Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Ten: The Prodigal Son Returns – ***
Part One: Fire is Pretty
Right off the bat, I need to give props to the visuals. This is probably the most visually cohesive of the series, and it has a good eye for lighting and blocking. The opening in particular is almost entirely voiceless, with creative angles and music that builds a sense of dread, eventually releasing as Nora walks downstairs and breaks upon realizing what the Guilty Remnant has done. What characters are looking at tends to be relatively clear, and the camera motion especially seems to provide additional context pushing the audience to think more carefully about the subtext throughout the series. It very much continues the style used at the end of the previous episode, which was likewise enjoyable. And the camera is stable! I was very excited about that.
There are a lot of little details to love, like how the dolls look visibly fake, but just real enough to be extremely off-putting, or how the show has finally realized how to film establishing shots. There’s an especially striking sequence that involves the town burning the buildings belonging to the Guilty Remnant that forms a nice visual culmination for the entire season.
That said, I’m still going to complain about it. While I have to admit that this episode has meaning to many of its stylistic choices, a significant chunk of the runtime is extended for shots that ultimately lack the buildup they imply. If you watch this episode out of context, it would probably look pretty good. Many of the shots emphasize small details like cigarettes, Kevin’s tattoos, and locations. You would know that these things are all significant, and probably allude to earlier parts of the story. Their presence here, in these circumstances, would be payoff.
You would be disappointed to learn that they are not. This is the sort of series you expect to deliver a punch that collapses all of the previous mystery on itself like a magic trick, revealing dramatic connections that deliver satisfying narrative payoff. But instead, the plot just sort of plods along with little change in tension. The visuals get the right idea, working toward an effective culmination. But when the rest of the story doesn’t jibe, those visuals imply far more weight than they carry.
Part Two: Should I Point Out How White This Show Is?
The main issue with the plot is that prominent characters remain in narrative stasis until the very end of the episode, and then the show more or less ignores any of the minor characters. Events are extended, but there’s little variation in tone or stakes.
Kevin breaks down at the beginning of the episode, but this is essentially a continuation of his experience in the woods from the previous episode. He doesn’t grow as a character over the course of the season, which wouldn’t be strictly necessary if the story were about him as an already compelling character responding to his environment. But the entire narrative is about how people cope with trauma — something that tends to impact the very core of your character — and Kevin swings wildly in his attitude over the course of the series, so he’s primed for a substantial character arc. And yet, despite all that, Kevin is almost indistinguishable at the end of the series from the beginning. It’s not that his arc is circular, it’s that the story constrains the character so that he never permanently changes substantially from his baseline. Kevin could grow as a character in the later seasons, and I suspect he does, but him pointedly not growing makes the first season’s ending underwhelming.
Nora’s breakdown isn’t bad, though we’ve seen something similar before in the previous episode and Guest. I might be missing something here, but it doesn’t seem like her visible anguish in this episode is necessary in light of her past emotionally powerful moments. Those ones were fine on their own. Better, actually, as they were tighter in their execution. Here, what would otherwise work as a display of shock is dampened by a touch too much emphasis. There’s no subtlety to Nora’s response. While the acting isn’t exceptionally hammy, combined with exaggerated facial shots and a musical overlay, this shot simply doesn’t work as well as similar shots in earlier episodes. Less is more, especially when it comes to visual storytelling.
As elsewhere in the series, Jill proves to be one of the most interesting characters, assertive and self-confident enough to be compelling, but flawed enough to be relatable. Yet the story still hesitates to give her much story of her own. She joins the Guilty Remnant, her mother opposes it, and when things go wrong, Jill is just a princess to be rescued. What a waste.
I want to like the dynamic between Jill and her mother, but in part because of the previous episode’s revelation and how little this episode spends on them, I can’t find myself able to empathize much with Lorie. She’s in a fraught situation, but her character is inconsistent, making her decisions nonsensical. She strikes me as an airy self-martyr, like Patti, but she’s not framed as cruel or selfish, and her devotion to the Guilty Remnant varies from episode to episode. I believe the series intended to present her as torn between her home life and the cult, but its unwillingness to define when she will choose one over the other makes her seem more of a sloppily written character than a tortured soul.
Tommy’s useless, as usual. Okay, I’ll be fair, he’s given a lot to think about, and I like that he reunites with his mother at the end. However, unsurprisingly, very little comes of his subplot over the course of the series. I feel bad, honestly, because the few times Tommy is challenged by his circumstances, he shows a glimmer of a more complex character. In this very episode, him admitting to Christine that they didn’t need Wayne is touching. It makes him discovering that she’s run off and abandoned the baby all the more heartbreaking, because you can see in those moments a confused kid who’s trying to do the right thing and doesn’t understand why he’s failing. But then we get little more of that, and the main point of his subplot seems to be to give Nora a baby. To, like, replace her children, I guess.
