10 Things Learned From The Leftovers Season 1

Sadly, this past Sunday marked the end of The Leftovers freshman season. I’m not especially looking forward to the long wait until Season 2, but I figure, in the meantime, we could reflect on some of the lessons we learned in Season 1.

1. Two percent is a lot of people.
The series begins with the startling realization that 2 percent of the population disappearing is significant…and not just some drop in the bucket. It’s more than 140 million people and even though 98 percent of humanity remains, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t affected by this event. The reason this stood out to me is that we hear statistics on a daily basis about the percentage of people who have been diagnosed with diseases, become victims of violent crimes, are sold into sex slavery or any such horror, and often the magnitude of such situations fails to resonate with us. By depicting what the world would be like when 2 percent of the population succumbs to this mysterious event, The Leftovers manages to paint a vivid picture of how many actual souls are represented by seemingly minuscule numbers.

2. Never join a group that calls itself the Guilty Remnant.
The Guilty Remnant sounds like it could be the name of an emo band or that sketchy, cultish church down the road but either way, my advice is: Run! In all seriousness, the Guilty Remnant represents the very real desperation that people often fight against that drives them to seek purpose in institutions driven by guilt and misery. Time and time again, the sole purpose of the G.R. seems to be to relive and remind others about one of the greatest horrors in human history; it’s a pathetic coping mechanism that makes an idol out of the pain rather than try to defeat it and move on. It’s easy to look down on the show’s aggravating (and often heartless) cult, but the truth is we can all fall into traps of guilt and self-loathing that leave us stuck in neutral when faced with circumstances that seem too great to bear – even if we typically do so with far less theatrics.

3. You don’t have to understand what’s going on to appreciate great television.
From the outset, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were honest about the fact that The Leftovers was a series that was interested in examining these characters’ relationship with grief rather than answering big questions or spelling out the truth about any of the show’s central mysteries. To be fair, they’ve been far more generous with answers (while prompting more questions, naturally) than I expected; even when viewers were left bewildered, The Leftovers succeeded at being unnaturally absorbing. Even when you didn’t understand what motivated Patti, or whether or not Kevin was actually crazy, or what exactly was going on inside Jill’s moody teenage mind, or generally what in the world was happening with this sometimes very trippy series, it was impossible to not be engaged and moved by the performances and the subtle beauty within the agony.

4.  Vengeance is a bad motivator.
Just as the Guilty Remnant reveals why guilt is a mad motivator, Rev. Matt Jamison was a great example as to why vengeance can be equally dangerous. This was a man determined to slander as many of the Departed as possible because presumably he was angry that a crooked judge’s departure caused a car accident that left his wife paralyzed. Although he put on a front of false righteousness, it’s clear that this pastor had forgotten about grace and instead had allowed anger to direct his actions. He couldn’t bear the Departed being treated like saints when he knew that to be untrue and he knew one of the Departed’s greatest offenders, the judge, was responsible for his wife’s condition. Through a series of events, he comes to a revelation of just how misguided his vendetta is, refocusing his efforts on reaching out to society’s new pariahs, the Guilty Remnant. Now, Matt is not your average pastor and uses tactics that many still may disapprove of, but there’s a joy in his eyes now as he seeks to love and serve the unlovable no matter how hopeless they seem or how cruel they are in response to his efforts. 

5. Facing unspeakable grief doesn’t mean you can’t still maintain your physique.
I’m just saying. I’m sitting in front of my television on a Sunday night eating unhealthy snacks that I really shouldn’t be eating at all, let alone at such a late hour, and I see this guy come across my screen who makes me feel just a tad inferior. This guy is still dealing with the fallout of a worldwide mass disappearance, struggling with losing his whole family and trying his best to maintain order in a town that’s going nuts and he is still completely jacked. I’m talking about Kevin. How does he have time for the gym!? I’m just saying…it’s enough to cause some viewers to develop a complex.

