The science fiction author, Ursula K. Le Guin, once remarked that science fiction “isn’t prescriptive; it’s descriptive,” meaning that, in spite of the fantastic future settings and plot machinations of the genre, it nevertheless remains an allegorized description of the present moment from which the author writes. From this perspective, The Leftovers (a kind of speculative fiction) isn’t only offering what might be under the circumstances of a historical collision with profoundly large forces, but what is if viewed through a speculative lens.
The Leftovers illustrates a pre-Departure world that looks strikingly similar to our own and, from a certain angle, offers a perspective on mass trauma and its effects on communities, families, and individuals that feels all-too-familiar to anyone old enough to have lived through Sept. 11. As an allegorical gesture toward our own world – one that often seems to be accelerating toward its own dissolution, in a state of perpetual liminality – the Departure happens at a time when the most basic human relationships are under siege. Smart phones, perhaps the most powerful technology to reach a state of ubiquity in the last 50 years, draw us from our human connections and toward ever greater states of massification and isolation. Similarly, each character in The Leftovers – acting as both individual agents drawn out to the most microscopic detail as well as stunning modern archetypes – wrestle with deep problems associated with cultural changes that, from the position of an omnipotent narrator, offer a shadow play of our own historical position.
Like True Detective, an HBO series that came a handful of months before, The Leftovers features (though not exclusively) a masculinity in crisis, the generation of men raised by veterans of the Vietnam War, hidden forces that seemingly drive society both individually and collectively, and a distressing relationship between the individual and an increasingly hostile state and a tribalized community. The generation of Vietnam veterans, having grown up in a society wherein gender and cultural roles were neatly packaged and delivered to the newly constructed suburbs as “the American Dream,” suddenly disintegrated as the combination of crass capitalism and the imperialist enterprise took hold of American society. This was a generation that dealt with a kind of mass disappearance and the struggle for its soul at the level of The Leftovers’ America. And the disenchantment, as well as the search for meaning and purpose was their true aim. Just as True Detective illustrated what a society looks like now that those monolithic institutions have evolved into global Molochs, which have come back home to roost, The Leftovers illustrates how a family and community struggle to maintain their cohesion under threat of unfathomably large tidal forces.
Kevin Garvey, Sr., a Vietnam vet imbued with a sense of hard wrought purpose, reminds Kevin, Jr. that the old forms of masculine isolation, emotional stoicism, blind obedience and stern disbelief are indicative of the threat we face in an uncaring, pre-Departure world. We intuit the frailty of the family through the symbols that precede the events of Oct. 14 (a referent with a conspicuous similarity to the real world phrase “Sept. 11”), particularly the massive crack right through the Garvey household that Kevin doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to announce to his wife. He feels a sense of purpose that isn’t aligned with the destiny of his family, and during the moment he transgresses his marital vows, the Departure happens.
Kevin was dealing with feelings of isolation, duty and purpose even before the Departure happened. Where duty simplifies a life into a “thou shalt” set of binary commands, Kevin is struggling with understanding what his purpose is in a world of differing, experiential paths. His visions of the stag are innately connected to his family – the balloon on its head that shimmers in the forest sunlight is a balloon that announces that “It’s a girl,” and potentially suggests the sex of the baby in Laurie’s womb. The animal’s destructive streak throughout the town and its reappearance post-Departure always seem to mirror Tommy’s struggles with his relationships to his biological father, Wayne, and Kevin, Jr. Similar to his strange approach to subduing the deer, Kevin, Jr.’s relationship to Jill – his befuddlement at her interests and proclamations – leads him to unsung yet authentic acts of heroism (like finding the “original” Nativity Jesus doll instead of buying a new one and, later, pulling her out of the burning G.R. compound) that point toward a cosmic sense of purpose. His conversation with Kevin, Sr. after the “Man of the Year” celebration in “The Garveys at Their Best” is one of the most important exchanges in the show.
