Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Spoilers: Yes, and also for the first season of Preacher.
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Nine: The Garveys at Their Best – **
Part One: Uh Oh, There’s a Dog
First things first, I need to give credit to the cinematography. There are several truly gorgeous shots in this episode, especially toward the end, including several which enriched the subtext of the scene. I can’t say as much for the editing, but it’s serviceable. I had a headache while watching this the second time around, and the editing is abrupt enough to make the experience nauseating, but I doubt I would notice it as much on a better day. The pacing in the latter half of the episode builds to a nice crescendo at the end, emotionally. That music is hard to beat, and when combined with effective cinematography and half-decent editing, it’s a delight to watch.
The other shoe has to drop sooner or later, though. For me, the story content almost entirely overrides any other merits the episode has to offer.
Let’s start with a basic overview of the events. They’re not bad, on their own, and I can kind of see the intent in the concept. This episode details the events of the day before the departures leading up to the event and how the protagonists experienced it. We see the Garveys, the Dursts, and, to a lesser extent, the Jamisons, as they go about their happy lives before the world fell apart.
As it turns out, not everything is actually so happy. The Garveys are a loving family, but Kevin and Lorie get into a vicious fight over Kevin keeping secrets, meanwhile Lorie has a secret of her own — she’s pregnant. Kevin starts seeing strange things like a manhole cover removed from an underground explosion and a deer running amok, the latter of which leads him to encounter a woman with whom he cheats on his wife. Jill is full of youthful innocence, as is Tommy, but we learn the latter has a complicated relationship with his abusive birth father (we don’t really get to know him and I think this is the first time he’s really come up). Nora, meanwhile, longs for time away from her family with the prospect of a rigorous new job.
This episode desires to show us what the characters were like before the disappearances and their subsequent changes into the people they are now. The only problem? With one notable exception, none of the information in this episode contributes anything new and relevant.
I’ve spoken before about flashbacks, but the fact is, they appear in a lot of stories. Flashbacks work best when they reflect on a character’s arc at the moment where they’re placed in the story, revealing information we need to see right then and there. This makes flashbacks tricky because their visual nature and disconnect from the present primes them for glut. Do we really need to see this character losing their parent as a child in the midpoint of the movie? How much information do we need to reveal, and is this the most effective way of doing so? If a character can casually mention in conversation that they lost a parent when they were younger, then sadly turn away from the camera, would showing the full events of them losing their parent contribute anything more? Would it fit the tone of the scene?
A flashback cannot be extraneous. They fit into the caveat to the common “show, don’t tell” mantra — whatever you show needs to be important.
The important thing The Leftovers wants you to walk away with is the characters’ emotions. How they deal with surviving a traumatic event, how they piece themselves back together when their world has fallen apart, and how they find peace. I can see what this episode is going for — it wants to show that the past many of the characters strive to return to is just as vacant and confusing as the present, perhaps even more so in some ways. It also wants to show what each main character was doing during the departure, and I can’t really fault it for that. The departure is this series’ Big Event. It’s only natural to be curious about how the main characters experienced it, now that we’ve gotten to know them.
However, neither of these reasons — showing a non-idyllic past and satisfying curiosity — is really sufficient to justify an entire flashback episode. You need more. It took me a while to realize why I found this episode lacking, and the big one was that it was almost entirely predictable. I tend to enjoy flashbacks because they provide a new lens through which to view the characters in the present timeline of the story. You learn information — often little, seemingly unimportant details — that make them feel real. Flashbacks let you know something about a character the other characters usually don’t, and that gives you a special insight into that character’s actions.
