Review: 'The Leftovers' - 'Penguin One, Us Zero': Keep choppin' wood
A review of tonight's "The Leftovers" coming up just as soon as the entire cast of "Perfect Strangers" disappears...
"I don't want to feel this way anymore." -Meg
One of the most fascinating things to me about "The Leftovers" is the way that the story is focused on the Garvey family, who lost no one we know about in the Departure, but who have all lost themselves and each other in the aftermath. And while "Penguin One, Us Zero" starts to open a window on what life is like for someone like Nora Durst, whose whole family vanished, its main focus is on examining how people like the Garveys and Meg Abbott have unspooled themselves from all the existential weight of a world where something like the Departure can happen.
Our main point of emphasis here is Kevin, who tries to fight signs both big and small that he is going crazy just like his father before him. Our first glimpse of him turns out to be a dream, involving both Jill's friend Aimee appearing in his bed (itself not the healthiest thing, which even Dream Kevin acknowledges by telling her she shouldn't be there) and the return of the Michael Gaston character, now turning his rifle not on rabid dogs, but the Guilty Remnant. A mandatory therapy session opens the possibility that Gaston is a figment of his imagination — when the truck appears mysteriously in Kevin's driveway, it feels very much like a Tyler Durden moment — and even after Jill and Aimee get a look at the guy, doubt still remains about Kevin's sanity. There's the matter of the missing bagel in the toaster, and then the visit to see his father (played by the great Scott Glenn) heads into unsettling territory when he begins talking to someone who isn't there and tells Kevin, "They said they sent or are sending someone to help you."
In a world where the Departure can happen, Michael Gaston could easily be an angel, or an alien, or whatever else caused 2 percent of the population to disappear, and Kevin's father could be connected to that force rather than insane. Chances are, though, that Gaston is just a creep who for some reason doesn't mind giving up a perfectly good truck, that Kevin's father is genuinely crazy, and that if Kevin isn't (the bagel, after all, just got caught up in the back of the toaster), he's much more tightly wound than he thinks he is. This isn't a single POV episode like "Lost" so often did, but it's still a very strong spotlight on the level of desperation Justin Theroux is bringing to the role.
Tommy is the only member of the Garvey family to have actually left Mapleton. We still don't know exactly what the quick cut in the pilot to the double suicide attempt was about, but he has both literal scars (glimpsed last week) and emotional ones. Even before he kills the FBI agent during the raid on Wayne's compound, it seems, he has things he feels deeply guilty about, which is why he doesn't want Wayne to give him a special healing hug. There's a moment after he finds one of Wayne's bodyguards dead at the rendezvous point where he's on the verge of reconnecting with his father, but then Wayne shows up, breaks his phone, and sends Tommy off to protect Christine. The physical distance from the rest of the story, plus Chris Zylka's relative blandness so far, makes this corner of the series the least compelling at the moment, but we have yet to see where this journey takes the two of them.
We also get more of a sense of what life is like in the Guilty Remnant, including the way they ease in newcomers like Meg. Their accommodations, clothing, and even food aren't as spartan (one of them even gets to put whipped cream on his pancakes), and they get to speak, but they're there because they want whatever it is that Laurie and the others have found. Laurie has taken this vow of silence, abandoned her family, devoted her life to stalking others, and if it wasn't clear at first why, Meg's one-sided conversations with her begin bringing it into focus. The Remnant is there to remind everyone else that the world has changed, but their lifestyle is also completely numbing. The Departure has made too many people feel too much, and for some of them, the ability to feel as little as possible — even if it means giving up everything you have, everything you are, and everyone who cares about you — starts to seem perversely appealing.
Though she's not exactly bursting with happiness, Jill is probably functioning the best of all the Garveys right here, but her story this week gives us a glimpse of Nora Durst's post-Departure life, which is... not what one might have expected from hearing about all that she lost. Three years later, Nora is using the Departure to her advantage. She's aware that she can get away with anything in a small town where the whole population knows who she is and what happened to her, and tests the limits of that power with stunts like breaking her coffee cup on purpose. She has a gun now, and she has a job with the government agency providing financial compensation to other survivors like her. The questions she asks the parents of the departed man with Down syndrome feel almost surreal, hinting less at theories the government may have developed about the Departure than a sense that everyone has just given up and are asking about everything possible in case some weird commonality turns up.
Yet watching Nora throughout the episode, she seems far more at peace with things than Jill and her friends, or Kevin, Laurie, Tommy, Meg or most of the other people in Mapleton. She suffered a staggering loss but has moved on with her life, while it's Laurie who has to hide in a cult and Kevin who begins questioning the very fabric of his reality.
In the world of "The Leftovers," whom would you rather be?
Some other thoughts:
* The pilot takes place on October 14, and this episode only a few weeks later, but the ground in Mapleton is now awfully snow-covered. That's the perils of filming in the New York area of late, though we'll see if the season winds up having snow continuity issues as bad as what "The Americans" had to deal with in its second season, where outdoor scenes taking place on the same day would have wildly different snow levels.
* Always nice when one HBO show can wink at another, here with Lucy looking at Kevin's conspiracy board and declaring, "Jesus, I never should have told you to watch the fucking 'Wire.'"
The next episode's really good — and very different from what we've seen so far — but there's a chance that press tour commitments may delay my ability to write about it. Worst comes to worse, I'll handle that and episode 4 together the following Sunday.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com