6. God is everywhere and nowhere.
It’s fitting that The Leftovers finale had Kevin reading from the Book of Job, specifically chapter 23, which reads: “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” On The Leftovers, many characters are like Job, desperately searching for answers in the face of great loss and suffering. There is a thread of spirituality throughout the series that indicates a power at work, but there is also this foreboding sense of loneliness and abandonment. In every existential crisis, we must wrestle with the person of God and whether we decide that He exists as a deity or that hope is simply found discovering our purpose, most inevitably discern that the search for truth reveals that the answers are simply bigger than us. Job 23 finishes with Job describing himself as terrified by the nature of God and the characters of The Leftovers can likely relate; terrified by the notion that God that has abandoned them or never existed at all or, worse yet, that He is there and still allowed this heartbreak. 

7. Everyone’s a skeptic.
We often forget that regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, we all have faith in something. For Rev. Matt, his faith is in God and his skepticism seems to be, not in God Himself, but in his own understanding of his Lord and what God’s purpose for him is exactly in this new landscape. Holy Wayne is a man who believes himself to be some sort of savior but in the final moments of his life, he reveals his doubts to Kevin. Sometimes we can present ourselves as so sure of our power and abilities – Holy Wayne to a larger degree than most – and yet, in moments of vulnerability we would reveal that we sometimes feel like who we’re presenting ourselves to be is just a façade. Lastly, we’re often skeptical about our lack of faith. As Matt asks Kevin to read from scripture before they bury Patti, he protests because he says he doesn’t believe. Still, as he speaks the words of the Bible out loud, he is moved and, in that moment, he is clearly questioning his conclusions about God and, in my understanding of the scene, feels very much like Job desperately searching for a connection with his creator. The moral of the story is that no matter how strongly you believe what you believe, you are bound to find yourself a skeptic from time to time…and you’re not alone.

8. Nora Durst is awesome.
Is this a life lesson that will impact our daily lives? No, but Nora deserves special recognition. She sprays the Guilty Remnant with a garden hose, is able to shut down the advances of a married man in the most amazing way imaginable, and deftly holds her own when interrogated by her boyfriend’s teenage daughter. Nora Durst has been consistently fascinating, bridging the gap between tragically broken and unexpectedly funny, her sharp wit and intoxicating depth elevating every scene she’s in. Credit has to go to her incredible portrayer, Carrie Coon, for whom the entire internet seems to want to start a fan club. (Note: I’d love to join.)

9. Always buy name-brand.
OK, so you don’t always have to buy name-brand. I had a pretty modest upbringing and wore my share of generic-brand sneakers and had generic soda in my fridge, but there are some things for which you just can’t compromise. Replicas of departed friends and family members happen to be one such thing. It seems to me that the Guilty Remnant wasn’t concerned about providing the best for the town as they terrorized them by putting replicas in the homes of families affected by the Departure so they didn’t bother with going with Loved Ones, the most trusted name in life-like replicas of departed family members. Instead, it seems to me that they used a knock-off company that delivered bodies so ghoulish and terrifying, I had to pray they wouldn’t show up in my nightmares. Imagine if you walked downstairs to find them at your breakfast table.

10. Be grateful for who you have while they’re still here.
Kevin Garvey is a complex character and to say that his only pre-Departure issue was that he didn’t appreciate his family enough is an oversimplification. (At the very least, he seemed to be clinically depressed as well.) Still, he was faced with the age-old dilemma of achieving the American dream and having a lovely home with a wonderful family…but still yearning for more. Now, post-Departure, he’s got a daughter who barely talks to him, a wife who won’t talk period and a son who doesn’t return his phone calls. It’s a sobering realization that it’s so easy to take the people we love for granted while they’re here, clamoring for something better as if their love isn’t enough. Kevin wanted to get away, Nora wanted a job that would allow her to pretend that she wasn’t a mother for a few hours a day, and both of them ended up more alone than they ever dreamed. I don’t anticipate a Departure any time in our near future, but life is a crazy thing full of unexpected twists and turns that sometimes unfairly rob you of the people you love. If watching The Leftovers doesn’t want to make you hold your spouse/children/friends/loved ones a little bit tighter, I don’t know what would. Kevin has certainly come to realize that he was wrong and that he’d been deceived by his own desires so he fights to save his family week in and week out. He’s one of the lucky ones – and so are any of us that have the opportunity to love and appreciate anyone we’ve been taking for granted while we still have the chance.

Gray runs Untempered Television, a site devoted to television critique and commentary.