3P Reviews

3P Reviews: The Leftovers, Season One, Episode Three

The Leftovers Season 1 Episode 3A

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Creativity: 6
Overall Plot: 6
Subplots: 6
Sum: 31/50

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

Season One

Episode Three: Two Boats and a Helicopter – ***

 

Part One: Plot Pogo Stick

This is easily the funniest episode in the series so far. I don’t think it was intended to be very funny at all, but it is.

Diverging from the previous two episodes, this one follows Matt, a down-on-his-luck reverend at a local church who has appeared briefly before as a bit of an eccentric personality. He has prominent ideas about what caused the disappearances three years ago, namely that the people taken were in some way guilty. From a practical standpoint, Matt is merely trying to maintain interest in his church in a world that has long since abandoned interest in pre-disappearance religions. His church is failing, and he’s desperate to keep it afloat. However, like many religious leaders, he’s driven and steadfast in his convictions, no matter how unpopular they may be. This results in Matt being attacked and insulted on more than one occasion, and not really fitting in with the rest of the community. His isolation as the only character in this episode, and the first character to get his own episode, drives that point home.

This setup is not itself a problem. Matt turns out to be a moderately compelling character, and the delivery of the episode varies from passable to good. I understand this episode is pretty popular, and I can see its appeal in some areas. However, what stands out to me are the moments between the better shots where the plot becomes almost cartoonish.

Let me run through the events of the episode without distorting any of them.

At the start of the episode, we hear a sermon by Matt in which he tells the story of a young boy who, jealous of his new baby sister, begged God to make his parents pay him more attention. The boy’s wishes are granted (or perhaps punished) when he’s diagnosed with leukemia. Matt tells his [sparse] audience that the boy learned his lesson and is now asking people to pray for a comatose girl. A man breaks into the church and attacks Matt. He shoves a flyer in Matt’s mouth, similar to the ones he was handing out in the previous episode which show images of the vanished people along with crimes and moral taboos they’ve committed.

While Matt is at the hospital being treated for his injuries, he finds out the comatose girl he mentioned in his sermon has woken up. He ignores calls from his bank throughout the day. Members of the Guilty Remnant hang around his church as they do other places around town whose property or people they wish to acquire. As he’s closing up his church for the evening, a man comes in and asks him to baptize his and his wife’s baby, against the wife’s wishes. Matt does so, but refuses the man’s offer to pay for the service. The man pays anyway, letting him know about a man who disappeared and gambled away his family’s money at a nearby casino. Matt goes to the casino and confronts the owner about this man, showing him a book he’s collection about the crimes of the departed and asking for evidence of this man to add to it. While there, he sees pigeons on a roulette table.

Matt finally answers his phone and goes to the bank. His payments for the church are overdue and they’re going to foreclose on it if he can’t produce $135,000 by the end of the day tomorrow. We learn that Matt is Nora’s brother when he goes to ask her for the money. In this scene, we also learn that Nora and Matt’s parents died in a fire when they were children and that they inherited the church. Matt believes Nora can use her benefit money she got from losing her family. Nora asks Matt to stop making his paper if she gives him the money. He refuses, and they get into a fight, during which Matt explains that Nora’s husband was cheating on her.

Matt has a houseworker, whom he also hasn’t paid for several weeks, looking after his comatose wife. He assures her that he’ll get the money. As though from an epiphany, Matt brings a shovel to a house (I’m pretty sure it’s Kevin’s house) where he finds Lorie and tells her that Kevin’s father left money for him in a secret hiding spot. He finds the hiding spot without ever having to use his shovel and discovers several wads of cash along with one of Matt’s flyers and a brief message from Kevin’s father bequeathing it to him.

Matt sees more pigeons and takes it as a sign from God to go to the casino. We learn that the amount of cash is $20,000. Matt goes over to the roulette table with the pigeons from earlier and bets all of his money on red (it’s worth noting at this point that he saw the pigeons on a red traffic light). He wins, and keeps betting. Some spectators come to watch him, including one rowdy man who keeps cheering him on and commenting each time he wins. Matt keeps winning until he gets $160,000, enough to cover all of his money troubles.

