Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Seven: Solace for Tired Feet – ***
Part One: The Goods
Compared to the previous few episodes, this one is a little disorganized. It has a few plotlines of its own, but they stem from other episodes and lack resolution, making it more of a mid-season episode than, oddly enough, most of the other mid-season episodes. Characters develop, questions are asked, and mysteries thicken. That’s largely it, really.
The Guilty Remnant is up to their usual shenanigans, protesting and bothering town residents, but some characters, including Nora and Kevin, have found ways to cope with them. One such way includes spraying them with a garden hose, but hey, it works. Nora and Kevin slowly get together, ending the episode with hot, steamy sex that I could have sworn happened earlier, but the music and editing says it’s their first time, so I’ll trust that it’s a special event. Kevin continues to struggle with his sanity, especially now that a mystery dog has shown up tethered in his yard. Apparently, he’s the one who brought it home, but he only has snippets of the acquisition of the dog, very little of which makes much sense.
To complicate matters, Kevin’s father has escaped from his psychiatric facility. He rescues Jill from an abandoned refrigerator, has a run-in with the new family dog, and finally meets up with Kevin at a diner. There, he tells Kevin that the “voices” in his head, and also in Kevin’s, have a task for him. What that task is remains to be seen; Kevin’s father speaks in riddles and vagaries, but promises it is important, and also unpleasant. He gives Kevin an old National Geographic magazine, claiming Kevin must accept it as part of his task. By this point in the conversation, Kevin’s father starts to sound like he’s lost it, so Kevin tears up the magazine, and after a tussle, arrests his father. That’s not the last we see of the magazine, though, as Jill ends up buying a backup copy that haunts Kevin.
A few other events happen as well. Tommy plays a significant role in the episode, receiving a call from Wayne and from it, tracking down a doppelganger in another Joseph-and-Mary pair, also carrying Wayne’s progeny. His run-in with them goes south and he returns to his own safehouse to find that Christine has given birth to a baby girl. He also breaks the phone he’s been using to keep in touch with Wayne.
Jill’s friend, Amy, who’s been living with the Garveys for much of the series, starts to step on Jill’s toes and overstay her welcome. We’re not sure why Jill acts so antagonistic toward her, other than Amy having a more boisterous personality and less of a filter on her words than Jill.
We also see a bit of Matt when Kevin learns that Matt’s been in contact with his father and receiving money from him. Not much comes from this, other than Kevin becoming suspicious that Matt is up to something, but what that even is, the episode doesn’t make clear.
Part Two: Tommy Boy
The magazine and the dog are both good additions, as is the revelation that Tommy and Christine weren’t particularly special to Wayne. However, I struggle to think of where any of these plots could realistically go from here, given the precedents set by the show.
I’ll tell you now, because I’ll have a lot to say about the next few episodes, but if the magazine comes back again, it doesn’t play a role in the rest of the first season. I like the idea of it possibly being just some object of obsession for an unfortunate old man, but the show has toyed with the idea of the supernatural elements being ambiguous long enough that I’m willing to just go ahead and assume that they’re real and angels or some shit. It’s a hidden message or a key or something that will come up later.
You know, a MacGuffin.
Being a MacGuffin doesn’t necessarily diminish the magazine, as Kevin’s relationship to it is what really matters, but the thing about MacGuffins in long-form stories like shows is that they can become extremely tedious if the show doesn’t know how to handle them. Emphasize the MacGuffin too frequently and the characters sound like a broken record. Don’t bring it up enough and the audience will cease to care about it. These are issues all fiction that uses MacGuffins faces, but the winding narratives and relatively greater complexity of longer stories exacerbates the usual issues. In this case, those unfavorable extremes seem likely for the show, given it hasn’t used multi-episode MacGuffins before and has focused heavily on MacGuffins whenever it has used them at all.
Likewise, there are only a few paths the show is likely to go with the dog. Kevin tames the dog, rejecting Dean and the general concept of a corrupted world, or he kills the dog, giving in to his own fears about the literal and metaphorical future. It makes for a good visual symbol, but the dog doesn’t really have much plot utility. At least, not as much as the circumstances leading to Kevin acquiring it. Even so, the episode is no closer to providing answers about Kevin’s questionable state of mind.
And then there’s Tommy. Oh boy, I’m excited to talk about Tommy again.
Okay, so fair’s fair, this is probably Tommy’s best episode. He really doesn’t do much in it himself — he drops off some money, then figures out that Wayne has multiple Christines — but he reacts to things. Reactions are fine. That’s good. Christine giving birth is also an emotional catharsis of a sort — assuming, of course, that you were ever invested in her safety or anything to do with the baby, which I wasn’t, but I can recognize that’s where an emotional catharsis is supposed to go, at least.
Tommy’s section, as elsewhere, is kind of poorly shot. And written. I’m sorry, it just is. Most of it’s down to framing. At one point, he’s seemingly at his father’s house. I assume this is supposed to just be one of Kevin’s hallucinations because it never comes up again, but I have no idea. There’s a point where it looks like Tommy is in his old room, but then the camera pans out to reveal he’s actually at the safehouse with Christine. Why? That doesn’t need to be ambiguous at all.
