One fine October day, two percent of the world’s population disappear. There are no warnings, no explanations. One moment, people go about their daily business, and the next second, beds, chairs and cradles are suddenly empty, orphaned shopping trollies trundle downhill in the parking lot, and driverless cars cut into oncoming traffic. This is the starting point of HBO’s new series The Leftovers. Everything else follows from there.
Three years later, no-one is the wiser, but society has changed profoundly. Everybody is looking for answers: politicians instrumentalize the disappearances, cults have sprung up, scientists are bewildered. Was it an act of God? If so, what did God intend? Can we know what that intention is? Some people try to rationalize the event by repeating that two percent are not that much, at least compared to an epidemic, and while this is mathematically true, it is still almost a lie. People are missing. They are gone. Where the hell are they? Fuck math. The numbers aren’t the point – not knowing is.
Ironically, we see life now through the eyes of the Garvey family from Mapleton, who haven’t lost anyone, except maybe each other. We meet Kevin Garvey, captain of the local police force, played by Justin Theroux, an actor who is really good at playing unstable. The police have their work cut out for them: the Mayor has declared that the third anniversary of the disappearance is called Heroes Day, with a meeting in the town park and the unveiling of a statue, but some people are against that meeting because some of the disappeared were said to be idiots, not heroes. Garvey is also against the meeting because he can foresee clashes between townsfolk who want to mourn their losses, and the cult of the Guilty Remnants.
The GR are a piece of work. They dress in white, never speak and constantly smoke as a proclamation of their faith, which seems to consist of feeling guilty and humble. The picture frames at their headquarters are eerily empty. Their only activity seems to be silently standing in your driveway, smoking, as a means of recruiting you. In this pilot episode, they are trying to get at Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), without much initial success.
The storyline of the daughter, Jill Garvey, is not exactly a disappointment, but she does the usual teenage stuff: staying out too long and going slightly too far with the wrong boys. Tom Garvey, on the other hand, is trapped as the left hand of a slick, violent cult leader called Wayne (Paterson Joseph). This is an intriguing storyline. Wayne has a reputation of being able to “take your pain away,” whatever that means. We have yet to see how he does that, but even an out-of-state Congressman comes to see him and feels unburdened afterwards. Tom Garvey starts out as the driver for Wayne’s, erm, customers, but gets, erm, promoted to being Christine’s bodyguard because she is very important to Wayne. Christine is a 13-year-old teenager. Wayne is a creep, and I don’t care what his method is, he is a phoney, and nothing healthy can come from him. The fact that Christine loves him makes him even creepier.
I could criticize the series for introducing not just one, but two cults, but at least they differ vastly from each other. The GR are essentially humble and repentant, while Wayne is a rapist and abuser. Both seem to have their origins in October 14.
These are trying, painful times. Watch how Nora Durst is holding her speech on Heroes Day. She has lost her husband and her two kids. That’s 75 percent – don’t even think about talking to her about how two percent are almost nothing. And then the GR interrupt Heroes Day – they can be outspoken if they want. There is a bloody scuffle, and the GR lose because they seem to renounce violence. Somewhere in the throng, there is Christopher Eccleston telling people that this wasn’t a rapture, and distributing leaflets about a woman who deserved to disappear because she beat her kids. Is he talking about someone we already know? There are many open questions, but this is a pilot, and so the answers must wait.
I am impressed with the pilot. I am mainly cast-driven, and there are a lot of names in this series that are on my wish list: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman (more of her next time), Ann Dowd, Paterson Joseph. One other plus is the list of celebrity disappearances on the TV in the pub where Garvey drinks his beer. Who would want to live in a world without Bonnie Raitt? How am I ever going to listen to Nick of Time without thinking she has left this world? And I like that bartender – he is the only one who is still able to quip about the disappearance.
There are two weak spots in these 72 minutes: Meg Abbott is mainly just sad without knowing why, and I really need something more here than just Liv Tyler looking sad. The second is Jill Garvey’s storyline, which, at the moment, is not much more than generic teenage drama.
The pilot ends with Garvey changing his mind. I like the roughness of the scene, and there is the underlying thought that just when you think you are trying to protect and to serve one way, you might just as well do the opposite and still do your job. And protect you must, because the opposite is unthinkable to you. The mourners on Heroes Day, the GR, everyone who has lost anyone has some kind of point, according to you. How do you stay just and neutral? How don’t you let your personal worries get in the way of the law, or in the way of justice? Here, in Mapleton, as anywhere else, protection or justice is hard to come by, and sometimes both, or all, sides need protection. Another homepage has called this series post-apocalyptic. That’s true in a way – it’s just that you can’t see the devastation. There are no smouldering ruins, no conspirators, no trials, no nuclear fallout, no peace treaty. It’s been three years, and nobody is anywhere near getting better in any way.