A review of tonight's "The Leftovers" coming up just as soon as I think I know what happened to your face...

"Why do you persist?" -Mary

What a bizarre, marvelous, freaky, abrupt left turn is "Two Boats and a Helicopter."(*) After two big, sprawling ensemble pieces to open the series and give us a sense of the Departure's impact on the larger world, this one essentially turns into a solo piece about Reverend Matt — or, rather, into a duet between Matt and the cruel, capricious cosmic force that's brought so much uncertainty into the world, and misery into Matt's life. Kevin and Laurie appear briefly (Laurie, interestingly, watching her husband and daughter's house while they sleep), and we also discover that Matt and Nora Durst are siblings, but the great bulk of this is just Christopher Eccleston running around, chasing signs and wonders sent from a deity whose behavior suggests a Monkey's Paw far more than the benevolent God Matt wants to believe in.

(*) The title refers to a famous religious parable that's evolved over the years — in a similarly-named "Boardwalk Empire," it was "Two Boats and a Lifeguard" — in which a man in the middle of a flood waits on the roof of his house, turning down various offers of rescue because "God will provide," and when he dies and winds up at the gates of Heaven, is told that those rescuers were exactly what God was trying to provide the dummy.

It's a great decision to do an episode like this not only because Damon Lindelof (who co-wrote with Jacqueline Oyt) has plenty of experience with single-POV episodes (though "Lost" only occasionally was this narrow in its focus), but because the show wants to focus on the emotional impact of the Departure on the people who weren't taken, and this is an easy, effective way to get to know them. Last week's episode probably could have been even better had it been solely about Kevin questioning the state of his sanity, but I also think this works well as an occasional thing (the other episode I've seen isn't structured this way, but my understanding is there's at least one more like it this season), especially for a character like Matt who's barely appeared at all so far.

His behavior in the pilot episode with the fliers raised questions about who this clergyman was, exactly, and why he seems obsessed with exposing the sins of the Departed. Here, we get answers, but wrapped up in this relentlessly paranoid nightmare of an episode, where the Almighty keeps playing cruel pranks on Matt again and again and again.

As a child, Matt is jealous of the attention Nora gets, prays for some of his own, and winds up with cancer. As an adult, he fixates on his fliers because his wife Mary (played by Janel Moloney from "The West Wing") was left physically and mentally crippled by a Departure-caused car crash. (The one we heard in the background, in fact, of the series' opening scene.) Even if he hadn't become the man that everyone on Mapleton wants to punch in the face, you get the sense that attendance at his church would still be abysmal, and he puts off the banker's phone calls for so long that he's only left with a short window to come up with the cash to save the place. Nora won't give it to him without him giving up his anti-Heroes crusade — and he spitefully responds by telling her that her husband was sleeping with the kids' teacher — and it appears it's all over.

And then, just as it seems God is about to close a door, He opens a window... and giggles as He shoves Matt through it, more or less.

The Casino sequence is another example of some kind of cosmic power at play in "The Leftovers" universe, whatever it might be, but rather than playing like Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman working the blackjack tables in "Rain Man," it's an ugly, nasty joke. Matt wins all the money he needs, then has to savagely beat up (if not kill) the man who attempts to steal his winnings. But all seems okay, until his more generous nature surfaces at the wrong moment as he stops to help an injured Guilty Remnant member, takes a rock to the skull for his trouble, and — after a disturbing dream featuring Mary, Laurie Garvey and other characters in unexpected roles — he wakes up thinking he still has time to save the church...

only to discover that he lost three days...

and that none other than the freaking Remnant are the ones who bought the church out from under him.

That's some straight "Twilight Zone"-level emotional harshness right there. Matt, like the man in the parable from the title, either puts too much misguided faith in God, or simply doesn't read the signals correctly. He doesn't wind up dead as a result — in his case, given his circumstances and his worldview, death could be a welcome release from the post-Departure world. But he's now lost everything that matters to him — even though, like the Garveys, no one in his immediate family vanished on October 14. (His sister suffered enough of that for both of them.)

Strange episode. Unexpected episode. Wholly gripping episode, with a knockout performance by Christopher Eccleston, even allowing for the wobbly American accent. I really liked the series' first two episodes, but "Two Boats and a Helicopter" was where I began to fall for it, hard.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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NOTE: It's unclear if HBO will be getting me episode 4 in advance — and, if so, whether I'll have time to review it given press tour responsibilities. Either way, I imagine I'll be back for episode 5, which is also terrific, and interestingly structured in its own right.