The speech, built around a recollection of a poem by Stephen Crane called “A Man Said to the Universe” that Kevin, Sr. read to his son as a boy, is an ironic statement about the presumptuousness of man proclaiming his existence in the universe. It aimed to instill in Kevin, Jr. the sense that the universe will not respond by lavishing gifts upon him, and we are always responsible for making our own conditions. Outside, the father catches the son sneaking a cigarette, and tells him he doesn’t think his son believes in the words he’s just recollected. In other words, Kevin, Jr. still feels like the universe owes him something personally. “Why isn’t it enough?” he asks, referring to his family. To which Kevin, Sr. replies:
“Because every man rebels against the idea that this is f**king it. Fights windmills, saves f**king damsels. All in search of greater purpose. You have no greater purpose because ‘it’ is enough. So cut the shit, okay?” Kevin, Sr. tells Kevin, Jr.
Kevin, Sr.’s speech perfectly encapsulates the ideology of a man who grew up in a world where boys were taught that the empire was theirs to inherit, only to discover that their eagerness for heroics was so much useful idiocy. Drafted, manipulated by the promised glory and honor of WWII, and returning to a society sickened by its own hypocrisies, the men of Kevin, Sr.’s generation had to struggle to regain a foothold over the course of nearly the last 50 years. Kevin, Jr., like True Detective’s Rust Cohle, is a son of that generation, and also an authority figure reconciling and trying to understand his place in a vast hierarchical network that not only includes supernatural forces, but a vast and growing security network. In turn, Tommy, the youngest of the Garvey males, has to sift through all the cultural baggage of his father figures, himself, and a mother of an era when women are finding the freedom to simply end toxic and destructive relationships.
The calculus of miracles colliding with the geometric expansion of an increasingly violent police apparatus offers a potential direction toward which the show seems to be inching. Remove the notion of the supernatural, and what you have in The Leftovers is a story about a culture bereft of grounding, striving for ideals, modes of being, and standards that are issued, like Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, as postures and poses that are predetermined and inauthentic. Some strive for a fabricated ideal while others are victimized by a lack of organic growth. Matt strives to be a “spiritual leader” by disparaging the sinfulness of the Departed – because that is an ideal toward which he believes he ought to grow. Kevin, Jr. strives to reestablish the merest semblance of a normative, nuclear “family unit,” even though he had demolished it at the moment of the Departure because that is the symbolically “correct” unit to be a part of. Laurie had clearly never recovered from her previous relationship with Tommy’s father, and clearly neither had Tommy, but they both maintained an image of a solid family until the Departure – after which neither could strive toward anything except the allure of fanaticism. There were signs that things were cracking apart (like the physical, idyllic domestic space of the pre-Departure Garveys). But through visions (Kevin, Jr.’s deer, Matt’s pigeons, Kevin, Sr.’s voices), an insistence on “not going back” to the way things were by carrying on a fruitless pantomime of the pre-Departure ideology (Why would Patti, Laurie, or Meg want to return to the way things were? Why would Kevin Jr.?), and finally the delicate interconnectedness of individual experiences, the show illustrates a subtle vision of miracles – that they don’t require the spectacle of power, but rather the delicate interconnections of human beings acting in accordance with their truest selves. They operate in the show as the end result of an innumerable set of human choices based on other human’s choices that are in turn the result of even more human choices and so on until, finally, people are acting in accordance with one another’s real experiences in the world. The miracle is the reassertion of empathy in a world where people could barely even see themselves in the context of their real relationships.
The most alluring analogy here is the all-too-familiar images of police brutality, civil unrest, and a growing disregard for the humanity of a free population struggling with its spirituality and culture. The voice on the phone in “Gladys” was a chilling suggestion that the most eccentric – the religious and the lost – were more like vermin to be exterminated rather than human beings that ought to be given a space to work out their grief. If the first season of The Leftovers can be viewed as an allegorical representation of the political fracturing of the American populace over the last 15 years overshadowed by the terrifying grace of a universe that suddenly does feel a sense of obligation to us, then perhaps season two might offer a glimpse of a society under attack from the implements of its own paranoid history. The ATFEC, a security apparatus that grew over the course of an entire generation, is still a presence even though Kevin now understands that, on some level, Patti was right: there was nothing to go back to and the community needed catharsis, which the G.R. offered at a great personal cost. But now that the community has been given a second chance, does the ATFEC withdraw their weaponry? Does it cease expanding, watching, infiltrating, and growing in menace and power? Does such a potential for the show cleave to our real conditions?