The cold open is becoming something of an art in modern television. It is there that the show dangles a thread that will either lead you forward or reject you outright. To that end, The Leftovers succeeded in a big way this week. The opening montage follows the creation, packaging, and sale of a baby doll. It is filled with sexualized and religious symbolism, while also managing to wrap up the story of Jesus and the largest plotline of this series, as the doll is purchased, swaddled, and placed in a nativity scene. We are then walked quickly through three days through the magic of editing … and then the doll vanishes.
Every scene that follows manages to connect back to that opening segment. It either relates directly to the retrieval or replacement of the doll, or it dabbles in some impressively understated religious symbolism.
In the latter case, it is revealed that both Tommy and Kevin are playing (or have played) the role of Joseph. We find out that Jessica is carrying Holy Wayne’s child, with Tom forced to bloody his knuckles to protect her from a crazy man with no pants. Most heartbreaking, though, is the moment when Laurie visits her husband to serve him with divorce papers. Her charge Meg reads him a letter where she reveals that Kevin isn’t Tommy’s real father, but loved him like a son all the same.
The female members of the family have to reckon with the abandonment of physically or emotionally letting a child go. Jill turns out to be the one who stole the Jesus figure, and during a hangout with friends, attempts to give it a makeshift Viking funeral before chickening out. She also walks in on the harrowing moment of Kevin angrily pleading with his wife. Jill responds by handing her mother the sole gift under the Christmas tree: a Zippo with the words “Don’t Forget Me” engraved on it. In a last chilling moment, Laurie drops the gift into a sewer grate.
The theme of disappearance remains thick and heavy over this entire series. And here, it is the Guilty Remnant who takes a terrifying step towards reminding people of this fact. Sending several of their members to a fundraising dance as a decoy, the rest quietly break into everyone’s homes, removing pictures of those who vanished from the frames. It was downright chilling with some horror movie undertones that Damon Lindelof must love injecting into whatever series he’s working on.
Another undercurrent that the GR keeps bringing to bear: the disregard of human lives that don’t directly connect to your own. We cling to friends and family, but have a hard time raising similar concerns about anyone else. The final moment of this episode drove that home hard with Kevin tossing the baby Jesus that he’s recovered out the window of his truck. Another has been set in its place thanks to Matt, so what use does he have for this other, lesser model? With one toss of the toy, it calls into question all of our casual dismissal of the humans that surround us once they have served their particular purpose. It’s also the perfect moment that remains wide open to interpretation.
There’s also a lot to discuss with regards to how much of the actions in the series are being controlled by the hands of humans or some supernatural force. Why does the chief’s car go completely dead at one point? Why does the weird pantless man who attacks Jessica early on in the episode presage the appearance of hundreds of dead bodies, wrapped in white that end up strewn all over the highway? Who were those spirits that Kevin’s dad was talking to two episodes before? At this point, I almost don’t want to know the answers. I’m not used to watching a series and being left with this unsteady feeling at the end of each episode. It’s fairly intoxicating and addictive.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.