Season premiere review: 'The Leftovers' - 'Axis Mundi': We are spared
"The Leftovers" is back. I already published a very long (and even more thoughtful) interview with Damon Lindelof, and wrote a review of the first few episodes. Now I have thoughts on the season premiere itself, coming up just as soon as I ask for my bacon on a separate plate...
"Something bad is gonna happen... to you." -Isaac
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
No, "The Leftovers" didn't suddenly morph into a "Battlestar Galactica" spin-off — even though ("BSG" finale spoilers) both eventually wound up in caveman times — but watching the crazy, stunning prologue to season 2, it was hard not to think of Ronald D. Moore's pet phrase.
We knew the series was going to relocate this year, and all change can be disorienting, but to open the new season not only a few thousand miles away from Mapleton, but millennia upon millennia in the past? That's the show taking a Tom Perrotta joke — as the writers were pondering what would go in a "Previously, on 'The Leftovers'" segment, Perrotta wondered, "How previously should we get?" — and turning it into an unexpected and beautiful meditation on the show's larger themes about loss, grief, God, and moving on past tragedy.
Our cavewoman heroine isn't witness to something as mystical as the Sudden Departure, but in her small worldview, the earthquake that kills off the rest of her tribe is just as inexplicable. She's a leftover just as much as Laurie or Patti or Nora were. She stays close to the cave-in long after it's become dangerous to her and her baby to do so, all because she can't quite comprehend how such a thing could happen, or that she should be out exploring the world beyond that cave and that lake. Of course, once she finally decides to investigate the smoke off in the distance, she gets fatally bit by a snake who was attacking the baby, and for a few moments it seems like TV's Most Depressing Show is preparing to double down by opening its new season with a baby trapped in its dead mother's arms in a hostile wilderness...
... when another cavewoman, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nora Durst, wanders over, to take care of this orphaned child, right as Max Richter's now hauntingly familiar piano theme begins to play, and we pan over ever so slightly to reveal that this same lake — which could well be the axis mundi, or connection between heaven and earth, of the episode's title — is right there in our new locale of Jarden, TX, all those centuries later.
It's a wild and unsettling way into the new season, and this new place, but it also sets us up perfectly for the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land that's there throughout "Axis Mundi." This is not a version of "The Leftovers" that's apologetic about being a challenging show to watch, not one that's going to hold the audience's hand, insist that everything will be okay and explained in a timely fashion. No, this is "The Leftovers" hurling us right into that lake alongside Evie Murphy and hoping we can swim, or at least make it to dry land before the lakewater — and, perhaps, three girls who went to swim in it — disappears.
This is a POV episode, like "Two Boats and a Helicopter" and "Guest" were last season, but with four POV characters instead of one. Through the four members of the Murphy family — a kind of mirror image of the Garveys, with a fire chief instead of a police chief(*) and a doctor instead of a shrink — we see many different corners and layers of life in Jarden, and even get reacquainted with more familiar characters like Matt, Kevin, Nora, and Jill (and baby Lily). But we only see these things through their eyes, and only learn things they still need to learn.
(*) Kevin and John even share a habit of seeming to lose things that others can easily find: Kevin with the bagel in the back of the toaster, John with the spoon in the drain. Something tells me these two will have a lot to talk about later in the season.
Whatever's going on with the firefighters moonlighting as an anti-magic goon squad, or the bird Erika buried in a box in the woods, or Evie and her friends running naked together may be explained later, or it may not. But those moments, and other casual bits of strangeness — like the man who apologetically drags a goat into the diner just to slaughter it, to the annoyance but not shock of the staff and patrons — make clear that life in this town that was somehow untouched by the Sudden Departure is very different from what we saw up in Mapleton, for good and for bad.
As we saw last year with the Garveys (give or take what you believe Laurie saw on the sonogram at the end of "The Garveys at Their Best"), you didn't need to lose a loved one in the Departure to have your entire worldview shaken by the event. In some ways, the people of Jarden seem lighter and more confident than the ones we knew in Mapleton, but there are shadows mixed in with that sunshine, starting with whatever reason John and the firefighters have for trying to keep any talk of the supernatural out of their town.
And the episode's conclusion, where Evie — who, because of her epilepsy, already suffered from absence seizures — goes missing altogether, along with her friends and all the water in that lake, could be the signal of a second Departure in this new modern age of miracles, or it could have a much more earthbound explanation, like perhaps the girls stumbling across people trying to steal the water that some people believe is the reason that Jarden is "safe" when the rest of the world is not.
"Axis Mundi" is a wonderful, immersive dive deep into the troubled waters of this show, and I'm glad to be back in them, even though we're still just getting to know all these new players.
Some other thoughts:
* Love the new title sequence. The visuals create a much more tonally-appropriate mix of the mundane and the cosmic, and of whimsy and tragedy (the little boy snuggling in bed with the parent who's no longer there), and Iris DeMent's "Let the Mystery Be" neatly sums up the series' approach to the larger metaphysical questions of the Sudden Departure.
* One more thought on the prologue: though the more obvious comparison might be to Kubrick or Malick, it reminded me of the way Lindelof's previous show began its second season, with a sequence seemingly having nothing to do with anything we'd seen before, until everything linked together in the closing moments.
* In addition to Evie suffering from epilepsy, Erika needs hearing aids, which is an interesting choice — as Lindelof noted in our interview — given how much this show leans on its score and soundscape for dramatic effect.
* We get a double shot of TGIF nostalgia here. First there's a payoff to last season's running gag about the entire "Perfect Strangers" cast having disappeared, as Mark Linn-Baker turns up back on Earth, perhaps having faked his Departure, or perhaps having returned from wherever everyone went.
* Meanwhile, Isaac was played by Darius McCrary, best known as Eddie Winslow from "Family Matters." And the man living in the tower in the center of Jarden is played by Turk Pipkin, who has experience playing a religious type on "The Sopranos," since he was Janice's narcoleptic, evangelical boyfriend Aaron on "The Sopranos."
* Janel Moloney is now a cast regular, which must be an interesting budget line-item, since she's a veteran actress with a reasonably high profile, whose job, outside of occasional episodes with dreams or flashbacks, it is to sit silently in a chair and stare off into space.
* Come back tomorrow morning around 9 for some bonus Lindelof interview quotes on the subject of "Perfect Strangers" and the prologue. UPDATE: Here it is.
What did everybody else think? If you were a fan last year, did this feel like an exciting new chapter, or too jarring a shift? If you didn't like the first season but were giving it another shot, did the cavewoman prologue chase you away for good, or suck you in at least for an hour?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com