Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Four: B.J. and the A.C. – *****
Part One: Kevin Chonks the Joshy Boi
Where the previous episode seemed to be unaware of its comedic timing, this one’s a different beast. Episode Four is self-aware to a point unmatched elsewhere in the season. This is the first genuinely funny episode in the series, and it’s a much-needed reprieve for the audience.
We return to Kevin’s family members as the point-of-view characters with the town preparing for Christmas. You might expect the episode to feature the mourning of lost loved ones, which, yeah, it does. But more importantly, it features a kidnapped Baby Jesus.
A local nativity scene has lost its Baby Jesus doll. Given that the town has much more important things on their plate and also doesn’t care much for organized religion, the missing Baby Jesus is more of a curiosity than a crime. Kevin’s friends bring it up in casual conversations much as one might the discovery of a new kind of fish. At no point is there a sense of urgency to finding or retrieving the doll, nor does anyone explicitly suggest that it should be retrieved. Even Kevin is apathetic, until Jill deems his suggestion to replace the doll sacrilegious. Kevin rightfully suspects Jill and her friends of stealing the Baby Jesus, but does nothing about it at first. Upon being tasked to pick up the replacement doll, Kevin becomes frustrated and then appoints himself to single-handedly find the doll. What brings on this change of heart is somewhat unclear — guilt that it’s his own daughter who stole it, lingering respect for tradition, an attempt to hold on to what few sacred things remain in the world, perhaps.
Whatever the cause, Kevin goes all in. He puts out an APB on the Baby Jesus. He pulls people over to interview them. He decides that it is his duty as Chief of Police to personally find and return the Baby Jesus to the nativity scene. And nobody, arguably even Kevin, gives a damn.
He does eventually find it, and shows off his success to an indifferent and somewhat confused crowd. As he’s about to return it, he finds that he’s a few seconds too late — Matt has discovered that the Baby Jesus was missing and has donated his own (objectively better) Baby Jesus. Kevin drives home, disheartened, and chucks the doll out the window into a ditch.
Everything about this subplot is amazing. I love the Breaking Bad-style opening that shows the manufacture of the baby dolls and the undignified appropriation of one such doll as the Jesus for a nativity scene. Not only is it an inconvenience to Kevin to find this Baby Jesus, it’s a mass-produced lifeless changeling of a doll that isn’t meant to be used in a nativity scene. It’s an impostor Baby Jesus.
Which also makes Matt’s contribution of a much more convincing Baby Jesus all the funnier the more you read into it. Matt’s just a well-intentioned pleb in this episode, uninformed about Kevin’s quest. You could easily imagine that, having lost his church, he’s eager to help set up a nativity scene when the opportunity presents itself. However, a likely unintended consequence of the opening scene involving the acquisition of the doll from a toy store is that the nativity models are already missing a Baby Jesus model from the start. And, well, the only doll that shows up in the episode — and one that looks suspiciously befitting the style of the other ceramics — is Matt’s.
The town’s casual indifference to the doll is a delightful compliment to the number of times it’s addressed. Objectively, the town neither seems to benefit nor suffer from the absence of the doll — its disappearance isn’t especially important, but provides a brief bit of minor intrigue that fills the gaps in conversations. The only characters who benefit from revering the doll are those who ascribe importance to it — namely Kevin, Matt, and Jill. Kevin’s self-appointed task to retrieve the doll is only significant to him, and it’s indicative of his continued struggles to release his hold on the past. The rest of the town doesn’t gain anything from their apathy to the doll, but it likewise isn’t framed in a negative light. They certainly aren’t as emotionally damaged by it as Kevin and Jill are.
Part Two: The Value of Humor
I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a big proponent of the coexistence of humor and depth. This is the first episode in The Leftovers that has been witty in its delivery, and the story benefits greatly from it. However, I do want to emphasize that it’s not merely the lighter material nor the jokes that make this episode better than those preceding it. I like funny jokes, of course, and I can’t deny some amount of positive feelings toward the episode elicited from it making me laugh. The difference between this episode and the third one is that while it has inherently funny moments and a funny premise, its self-awareness allows it to use those moments to its advantage.
The editing is better timed, for instance. It’s timed to make the jokes significant. Because the episode is trying to convey humor, it also knows it needs to provide particular shots in order for a joke to land. Ergo, we see a clearer relationship between events and character responses. Their emotion is exaggerated, but not forced.
