“We fight this quarrel out to the death, you and I and our foresters, with no cursed interlopers to come between us...
And if we choose to make peace among our people there is none other to interfere, no interlopers from outside...
—The Interlopers by Saki
“They’re not our dogs anymore.”
—Dean the Hunter in “Penguin One, Us Zero”
The increasing futility and potential danger of clutching to pre-Departure symbols and institutions seems to be at the heart of The Leftovers, leaving each character in the position of establishing a new identity atop a barely concealed set of volatile, more primitive emotions. In Episode 1, Chief Garvey storms out of a pre-parade city council meeting with the warning that “Everyone’s ready to f**kin’ explode.” In Episode 2, the police department-mandated psychiatrist Kevin is ordered to see explains the presence of a blow-up penguin sitting in his office. The psychiatrist offers that, in his dealings with children, they often need an outlet toward which to redirect their aggression, so they attack the penguin. The penguin exists solely as the recipient of abuse, and the necessity of its presence suggests a lingering psychological problem in the patient – a benchmark for how much aggression still remains. The title, “Penguin one, Us Zero” suggests that the community is beginning to redirect its aggression toward the mysterious and ephemeral nature of the rapture at objects of convenience who do not fight back and who exist to be hurt. The community’s lack of acceptance for the mysteries of their universe and the rise of their latent aggression is evident in the character of Matt.
Episode 3, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” is the first episode where we follow a single character through the course of an episode. Matt is illustrated as jovial, caring, pious and devout. He diligently straightens the billboard message in front of the church, carefully dusts and shines the woodwork on the interior, and presents a clean, tidy, and well-kept visage of fealty to God’s design in the physical object of the church. Americans especially might feel a great swell of empathy for the man working so hard to keep what is his own as he avoids the relentless calls from the bank threatening to foreclose on him. We anxiously anticipate the loss of his personal property and his livelihood, and so, as one pigeon becomes two on the roulette table, and two become three atop a mysteriously blinking red light, we feel the weight of portents leading to his heroic victory in the face of so many earthly assaults.
But to assign him the mantle of the ultimately pious Job is misleading and detracts from one of the true mysteries of the show – the more each character hangs on to what they feel is theirs by the right of either what came before or what power they can muster up post-rapture, the greater their chances of becoming a violently problematic player in course of the show. Consider Matt’s first stop after the bank informs him that he has 24 hours left before his church is sold to an as-yet-unknown LLC. He goes to his sister’s house and pleads his case, to which she initially responds with shock. He tells her to calm down, and she points out that he has a habit of causing her great distress and then chastising her for the feeling he has invoked. This classic form of manipulation here seems like relatively benign friction between siblings, but it’s in keeping with his greater message of exposing the innate sinfulness of those raptured so as to control the perceptions of those who remain. He reminds her that she has money from a Departure Settlement and could afford to help him – an ironic suggestion considering his railing against the rapture itself as a kind of sham he aims to expose through his exposure of those departed. After she offers the money, asking only that he stop smearing those who were raptured, he not only tells her that it’s his job to expose people, but that her husband is on his list of sinners. An older, more manipulative version of the church returns through Matt, and we see him unveil his version of morality in the form of a threat. He has a power to destroy what she already lost, and presents it to her in the form of moralistic gossip.
In the Book of Job, Satan acts as a player in a game against God to prove the innate fallibility of the human species. He suggests that Job is a God-fearing man in name and in his words only, and he has simply never been tested or pushed to a limit where he might break and finally curse God. Of course, Satan proceeds to ruin everything in Job’s life – killing his family, destroying his property, and basically making his life Hell on Earth – but Job continues to accept the mysterious Will of God as his one and only truth until he is consumed by insanity and finally accepts the mysterious power of God, where he finally gains true perspective. What doesn’t happen in the book of Job is a moment where he is threatened with losing everything and offered Earthly short-cuts around the Will of the Almighty.