He’s about to head home when the man from before asks for some gas money. Matt is happy to oblige and reaches to get him some cash, but then the man tries to rob him. Matt fights him, beating the man against the concrete until he falls unconscious or possibly dead. Matt gets back in his car and yells. He proceeds to go home, replacing the money in the jar and removing a street sign with a corrupt judge’s name on it in the process. He sees someone drive by and throw rocks at the Guilty Remnant, and when he gets out to help them, he’s hit with a rock himself.

Unconscious, Matt has a series of dreams that include him walking into his church in its heyday (where we see one of the Guilty Remnant followers who’s been hanging outside the church greet him outside the doors). Matt follows a young boy, presumably himself as a child, who walks through the church belligerently and into a room at a clinic. Adult Matt waits on the bench, bracketed by his parents, and is told, “It’s spreading,” in reference to his childhood leukemia. The scene transitions to adult Matthew and his sister watching their house burn down while the firefighters stand idly by. We then see the car crash from the opening of the series, which involved Matt’s car, and learn that this is what put his wife in a coma. Matt fantasizes about having sex with his wife, who then turns into someone else. Matt catches fire, then wakes up.

Realizing it’s late in the day, Matt rushes to the bank before it closes. He gets there too late, but the banker he talked to earlier lets him in anyway. It looks like he’s just made it, but the banker tells him he was unconscious for several days and that the other buyers have already claimed the church as their own. Matt goes to see who the buyer is, and discovers it’s the Guilty Remnant.

As you might be able to tell, this plot will appeal to those who like their stories to be highly symbolic, faith-based, and neat. None of those are bad things on their own, and I don’t want to belittle the people who really like this episode. If this is your jam, by all means, love the crap out of it. I think this is certainly the most interesting episodes, and it’s one of the most cohesive on a technical level.

Here’s why this episode doesn’t quite work.

The first big problem is this episode’s overt artifice. Almost every scene involves a cliché of some sort, from the hallucinations to the casino to the buried cash to the baptism — in the visuals as well as the narrative. The “save the church” subplot is especially derivative, only one step beyond “save the farm.” This is the fodder of nostalgic children’s films where the hero is a boy with a dog. Clichés can be incorporated into stories if they’re surrounded by unique elements or twisted in a way to explore something they usually wouldn’t. However, in this case, the cliché that is the main plot is also surrounded by other cliches. The entirety of the plot ends up feeling fake as a result.

This artifice is not helped by moments like Matt suddenly remembering he has a store of $20,000 that he probably could have used long before this point to alleviate his money woes. The $135,000 he needs to obtain is a bid on the church, not the amount he owes the bank. This plot point has no precedent. We’ve never seen Matt and Kevin’s father interact. It contributes no real amount of tension to the episode because it’s unbelievably convenient and comes out of nowhere.

Likewise, Matt getting to the bank just in time and learning that he’s been unconscious for days and therefore lost his church are things that only happen in contrived comedies. The pacing of the episode relies on a lot of these bizarre coincidences, like Matt’s houseworker being willing to go for weeks without pay, the man at the casino trying to rob him, Matt driving past the Guilty Remnant followers as they’re being attacked, and, of course, Matt consistently winning when he gambles all of his money.

“But wait,” you might say. “Aren’t exceedingly convenient coincidences the point of this episode?” To which I would respond, yes, they seem to be intentional. Or, at least some of them do. This episode has an obvious faith theme to it. It indicates a clear divine presence guiding the character’s actions and sending him messages. The pigeons and the casino are framed like a sign from God, and seem to be exactly that, as Matt’s good deeds reward him with the money to save the church. Likewise, him reacting violently to the mugger is punished with him being hit in the head and losing his church.