I think we tend to underestimate the skill required for effective comedic acting. It’s fairly easy to tell a joke, but to communicate a joke nonverbally in a way that doesn’t break character requires a fair bit of subtlety, and particularly good timing on an actor’s part. I don’t know that I would say that it’s necessarily harder than conveying drama, but drama tends to be the go-to as far as displays of acting chops are concerned. There are some spectacular monologues out there that rightfully earn awards, but everyone and their mother has monologued at some point in their life. Dramatic moments are predictable, meaning any variation in performance that manages to remain believable tends to receive praise. Comedic moments have far more variables, so even tiny changes to a performance can completely restructure the subtext of a scene.
It’s refreshing to see the actors of The Leftovers incorporate that variation into their performances here. The episode has its fair share of somber moments, too — some of the most impactful of the series — and that requires even more of the actors. Transitions from light to dark tones and vice-versa are relatively common exercises, but it can be difficult to keep them from falling into familiar patterns. The cast of the episode balance these transitions well without compromising their characters or the bleaker overall tone of the series. The comedic moments arise from a beleaguered sense of futility the characters experience, so there’s a undertone of the same apathy that characterizes the show. The humor is very dry and critical, but that’s the sort of comedy that works within the story. One could easily imagine the amusing persistence of the Baby Jesus as another in a series of frustrating oddities that add chaos to the characters’ lives.
Of course, as much as I’ve harped on about the Baby Jesus subplot, it’s only one of several in the episode. On a more serious note, the episode explores the personal qualms of the main family members by putting them under increased pressure. Aside from Kevin’s standoff with the doll, Jill faces increased uncertainty with her place among her cohort, Lorie tries and fails to distance herself from her family, and Tommy tries to smooth his strained connection with Christine.
The arc each character experiences within the episode builds naturally off the elements we’ve seen elsewhere. Usually, this is a good thing.
Lorie’s contribution to the plot is easily the most intense and emotionally grounded. Its delivery is accented with one of the most somber scores in the series and vivid imagery with effective cinematographic framing. Essentially, she’s concerned that her ties to the family are threatening her standing within the Guilty Remnant but she struggles to sever these entirely. She gives Kevin divorce papers and throws away a thoughtful gift from her daughter, even when the other member she’s with, Meg — the woman from the second episode who as it turn out was a distinct individual — says that she won’t tell anyone if Lorie keeps it. However, she goes back to the gutter where she dropped the lighter at the end of the episode and tries to retrieve it in secret, unable to remain as detached as she acts. This conflict within her character most directly calls back to the third episode, where she visits her family’s home to reminisce. She also mentions to Meg that she remembers her family in the second episode.
I mentioned in my previous Leftovers review that Lorie’s lingering connection to her family is incongruous with her development elsewhere in the season. I was mistaken, as she does appear here building on those same feelings. I’m sure they appear in later episodes as well. I do maintain that her arc throughout the season really doesn’t focus on this aspect of her, though. Lorie is capable of complex emotions. Her devotion to the Guilty Remnant and perplexing personal reasons for joining them are far more central to her character as the series wants to present it. I prefer her being torn between her old life and her new, wanting the stability of the Guilty Remnant but missing the intimacy of her loving family, but that’s not what her story is about. I’m torn about whether her personal story being somewhat incongruous is mitigated by the parts of it that are compelling.
Jill’s character arc is likewise difficult to assess, though it is easy to pin down. In this episode, she steal the Baby Jesus doll and lies to her father about it so she can fit in with her dipshit teenage friends. While camping out and drinking to their victory after having stolen the Jesus, Jill is pressured into setting the doll on fire. She does so not at the suggestion of one of her friends that they destroy it, but that they should eventually return it. Jill doesn’t like the implication that she’s a goody two-shoes, but when confronted with doing something genuinely destructive, she can’t bring herself to do it. She throws the doll away rather than burn it for fun, an act that rewards her with puerile jeers from the other kids.
Jill doesn’t get much depth to her character beyond the concept laid out in the scene. Her thoughtful gift to her mother, an engraved lighter, is much more indicative of what I think the writers were going for with Jill’s character. She accepts things sooner than most people and can adapt to change — better than Kevin, at the very least. Jill’s inexperienced, though, and she still holds on to the past. She’s the closest any of the characters have gotten to finding a balance between the two by not fully abandoning her identity while simultaneously trying to incorporate a new one. It’s telling, though, that she doesn’t seem to be much happier than any of the other characters. It’s a sort of solution, but it remains incomplete.
