Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Five: Gladys – ****
Part One: We Don’t Need to See Anyone Being Stoned to Death, For Any Reason
The plot of this episode is very simple, perhaps more so than any of the other episodes in the first season. A member of the Guilty Remnant, a woman named Gladys, is murdered and Kevin and Lorie respond to this event. Kevin becomes angry with the unsympathetic townsfolk, while Lorie is deeply upset at losing a friend. The episode is well-paced, emotional, and probably one of the better episodes in the series. It also opens with a needlessly graphic scene in which Gladys is stoned to death.
My general attitude toward non-sexual violence in fictional media tends to be lax, especially when it’s executed with humor or absurdity. I’m all for video games with decapitations and fountains of blood, even though I can’t even stand to see real-life insects getting hurt. There’s a difference between pixels on a screen or buckets of red corn syrup and the horrible suffering of real people. I do think that, especially in the U.S., we tend to be desensitized to fictional violence and even indulge in it more than is perhaps healthy. I’ve noticed that with increasing awareness of the real-world atrocities, especially these last few years, it’s become a lot harder for me to get on-board with thoughtless and indulgent violence in fictional media. However, the more cartoonish it is, the easier it is for me to distinguish artificial from actual violence.
Some series seek to address it in a realistic way, and purposefully steer away from the “fun” aspect of fantasy violence. This is a much dicier territory in my mind. We have another boundary to address, that of appropriate versus inappropriate depictions. Unlike most dichotomies, I actually think the boundary between solemn depiction of a horrific event and excessive indulgence is actually pretty distinct. There’s a world of difference between implying a rape scene and showing a rape scene, for instance. It’s not an easy boundary to cross accidentally unless you are exceptionally imperceptive and a bit naive. Of course, established cliches, insincere motivations, and especially condescension toward the audience may lead story writers to intentionally cross that boundary.
Indulgent violence imparted with the intention of being deep is a classic mark of amateurism, particularly in dramas.
That’s not to say that the amount of violence is directly proportional to its indulgence — context is important. We tend to give stories about inherently violent subjects, like war or genocide, more leeway when it comes to horrific imagery. That’s also not to say that shocking or disgusting your audience is never appropriate. All of this discussion can apply to other potentially unsavory content, including sex scenes, slurs, and bodily functions, and there are genres of media where the unsavory content is the core appeal for one reason or another. Whether that sort of media itself is harmful is a worthy discussion, but it’s not what I’m interested in talking about today. Erotica and torture porn, to list examples, tend to be restricted to their own niche audiences who often understand the boundary between the fiction they consume and the real world better than most people. It’s when those genres leak into other media without reflection or self-awareness that I start to grow concerned.
Okay, so to bring the topic back to The Leftovers, the opening scene is fairly short, and certainly not as gory as it could have been. However, it is highly realistic, and that’s the problem. The scene is excruciating, going on for about a minute, during which you see every rock, every dent in the character’s head, the gashes, her exhaustion. She pleads for mercy, and while it’s very convincing acting, I never want to see it again. The scene is trying to make you feel uncomfortable. It succeeds, but to what end? The rest of the episode is uncomfortable, too, but in a detached, anxious way. The stoning scene is just masochism. You get the sense that the creators of the show thought that forcing the audience to watch something horrific would make that scene seem important somehow. You can’t empathize with Gladys until well after it’s over, though, and even then, the later references to her are overshadowed by memory of her horrible fate.
There’s a common convention in fiction where you introduce a dog and then later kill it to make the audience cry. It’s cruel, manipulative, and plain bad writing, but it does the job. If the dog dies, the audience cries. Torturing a character to make the audience sympathize with them is pretty similar. It’s not necessarily that we care about the person who’s being hurt, we just don’t like seeing anyone be brutalized. It’s excessive, and it’s only in there because the writers can’t think of a cleaner way to rile up the audience’s emotions.
The best example of this sort of empty prodding of the audience actually comes at the end of the episode. By most accounts, the scene where Gladys’ body is being cremated is not a bad scene. The music is nice, the cinematography is nice, and the pacing is emotionally poignant. The only issue is that Gladys’ face is uncovered, gashes and all. There is no reason in the story for her face to be uncovered — she’s even wrapped in a shroud. Her face is uncovered is so that the audience knows that it’s her and remembers how she died horribly. It demonstrates how she’ll be forgotten and how her identity is literally being burned away. A child could come up with a more subtle metaphor than that, and the scene is actively weakened by the tonally dissonant element of a middle-aged woman’s beaten-up face. It’s cheap.
I’d actively encourage skipping over the introduction of this episode. Just cut to the opening credits. I realize a lot of work probably went into the scene, and I don’t mean to disrespect the cinematographer or makeup artists or actor, but I don’t see the value of violent imagery for the sake of violent imagery. The rest of the episode does a much better job of establishing sincerity around Gladys as a character, mainly through how other people respond to the news.
Part Two: Catharsis
With my main complaints out of the way, I can finally start to give this episode the praise it deserves. The keyword for the episode is pathos; nearly the entire narrative revolves around characters coping with their shock and confusion about Gladys. For the audience, those emotions are equally complex. You might recognize Gladys from some of the previous episodes, particularly the third one where she was one of the Guilty Remnant followers stalking the church, and also a figure in Matt’s dream sequence. However, beyond that, she never received much attention. Like most of the Guilty Remnant, Gladys was a faceless entity, no more distinct or unique than any of the others. Now, though, we have an entire episode dedicated to her, and like Kevin, we are horrified by what’s happened to her but also forced to confront our own lack of connection to her character.
