Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Spoilers: Yes. Also spoilers for Fight Club, I guess. Do we still need spoilers for Fight Club? Did we ever?
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Eight: Cairo – ****
Part One: Kevin Pulls a Fight Club
Well this episode takes a few important turns. This episode crosses the third act of the first season, setting up tension to be resolved in the climax of the final episode. Many things happen here, including Meg having an explosive breakdown when goaded by Matt, a Guilty Remnant acquiring clothing and bodies for some nefarious plot, and Jill joining her mother’s cult, but we’ll get to some of that later. First, we need to talk about Kevin accidentally kidnapping Patti.
Building off of Kevin’s previous hallucinations and dreams, Kevin goes to sleep one night (as shown in an oddly goofy camera zoom) and wakes up in his car in the middle of an abandoned campground. Dean is there and leads him to Patti, the leader of the Guilty Remnant, tied up in a chair, apparently tortured. Dean informs Kevin that this is his own doing and both of them are surprised to learn that Kevin has no recollection of the previous night’s events, nor any of his other recent excursions with Dean.
That’s right, Kevin has a dissociative personality. He’s been going out shooting dogs and hanging out with Dean for a while now, always after he goes to sleep. Apparently his other personality is good friends with Dean — good enough friends that when he spots Patti walking along the side of the road and opts to kidnap her, take her to a remote part of New York, and tie her to a chair, he’s willing to go along.
Now aware of his situation, though not much more able to control it, Kevin has to confront the mess he’s found himself in. Patti finally talks to him, proclaiming that she intends to go to the police and take away everything Kevin has if he lets her go. She doesn’t intend to get out alive; she wants Kevin to finish her off and condemn himself, thus justifying her own worldview. Like she’s the Joker, I guess.
This is a weird plot point for many reasons. I actually kind of like it for that very reason. Dissociation and dissociative personalities being the solution to a mystery is a bit of a tired cliche, made all the more problematic by the controversial nature of DID and how it actually manifests. However, this series kind of needs a kick in the leg, especially as it nears its conclusion. For these characters in this situation, I’m willing to overlook the trope.
The buildup to this plot point employs an interesting and somewhat uncommon writing technique. Basically, the story drops ambiguous hints that point in many directions, then devises a solution that is not unique to those hints by any means, but still appears to build out of them. This is something that longer-running series and pantsers tend to devise, largely because it allows flexibility in future writing without the clutter and disconnected story threads that come from serial plotting.
I wouldn’t say that this episode of The Leftovers is an especially effective in this style of writing, but it makes for a clear example. I don’t know that at the time of writing the earlier flashbacks and hallucinations this was the writers’ end goal. There’s enough material in the first few episodes that has nothing to do with Kevin’s little Tyler Durden revelation to suggest to me that the writers either intend to use the previous hallucination sequences to build up unrelated revelations in the next seasons, and that they simply framed Kevin’s dissociation as maybe part of some of those sequences as well. For instance, Kevin imagining himself to be on fire, or other characters having similar hallucinations doesn’t really play into him going out with Dean when his other personality takes over. Likewise, his hallucinations have never had anything to do with Patti. He’s confronted her a few times, including once when he locked her up illegally, but otherwise, the buildup to him kidnapping her is shaky at best.
The setup is a good excuse for a moral quandary moment for Kevin, though, so I’ll roll with it.
Part Two: The Cult Leader Was Really Just a Raving Mess? How Surprising.
There is, of course, one major problem with the Patti kidnapping subplot that takes up the bulk of this episode, and that’s Patti herself.
Patti resembles a compelling character. She’s distinct in the way her actor portrays her, particularly her expressions and posture. From the way she holds herself, we know that she’s confident, poised, and capable. She’s seen some shit, and gotten out alive. Whatever her convictions, she believes them wholeheartedly and she’s determined to build up her followers. This is a substantial amount of character given she rarely talks.
However, there’s a limit to how much posture and acting can get you, especially when the character is locked into a role where her actions are both repetitive and confusing.
The Guilty Remnant works for me on two levels. I like that it’s a pervasive force that lingers on the town, creepy and potentially harmful, but resilient no matter how much the town tries to get rid of it. The cult grows like a prion, members of the community corrupting each other and slowly changing the face of the town, through no means but being present. I also like how the Guilty Remnant’s motivations are enigmatic. By making them an unknowable force as well as an unstoppable one, the cult becomes that much more intimidating. Maybe they have a complex plan that weaves around the characters in the narrative, set to trap them when they make the wrong move. Maybe they have no plan at all and are driven, like zombies, through no will of their own. Maybe the cult is like a disease, only intent on infecting the town to ensure its own survival.
Patti confirms in this episode that the cult doesn’t really have a mission statement. It’s the brainchild of a woman who wants to sow chaos and bend people to her will, but little more. Patti doesn’t seem to have many thoughts on the disappearances. She’s preying on people for the joy dictating their actions brings her. What they get out of the experience only matters to them personally and has nothing to do with the organization itself.
Patti monologues at Kevin for a while, waxing philosophical without giving any clear indication of her beliefs. Patti being vague itself isn’t necessarily a problem — she demonstrates her motives in doing so. Repeating several lines of flowery, ominous poetry at Kevin while he debates internally whether he should kill her freaks Kevin out, and Patti revels in his turmoil. She’s vindictive, which is perhaps fair given the circumstances, but because her doing so falls when the story claims to be revealing her drive, we can safely assume that her actions here are related to that drive. She likes hurting people so she can control them. That’s it. When Kevin refuses to kill her and chooses his own path, Patti kills herself, Seven-style.