Tommy’s subplot is pretty much the worst thing in the episode. It didn’t contribute much in the previous episodes and as he remains isolated from the other characters, his story has very little connection to the rest of the plot, other than in that broad sense of theme. If he weren’t related to the other characters, we would be left wondering why Tommy even appears in the story. His subplot could be cut entirely and the series would lose nothing so far.
It doesn’t help that Tommy’s subplot is downright bad compared to most of the rest of the episode. We learn that Christine is pregnant with Wayne’s baby, which doesn’t really change the situation other than to establish Christine as a sort of Virgin Mary allegory. While on the run, Christine gets beaten up by a man at a mental health clinic and Tommy takes her to the doctor. The obstetrician suspects Tommy to be the one who injured Christine and calls the police, and Tommy runs away when Christine refuses to leave the hospital. Tommy prays to Wayne for guidance and interprets a telemarketer as a sign that Wayne is listening, God-like. Tommy returns to Christine and sneaks her onto a bus, which then stops when it encounters what appear to be human bodies (they’re actually replicas of the departed) that have fallen out of a transport truck.
Tommy’s subplot relies entirely on metaphor, and like the third episode, its metaphors are pretty weak. This episode is better at presenting ambiguity appropriate to the theme of the series regarding the legitimate godliness of Wayne and his consorts, but it still fumbles quite a bit in its delivery. Christine and Tommy are both extremely flat characters for a show that can usually at least imply depth, and their actions are so absurdly obtuse that it’s difficult to relate to them on any level. They’re young and hot and that’s about it. Christine is given basically no character to begin with, so the show announcing that she’s a birth mother to a presumably much more important baby feels like a low blow. Either the show seems to think pregnancy is a legitimate character trait (which just — what?), or actively doesn’t care about Christine aside from what she means to Tommy.
It’s worth noting at this point that she (and arguably Wayne) are pretty nearly the only major characters who are people of color in the series. The mayor of the main town is also a black woman, but she gets about as much screen time as any of the minor figures at the police department, and doesn’t really add to the plot other than to occasionally give Kevin tasks. The show writes its minority characters in a very odd way, like it doesn’t quite understand how people work. Wayne’s more alien behaviors can be waved away by him being a cult leader who thinks he’s Jesus, but even then, that’s not a great look for one of the few minority characters in a show with a very white case. Christine seems exceptionally naive and makes a lot of harmful decisions with no justification or rationale. Aside from being entirely unable to care for herself, she divulges sensitive information to strangers and refuses to leave the hospital when Tommy explains that the nurse is suspicious. The show doesn’t explain how old Christine is, but a lot of her dialogue seems written for a younger teenager, which is also a pretty bad look.
Tommy himself isn’t much to look at either, but Christine mainly seems to be there to make him look more competent by comparison. It takes him an absurdly long time to work out why the obstetrician doesn’t seem to like him, and it’s no wonder, given he has bloody knuckles, Christine has bruises on her belly, he admits to not being the father and claims to be “just a friend,” and has absolutely no cover story. Tommy has all the wit of a sea urchin, and it’s only by making Christine even less capable that the show makes him a half-functional character. He’s possessive of Christine, easily confused, and pushy, which wouldn’t necessarily invalidate the character as part of a narrative, except that the show doesn’t see Tommy this way. It thinks Tommy is a damaged youth with an enormous responsibility whose devotion to his god is strained by adversity. That’s how his section is framed. It’s kind of infuriating to be told to care about an inept echinoid with no external justification and a lot of reason to be skeptical. Skepticism about Tommy goes unrewarded, though.
Part Three: ~SYMBOLISM~
As you might image from my description of the plot, symbolism and metaphor features heavily in this episode. That’s kind of a bummer because, as with the third episode, the symbolism is firmly rooted in Christian mythos and imagery. Tommy’s subplot draws direct parallels between Wayne and the Abrahamic god, Christina and the Virgin Mary, Tommy and Joseph, and the authorities and the oppressive Roman occupation described in the Bible. I’m sure there are other comparisons that require further understanding of the intended allegory, but these ones in particular stick out like flashing lights. I get it. This is a series about religion. Specifically, Christianity, because that’s the religion most white Americans know about. If it’s trying to be subtle, it’s fucking failing.