Part Two: Kevin the Pervert
We learn a lot about the characters in this episode, but almost none of it has an impact on their present selves that we didn’t already know about. Jill is a prime example. The series makes some odd decisions in trying to age down the character, presenting her as a tween suburban white girl (complete with braces and an awkward obsession with nyan cat) despite the fact the actor looks like an adult. Ignoring that for a moment, though, Jill is presented as a bubbly young teenager to contrast her present somber, risk-taking persona. But the series has told us that already. She’s practically introduced by an adult saying she “used to be such a nice girl.” Furthermore, a teenager becoming angsty isn’t exactly revelatory. Jill has more reason to become world-weary than most teens, but seeing her as an overenthusiastic fourteen-something going on thirty doesn’t tell us anything new about her character. If anything, the costuming, acting, and dialogue tries too hard to convince us of Jill’s youth. I actually think the actor playing her is among the more talented in the series, but in this episode, she’s infantalized to a dissonant, and frankly kind of creepy, degree.
Most of the other characters are more heavily involved in the plot, but again the series opts for predictability.
What do we know about the other characters’ lives prior to the event? Well, we know that Kevin grew up in this town and worked under his father at the police station. He slept around and, according to a disturbing conversation between Jill and one of her friends in the previous episode, may also be a pedophile. Lorie was close with her kids but something happened that caused her to abandon them almost entirely for the Guilty Remnant. Tommy was in college and witnessed two other students jump from the roof of one of the buildings. Outside of the main family, Nora had a husband and two kids, all of whom disappeared. We later learn that her husband was cheating on her. Matt had a wife who fell into a coma after a car crash resulting from the departure, and a sordid childhood where he lost his parents and suffered from leukemia.
The series has some flexibility in designing its flashback episode, but it constrains itself if it wants to depict these characters only a few years ago. Their childhoods could inform their response to trauma in the present, and we see pieces of that throughout the series, especially with Matt and to a lesser extent with Lorie and Nora. What was Kevin like as a kid? Most of his personality seems rooted in the present, so an examination of his personality growing into his current being could be informative. It’s not necessary, but it’s just one of the many paths a flashback episode could take.
The main thing we learn from this episode is that the characters are not entirely happy in the pre-departure world. Their situation isn’t much changed after the event. Perhaps they would have ended up in the same situation with or without it. I don’t mind that, actually. However, I think a flashback is an awkward way to show it, especially one that’s forty-five minutes long.
The biggest revelations we get are that Kevin maybe wasn’t a pedophile, Tommy’s birth father was abusive, Nora was tired of only taking care of her kids, the Garveys were planning to get a dog, and Lorie was pregnant. We’ll get to that last one, but I’d like to discuss the others and how they related to these characters’ arcs.
I didn’t mention it in the previous review, but in the last episode out of almost nowhere, Jill accused her friend of sleeping with her father. Aimee is a high school student who has tagged along with Jill on her various adventures throughout the season and is apparently living with the Garveys. Most of the time, she hasn’t been noteworthy enough to mention, but she’s frequently questioned Jill’s actions and recent personality change, and come at odds with Jill in small ways in the past. When Jill asks her point-blank if she slept with Kevin, Aimee replies, in a very strange tone of voice, that she did. The episode leaves it vague enough that the audience can decide whether they want to believe her, but I’m going to say right now that this is really not the sort of thing you want to make a character joke about. In any fucking situation.
Aimee’s friendliness toward Kevin and him mentioning to Nora that he cheated on his wife gives the audience sufficient reason to suspect some truth to Aimee’s half-joke. This means we can plausibly be disgusted at Kevin for being a pedophile, and this also brings up further complications to how this series frames its teenage characters. Anyway, the reason I didn’t bring it up earlier was because this episode seems to try to assure the audience that, no, that was just a tasteless joke, and Kevin cheated on his wife with an adult. In fact, in a convenient twist, she turns out to be a random stranger who disappears right as Kevin’s in the middle of doing the dirty. He even checks under the sheets when he can’t find her. It’s such a silly scene.
I’ll also note that seeing Kevin mess around with a woman doesn’t actually free him of suspicion of molesting Aimee, given that Jill’s accusation is unrelated to any of this. The cheating scene in this episode is solely to provide plausible deniability so that the audience doesn’t have to worry that the protagonist of this series is a child molester. Based on the framing, I don’t think the show ever really meant to suggest anything other that Kevin was a cheater. In that case, though, the scene in this episode doesn’t really tell us anything new. It mainly seems to be clarification for the previous episode’s accusation, which, if it needs clarification, probably shouldn’t have been there in the first fucking place.
