Different Ways The Leftovers Challenges Our Sense of Purpose

Like a vacuum that implodes an object, the Departure seems to have crushed the details of each character, hardening them into more simplified shapes in keeping with whatever in them responds to their truest purpose. Prior to Episode 9, we saw the aftermath of several years of Post-Rapture Tribulation – Kevin Jr. seems to be coming apart psychologically, Patti was driven to suicide as a rhetorical device, Jill has joined the G.R., while Laurie ascends its ranks. Each of the main characters have been explored, and we finally got to see an informative glimpse into where they came from, revealing that the Rapture wasn’t the story of who disappeared (as Matt stubbornly insists), but what purpose they served in the next stage for those who remained. The show illustrates – in a more speculatively humanist, less dogmatically Christian way – a society, conspicuously similar to our own, that was already ripe for an unraveling.

To this end, I offer an interpretation of what seems to be the contours of the Departure as it operates like that vacuum, reshaping each character as a result of the sudden collapse of an internal void (left behind by the disappearance of not only a portion of the population but also a vast set of meaningless obligations and the merest duties) being crushed into new shapes under the weight of external pressure, into alignments of deeper purpose. If Yeats’ He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace, recited with deeply tragic gravitas by Patti in “Cairo” as a farewell to civilization, provides a commentary on the end of the first stage of the Rapture – the end of civilization – then another of Yeats’ apocalyptic visions might offer a succinct description of what happened at the onset, just before the Departure. “Things fall apart,” the poet offers abruptly in The Second Coming. “The center cannot hold.”  What “The Garveys at Their Best” provided, was a glimpse of those “things” before they fell apart. 

A psychiatrist, mother, and wife, Laurie’s pre-Departure life is encapsulated by these three roles. She clearly earns a significantly higher salary than Kevin, Jr., she is troubled by her busy schedule (one that, until the final reveal in the episode, included an extra burden she seemed to, and in fact was, carrying alone) and laments that she is a bad mother to Jill when she informs her that she’ll miss the science fair. She pushes the discussion to get a new dog as a way to test Kevin and determine what kind of response he might have toward the fact that she is carrying their child – should she decide to tell him. This withholding, in addition to Kevin Jr.’s growing list of quixotic secrets that he keeps from Laurie, creates a hollow in what should be the fullest relationship in either of their lives. Much like the ephemeral connections provided by handheld devices that replace, over time and in their aggregation, actually living separate lives weakens the deepest of marital bonds.

As a psychiatrist, her interactions with Patti illustrate a growing fragility of her faith in science and her ability to maintain a healthy, open, and honest relationship with her husband. Patti reveals that Neil was, in fact, her abusive husband. When she and Laurie delivered the bag full of feces after the diner scene in “Gladys,” it turns out that he was the recipient of a suggestion Laurie made during their pre-Departure therapy sessions. The plasticity of their relationship roles and their interchangeable authority is already evident before the Departure: Laurie understands, as a therapist, how to cope with traditional feelings associated with negative life circumstances, while Patti seems to have an innate connection to the forces (“It feels like his hand is around my heart”) that precipitated the mass disappearance. Laurie explains that the “he” to whom Patti refers is an unconsciously derived symbol referring to Neil, and suggests that Patti purge herself of these feelings by delivering them, in their symbolically appropriate form, to the doorstep of her abusive husband’s house. Nothing would rattle the foundations of scientific rationalism like a massive, inexplicable trauma experienced in a way that seemed deliberately conceived to precipitate a simultaneous transformation at the level of society and the individual alike.

Laurie responds the way a therapist does – rationalize, contextualize, and then offer real-world solutions in the way of symbolic gestures – as a way for Patti to cope with what Laurie sees as a clear case of transference. When Patti follows along and suggests that she ought to purge herself of her feelings, only to rearticulate with increased gravitas that “something is about to happen,” Laurie temporarily breaks character. The relationship between science/rationalism vs. intuition/spirituality begin to blur in the scenes between these two characters before they flip entirely after the Departure. As it turns out, Laurie does seem to believe that something is amiss, but her scope of the problem is pathetically small. Patti has a strange capacity for intuitive insight into who responds to the invisible forces at play in the Post-Departure world – a capacity we see her use to great effect in recruiting new members to the G.R. The Departure clearly changes Laurie’s perspective about who Patti was referring to, and demonstrates, to the point of reconfiguring their entire lives, that Patti is somehow attuned to greater forces than modern science is capable of encapsulating by definition and method.