This, I would argue, is the far more egregious problem with the narrative, and it’s so interwoven into the entire delivery that it can’t be cut out or overlooked. The thesis of this episode — have faith, even when you’re challenged, and you’ll get what’s owed to you — is not only simplistic for this sort of show, it actively opposes the thesis of the series. The Leftovers is not about having faith or getting comeuppance, it’s about dealing with a confusing world. While it has overt religious themes and I don’t doubt that much of its audience takes it for granted that there’s a biblical root to the show’s supernatural events, the show purposefully does little more than hint at any of this. You can view the series from a non-Christian lens. It is possible, I assure you. One of the things I like about this show is that even viewed as religious allegory, its main concern is the concept of religion and what it means to people. A tragedy befalls a small community, and they struggle to find their footing in a world that seems to make no sense. It’s about faith, sure, but it goes beyond simple parable and doesn’t offer easy answers.

Except, you know, in this episode.

The narrative displayed shows a pretty simple morality. Be a church person and speak the truth, even if the public doesn’t want to hear it, and God will reward you with literal money. Murder people, and God will make you suffer physically and mentally. There’s some irony in Matt gambling like the man he was told about and being rewarded for it, but the episode doesn’t seem to want to explore this dichotomy further. The connection between Matt’s gambling and the disappeared gambler mainly seems to be that the episode wants to establish a physical symbol it can use later in the form of the pigeons. The robber might be seen as punishment for gambling, but that contradicts Matt’s wildly unlikely success at the roulette table, which narratively says that some faith-based supernatural event is helping him win. Even the robber can be viewed as a test to determine whether Matt’s good nature holds up under pressure — a test he fails and is punished for.

The only real ambiguity in the karma portrayed in the episode comes from the Guilty Remnant taking over the church despite Matt’s attempts to befriend them. I actually kind of like this — it’s in-character for the cult. However, it too is blemished by a glaring tonal discontinuity within the episode. Namely, the episode wants this to be a plot twist.

Part Two: Okay, Who is THIS Lady?

There’s a particular buildup and framing film language establishes for plot twist reveals that makes them unmistakable. Fight Club‘s main twist is a good example. Long before the film’s big reveal, clues tip the audience off that they should prepare for one. Narratively, the audience is told information that doesn’t quite line up. Aesthetically, the pace increases, shots become more heavily contrasted and distorted, and the music and edits become more frantic. All of this puts the audience on-edge, leading them to anticipate something. When the narrator finally reaches the hotel room and confronts Tyler, everything slows down, and even more so when the narrator finally realizes what’s going on. From that point on, the framing of the two main characters changes to reflect what the audience has learned, and shifts the protagonist’s perspective.

A typical plot twist will follow this format in some way, using contrast to set up anticipation. The penny drops during a major reveal, and this moment is unmistakable. It has to be clear, and is therefore often a slow or quiet moment. A character says something or notices something that changes the game. A plot twist is designed to greatly affect the plot, so the weight put on it has to correspond with its impact on the narrative.

This episode of The Leftovers has some of the most bizarrely structured plot twists I have ever seen.

Plot Twist #1 is the leukemia. I would not normally consider this a plot twist, as the way he phrases the end of his story clearly indicates that Matt is the one with leukemia. I’m not sure there are many other ways to interpret him transitioning from a third person to an implicit first person perspective for his sermon. However, the episode is not content with that, and hits the audience with a scene near the end where it explicitly reveals that Matt was the little boy from the story. I mean, yeah, we know. Why else would he have told that story at the start of the episode. The framing of this scene, especially the doctor’s words, makes it look like the audience wasn’t supposed to realize the story from the beginning was from Matt’s life. I don’t know if that’s the intention — there’s a better scene later in the series that establishes Matt’s experience with leukemia continues to haunt him — but it’s certainly what comes across.

Plot Twist #2, Nora’s husband cheating on her, has absolutely no setup or buildup and comes up in the middle of the episode. Again, the scene is made up so that Matt delivers a revelatory line that suddenly changes some aspect of the plot and is meant to surprise the audience. This is less problematic than the other “plot twists” because it does have a lasting impact on the story (or at least Nora’s character arc). It’s also a much more minor event, but it is still framed like it’s meant to catch the audience off-guard. The reason I call it a plot twist rather than a mere development or revelation is that it feels like it wants to be a dramatic moment. This scene should come at the eleventh hour when Matt is desperate for cash. Its odd placement and odder irrelevance to this particular episode makes it stand out.

