Review: 'The Leftovers' - 'Cairo': A cabin in the woods
A review of tonight's "The Leftovers" — which HBO renewed a few days ago — coming up just as soon as I keep my gun in the crisper...
"That's all any of us want now, every single one of us. Not answers. Not love. Just a reason to exist. Something to live for. Something to die for." -Patti
"The Leftovers" is not "Lost," but because both have Damon Lindelof at the top of the masthead — and because both feature characters coping with an unfathomable, possibly supernaturally-driven loss — there will be times when the new show can't help but evoke the old one. "Two Boats and a Helicopter," for instance, had echoes of the famous John Locke spotlight episode "Walkabout" (and its single-POV style was the "Lost" flashback structure taken to an extreme). "Cairo," meanwhile, plays more than a bit like Lindelof and company — in this case, writers Curtis Gwinn & Carlito Rodriguez, plus the great Michelle MacLaren as the director — are taking the premise of the Sawyer/Locke/Anthony Cooper confrontation of "The Brig" and filtering it through the very specific worldview and style of "The Leftovers."
By toggling between Kevin and Patti's duet in the woods, Jill's ongoing feeling of alienation and Laurie running the Guilty Remnant in Patti's absence, it's not as claustrophobic as either "Two Boats" or "Guest," but its effect is every bit as powerful
Through all three stories, "Cairo" is a story about commitment and dedication, and how far one will go for his or her beliefs. We open with a sequence — scored beautifully to "I Been Buked" by Alvin Ailey — intercutting Kevin's preparations for Nora's first dinner at his house with Patti preparing for the Guilty Remnant's next big demonstration. (More on that below.) Their actions are woven together as if they are the same person, but we come to learn through the course of the hour how different they are — not just because Kevin despises the Remnant and all that they do, but because where Patti is clear-eyed and laser-focused on her beliefs and her mission, Kevin's psyche and worldview are fracturing to the point where he has a hard time even understanding what's real and what isn't, let alone whether he cares enough about protecting himself and Jill to murder Patti.
The irony to that conflict, of course, is that because Kevin is again absent from home for so long — and because his new relationship with Nora and her hidden gun has again left Jill feeling empty, alone and scared — he winds up losing Jill anyway, and to the worst possible place. It's remarkable how the Remnant keeps turning people like Meg and Jill — people who should by all rights have every reason to despise these chain-smoking ghouls in white — into new recruits. And as Patti — happily speaking to Kevin and Dean, since there's no one else around to witness it — lays out the philosophy behind the Remnant, you begin to understand both why they act the way they do, and why they might seem appealing to the many people who feel lost and confused in this new broken world.
Laurie's journeys with Meg, though, demonstrate that not every member of the Remnant is a true believer. When Matt very cleverly turns the Remnant's own tactics against it by confronting Meg with all the research he's done on her, she flies into a hypocritical rage and (like Patti) won't shut up for the rest of the damn hour, until Laurie finally slaps her in the face and literally holds her mouth shut. With Patti missing, the other members understandably look to Laurie to take charge, and Amy Brenneman beautifully apes the smug look we've seen so often on Ann Dowd's face(*) in past episodes. But then Jill's arrival wipes that grin away. Whether or not Laurie knows that the Remnant murders its own members like Gladys to bring attention to the cause, I think she recognizes that this is a very unhealthy place for her daughter to be.
(*) Dowd has been so incredible in this role that the only plus of Patti's demise is that I imagine "Masters of Sex" will make room for her again next season.
Patti isn't the only character Kevin is placed into parallel in this one. Late in the episode, after Aimee moves out of the house following their bitter argument, Jill hears the dog on the back patio and grabs a carving knife, in a sequence MacLaren stages so it briefly looks as if Jill might take out all her anger and frustration on the mutt, Dean-style. Instead, she cuts him loose, just as Kevin will use his own knife to set Patti free rather than murder her a couple of scenes later.
We learn from Dean that Kevin — in the midst of one of the Jekyll and Hyde transformations that has been taking him up to his old campgrounds in Cairo, NY(**) — took the dog in to try to prove that he could rehabilitate it — that its feral state post-Departure wasn't a permanent transformation, but something that could be undone. Patti has been through just as stark a transformation, based on what little we've heard of her past with Laurie (more on that below as well), and Kevin is trying to reason with her as if she's still that person she was before, rather than this apparition she has willfully, happily turned herself into.
(**) Though solving mysteries isn't one of this show's main concerns, it does at least offer a solution to the case of Kevin's missing uniform shirts.
The funny thing is that the dog does seem a bit calmer near the end of the episode — at a minimum, it's no longer barking through every waking moment — suggesting Kevin may have been on to something. Patti, though, cannot be transformed, except by her own hand. At a certain point, she seems to realize that her death will be more valuable to the cause then her continued existence, perhaps just as another Gladys-like martyr, or perhaps because she believes an unhinged, guilt-ridden Kevin is vital to the Remnant's future plans. If Kevin won't kill her? Well, she'll just take care of the problem herself. Her all-white uniform becomes streaked with her blood, but her commitment to the cause remains as pure in death as it was in life, leaving Kevin feeling more confused and awful than ever — and he still has no idea that Laurie and Jill have reunited in the worst possible way.
Whether as a ticking-clock thriller or as an exploration of what motivates the series' chief villains — who (in another echo of "Lost") don't think of themselves as the villains at all — "Cairo" was just dynamite, and evidence that "The Leftovers" doesn't have to resort to a strict single-POV angle every week if it wants to achieve its full dramatic potential.
Some other thoughts:
* Patti is quoting a Yeats poem, "Michael Robates bids his Beloved be at Peace," right before Kevin cuts her loose.
* I'm assuming that the mysterious wrapped parcels that Laurie and the other GR members carried into Matt's church are Loved Ones dolls of the departed people of Mapleton, there to be dressed up in their old clothes as some kind of confrontational art installation. If I'm right, that means they stole all the family photos not to make a point, but because — as the fake Loved Ones commercial from a couple of weeks ago showed — the dolls can be made with the help of a single photograph.
* The diner scene in "Gladys" suggested that either Laurie was Patti's therapist pre-Departure or vice versa. Patti telling Kevin that "There was a time I told Laurie everything, and then there was a time she told me everything" suggests it was the former: that the Departure so upended Laurie's worldview that she turned to a former patient for counsel.
* Dean remains a mystery even to Patti, who can't find any useful background information on Kevin's dog-shooting frenemy. She calls Dean a ghost, to which Dean replies, "I prefer to think of myself as a guardian angel." I'm assuming he's just a person who's been effective at staying off the grid, but the deity of "The Leftovers" universe does seem the type to employ guardian angels just like this guy.
* The show finally comes out and acknowledges the creepy sexual tension between Kevin and Aimee as Jill — who has great difficulty accepting that anyone (whether Aimee, Nora or the twins) can be feeling happy and well-adjusted in this world — bitterly accuses her best friend of sleeping with her father, driving Aimee from the house and providing one more excuse to move in with the Remnant.
* I would enjoy some Rice Krispie treats, Nora, if you can spare a few. Thanks!
* Though Nora is for the most part the best character on the show, if not the best individual in the history of the medium (I need time to make a clear ruling), I do question both her reliance on an an answering machine and Kevin's decision to place an urgent call to her on her home landline rather than her cell phone (or even whatever her work number is at the Department for Sudden Departures). With "Breaking Bad," the Whites' answering machine was both an occasional plot device and an attempt to set the show in an indeterminate time period in the early 21st century; here, we know that it's 2014.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org