The Leftovers: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

(Episode 1.10)

TV Reviews The Leftovers
The Leftovers: “The Prodigal Son Returns”

Two episodes ago, we thought we knew what was in store for the people of Mapleton on Memorial Day. The Guilty Remnant were going to leave physical reminders of the people in the town that had disappeared. This was the expectation.

What no one could have anticipated was how that moment was revealed on the morning of the holiday. Director Mimi Leder laid it out in a few stark shots, with unmoving bodies in a series of tableaus: a man meditating in the park, a woman pushing a grocery cart, and another attempting to clear leaves from his gutters. It would be artful if it weren’t so damn creepy.

But Leder, along with scriptwriters Tom Perotta and Damon Lindelof, knew that to drive the point home deepest was to concentrate on poor Nora walking down the stairs to find her husband and children sitting around the dining table. Her paroxysms of grief and fear were terrifying to watch and were likely being reflected by people all over the town.

Thing is: we don’t get to see any of that. What we are privy to is the aftermath. As Kevin returns home after his diversion into the woods (about which, more in a moment), he runs into housewives brandishing guns and chasing down people decked out in white. He finds Megan tied to a lamppost covered in blood but with an awful, smug look on her face as she writes the words, “We helped them remember.”

By the time Kevin reaches the GR compound, it is aflame, with a big bonfire of the “real doll”-like figures of the departed melting in the pyre. And the poor mayor shocked and staggering through it, only able to tell Kevin, “You were right.”

It’s a breathtaking sequence made even more so by Kevin having to save both his wife and daughter from being beaten to death and burnt up, respectively. This is what The Leftovers was slowly and assuredly building towards: a huge conflagration that leaves everyone reeling. As someone who watched the show from the get-go, there were definitely times when I wasn’t sure that they were on the right track, but this final hour of Season One left me with full confidence in their vision. And desperate for more.

I want to back track a bit to what led us to those closing moments, particularly a harrowing and moving scene around the midway point. By this time, Kevin has cleaned up the mess left behind by Patti, with the help of Matt (surprisingly). The pastor never once questions Kevin’s account of the story, and goes so far as to bring shovels and a change of clothes for his friend.

On their way back, they stop to eat lunch, when Kevin opens up in a big way, discussing the day of the Departure, and the looks of joy on the face of Jill and Tommy when they realized he was safe. But he also talks about losing them, one by one. As he goes to clean himself up in the washroom, he hears someone whimpering in a stall, and sees that this same person is visibly bleeding. The door opens to reveal Holy Wayne, clinging to his intestines. Kevin attempts to get help, but Wayne tells him to stay, knowing that the end is near. Instead, the dying prophet offers to grant a wish for Kevin as a way of asserting that he was actually the guru he has been claiming he was. For a few wordless seconds, the two men stare at each other before Wayne’s eyes get wide and a huge smile takes over his face. “Granted,” he says, before departing himself. It’s borderline amateur dramatics, but damn if it doesn’t work. The words don’t escape Kevin’s lips, yet the message is clear: he wants his family back.

In this way, the show drives another point home—something that I heard for years during my former days as a regular churchgoer. The idea is that prayers and wishes do get granted, though often not in the way you expect. Kevin might just have gotten his family by the episode’s end—just not the one he anticipated. When he and Jill stagger home, covered in ash and grit from the fire, they find Nora waiting on the doorstep. Shaken by finding the fake family, Nora was ready to leave Mapleton for good, and was about to leave a heartfelt note for Kevin explaining her disappearance. That’s when she finds the baby on the stoop.

Again, it feels like an easy coincidence, or at least a simplistic way of wrapping up the storyline of Tommy and Christine (in the opening moments of the show, she leaves the baby in a rest area bathroom and runs off). Yet, when Nora finds the little girl and picks her up, the beatific look of joy on her face is a wonder to behold. And when Kevin and Jill return to find her, sharing in the happiness of this small moment, it turns into the surreal happy ending that you never expected to get from a show as dark and twisty as this.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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