A review of tonight's "The Leftovers" coming up just as soon as I get a Thug Life tattoo on my neck...

"Sometimes, you have to pretend." -Kevin

"The Leftovers" has offered some very brief glimpses of the world before the Sudden Departure, and alluded to the characters' histories. It's been focusing on the aftermath of what happened, and hoping that the performances and what little backstory we've been given will be enough to give us a sense of why the Garveys, Nora, Patti, Matt and the others have been acting the way they have three years later. And for the most part, I think the show's been enormously successful at that. Amy Brenneman's face tells me so much about Laurie, for instance, that I was actually relieved she didn't start talking to Patti when they were in the diner in the wake of Gladys' murder.

That said, the past does have lessons to teach us, even on this show. "The Garveys at Their Best" does a nice job of deepening our understanding of the characters and who and what they were before the Departure without having each of them stand up and deliver a monologue about their motivations. We get a better idea of what has driven both Kevin and Laurie on the respective paths they took post-Departure, but perhaps the most important thing the episode does is to make clear that the world — and this family — was already broken even before all the Heroes blinked out of existence.

Even something as relatively straightforward as a flashback episode is delivered in a disorienting fashion. We see Kevin out for his morning jog, and he returns to an unfamiliar, much fancier home, with a blurry brunette woman on the phone in the background(*). It seems entirely possible that we've jumped forward a bit in time, and that Kevin and Nora are now living together. Instead, the woman is revealed to be Laurie Garvey, and the date is October 13, 2011. It's the last day the Garvey family, or anyone else in the world, will feel entirely normal, but it's also a day that illustrates the many ways in which these spouses, their kids and so many of the people around them are crippled by secrets, tragedy, abuse, and existential dread.

(*) It's a measure of how powerful Brenneman's silent performance has been that I had completely forgotten what her voice sounded like — and I've been watching her on television for more than 20 years.

We see that the world is already starting to crack — quite literally in some cases, like the wall of the Garvey home, or the "My Hero" mug Kevin uses at work — and also that people like Patti and the old women who drive by Kevin on the morning of the Departure know that something terrible is coming. Animals are already beginning to act strangely — and we know from previous episodes that the deer killed in the hit and run isn't the only one that starts invading homes and freaking Kevin out. But for many of the Garveys, something terrible has already happened: their lives.

The episode's title proves to be an ironic one, because if this is actually the Garveys at their best, they might as well pack it in as a unit. Tommy's getting drunk and harassing the biological father who wants nothing to do with him. Kevin already isn't sleeping well, is sneaking cigarettes — even though everyone knows he's still smoking, while Laurie claims to not care if he is or isn't — and resenting everything about his marriage(**). Laurie is keeping her pregnancy — another feint, since other parts of the episode (including the fact that she finds herself in a waiting room where Matt is meeting with his oncologist, at what must be a large and varied medical practice) create the impression that she's ill — a secret from her husband, perhaps because she knows the news will make him feel even more trapped than he already does. There are strong bonds between some of them — Tommy and Jill get along very well, Kevin feels genuinely (and violently) protective of Tommy, Jill is very close to her mother (which makes Laurie's exit to join the Guilty Remnant even more painful for Jill in retrospect) — but the only one who seems even vaguely happy is Jill, and even she knows that her parents seem on the verge of splitting.

(**) When Laurie asks why he didn't just tell her he didn't want the dog, he replies, "Because you wanted it," in a bitter tone suggesting so much of their life together — perhaps up to and including raising Tommy as his own — has been because Laurie wanted it, and Kevin just went along. He loves his kids, and his wife, but they're not enough for him.

The Dursts aren't much better, as we get a dramatization of the speech — about the perfect day at the beach and the awful one with the stomach flu — she gave at the Heroes Day ceremony in the pilot. The first morning with Doug and the kids seems nearly beach-level, with them all cheering on the idea of her getting a job (even if Doug barely remembered it, no doubt because he's distracted with thoughts of the kids' preschool teacher). The second isn't quite at stomach flu-level, but it's a reminder that little kids fight and throw tantrums, that spouses (even non-adulterous ones) pay too much attention to their phones at mealtime, and that adults can throw tantrums of their own. (And the fact that Nora's last interaction with her daughter before the Departure was making her cry over spilled juice had to be among the more prominent things that Holy Wayne hugged away near the end of "Guest.")  While interviewing to run Lucy's mayoral campaign, Nora says that she needs something for herself; in true monkey's paw fashion, she gets a whole life for herself the very next day.

Tommy hasn't been one of the show's more compelling characters, but his presence in this episode — the first time we've seen him physically interact with members of his family — leads to the two most important scenes, both related to his failed attempt to get to know his birth father.

In the first, Tommy — expressing a very Guilty Remnant-esque sentiment — insists that he won't let up on the man, "Because they shouldn't get to pretend like it never happened." Kevin, trying to protect his son, tries to talk him into doing exactly that and leaving this part of his story in the past.

In the second, Tommy tells Laurie about the incident and suggests he can just try to forget about the whole thing. "I can tell you as a trained professional, it doesn't work," she retorts.