Okay, moving on.
I’m frankly surprised that the season never goes back to the flashback Tommy has in the first episode. Seeing someone else jump from a building is a scarring event, and while we don’t need more context to deduce that it affected him, if the series is going to give us a flashback, it might as well mention something about it. Instead, we learn that Tommy is not Kevin’s biological son and that he and his mother lived with his abusive father for a time. Tommy goes back to his father’s house, but the episode only presents hints about what happened while he was there. It was Tommy’s decision to go, which he and his birth father put up to Tommy breaking into his house because he’s angry at him. This may be true, though the way Tommy and his mother talk about the encounter implies that the relationship is more complicated. The episode is careful not to detail what Tommy’s birth father did to him or his mother when he was a kid, but it was clearly traumatic in a way Tommy hasn’t yet come to terms with.
I actually don’t mind this revelation as much as the others in this episode. Casual abuse subplots thrown into a story are somewhat distasteful, but the show handles it delicately. The emphasis is on Tommy trying to work through his past trauma. That’s good. However, it plays poorly against the mess of Tommy’s character in the present timeline, making the character more relatable, but not in a way that can salvage his subplot throughout the series. You could see his devotion to Wayne as an extension of his issues with his abusive birth father, but if that’s the case, then we’re stuck with other issues. For instance, if Tommy has lived through abuse before, then his interactions with Wayne take on a more disturbing nature, and the tact incorporated in this episode is thrown out the window in light of its contribution to Tommy’s seasonal arc.
Nora’s revelation that she was planning to start a new job and getting fed up with spending all of her time with her kids seems at first to be a good dramatic revelation. Her family vanishing becomes a cruel karmic joke befitting the mournful tone of the series. She got what she asked for, and she’s got no one to blame for her misery but herself.
As much as I like the irony that comes from characters accidentally digging their own graves, Nora’s contribution to this episode isn’t really ironic. The thing is, she’s not overly selfish or cruel. She’s a good mother, and she does a hell of a lot more than her dirtbag husband does to take care of them. There are three things she does in the episode to show her desire to be free of her family — she applies for a job after presumably being a house wife for years, she tells her prospective boss in an interview that her family responsibilities can take the sideline for a while, and she yells at her daughter for spilling juice. All of these are completely rational actions for anyone in Nora’s situation. Throughout the episode, we see a high-strung mother who is overworked and restless, who needs something all her own that she can use to ground herself and stay sane. Her husband is superficially supportive but arrives home late and doesn’t help out, and we can see the nugget of suspicion forming in Nora’s head. Yes, it’s a bit cruel of her to yell at a child for being inept, but from what we see, it’s not a regular behavior. Nora’s stress builds until it erupts at an unrelated stimulus.
If we’re to take her family disappearing as divine punishment for Nora, what does that say about the show? That it thinks overworked women should just suck it up and deal with their lot in life? That anyone who doesn’t 100% devote themself to their family at all times is a selfish hag? Or is it that whatever karmic force guiding the supernatural events in the series is itself cruel and misogynistic? I like to read the world of the series as supernatural, but uncaring. In that case, Nora might blame herself for a random incident, seeing irony where none exists. However, that reading is incongruous with much of the rest of the series, which is demonstrably not random or thoughtless, but pointed and vague. According to the cinematogrpahy, the music, and the editing, Nora is being punished. It’s sad, and we don’t necessarily know why she’s being punished, but she’s being punished all the same.
Then we get not one but two cute dogs that we know are destined to be hunted down by Dean in the near-future. Nora has a dog, of course, but we also learn that Lorie was planning on getting a dog, something Kevin distinctly neglected to say at any time before. Okay, then, that’s not good. Something bad happened to the dog. This is one of the simplest and most manipulative ways to get the audience to care about something. I’ve actually mentioned it with regard to these reviews before. I have seen a few stories where tension over the fate of the dog is used effectively to tell the story (The Drop comes to mind). However, much more often, adding a dog to a story is just a cheap way to tug at your audience’s heartstrings by putting it in danger or killing it.