The man from the casino trying to rob Matt is objectively the best plot twist because it’s also one of the hokiest. By this point in the story, I was having fun calling predictable story beats, particularly ones that serve to weaken the plot through their predictability. I don’t think predictability is inherently bad. Sometimes it enhances a story, as you can anticipate a revelation and more clearly see how the buildup to it influences the plot. However, while watching this scene, my thoughts were more along the lines of, “It would be hilarious if he lost all of his money right now because of something contrived. Like if he discovered that guy from the casino had somehow pickpocketed his envelope. That would be so silly, but kind of fitting given what just happened in that scene. Oh, wait, there’s the guy. Damn.” If you have a scene like this in one of your stories, I guarantee you can think of something more creative to put in its place.

The dream sequence scene where Matt and a young version of Nora are watch their house horrifically burn down with their parents inside incites a similar tone to the scene in the clinic. Again, this is delivered mainly through the lines and acting; Nora asks if their parents are inside the burning house, to which Matt replies, “Yes,” and then she asks why the firefighters aren’t doing anything. We see some firemen staring at them, not even looking at the fire. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the most relevant aspects of this scene is that it’s impressive to look at and the apathetic firemen reflect the apathy of the town in the present. However, even if unintended, the scene as it plays out also implies something more sinister, that their parents died because the firemen were incompetent, or perhaps that Matt even had something to do with it. This is never mentioned again in the season, so any grim implications are left implied.

The car crash follows in the dream sequence and is one of the more competent revelations that functions like a proper plot twist. Matt and his wife were hit by a car whose driver vanished. We saw this crash from a third-person perspective at the start of the series, which doesn’t really mean anything but provides a visceral familiarity and empathy in seeing the aftermath of the crash. This is what sends Matt’s wife into a coma. This twist recontextualizes Matt’s relationship to the disappearances — he hasn’t lost anyone physically, but he’s suffered from it all the same and is trying to understand why. Matt’s wife being in a coma is also built up in an oddly mysterious way, but the car crash twist would work well on its own.

However, it’s followed soon after by a surreal sequence where Matt is having sex with his wife and she turns into a brunette lady. This is easily the strangest part of the episode, and I wouldn’t mind it being strange, except that it seems to want to be significant as well. Matt fantasizes about sleeping with other women, or perhaps cheated on his wife before she became comatose. Okay, that complicates his character a bit. He catches fire in the dream out of guilt, which provides some interesting imagery, too.

What I can’t wrap my head around this scene, though, is why the show doesn’t even attempt to clarify who the woman is. Is she one of the Guilty Remnant women stalking his church? Is she Lorie? Is she some rando? Is she someone I’ve missed entirely? I don’t think she’s Nora, based on her hair, but I guess she’s still in the running if she used to have longer hair? It’s weird with or without incestuous subtext, but I’m not sure it would make sense for the mystery woman to be anyone we’ve already met. Matt interacts with a few other characters in this episode, but nothing that happens at any point in the rest of the episode (or the season for that matter) is actually affected by us knowing he has or wants to sleep with any of them. It affects Matt’s character to have dreams about cheating on his wife, but who he’s cheating on her with doesn’t seem to matter. The thing is, the scene is framed in a way that suggests the identity of the woman is really important. And this frustrates me beyond belief. It gives you no hints other than her face, and even if she is one of the other women we’ve seen in the episode, nothing about her acting is consistent with the other characters.

Plot Twist #7 is the bank. First we find that the bank is closed. Oh no! But wait, the banker is willing to listen to Matt. Oh good! But Matt was out for a day, not just a few hours. Oh no! This is another silly plot twist that smells of the contrition that spoils the robber. I actually like it, if only because it’s so ridiculous. I mean, nothing is lost if Matt discovers the bank is fully close because it’s a Saturday or something, but the delivery with the bank point-blank telling Matt that he’s been out for a day is theatrical. I think they were going for drama here, but I don’t know if I could write it to be funnier if I tried.

