical distractions that slide beneath our feet and whose clutter, like a stack of magazines atop solid Earth, continuously threatens to slip out from under us. Patti seems to suggest that underneath the entirety of our social symbology – every distraction that convinces us of our modernity and separation from the animals – our savage half awaits its day. In her weird and beautiful recitation of William Butler Yeats’ poem He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace, Patti anticipates the death of civilization. She doesn’t admit to killing Gladys, she simply reveals how deeply the G.R. understand and how fully they accept what is going to happen next.

In episode 7, Kevin Garvey, Sr. mysteriously offers Kevin, Jr. a sense of purpose – the same thing Patti offered Laurie, the same thing she attempts to pigeonhole Kevin into accepting. Kevin, Sr. offers a National Geographic from the early ’70s, giving viewers a delicious MacGuffin to pursue extra-textually, on our own and outside of the show. Viewers searched its pages and its articles for meaning (some uncovering interesting and wonderful rabbit holes for the imaginative viewer), and here I offer one of my own.

Kevin, Sr., like Dean, appears to be acting as agent and protector of Kevin, Jr. in his state of becoming – Kevin, Sr., in his waking life and Dean during his fugue states. The father calls the son to a higher quest dictated by voices, and the self-proclaimed “guardian angel” aids him in his cathartic bloodlust. When Kevin finally regains consciousness in the presence of Patti, he finds himself terrifyingly close to the truth of the G.R.  – that they are a mindful stillness, a center point around which those scrambling to maintain the false balance of their former lives reach out to destroy like pariahs. In the conversation between Kevin and Patti, we finally get the sense that maybe the G.R. are the only ones who are taking the Rapture seriously, and those who do not are crashing right through the veil of civility and into the darkness of savagery. It’s a savagery to which Kevin, Jr. is susceptible as long as he denies that something is horribly amiss – that what happened doesn’t matter as much as what came after. The cover of that National Geographic shows a bunch of tourists at Yellowstone, comically taking photos of a wild bear in the center of the road as though they have stopped to witness a stray cow in a docile suburban cul-de-sac. But as the world Dean, and perhaps Kevin, Sr. offer Kevin, Jr. as his purpose is the reverse of what Kevin’s waking conscience tells him to be, perhaps one meaning of the magazine is also in the reverse of that image, acting as a metaphor that Kevin only discovers in close proximity to Patti. The G.R., from the perspective of a sleepwalking Kevin and his erstwhile pal, Dean, are that bear from which those suburbanites in the wilds of Yellowstone need to be protected. But as Kevin’s waking self is the opposite of his more savage unconscious, the metaphor in the image, too, is reversed. Patti and the G.R., operating as mindful symbols of the end of civilization become the center of that photo – the last humans left – surrounded by a crowd of former tourists that have suddenly transformed into a sleuth of agitated bears.  The G.R. knowingly stand on an unstable, psychic fault line, waiting for it to open up. Their deaths are proof of the fissure points in the symbolic order, where the Savagery of the Real punctures the fabric of the simulacra. I don’t believe, at this point, that Patti was admitting direct involvement in killing Gladys, but she accepts the reality of her position places them on unsteady ground. Yellowstone—the great and looming physical pressure point in North America—is the perfect metaphor for where Patti and the G.R. have chosen to position themselves.

The waking Kevin fights to remain cognitively dissonant, even as Patti insists that she, along with the rest of the G.R., is not afraid of a world becoming disproportionately aggressive and violent. She knows that as they are murdered, they transform from a whisper to an exclamatory reminder of this devolution. Kevin understands what his sleepwalking self is in that equation, but his waking self simply will not admit or accept it. As he attempts to continue the impossible position of moral neutrality, Patti offers one last expression of her steadfastness in the face of his, as well as society’s dissolving hypnosis. Like those monks who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War, like those willing to walk in the streets to face the barbarity of an abusive police presence, Patti illustrates the indestructible nature of human agency in spite of our physical frailty. The world of The Leftovers might show how, one by one, human beings ignore the real work of civilization for only so long before it and their savagery finally converge, at which point all must choose which side they embrace.

Long is an avid blogger and Reddit user. You can join him and others on the fan-created The Leftovers Reddit page.

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