The problem is, Patti being completely batshit directly clashes with her presence elsewhere in the show. By asserting that the Guilty Remnant has no purpose and its leader is simply sadistic, the show removes the uncertainty that made the organization so unsettling. They’re just a nonsensical cult now, and their actions hold no meaning beyond sowing discord. We’ve seen behind the curtain, and the result was disappointing. In order to recover utility within the plot, the show now has to acknowledge the failings of the Guilty Remnant and change its tone. However, based on how Lorrie is now set to take over and the cult still has a massive, macabre plan set in place, I don’t think the show will have the flexibility needed to justify Patti’s little spiel. If anything, it seems to treat her words like they’re genuine, and that concerns me.
Part Three: DOGS and Another Camera Rant
We need to talk about the dogs.
Okay, technically we don’t need to, but I’ll have a lot to say about other things in the final two episodes of this season, and I’ll only have the time to address them briefly. Since I only have a few finishing notes for this episodes, we’re going to talk about the dogs.
Dogs are a recurring motif in this series, featuring prominently in the first episode and, like the Guilty Remnant, cropping up every so often throughout the season. The dogs of the town (presumably all of them, since we don’t really see anyone with pet dogs) have gone feral following the departure and now wander the streets, attacking the local wildlife. Their persistence throughout the series calls attention to them as a symbol — one of surprisingly few discrete symbols used in this series, actually.
So what do the dogs symbolize? I mentioned in my last review that the dog penned up in Kevin’s yard is a symbol of corruption, and I think that stands. Dogs are domesticated animals, companion creatures that are part of the image of a domestic household, especially in the U.S. where this series takes place. The packs of feral dogs come from loving homes, have collars and tags. However, dogs are also really wolves at their core. They come from wolves and retain many of the same behaviors, so it doesn’t take much effort to turn them back into wild animals. The dogs in The Leftovers are remnants of domesticity that have become corrupted, confused, and turned loose on the world. They represent a tie to the past, a literal reminder of what life used to be like, and how different and darker it is now.
Jill taming the dog tied up in the yard is therefore a significant moment in the story. She proves that it’s possible to return to that previous state of living, that domesticity can be reclaimed. By letting the dog go, though, Jill also actively rejects that reality. She doesn’t want to go back, even if she can. We don’t quite know enough about Jill’s motivation to deduce why that might be — maybe she thinks moving forward is better, or maybe the past just holds too much pain to deal with right now. Either way, the move is consistent with her character and emotionally resonant.
However, that’s a simplified reading of the material, and while simplicity does seem to be the most effective way to deliver information in this particular series, this series strives to complicate things at every turn.
It’s noteworthy that the dogs appear demonic, often dressed up in makeup to look grimy, matted, and wolf-like. They kill Kevin’s deer guide in the first episode, and Dean and Kevin both set to eradicating the dogs. They’re not merely feral, remember — they’re dangerous. Moreover, Dean even describes himself as a “guardian angel” in this very episode — something the season doesn’t take literally, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the season does.
I prefer symbols that don’t have any clear one-to-one relationship and appear as recurring, enigmatic motifs. Those are fun symbols, symbols that remind you that you’re ingesting a piece of fiction and should pay attention, but that don’t hold your hand through the experience. This is a rare care where I think the writers intended the dogs to stand for two clearly-defined symbols — broadly speaking, the memory of the past, and some undefined moral corruption that past accompanied. This is an odd approach. Dogs have a lot of inherent narrative weight, the same way birds, snakes, or water might, so they make for well-defined if somewhat bland symbols. Giving them unique meaning for a specific story is a nice way to make their symbolic meaning more interesting, but I’m not sure it quite works to do that while also keeping the assumed meaning of the symbol as well. I don’t mind the dogs, but they’re a little uncanny the way the story uses them, and in a way that doesn’t seem wholly intentional.
Anyway, I promised a rant about the camera as well, so here we go. This episode has some of the most perplexing shots in the series, and none of them have any reason to be here. The most egregious examples come when Kevin, frightened by the revelation that he’s been out and about in his sleep against his knowledge, runs into the forest near the cabin. There he finds, to his horror, that he’s nailed shirts to a bunch of trees.
It took me three tries to figure out what the symbol on these shirts was, and I still don’t really understand this scene. The shirts are white police officer shirts from Kevin’s precinct, and possibly a reference to an earlier scene a few episodes back where Kevin assaults a laundromat worker for not giving him his shirts. The return of the shirts in this episode plays like a murder scene, Kevin visibly disturbed from not only discovering the shirts, but also the emblems on them. He falls to his knees, crying, like he’s responsible for the deaths of the people who owned the shirts.
Why, though? To our knowledge, no one significant on the police force even vanished in the departure, never mind died. There isn’t anything sinister about the scene other than its music and the overall oddness of the setup. The camera, as elsewhere, is coy about giving us a clear look as what Kevin is seeing and remains unfocused, more interested in making the audience witness the emotion of the scene than participate. We can’t be surprised because the story actively dissuades us from becoming involved. Look at this sad man. Look at how devastated he is. Why is he devastated? Why should the audience care? Because reasons.
I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about filmmaking. What I know is what I’ve learned through elective classes and personal interest, so there’s a lot of subtlety that I’m bound to miss. However, expertise in a artistic technique shouldn’t be a barrier to enjoyment of a piece of media, especially one meant for consumption like this one. This scene is needless, just vague artsy imagery for its own sake. I’m sure it took a lot of time to set up and film, and it’s not like the filmmaking is actively inept. It could be worse. The problem here is not merely that the shots are disorienting, it’s that they actively work against what the rest of the episode has been building to. The scene does not serve the rest of the story. If a scene doesn’t serve the story, either directly by providing important information or indirectly as a structural piece, then it doesn’t belong in that story.