You might be surprised to learn, then, that the Garveys’ dog doesn’t die or run away. They don’t even get a dog in the flashback, actually. Lorie goes to see some puppies (the breeder of whom is Gladys, who mainly seems to be here to remind you of how horribly she died), and decides to wait to get one. Kevin then gets in a fight with her over nothing and mentions that he doesn’t want a dog. Good to know the dog doesn’t die. Still manipulative in my mind, though.
The reason, coincidentally, that Lorie decides to wait on the dog is because the puppies parallel her own secret pregnancy. There are a lot of references in the episode to babies, actually, because that’s the last big revelation. Lorie is still deciding whether to keep the baby (I think — the episode’s shorthand is a bit confused about how this whole have-baby-not-have-baby thing works). Kevin not wanting a puppy therefore takes on additional meaning, at least to Lorie, and makes her situation more fraught.
And then, of course, the fetus disappears in the departure. For fuck’s sake.
Part Three: I’m Glad to Know the Rapture-Like Event Counts Fetuses as People. That Really Adds to the Story.
This is the thing that bugs me most about this episode. And it’s not really the fact that the Departure apparently counts fetuses as fully-grown people or the fact that the episode ogles babies, though note that both of those elements are simplistic and uncreative. The episode has Lorie in a doctor’s office that doesn’t even appear to be an OBGYN clinic because Matt’s there getting checked for Leukemia, and there’s this confused framing that suggests that Lorie isn’t sure whether she wants to keep the pregnancy. For instance, one of the nurses says that they’ll send her to someone to “discuss options,” which in this context could plausibly mean a lot of things, but is much more commonly shorthand for “abortion.” That, despite every other indication that Lorie has positive feelings toward her pregnancy, and the camera treating the fetus like a baby, visualizing and alluding to it in exactly the way it would if Lorie weren’t considering terminating it.
I’m going to ignore all that, though you might want to note it. I’m also going to ignore the subtle but absolutely inane plot twist that Lorie might be pregnant by Matt, which the episode suggests only through glances and drawing attention to Lorie insisting that she’s pregnant by Kevin even though she hasn’t told him about it. Even the series itself doesn’t want to commit to this reading, and not only does does it have no lead-in (except for perhaps that weird dream in Matt’s episode where he’s having sex with a brown-haired lady), but it has absolutely no bearing on the plot. None of this really bothers me, though.
No, the thing that bothers me about the Lorie’s Secret Pregnancy subplot is how it affects her actions.
For all intents and purposes, we can treat this like a miscarriage. She’s pregnant one moment, and then she’s not. That’s fine, as plot points go. A miscarriage can be a traumatic event. If we assume, as the framing wants us to, that Lorie is seriously considering keeping the pregnancy, then the scene where she sees it’s gone is additionally grim. Even if she was genuinely considering terminating the pregnancy, finding she doesn’t have to make that choice could still be an emotionally complex moment.
And I realize the episode is non-committal about confirming that her pregnancy was indeed terminated. I do not care. The cinematography and acting implies the fetus is gone, so I’m just going to go with that.
Plot-wise, by showing Lorie reacting positively to babies and the ultrasound, the show implies that she has decided to carry her pregnancy to term. Her shocked reaction at it disappearing is then both a response to the paranormal event and to losing an unborn child. Putting all of this in the flashback and ending the episode on this note emphasizes its significance in Lorie’s arc in the present day. However, in the present day, Lorie is separated from her family and part of the Guilty Remnant. She makes no clear indication of ever having been pregnant or even affected by the miscarriage, but the emphasis in this episode encourages us to find a correlation between her experience in the past and her actions in the present.
Ipso facto, the show wants us to see Lorie joining the Guilty Remnant as a response to her miscarriage.