In this episode we see Jill in a happier, early adolescent phase of her life. She sings, giggles, bounces around, and operates like one would expect a happy teenaged girl would act. None of the morose, pensive and heavy elements that we have come to recognize about Jill are present here, but one thing is still present. Jill seems to have a curiously prophetic kind of intuition about the way things are going. Her science project is an explication about entropy – the measure of disorder in a given system. The suggestion here is that she intuited a large truth about what was going to take place during the post-Departure Tribulation. The strictures and ideological constructs that collectively define a civilization – our basest duties to which we mechanistically and unreflectively adhere that make up our value systems – were going to dissolve and randomize as a result of the rapture.

In one of the great scenes of the episode, we see Jill and Tommy, invited to participate in an experiment, join hands with a group of children to form an electrical circuit that lights a bulb they can all clearly see. Symbolically, the discovery and harnessing of electricity is the basic foundation for all of modern society. The merest development of the electric circuit gave rise to everything from the light bulb to the cell phone (a conspicuous symbol, though representing a real and growing threat, interfering with real relationships), and illustrates the ground level logic of what would be removed from society. All these children, holding hands to maintain the post-industrial foundations, look on at one another as one or more suddenly disappears, and the light goes dim. The chain between people in the modern world, between youth and itself, between teacher and student, parent and child, spouses, siblings, church and congregation, state and society – all of the things that mark an enlightened society and those things utterly taken for granted in the Pre-Departure world – are suddenly broken, here and there like a defective circuit, and rendered just as unusable.

Matt and Mary Jamison
Their pre-Departure narrative arc reveals to us that the force that chose who was to be raptured had a sense of irony in mind. At the party, Matt gives a speech where he jokingly suggests that he nominated Kevin Sr. for the honor of “Mapleton Man of the Year,” because he couldn’t nominate himself. In the Post-Departure world, where the explanations of traditional religion seemed to fall flat, Matt actually does take it upon himself to become the voice opposing the accepted view of the event as The Rapture. He seems to have missed that the identities of the Departed were relatively meaningless with regards to their own innate worth as human souls, but were deeply meaningful to those who remained in what psychic and spiritual changes they would be forced to undertake. If god were an author and wanted to create the conditions of a vast realignment with the cosmic or divine (for better or worse), then the best way would be to choose those whose choices oscillate between topical commitments to duty and those who respond to a deeper sense of purpose, and then position them in a Post-Rapture world in such a way as to deepen their sense of purpose and force them to take sides according to the nature of their actions.

If the family and the community are at the heart of this story and perhaps the only thing worth salvaging and protecting, the fate of Mary and Matt Jamison is another telling example of the divisions in the marital bond when two partners share a physical space but not their deeper emotional experiences. When Mary sees Laurie in the doctor’s office, she tells Laurie that Matt never lets her see him when he’s afraid of his illness. She simply wishes to be able to suffer with him while he suffers. Like Kevin Jr., Matt suffers from a destructive habit of emotional isolation and the need to shoulder his burdens alone, without his wife – a traditional masculine response that’s been a celebrated and often uncriticized characteristic of male protagonists in scores of films and media more generally. Ironically, the departure of the raptured judge (presumably the driver of the car that hit him on October 14th and spurred him into “exposing” the Departees as moral “randoms”) flips that relationship so that Mary must suffer alone, unable to communicate a single thing to Matt at all. It illustrates, in many ways, the experience of a spouse having to watch the other live a separate life, but amplified to the point of total suffering. What Matt took for granted as a way to be a husband before The Rapture, he must now endure from the other side of the looking glass.