Tommy chauffeuring Christina to safety represents the ideas of tested faith, devotion to one’s god, and prophecy benefiting believers, but I don’t know that I can say it goes far beyond the modern interpretations (or even archaic interpretations) of the stories it’s drawing upon. What you see is what you get.
I don’t mind the Baby Jesus doll as a stand-in for the town’s faith because, unlike Tommy’s subplot, the hunt for the Baby Jesus works in the story as much more than a simple metaphor. Yes the town has lost its faith in Joshy Boi, among other things, and Kevin tossing the doll out the window is an on-the-nose representation of him abandoning his faith. But, consider: A) the indifference the characters feel toward the doll is also a representation of their exposure to an sheltered reality lacking the answers of organized religion that is not itself necessarily invalidated by the text and, B) it’s funny. The doll can represent Kevin’s desire for order, his faith, the town’s faith, the multifaceted and indifferent relationship the main characters have to life in general, hope, the past, law, order, and plenty of other things depending on which scenes you look at. It can also be taken as its own symbol restricted to the episode and still hold meaning as an inconvenient MacGuffin that propels the characters actions. Can you see why I prefer this plot to Tommy’s?
There are a few loose ends I should wrap up before I move on to my next review. The Guilty Remnant has a more extensive presence in this episode than I’ve let on, and I’ll be discussing that more in the next review. Here, they come directly at odds with Kevin and the town, pressuring them, not as passive protesters (as they have been in previous episodes), but as active assailants. The Guilty Remnant are careful to obey the rules in front of Kevin, to the point where he’s willing to bend those rules himself in order to get the cult members out of his hair. At the end of the episode, either because of Kevin’s transgression or in spite of the cult’s previous passivity, the members sneak into people’s houses and steal photographs of their missing loved ones.
This is the episode where I started to become concerned about the Guilty Remnant plot-wise. Their enigmatic presence in the first episode is intriguing enough to make them noteworthy even to a casual viewer, and I have to admit, their presence as an ever-present part of the town’s aesthetic has grown on me. You don’t tend to see very many similar depictions of weird societies in stories that are not primarily about those weird societies. However, the intrigue can only go on for so long until the novelty of it wears off. The escalation of the Guilty Remnant subplot gives you a foreboding sense (one that is substantiated in the next episode), but as the plot becomes more intense, it begins to promise payoff that it could never deliver.
As a thematic element, the Guilty Remnant doesn’t need a real goal or drive. They have one, and it’s foggy, yet appealing to those who join the cult. That’s all the audience needs to know. With the buildup of some massive plot, however, of which the demonstrations and break-ins look to only be minor parts, the ideals of the Guilty Remnant can’t rely as much on enigma. They need a clear mission statement, and prominent members within them, like the leader of the town chapter, Patti, need to provide a compelling explanation of that mission statement sooner or later. Why are they dressed in white? Why do they chain smoke? Why are they primarily women? Why do they want people to forget, and yet seem to also want people to remember the disappearances? Why can’t they talk? What do they want from the town, other than more members?
These questions aren’t important on their own if you illustrate a refusal to answer them. That stubbornness just draws people into the story more quickly. However, you reach a limitation to the intrigue that unanswered questions alone can provide. The show wants to imply that the Guilty Remnant are planning something, but sometimes not knowing is more interesting. Whatever this subplot pays off, it can’t possibly stand up to audience expectations. And beyond that, I get the sense that it never really wanted to; the payoff ends up unusually disappointing, which makes me suspect the concept for this cult arose in the writing process long before much ideological specificity was set in stone.
On the whole, though, this episode is much tighter than those that came before it. There are still a few moments where the camera is dodgy with its close-ups, notably when it takes about six separate shots to withhold a photograph that has Lorie in it, but most of the shots are legible. Some, like the opening sequence and Lorie’s attempt to reach the lighter, have a really nice compositional balance to them. There are small places where the story could improve, particularly by cutting out Tommy’s subplot, but the rest forms a surprisingly impactful, engaging, and charming narrative. I’m sad to report that the rest of the season doesn’t quite hold up to the same standards, but the next few episodes are occasionally reminiscent of this one’s style.