Speaking of Tommy’s plot, it’s worth mentioning the fates of Wayne and Christine. I flat out do not know why this series keeps cutting back to Wayne after he’s become superfluous to the plot. He’s a Jesus metaphor, and somewhat unsettling to the point where the audience is meant to question whether he, and by extension the concept of religion, is predatory or comforting. Okay, fine. Why keep him in the story, though, if he serves his purpose immediately and the rest of his actions can be inferred through Tommy’s subplot? The character has no arc aside from dying, and isn’t even really an antagonist because he’s usually too far removed from the other characters. He dies an ineffective death as practically nothing of a character.
I’ll give credit to Christine, as this is probably her best episode. Over the span of maybe two days, she’s learned that one of the two people she trusted was an absolute liar, lost her purpose in the world, and forced to become a mother. She’s only a kid; her worldview has been shattered and she made the victim standing under the scaffolding when it all collapses. That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, never mind someone who has been on the run for months. This is yet another moment where I wish Christine were a point-of-view character instead of a prop, because her narrative is many times more compelling than Tommy’s. The show refuses us any look into her psyche, though, and has her abandon the baby in a bathroom for Tommy to look after, then exit the picture.
With Wayne and Christine gone, the story loses its two main minority characters, making their limited roles within the narrative ineffective and kind of insulting. Their mixed-race baby gets pawned off to Nora and the Garveys, which strikes as a bit tone-deaf considering how removal of minority children from their families and cultures is a persistent problem, especially in the United States. It’s further condemning when you realize that the rest of the main characters all get out okay. I’m not saying this is an intentional choice on the part of the creators of the show, but intent really doesn’t matter here. This is the twenty-first century — it is not acceptable to diversify your cast by restricting minority participation to disposable roles.
Part Three: Hallucinations or Angels? I Do Not Care.
There are parts of this story I have inevitably missed based on my limited familiarity with parables and symbolism in the Bible, but I feel no compulsion to change that familiarity. I don’t imagine it would contribute much of substance. Even if it did, a story that can’t hold up without its references is still an ineffective story.
I don’t hate this show. I think there’s much to appreciate in its style and aesthetic, and some of the episodes have been thoroughly entertaining. I will eventually get to the other two seasons, though I’ll probably take a break to write about something I like more before I do so. There’s merit in discussing what I dislike about this show, and if you happen to disagree with me, all the more power to you. I don’t need anyone to agree with me. If you want to write a counterargument explaining why my perspective is limited and describing your own interpretation, I genuinely think that’s wonderful. I’m not interested in being right, I’m interested in thinking critically and encouraging others to do the same. We can’t just dismiss our entertainment as good or bad and turn off our brains if they start to question this dichotomy. Entertainment is to be savored and appreciated, not merely consumed.
This is not a bad episode. Visually, it’s probably the best of the first season. However, its narrative consistency and relative mundanity ultimately make it underwhelming, and that disrupts the course of the series as a whole. Impressions of a show weigh heavily on the first and last episodes of a season. The last episode is weak, therefore it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. There’s still material to enjoy, but I’m not rushing to start the next season.
If you want a good encapsulation of my thoughts on this series, consider this:
The ending of this episode follows a voiceover from Nora reading a letter she’s written to Kevin. The letter is rich and tragic and eloquent. It reveals Nora’s concerns and voices her thoughts in a way that strikes as highly relatable to the audience. As she reads the letter, we see her writing it, then driving to Kevin’s house to drop it on his doorstep. She says that she’s going away. As she walks up to his door, though, she finds the baby Tommy has left on his parents’ doorstep. Jill and Kevin walk home after Kevin rescues her from a burning house, and they find the dog Jill left go on their way home. It’s tame now. They arrive at the house to find Nora, cuddling the baby, who looks at them and says, “Look what I found.” End of episode.
This is a rather overt way to show a found family, and while the delivery is fine, the scene becomes much more sinister when you think for a moment about how it looks. A father, a mother carrying a baby, a daughter who needs to be looked after, a dog. This is not what most found families look like. The concept of a found family is that the members of it have become close through adversity and relying on each other, so while they have different backgrounds, they become family through their friendships. The family we see at the end of The Leftovers is a very traditional family. Nora has never encountered this baby, but she loves it immediately because it is a baby. The dog has no reason to return and gets nothing out of being with these people, but a traditional family needs a dog, so there it is. Jill’s arc is about her becoming her own person, so remaining under her father’s wing directly contradicts who she needs to become. But she’s a girl, and related to Kevin by blood, so she stays.
There’s a catharsis here, but it feels disingenuous. These aren’t real people, they’re dolls in a dollhouse, pushed around by the creators of the series and posed to produce compelling imagery without a story behind it. All films and television are like this, ultimately. They’re artificial. But The Leftovers doesn’t even try to hide that artifice. Perhaps because its openness is commentary. or, perhaps because it didn’t think it needed to.