A horrible, unimaginable thing happens to the world a few hours after Laurie and Tommy have that heart-to-heart. At the moment it happens, Laurie is in the middle of considering an addition to her family, while Kevin is in the middle of betraying that family by having sex with another woman. Yet in the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, it's Kevin who stays and Laurie who goes, precisely because of the philosophies they each try to articulate to Tommy. Kevin believes bad things in the past should be ignored, and he's tried to carry on as if the world were still perfectly normal. Laurie believes that bad things can't be forgotten, and she has joined a group dedicated to reminding the rest of the world of the Departure every single day.

Now, Laurie is perhaps given a second reason for bailing on her family in the episode's closing moments. As the doctor offered her the chance to hear the fetal heartbeat, the violin music from the beginning of the series began, and with the knowledge that the Departure was mere moments away, I wondered if the fetus might simply vanish from Laurie's womb. We then cut away to others — Jill and Tommy, Nora, Kevin — in the Departure's immediate aftermath, before we cut back to the exam room, where Laurie, having heard the screams outside, turns back to look at the monitor again, now with a very curious look on her face. Has it, in fact, disappeared? Or is she merely contemplating whether to keep it, given how perilous things are with Kevin? You can certainly interpret it as the latter — and that, in the wake of discovering exactly what has happened outside that exam room, Laurie decides against bringing a child into this strange and terrifying new world — and I would guess that the show is never going to offer any clarity beyond the expression on Amy Brenneman's face as we cut to black. I read that face as one reacting to the fetus' sudden absence — a circumstance so bizarre and unexpected that it could take her a very long time to truly process it, even more than Kevin in the motel room wondering what happened to his hook-up.

What the episode leading up to that expression does so well is to make clear that even if Laurie did lose the pregnancy in the Departure, that wouldn't be the sole — or even primary — reason for her to join the Guilty Remnant. One of the more interesting decisions Tom Perrotta made when he created these characters and this world for the book was to focus on a family that had emotionally lost each other, even though none of them suffered a physical loss in the Departure. And whether Laurie suffered some sort of metaphysical miscarriage or not, the Remnant members we've gotten to know are ones who didn't lose someone important on October 14. Patti was already kicked out of the house by her abusive husband, Gladys had only her puppies, and Meg's mother died on October 13. (Whereas even before she had her pain hugged away by Holy Wayne, Nora Durst was the most emotionally stable person on the show.)

The Sudden Departure is the inciting incident that has sent all the characters we know on their journeys, whether it's been Kevin Sr's descent into madness, Matt's obsession first with discrediting the "Heroes" and then with saving the Remnants, or Laurie's journey from Patti's therapist to her acolyte to her successor. But for the most part, it's not the cause of their problems. Kevin was as broken on October 13 as on the 14th. There are glimpses of the Patti who would come to run the Remnant, and the Matt who would invest too deeply into his various quests. And the world was damaged, too. The only difference is that the events of October 14th made the damage so big and public and widespread that it became impossible for anyone — except maybe Kevin Garvey Jr. — to ignore it all.

Great episode, and another example of how well the show excels when it deviates from whatever formula it's established for itself within these first 9 hours of television.

Some other thoughts:

* The Patti/Laurie scene not only confirms the patient/therapist relationship they once had, but confirms various fan theories about what she was doing with the doggie bag in "Gladys."

* Speaking of Gladys, I'm wondering how many of her adorable puppies went berserk after the Departure. I can easily imagine something like that driving her into the arms of Patti and the Remnant.

* Beyond getting to hear Gladys discuss the puppies, this episode is full of actors who had either only appeared in photographs or silent roles, as you begin to understand why they bothered hiring Janel Moloney to play a catatonic woman, and why we've seen Scott William Winters and Sebastian Arcelus in photographs.

* We also get to see some prominent characters dressed and acting quite differently from how we're used to them. Matt has better hair and clothes, and carries himself like a powerful man in the community, for instance, while they try to age down Margaret Qualley by giving Jill very prominent braces and asking her to giggle at least once per scene. And Kevin Sr. seems every bit the respected leader that Kevin struggles to be. (I'm guessing Detective Lou wasn't the only one pre-Departure who treated Lt. Garvey as a beneficiary of nepotism.)

* Speaking of Matt, it turns out Mary was driving the car — and therefore in position to suffer such a terrible fate in the accident that happened in the Departure's immediate aftermath — because Matt wanted to get drunk to celebrate his non-cancer diagnosis. That has to be playing a role in his current mania.

* The couple whose house is trashed by the deer are the same ones interviewed by Nora back in episode 2; their son vanishes not long after the deer invasion.

* The show hasn't exactly tried to hide the relationship between Lucy and Kevin Sr. in past episodes, but the nature of it becomes abundantly clear here.

* The episode doesn't lean too heavily on the 2011 of it all, but Jill does try to get her father to appreciate the joys of Nyan Cat.

* The poem Kevin references in his toast to his father is "A Man Said to the Universe" by Stephen Crane. The song he keeps listening to on his morning run is "The Girl From King Marie" by Jody Reynolds, which doesn't exactly seem like workout fodder, even for a guy Kevin's age.

Remember: "The Leftovers" is taking Labor Day weekend off, so the finale airs on September 7, right after the final season premiere of "Boardwalk Empire."

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com