Okay, I realize I’m going to sound a bit frantic here, but bear with me for a moment. First, Lorie doesn’t need an explanation for her actions. As I’ve mentioned before, the Guilty Remnant works best when their motives are vague or unclear. It’s a cult. It’s scariest when it’s unknowable and just grows for seemingly random reasons. It’s also not unrealistic for seemingly ordinary people to join a cult for minor reasons and get roped in deep. That’s kind of how cults operate, actually.
Second, this undermines that theme of a random, uncaring world again. By implying Lorie’s reason for joining the Guilty Remnant is rational, it makes all of her subsequent actions at the Guilty Remnant look more rational as well, even if they’re not. Lorie is a much more interesting character if she joined a cult without a big, sad reason. That plays better to the randomness of the disappearances and the characters searching for meaning when no one seems to have any.
Third, by trying to rationalize Lorie joining the Guilty Remnant this way, the show implies that Lorie’s stress over her miscarriage is sufficient to make her abandon her daughter completely when she needs her. Further, her rationale for joining is so strong that it pushes her to wholly adopt the cause and rise to the top of the organization. Those are not the actions of a rational person. They are the actions of an asshole.
Fourth, Lorie joining the Guilty Remnant is kind of the nexus of the story. It’s central to Lorie, Kevin, and Jill’s subplots at the very least, and also related to Nora’s subplot by way of Nora’s interactions with Kevin. Giving Lorie a sudden reason for joining the Guilty Remnant forces the nexus from her randomly joining the cult to her having a miscarriage. The story is now about how the Garveys lost a family member and that pushed the mother over the edge. When the premise of the first episode, indeed the whole series, was that they distinctly did not lose a family member in the departure, but were still unhappy. That was kind of a big fucking deal. Throughout most of the show, actually.
God I hate this fucking plot twist.
Compare this plot twist to a similar one in Preacher. And yes, I realize Preacher probably doesn’t have much audience crossover with The Leftovers, and that its miscarriage plot twist is a bit clunky, but fuck it, it makes for a surprisingly apt comparison.
The first season of Preacher establishes that the main character and his former girlfriend have been estranged for a number of years over some past incident that broke them apart. They still care for each other, but not in the same way as before. At the end of the season, we learn that the woman was pregnant years ago and had a traumatic miscarriage, and that this was the start of what broke them apart. While the main character knows about the pregnancy in this series, the important differences between it and the miscarriage plot in The Leftovers have to do with the woman’s reaction to it. There’s plenty to criticize about the show, but I think its miscarriage plot twist works for four simple reasons.
One, in Preacher, the miscarriage is a minor subplot that concerns two of the characters’ relationships, but doesn’t affect other plotlines directly and isn’t the root of the story. Two, it doesn’t exclusively define the characters involved; they have many things going on in their lives, and this is just one of them. Three, even though it isn’t the core plot and doesn’t define the characters, it still impacts them substantially. The show goes on to explore the complex feelings associated with the loss, and how the two characters involved cope with it in their own ways. Four, it’s a completely random event, and accepting that it’s a random event contributes to these characters’ arcs. They initially try to ascribe logic to the situation by blaming someone else, but this doesn’t solve their problem or alleviate their pain. What the characters want is closure, and they can only get that when they accept their inability to change the past.
You can see hints of The Leftovers almost getting there. It’s somewhat reductive of me to say that the miscarriage is core to the entire series, because technically it’s the departures that kick everything off. The characters all have personality traits unrelated to Lorie’s surprise secret pregnancy, and I don’t think it will come up much in the later seasons even for her. The story is not just a tale of a sad mother who had a miscarriage. It’s more complicated than that. Even this episode is more complicated than that.
Still, I can’t shake my initial response. This episode made me angry. It actively weakened one of the stronger parts of the series. That’s the gamble you take with plot twists, and in this case, The Leftovers lost. This entire episode seems to be building to the end reveal. Admittedly, the execution of those last few minutes and the actual departure is effective, even the ambiguous end shot. Like I said, the pacing, the visuals, and especially the acting is all solid. I get why they wanted to show it. I just think that it’s the case of style over substance, as with many of the aesthetically-oriented episodes. The show loses very little if you nix this episode, and that’s not good.