Mapleton and the Suburban Strange

In a show with no shortage of compelling characters and metaphysical mysteries, it feels odd to admit that I’ve been thinking about its setting as much as anything else. And yet episode after episode, I’m drawn to that particular intersection of material reality and abstract experience. Yes, I mean Mapleton: The Leftovers’ repository of suburban sameness and hallucinatory dread in equal measure. In this piece, I’d like to explore Mapleton’s role in The Leftovers, and how it continues and enriches a tradition of suburban surreality in the arts.

Comprised of both psychic space and physical sprawl, suburbia occupies a fascinating corner of the American imagination. With its rich iconography of white picket fences, green lawns and clean streets, the suburbs are part and parcel of the mythology of American middle-class life. More than a merely domestic plane, suburbia serves as a kind of collective unconscious for a broad swath of the country, rich with secondary meanings and rituals, indicating specific values and introducing the expectations and ambitions of a local and popular culture. It is a social space, an aspirational space, a competitive space. In this sense, suburbia – as a speculative concept – is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves: how we live, what we want, who we are.

This is all well and good – an essential stitch in America’s social fabric. But beneath that placid surface, a primal cauldron bubbles. Shaped by a thriving cinematic and literary tradition, the ostensibly wholesome veneer of suburbia has been torn away to reveal a seamy underbelly, rife with hostility, menace, sexual restlessness, and alienation. As much as barbecues, church events, and tidy yards, the contemporary conception of suburbia is one of mirrors, interiors and exteriors, dreams, the divide between the mask worn under the sun and the nocturnal emergence of strange and secret lives. The history of suburban representation in art has largely been an act of digging – of peeking beneath the clean concrete at the wriggling repressions below.

The Leftovers continues this tradition with its own setting of Mapleton, a New York suburb whose Anytown, USA, beauty and blandness conceal concentrated layers of pain, numbness and guilt in the wake of the Departure. The outside/inside, public/private dichotomy of suburban Mapleton serves to amplify the tensions of pre-Departure versus post-Departure life. When Mapleton’s inhabitants face the public, they assume masks of normalcy: They work, they buy groceries, they pay bills. But in the privacy of the domestic world, the deep wounds of a lost community are revealed: Nora, in search of sensation, hires a call girl to shoot her; the community’s youth play a sex-and-pain version of Spin the Bottle to fill the black hole in their chests; Kevin wrestles with the dissolution of his marriage and (perhaps) his sanity. In this way, Mapleton has become less of a setting and more of an essential character in and of itself, the secret soul of the show. The Leftovers set in, say, New York City would be a far different, far less intimate series. The anonymous, jittering pace of the metropolis would swallow the subtlety of Mapleton’s shared and shattered memory. It would be too large, the pain too diffuse. The rhythms and repetitions of suburbia – insular, incestual, claustrophobic – scale the tragedy of the Departure into a potent, private cycle that feels perfectly suited for the small screen.

Relying on the ostensible typicality of Mapleton in order to magnify the existential bedrock of a community is a narrative choice with a rich history of antecedents: the night streets and empty cafes of Edward Hopper, the estranged nomadism of John Cheever’s suburban dwellers. But The Leftovers strikes me as most keenly influenced by the seminal suburban auteur David Lynch, whose work has done more for exposing the subterranean horror of suburban life than just about anyone else in the arts. His oeuvre offers a dreamlike vision of the suburbs as a place of surrealistic terror, mystery, and magic. In the Lynchian cosmos, the more normal an object, home, or person appears, the more we’re taught to be afraid. The Leftovers similarly reinvents traditional suburban symbols, the result being that deliciously creepy feeling that something isn’t right. Take, for instance, the state of the animal kingdom in Mapleton. Though as safely suburban as a bake sale or lemonade stand, The Leftovers has inverted the role of the family dog from friend and protector to ambiguous demonic force. Tellingly, this transformation occurs outside, in the primal darkness of the streets, away from the domestic interior. The roaming feral packs can be seen as symbolic parallels to the psychological and emotional disruptions of Mapleton’s residents: vague, swarming terrors on the outskirts of the suburban/psychological night. Similarly, the oft-seen deer (given historical context in “The Garveys at Their Best”) seems perched uneasily between mystical spirit animal and terrifying destructive force, dream and nightmare. These subverted representations give Mapleton an immaterial, fearful blurriness, which feels like a distinctly Lynchian aesthetic choice.

The limits of suburbia have also been explored to interesting effect, particularly as places of violence. The stoning in “Gladys” occurred just outside the lights of a gas station, in the liminal darkness of the woods; similarly, Kevin and Patti’s showdown (and Patti’s bloody “reminder”) in “Cairo” transpire far from suburban space in an abandoned cabin within the wilderness. In both instances, the violence occurs outside the boundaries of Mapleton, in the primordial forest. No matter the weirdness of the events that occur in our humble little suburbia, Mapleton still represents a kind of tottering normalcy, forcing its inhabitants to perform their transgressions outside its spatial limit.

By subverting the familiar, The Leftovers has added another chapter to the fascinating legacy of suburban representation. Chances are, most of us have a Mapleton of our own. And while I can’t speak for all of you, I know I savor the chance to peer beneath those fresh green lawns and smiling, neighborly faces to see myself and my past in the strangeness of suburban darkness.

Illingworth is the founder of arts and culture blog Wild Lord. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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