Nora Durst
Perhaps the most obvious statement about a world inundated with a sense of crass duty over a sense of deeper purpose, as well as the pre-Departure frailty and isolation of a technocratic, modern America, is in the story of Nora Durst. She explicitly illustrates and verbalizes, during her interview for the position of campaign manager, that she wants to do something more with her brain than raise children, an obligation she undertakes essentially alone. She portentously announces that, “for the next four weeks, I have no family.” That four weeks, as we fully know by the time we hear her say it, extend indefinitely.

The irony of the Rapture is not lost on Nora’s character arc, either. The difference between her character transformation and many of the others in the show is that, in Nora’s case, she has a greater sense of opportunity in this new world than she did in the old one. As Wayne pointed out, mixing truths with targeted empathy, she feels too ashamed to allow herself to move on. Her children no doubt mean everything to her before the Rapture, and she attacks her obligations of motherhood with vigor that, by the time we see her in her domestic sphere, have begun to grate on her soul. She is alone in her toil. What was the purposeful endeavor of family was actually a kind of servitude. Her husband, entirely operating out of obligation, places the onus of creating domestic meaning and keeping the entire apparatus running, as so many husbands do, squarely on the shoulders of his wife. It was all to maintain a cohesive unit, but was doomed to fail from the start as Doug was a philanderer living a double life. 

After the Departure, Nora is all purpose and no duty. What should have always been a pursuit of balance – co-parenting, managing a career and a family, using her mind for endeavors of her choosing as well as obligations in her personal life – becomes a flailing, desperate struggle in the post-Departure world. If there is redemption for Nora, surely it is attaining a balance between the lives she lives both before and after The Rapture. Duty alone becomes stifling and automatic. Purpose without duty can become eccentric and self-serving. The two together – as impossible as this might seem in either the pre- or post-Departure world – might be the only healthy and sustainable way to live.

“The Garveys at their Best” illustrates that the rapture can be explained, not by who was taken, but by their relationships to who was left behind. Each Departure facilitated the character arcs that we have watched unfold throughout the season, but beyond their utility as harbingers of moral crisis, mattered very little to the overarching story.

The questions I ask of any art are: Where is its wisdom? Where are the deeper points of its tendrils as they puncture our networks of distraction? Where, as James Joyce suggested, are the moments where the art invokes in us the Janus-headed feelings of pity and terror, linking us both to “the human sufferer” and “the secret cause,” of human experience and what aspects of our lives – operating like the ground into which that art plants its seed – grow toward that art which has interpellated it? The questions we ask, in a show like The Leftovers, might start with “Who in my life, should they suddenly disappear, along with two percent of the population, would pick at the foundations of my reflexive obligations until it reached landslide status – until it left only a sense of deeper purpose?” After an episode like “The Garveys at the Best,” we might ask, “Where is the thief of our sense of purpose – and to whom or what do we pledge an unnecessary, self-defeating, and mind-numbing sense of the merest obedience to duty?”

We respond emotionally to The Leftovers and have all season, in spite of the reverse chronology of the script that doles out meaning, sometimes by droplets and sometimes by deluge. Something about this weird tale moves us and speaks to our lives. From the basest, workaday monotony, everything in the world looks the same – our duties and obligations pulling us along as if we were connected by a leash to an unseen guide toward which we solemnly slouch.  On some level, however, all normal, sane people find themselves, in their most postmodern-panicked quietude, realizing that something in the world seems to have shifted, dramatically and on a massive scale, but without exact form to touch or point toward. Since we have no Rapture to force us out of our drudgery and into a conversation about our greater purpose in the machinery of the universe, we should appreciate when a work of art brings it up in whatever medium it uses to take shape. Does The Leftovers accomplish the ancient feat of articulating a human truth about present and eternal conditions? That is for each viewer to decide. But if we find ourselves strangely compelled after watching the show to think about the universe or why certain themes in the show match certain realities in our lives, then by all means, we should ask ourselves where our sense of duty – to our gadgets, distractions, anachronistic traditions, unexamined fears – obscures our sense of purpose, and where our sense of purpose is diverted away from the people who matter most in our lives – family, friends, community – and serves to isolate and make us vulnerable rather than unite us and make us stronger.

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