And then, of course, there’s the revelation that the Guilty Remnant is the one who bought the church. As with many of the other half-decent twists, I wouldn’t mind this one on its own. I mean, it doesn’t really work well as a twist because it’s sort of the default to assume that the Guilty Remnant is competing for the church. Someone else going after it would be harder to explain, and it’s in-character for them to pursue buildings. The episode gives enough ominous shots of the Guilty Remnant standing outside the church that my mind almost immediately went to them wanting Matt and/or the building. It’s kind of funny that the episode takes so long to show that it’s the guilty remnant who buys the church. Like, yeah, no, who the fuck else would it be? As with the other reveals, this is treated dead seriously like it wants to surprise you.

I realize I’m kind of bandying the phrase “plot twist” about a bit, but I maintain that these are in fact, structurally, plot twists within the story. They are framed like plot twists, and they expect the audience, Matt, or both to be surprised by the outcome. All of them are given weight regardless of whether that’s necessary.

Meanwhile, some plot points elsewhere in the story are glossed over despite kind of needing that same revelatory framing. For instance, that $20,000. It would not be out of place in the story, given its prevalent hints of divine intervention, for Matt to stumble upon the seed money within the episode. Getting a mysterious note from Kevin’s father or even just finding $20,000 in cash by chance are both more narratively coherent than Matt staring at a painting and remembering Kevin’s father buried $20,000 worth of cash for him. I think the show is trying to imply that Kevin’s father’s imaginary friends sent Matt a message (because they’re oh-so-subtly angels, which means messengers, did you know?), but if that’s the case, it goes even beyond the lucky gambling streak in all but confirming divine intervention. It also does nothing to smooth the scene where Matt is mechanically casual attitude about suddenly knowing he has $20,000.

Lorie being in her former backyard is a nice touch to indicate her inability to completely let go of her family, but this moment is soured by the casual tone of the scene. It’s played like a normal thing for Lorie to do, and the initial lack of clarity about the location dampens the impact of an otherwise significant scene for Lorie’s character. Throughout the rest of the season, Lorie’s love for her family is delicately implied. Her lingering at the old house is pretty groundbreaking for her character and feels like it should inform more of the story than it does.

On a smaller note is the scene where young Matt is running through the church. This is a brief scene, but young Matt runs straight past his father giving a sermon, suggesting that prior to the fire, he was perhaps unappreciative and cared little for religion. It’s suggested throughout the episode that Matt’s religiosity was a later development, and that his childhood traumas are linked to his religious identity. That’s a significant development, and one would think that seeing Matt’s childhood self might be important for understanding his character. But, no, young Matt running through the church is functionally just a waypoint from dream to dream. We never physically see him as a child outside of this one scene, which makes it even more frustrating that the show teases us with it. If you’re going to suggest deeper character drama than you show, at least pay it off later in the season.

 

Part Three: Matt’s Better Qualities

I’ve hinted about it already, but aside from my churlish delight in the more bewildering decisions made for this episode, there are moments I really enjoy. The episode is well-crafted overall, structured so that it satisfies familiar narrative beats. I don’t care for a lot of the plot points in the episode, but there are plenty of other moments that are admirable.

Matt is easily one of the more intriguing characters in the show, and I would be remiss if I deigned to talk about him. He’s still very much the archetype of the struggling priest, of course. Small town religious figures are popular enough, especially in stories with any sort of faith component, that it’s difficult to make their role as religious figures exceptionally unique. Matt isn’t a half-bad reverend, but he has follies that complicate his character’s internality beyond the difficult environment he works in. Not only is the town a bit erratic and unpredictable following the disappearances, but Matt himself isn’t responding very well either. His obsession with collecting information on the departed strengthens and weakens his position within the church. When he manages to clue into something seemingly significant, revealing a formerly well-regarded vanished member of the community to be secretly monstrous, it impacts the community, but not always in a positive way. A subset of the community sees Matt’s research as revelatory, a light in the dark that seems a plausible solution to an unsolvable problem.