Matt, on the other hand, tries to bully his sister, uses corruption money to gamble himself into a small fortune, and then slams a man’s head into concrete (perhaps murdering him) for it. The title of the episode comes from the joke, which goes that a man was awaiting God’s help during a flood, and three times other people come by to save him – twice in boats and finally in a helicopter. He denies them all, instead choosing to wait for God to show up, finally drowning. In Heaven, he asks God why he didn’t come to his rescue, to which God replies, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” A popular interpretation of the episode is that Matt chose one of the three offers of salvation and that lead to the money he won. A more sobering and perhaps difficult one is that he was offered the chance to accept the fate of the church and accept the inexplicable nature of the rapture three times, and each time he took the other, more self-serving offer. Matt’s job as a man of the cloth is to accept God’s will and offer comfort to those struggling with it themselves. Instead of pacifism in the face of reality, Matt takes money from a man upon whom he’s passed posthumous judgment (the corrupt judge) and wins a fortune with it gambling. When that money is stolen, he succumbs to primal rage over his bounty, fiercely defending his quarry in one of the most aggressive, violent and animalistic acts of brutality so far illustrated in the show – a newly formed secret on par with the worst subjects of his newsletter.
By the end of “Gladys,” Matt is again standing face-to-face with Patti as he was at the end of “Two Boats and a Helicopter.” This time, he is flanked by a study group that seems to have formed in the weeks since he lost his church. He and Patti lock eyes momentarily until Laurie walks outside, met by a triumphant grin spread across Matt’s face that disappears as soon as she blows the whistle at him. Patti returns the grin in her own subtle gesture of triumph. And that is the way of that species of moral authority figure – their currency is weighed in the number and commitment of their followers. Patti, Wayne (the charlatan toward whom Matt indirectly drove his sister), and I contend, Matt – these middle managers of the apocalypse or false prophets of doom, as the Bible might say – replace the fragile institutions of self-determination and spiritual freedom that existed just prior to the perspective-shifting trauma of the Rapture with the gravity of their own personage. In the wake of the rapture, a wake characterized by great moral conflict, C.S. Lewis’s words, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things,” resonate with a terrible truth. The Leftovers is about a world where the moral hubris of the clever, the willful, the imposing, and the interpersonally terrifying seeps in, at first like a soothing water and soon freezes in the cracks left by an existentially decentralized, increasingly cagey mind.
In the short story, “The Interlopers,” Saki illustrated the destructive futility of powerful patriarchs whose hatred for one another guided the actions of their families and their friends. Their individual feud over a tract of Earth whose divisions were drawn years prior by the laws of men is reflected in the actions of each man’s fellows and kin. They each claim a right to their hatred and their ownership of that land, never thinking that the world is big enough for them both, and that accepting the presence of the other is the wiser and more noble path until it’s too late. But even in that acceptance, they each presume to make the conditions for peace without worrying about interference of nature or the universe. As in The Leftovers, people’s ability to coexist and meaningfully connect with one another is an ironic necessity for survival. Just as the dogs in the Pilot Episode, in the absence of the departed owners, seem to shed their ancient domesticity – a domesticity that grew in conjunction with humanity’s own socialization – in favor of an even older ferality, a lurking savagery long dormant in the human condition seems to be encircling the world of The Leftovers. In a moment of intuitive grace, the Frost twins, while helping Jill bury the dog they found in Kevin’s trunk, describe that, “the dogs just went primal. Same thing’s going to happen to us. It’s just taking longer.” The heroes of such a story are those who can walk a line between trust and cohabitation versus necessary defensiveness and preemptive attack against dangerous predators. The successful navigation of this relationship is what allowed the first wolves and their human counterparts to cohabitate, and it is the tension we feel with each episode. Which will character succumb to the draw of the alphas at the head of myriad, coalescent, and increasingly desperate social packs? Which character will succumb to the call of a neo-monastic, isolationist lifestyle, ultimately becoming the recipients of outside aggression? But finally, who will attempt to heroically maintain the balance necessary to reassert a more enlightened and rational approach from a center point – and of those few who will be pulled apart physically and psychologically by the insanity of man’s tragic devolution, like the dogs, to the savagery of the pack?
At the dawn of our respective species, both savage man and untamed wolf presented a real threat to one another as apex predators, but in subtle increments they managed to overcome fear and co-occupation of the same space to evolve into a new, less predatory, less fearsome creatures. Where the wolves in “The Interlopers” responded to calls of help from erstwhile enemies, now crippled by the whims of the universe, the wolves in The Leftovers find their expression in the actions of men. Alpha leaders and those drawn to them in the fragile wake of their individual trauma responses coalesce and align against other packs as well as the whole. Slightly stronger people remain in the center, committed to their duty, and run the risk of being ripped apart by societal forces pulling on their individual lives. Perhaps those who can evolve and transcend the conditions of this new world can carve a less pack-driven, less exploitative, more meaningful and constructive path in a society uneasily hanging on to its illusions as it feels its way out of their ideological morass.