There’s also a point where he’s dead-dropping a parcel of cash for the other couple, and he does this by running straight to the mailbox where the dead drop goes, and then running back to his car. Tommy. Tommy, that’s so much more suspicious than if you walked up to it casually. It’s a fucking mailbox. People approach them at a normal speed all the time. Normal people don’t book it to a mailbox and then run away like it’s Capture the Fucking Flag.
And I know what you’re thinking. “Hat, Tommy is a fictional character. Just because he doesn’t realize that running to a mailbox is suspicious doesn’t mean him doing so is bad writing. It’s in-character.” To which I would remind you, dear reader, that the show explicitly wants us to know that Tommy is a suave genius who’s clever and knows how to survive on the streets. It’s shown us that many times, often with a similar approach, like when he took Christine to the hospital and realized the doctors were after him after only the fourth suspicious remark about Christine’s bruises.
Also, there are no consequences for Tommy’s Mad Dash to the Mailbox. Ergo, the show put it in because it wanted to show a tense scene where Tommy could be caught at any moment. Fucking Tommy.
Part Three: Blathering Old Grandpa Garvey
I’ll be completely honest, this is kind of a boring episode. It’s not bad, and it’s well-paced, but the content of the narrative is pretty weak. There are three main plot points that center the episode — Kevin bringing the dog home, Christine giving birth, and Kevin’s father giving Kevin a quest. The culminating moments of these plot points accompany distinct and surprisingly haunting visuals, but none of them really has much weight. Part of the problem is that a lot of this episode is intent on continuing to build up suspense that’s already present, and isn’t willing to invent new struggles for the characters or conclude plot threads that last more than a few minutes.
There’s a scene at the start of the episode where Jill, pressured by her terrible friends, locks herself in an airtight refrigerator to see if she can beat an arbitrary record. She beats the record, but the handle of the old junk box comes off, trapping her inside. Her grandfather appears right then to pry it open, recently escaped from the psych ward and apparently guided by his mysterious “voices.”
This is a good scene. It’s tense, pretty well-shot (I mean, aside from the cut to the weird guy who apparently pees with his pants all the way down, right next to his friends… why, show?), and captures the tone of strange fantasy that the series often delivers quite effectively. It’s easily one of the most memorable parts of the episode. However, it’s also only one scene, and is only ever brought up once more. There’s no lead-in, other than Jill’s general tomfoolery with her friends, and nothing really comes of it for Jill or her grandfather.
The episode is full of interesting moments like this, related to the three plot points I mentioned above or entirely stand-alone. The thing is, most of them are less complete than the refrigerator scene. They’re fine, and they don’t necessarily need to be longer or add much else, but the lack of resolution leaves a lot of the episode hanging. What’s up with the Guilty Remnant? What’s up with Matt? What’s up with the magazine and what does it mean? Why has Kevin’s father only escaped now? Where does Tommy intend to go, now that he’s given up on Wayne?
The episode is interested in answering exactly none of these questions. And that would be fine, if I had much confidence that the series would ever answer them to a satisfactory level.
I’m coming from a bit of a biased viewpoint, I suppose, having seen the rest of the season. Some of the threads build up in this episode do come to a head, or at least resolve later on. However, the difference between writing a good and a bad open-ended episode comes down to, in my opinion, how much the episode yanks the audience around. Does the buildup add something that raises the stakes and makes the audience eager to see where it leads? Or is it simply filling time, neither escalating nor changing anything in the story?
You remember how Lost gained a reputation for being brilliant in its buildup, right up until it revealed that it had no idea where it was going and ended on something of a dud? That’s a pretty common way for serial releases to end, actually. If a story doesn’t get killed before it can worry about how to stick the landing, it’ll often just bleed itself dry and peter out if given the chance. Serial releases often don’t have an end date set up when they start, so it’s easy for them to mismatch their story potential and their actual run length. There’s certainly an art to buildup, and shows that take out along for a fun ride can sometimes get away with a lackluster ending if the journey there had enough meat to make up for it. However, shows that put focus on that ending, claiming to be About Something Important, their audience won’t usually let them off the hook. They must deliver or perish.
And that’s the problem here. The Leftovers promises answers. It didn’t at first, and that was fine. Strange shit happened, and the core of the story was about how the people dealt with it. However, over the course of the following episodes, the show has become more and more concerned with establishing a sense of mystery. Who is Wayne, really? What do the Guilty Remnant want? What is Kevin’s destiny? What’s with the dogs, and the deer, and the disappearances?
None of these questions is as interesting or relevant as, “How do people deal with inexplicable tragedy?” That was the impetus for the show, and as it goes on, it gets further and further away from its initial appeal. It’s turning into a fantasy series that, like Lost, relies on its audience believing there’s something more to the characters’ actions, that everything will become clear and build to some grand revelation. And, unfortunately, I just don’t see it.