The episode does a solid job of making us care about her posthumously. We don’t really learn a lot about her — she was lonely, she had a son who died sometime after she joined the Guilty Remnant, she was Lorie’s friend, and she was dedicated to the cult even when given the chance to break one of its cardinal rules. That’s it. That’s her legacy. It’s an unfortunate legacy for anyone to lead, and the haphazard cremation of her body hammers home her lack of impact on the world. Later episodes will largely forget or dismiss Gladys in much the same way.
But Lorie won’t. The episode uses Gladys’ death to further explore Lorie’s character. The woman in charge of the Guilty Remnant (or the town’s faction of it, at least), Patti, reveals that she knows Lorie has been wavering. She permits Lorie to talk, an offer Lorie pointedly refuses, and they have something of a one-sided but heartfelt conversation about what it means to lose people. This is one of the highlights of the episode, even though the speech ends up fairly vague. The reactions of the characters sell it. Both of them cared for Gladys a lot more than they let on, and while there’s a sort of catharsis from voicing those feelings (or at least emoting them), the conversation seems to leave both women feeling more hollow than they felt before. Lorie even lashes out at Matt as he tries to console the Guilty Remnant toward the end of the episode.
Meanwhile, Kevin is stuck dealing with the logistics of the body and the newfound physical threat the town exerts on the Guilty Remnant. The townsfolk have been cruel to the cultists on several occasions before now, and the escalation of the cult’s activities to outright crime in the previous episode feels like it might prompt some of the more violent residents to murder. Angry, frightened people tend to lash out, especially against those who are poorly equipped to defend themselves.
It’s actually kind of hard to judge Kevin’s feelings, though. In the previous episode, he lost his patience with the Guilty Remnant and pushed back against them. Despite this, he’s been one of the most sympathetic of the townsfolk toward their number, aside from Matt, and he’s tried to keep them more or less safe. He’s reactionary. When the townsfolk deem the murder justified, he gets understandably angry with them, especially since one of them is his former dog-hunting partner (I looked him up, the character’s name is Dean). Kevin finds that the body has been taken by some feds and can’t be retrieved, and while he has several potential suspects, he doesn’t have solid evidence to get anywhere near solving the crime. Eventually, this breaks Kevin and he sits on a bed, weeping, presumably longing for the simplicity of the time before the disappearances.
Curiously, the episode never addresses the odd goings-on of the first few episodes. Two major events — Kevin learning that Dean is real and a mysterious stranger calling Kevin on the phone to talk about eliminating the Guilty Remnant — seem like they would add to the minor subplot of Kevin’s uncertain reality. This is the first time Kevin’s seen Dean since he seemed to accept that Dean was a figment of his imagination, but Dean interacts with the other police officers. He even shoots some wild dogs, which would seem to verify Kevin’s depiction of him. Yet, no one ever calls out Dean’s existence as Kevin’s possibly imagined mystery man. The entire town just seems to accept that Dean’s always lived there. This never comes up again. You may be starting to notice a pattern.
Likewise, when Kevin gets on the phone with a mysterious “fed,” the man suggests calling specialists in to basically assassinate the Guilty Remnant. This conversation is so surreal it feels like it can only be imagined. We never see the man on the other end, this idea has never been broached nor is ever broached again, and Kevin’s the only one who hears it. It’s a good opportunity to sow a seed for Kevin’s internalized resentment toward the Guilty Remnant. Such a seed comes to fruition a few episodes later, even, but seems completely unrelated to this phone call. So I’m at a loss there.
Part Three: Visual Storytelling is Visual
It wouldn’t be a proper review of The Leftovers if I didn’t take a moment to address the aesthetics a bit. I don’t have a lot to say about them that I haven’t already mentioned in the previous reviews, but I’ll give it a shot.
The visuals are solidly good. They communicate clearly and effectively the main idea of a scene, and outside of the opening (which isn’t bad for its cinematography as much as what that cinematography is capturing), there aren’t really any moments I can call out for being unnecessary or sloppy. The shots and editing are a bit unimpressive, most of them static and practical as opposed to awkwardly artistic. The series seems to prefer the latter, but I don’t mind the former every once in a while. This isn’t meant to be a visually spectacular episode, and the story has other elements to support it.
The conversation between Patti and Lorie is a good example of both the plain functionality of the cinematography and editing and why they’re not a problem. It’s almost all just a shot reverse shot sequence with little variation in camera distance or angle, but the conversation remains impactful and captivating. The dialogue and especially the acting pull the scene together, and the cinematography and editing step back for support. I prefer a little bit more flair most of the time, but I can’t really fault the filmmaking for serving the story.
The one truly remarkable thing about this episode is its pacing. This one goes by at lightning speed, which is remarkable and admirable given its relatively narrow scope. Jill only comes into the story briefly and Tommy doesn’t appear in it at all. Even with a limited cast and a focus on a single character, each scene manages to be engaging. Even the more minor scenes contribute to the episode plot, broader series plot, or both. I love a fast-paced show, and this one benefits from the change in style more than most.