Multitasking Ourselves to Oblivion: The Parasitic Smartphones in The Leftovers

Objects – both symbolic and useful – play important roles in The Leftovers. For example, Kevin’s shirts illustrate the life he lives during his fugue states. The G.R.’s cigarettes suggest both the ridiculous circumstances of a commodity culture they resist and the willingness of the group to bodily self-destruct as a means of meditation. The National Geographic from Kevin Garvey, Sr. is a treasure trove of referential possibilities. Symbols and object relations are everywhere in the show and create a rich subtext operating concurrently with the rest of the story. They provide a kind of pastiche of references that, read together within the context of the show, provide a secondary narrative layer that might provide clues about what the show is trying to convey.

One such object that makes a conspicuous appearance throughout the season is the cell phone. It plays an important role in the lives of characters both before and after the Departure and suggests changing relationships between people, people and objects, and people and society. It shows up as a presence, lurking here and there as a distraction, a lifeline, or a doorway to an individual set of experiences that are simultaneously inclusionary (drawing individuals into relationships with vast, invisible communities) and exclusionary (in the way it supplants real relationships between people, families, and communities). It’s a timely subject, and one that the show treats in interesting ways.

The Young Mother
The series opens with a young mother going about her day with her infant child in tow. When we first see her she is at the laundromat, engaged in some heated conversation on the cell phone while her baby incessantly cries from his car seat. On the countertop in the laundry, the baby is crying while she talks to a friend. In the car she continues talking, attempting to carry on several obligations simultaneously while the baby, screeching for attention, wails with increasing agitation. We remember the haunting cold-opening of the pilot episode where that woman, still talking on her phone, suddenly realizes that the baby has stopped crying. In “The Garveys at Their Best,” we see Laurie at a nearby intersection as she turns to overhear that same woman navigating some customer service protocol on her phone and driving while the baby, echoing that first episode, bawls from the back seat.

We know from the rest of the season that the Guilty Remnant conspicuously uses pens and pads of paper to communicate. This anachronistic gesture does a few things that undermine the pre-Departure theme of the individuated experience through technological apparatuses. Consider the profound difference between living in a world where nearly everyone has abandoned the house phone in favor of cellular family plans. The world outside the family unit is no longer filtered through each member answering a call and passing it along to the intended recipient, but each person now maintains their own connections to a globalized community (through internet access on smartphones) as well as an unaccountable set of relationships in their own lives. Laurie receives a call from her OBGYN to confirm her appointment – the reason for which she is keeping from Kevin – and she can continue to do so because that particular techno-apparatus undermines the cohesiveness of a healthily communicative relationship. As a therapist focusing on the individual reasons for mental illness, Laurie might not see that the cell phone – a device that continues to blur the distinctions between the organic, human life and a ubiquitous state of technological augmentation – is tearing individual relationships apart and reconfiguring people into so many network nodes. The result is a strange combination of simulated global inclusion and interpersonal isolation. Only a cataclysm of indeterminate origin and massive scope – the Departure – could force people to follow their real lives back to one another or submit to their own massification.

Jill’s relationship to the cell phone has evolved over the course of the show. In an early scene, she and her friends utilize an app designed to emulate and amplify the old game of “spin the bottle.” It facilitates the further alienation of youth culture from any semblance of tradition, empowering its basest instincts, and celebrates its most consequential and self-destructive tendencies. In “The Garveys at Their Best,” the cell phone in Jill’s hand is still at the level of the innocuous, where she giggles at the idiocy of the Nyan Cat meme. It is an initiatory stage of the relationship between the individual and the collective experience offered by the smartphone – one that didn’t exist before its invention. That simultaneous inclusion/dissolution binary represented by Laurie’s personal phone calls with her doctor is here illustrated by the confusion Kevin feels at what makes Nyan cat so funny to Jill. He wants to understand, but it is not designed for him. Like the “spin the bottle” app they use at the party is designed to celebrate the kinetic risk-behaviors of the teenagers in a space wholly separate from their families, Nyan Cat operates as the evolution of “children’s programming." The bond between parent and child is loosening even before the Departure, and the event simply increases the entropy of that system.

Tommy’s relationship to the cell phone, like Jill’s, evolves over the course of the season. At first, Tommy’s smartphone is his lifeline to Kevin, Jr. and his family as he becomes more entwined in the lifestyle of the cult; he replaces it with an anachronistic flip-phone that becomes his lifeline to Wayne. The difference is that the throwaway cell phone, instead of opening up an individuated experience with a collective body of experience, is utilized to maintain a secret relationship with one or more individuals. The distancing of the family and community experience and the isolation of a technocratic society based on pretending and duty leads to, like the entropic system, increasingly disordered and randomized meaning and experience. Eventually we witness Tommy finding the ugly truth about Wayne, and perhaps even about his own father – that there was no plan that included him and no explanation for their behavior except selfishness. He was something to be discarded. A fantastic moment with the cell phone suggests Tommy’s acceptance of the banal self-centeredness of the false fathers he’s been chasing. Standing in front of a shadow spray painted on a building, Tommy throws the phone Wayne gave him against the wall and decides he’s found what he was looking for – understanding – and abandons Wayne to do right by Christine. It’s as though his moment of awakening into manhood and a sense of purpose happens as he finally unburdens himself from the cell phone.

The strange isolation and threat of the smartphone is perfectly illustrated in the Nora Durst arc. Her husband, Doug, who we have learned was cheating on her with the pre-school teacher, barely pays attention to their life together, leaving her stranded in a state of domestic servitude. Because there is no house phone pre-Rapture (which becomes a conspicuous presence on her countertop that announces voicemails throughout the season), we sense that her husband might be carrying the affair on at the kitchen table on the morning of the 14th, right in front of his family.

His liaison distracts him from helping prepare breakfast, and he is nowhere to be found when their daughter spills the orange juice on Nora’s cell phone, causing her to miss the call from the future mayor. Had they had a house phone rather than the omnipresent smartphones, her husband wouldn’t have been able to be physically present and psychologically absent, and the whole house would have been waiting for the ring tone people used to symbolically understand as an incoming message from the outside world. The old film cliché of the philanderer answering the house phone, turning in the foreground while the family looks on curiously from the background, and sternly whispering “never to call me here” has been replaced by the emotionless, hidden, and mainly inconsequential gaze of a face staring at a smartphone screen.

The smartphone is one of many symbols and meaningful objects in the show, but it seems to hold special significance to those who we follow most closely in the story. It’s as though the message is that, as we collectivize and move closer to a cybernetic augmentation of our real lives, we simply loosen the corporeal bonds with whom we are closest. Each Departure seems to have been selected, not because of their innate characteristics, but how their disappearance would facilitate a transformation in those who are left behind. What the smartphone dislodged before the 14th, the Departure finished off entirely. 

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