The Leftovers is leaving many viewers with more questions than answers. Last Sunday’s episode, “The Garveys at Their Best,” certainly offered some solace for the bewildered by using flashbacks to Oct. 13 and the morning of Oct. 14 three years ago, just before the Departure. But the question of why the Guilty Remnant are incessantly puffing on cigarettes remains an enigma that’s tough to unravel.
Obviously, the cigarettes seem contradictory to the ascetic behavior of the G.R. They are silent (with a couple of exceptions) and they wear loose, white clothes, looking more like Hare Krishnas than Marlboro Men. But they smoke, which is something we rarely see on television, except in period pieces like Mad Men.
Then it struck me that smoking is often seen as a form of rebellion. Think “bad girls” and motorcycle gang members puffing away. So they are rebelling, but what are they rebelling against? It’s hard to tell, since they don’t say anything, and they give only terse and puzzling written responses on their notepads.
Maybe the answer is on the signs posted in their communal homes and in public. In the pilot episode, our first look at the Guilty Remnant is at the three-year public commemoration of the Departure. They hold up large letters that spell out the phrase “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH.” It’s a double entendre, but also a contradiction. Figuratively, they say “don’t waste your breath by giving speeches about the disappearance,” but they smoke cigarettes, which will literally take away their breath.
Later, we see a G.R. sign in the background that says, “We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith.” Faith…in what? Do they have faith that smoking won’t hurt them? Or do they believe they are going to die or disappear soon, so it won’t make any difference? That seems more likely, since a Guilty Remnant sign in “Gladys” reads: “It Won’t Be Long Now.”
But even if we don’t know what the G.R. is up to yet, the endless puffing is a guidepost pointing to other signs of rebelliousness. Rev. Matt Jamison is one of the main enemies of the white-garbed cult. But he seems to be losing the war. He has been fighting a one-man battle to convince Mapleton’s citizens that the Departure is not the biblical Rapture, noting that some of the town’s most notorious sinners went away in the blink of an eye. (Remember when the bartender saying, “I can see the Pope. But Gary Busey?”) Rev. Matt’s posters and website aren’t very saintly, and the town rebels by abandoning his church, which is ironically bought by the Guilty Remnant.
Then there’s Jill Garvey, the poster child for rebellious teenage girls. She falls increasingly under the influence of her friend Aimee, a live-for-today party girl. Jill tries to do the opposite of the wishes of her uber-serious father, Police Chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. But the backstory from the flashback portrays her as the epitome of a good girl. Three years ago, she was a serious student and cheerful daughter who was close to her affable brother, Tommy.
But Tommy went bad, too, joining the cult led by Holy Wayne and committing the ultimate sin when he shot an agent sent to capture Wayne. Holy Wayne is another contradiction. He supposedly can heal those who are suffering by hugging them, but he also has a penchant for sex with underage girls. Not very holy, Wayne.
Yes, the whole town of Mapleton is in rebellion. Chief Garvey disobeys his orders, and Garvey seems to always be at odds with Mayor Lucy Warburton. The City Council unanimously votes down the curfew the chief and mayor propose, bowing to the angry mob or residents who oppose it. Then there’s the quirky Dean, a vigilante who wants to restore order by any means, shooting wild dogs and, ultimately, kidnapping and setting up the death of Guilty Remnant leader Patty Levin.
And the federal government doesn’t have much use for rules either, apparently. When an errant Mapleton detective reports Gladys’ murder as a “cult incident,” the Bureau of ATFEC (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults) steps in. Later, ATFEC Agent Kilaney tells Chief Garvey that he can “take care of your problem,” referring to the Guilty Remnant. Asked what he means by that, Kilaney dryly says: “They go away."
Although we’ve stepped into the life of Mapleton three years after a shattering event, you can’t help but notice that this is a pretty idyllic place to live. The streets are clean and tree-lined, the lawns neatly mowed and the homes are freshly painted and trimmed, if not palatial. All of the current agitation could easily be blamed on the Departure. Watching 2 percent of the population vanish for no reason can sure bring out the cynicism in folks. But don’t forget that Tom Perotta, who authored the novel The Leftovers and co-created the HBO series, also wrote the novels Election and Little Children. Both were adapted into successful films that explored the dark underbelly of suburban life.
So it’s hard to know whether all this discord is the dark side of Mapleton showing through the thin veneer of suburban pleasantry or whether this truly is some hellish new reality started by the Departure. One thing we know: They are all mad as hell, and they are acting out, big time. The Guilty Remnant can’t talk, and they have repressed all emotional expression, but they let it out in one nasty habit…blowing smoke.
Nagelberg is a professor at Lincoln University in Philadelphia.