However, this same pursuit that brings him power in the new world that’s emerged after the disappearances also alienates him. He’s subjected to physical abuse and distances himself from what remains of his family, even though he would clearly rather these not happen. Matt values his pursuit of information above all else, even the things he cherishes most. He would likely give up the church for it, even, given how readily he accepts payment in information over cash when he genuinely needs it. Looking at the end results of his labors, the purpose of this pursuit is likewise questionable. What does he really gain, other than power? Matt isn’t really trying to make people’s lives better. He insists that this is a divine purpose, but he follows it with no clear end goal in sight. No one has been improved by knowing the “truth” about the disappeared; no one has gained much of anything from it, aside from Matt, and he’s only getting an ego boost driven by his own obsession. It’s of lukewarm benefit at most, and genuinely destructive the rest of the time.

Matt isn’t restoring the town to its former self or maintaining its grasp on a better past as he believes; Matt feeds from and into the chaos sown by the disappearances. While the show implies through its environments leading up to this episode that the city itself is godless, Matt’s articles certainly aren’t helping matters. He falls in more with the cults than any recognizable religious establishment shown prior to the event, and he caters to a similar fervor to that felt by the rest of the town. It’s a stretch to say that Matt is helping much of anything. His interests certainly don’t seem to fall in line with anything restorative or traditional. The show seems to lean toward the sentiment that traditional religion is preferable to the chaos of the cult system. Given that Matt is supposed to be the embodiment of the old guard, though, I think you could easily question whether any sort of religion is ultimately beneficial to the town.

The flashbacks don’t work from a narrative standpoint because they have nothing to do with the rest of the plot and nothing comes of them later in the series. Matt’s character remains largely unexplored throughout the rest of the season, highlighting this episode as especially odd. That said, the character depth suggested by the flashbacks is an interesting one. I like the ominous atmosphere surrounding Matt, the uncertainty with which the camera frames him. He’s the protragonist of the episode, yes, but his motives are ultimately to hurt people. He’s naive and uncreative, old-fashioned but in that petty, manipulative way that people who think the term endearing prefer to ignore. He largely lacks any charm, the show hinting that he was a bit of a slacker and a cheat in his youth. Though he tries to conceal it, his actions (like ducking bills, going behind people’s backs, and fantasizing about cheating on his comatose wife) show that he’s maintained his cynicism and malice into his adulthood. He’s not grown past the story he told at the start of the episode; he’s merely figured out a way to justify his own faults. I mean, he smashes a man’s head against a road over money. The audience sympathizes with him because we see glimmers of him being genuinely empathetic to people like his wife and the Guilty Remnant workers. He wants to be better, but he tries to change his surroundings rather than himself.

Matt could be a fantastic villain. I mean, spoilers, he’s not really a villain (in the first season, at least — I haven’t gotten to the second yet), but the presence established here is a solid foundation. It works, it gets me interested to see what this character does, and it makes me afraid for the other characters knowing what he’s capable of. That’s some good conflict there. We’ve been needing that in this series.

There are other things to like about the episode. The amount of narrative delivered visually, like how Matt’s car is patched up with duck tape from the crash, is solid, and the aesthetics of the episode are a step up from the previous two. I maintain what I said about the previous episode: this series runs on moments. Individually, I think most of these scenes work. They’re competent, even interesting. There are some derivative, predictable, and tacky moments, but on their own, they’re not deal-breaking. The problem with this episode is fully the cohesion and structure. If the series can improve that, it’ll be closer to what I expect of it.

I don’t have a lot of respect for this episode on the whole, but I kind of like it. I can see the potential if the rest of the series makes use of the stronger elements of this episode, and unlike the other two, the limitations of the episode are still kind of fun. It’s amusing to poke fun at its self-seriousness, in any case. I think there’s value to be had, whether it comes in the form the creators of the series intended or not. I would love to appreciate it unironically, but appreciating it in any way is something at least.

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