I don’t envy the writers of The Leftovers when it comes to the hard work that ensues when they have to juggle at least a dozen different characters, moving each one of them incrementally forward while also advancing the strange arc of this series. But episode two provided some fine proof that they are more than up to the task. Almost all the main figures of this show get their moments this week, while still leaving plenty of questions remaining as to the intentions and sanity of them all.
Most intriguing among them was Nora Durst, the woman who lost her entire family in the incident, and is treated with a mixture of awe, respect, and pity as she wanders through Mapleton. Sitting in a coffee shop, she nudges her mug off the table and lets it smash to the floor, knowing that when one of the baristas comes over, they will completely crumple when faced with this woman who has had everything taken away from her.
She becomes the fascination of Jill Garvey and her friend, who follow Nora from the café to a suburban home. Inside, it is revealed that she is an insurance claims adjuster and is there to ask a long series of questions to an older couple that also lost a child in “the departure” so they can get a death benefit check. It’s a harrowing and tense scene. And considering Nora’s actions beforehand, I’m still not convinced that she’s on the level with this poor couple who has to address whether their son with Down syndrome traveled to Brazil or had multiple sex partners.
Outside of this spins the story of Sheriff Garvey, and the possibility that he might be going a little mad. They hinted at that in the first episode, but they keep throwing this idea back at us this week. He was caught following the dog shooting, and rightfully claimed that he was there with someone else, the man in the black truck. But he took off, leaving Garvey there with a pile of animal corpses and a lot of questions. So when the black truck shows up parked at his house, with a dead dog in the bed, it’s understandable why his deputy might be concerned for the sheriff’s mental state. The added wrinkle is that Garvey’s father (and former sheriff of Mapleton) is in a mental institution, watching episodes of Perfect Strangers and having conversations with people who aren’t there. They give a small nod to the younger Garvey’s sanity towards the end of the episode, but he looks too tense and too ready to snap for me to feel completely confident in that.
Again, as with the pilot, we’re only given information in bite-sized chunks. It’s a great way to keep folks coming back to the series and a way to flex the muscles of the writers. Can they keep us engaged while still knowing so little? They’re doing best with the Wayne storyline. As the episode opens, two government officials discuss this guru who, after losing his son in the disappearance, became known to some as Holy Wayne, a prophet with the ability to “hug the pain away.” Using his penchant for Asian teens, and his extorting money from members of Congress with a promise for his miracle cure, the ATF storms Wayne’s compound. The raid is a stunning sequence, shot mostly in the dark, punctuated by many gunshots and a lot more edits. It’s disorienting and a little frightening, only made more so when Tom guns down one of the agents so as to protect Christine, the member of Wayne’s harem that he’s in love with.
Things only get more complicated at the rendezvous, as Wayne charges Tom with Christine’s protection, and offers to hug the young man. Tom recoils from the suggestion, looking fearful of what that embrace might bring, likely a smart decision on his part. It was a small scene but one of the most powerful of the episode, given weight by the mixture of terror and wonder and regret that played over actor Chris Zylka’s face as rebuffed the offer.
What we also know about the Guilty Remnant, the religious cult that Tom’s mother joined, is only that they are there to “remind people of what happened,” according to the sheriff. But the motivations behind how they are doing so—by stalking people in the streets, chain smoking, and trying to break down the will of newest member, Meg, by having her attempt to chop down a tree with a small axe—is anyone’s guess.
The less this show reveals, the better it seems to be. Like the best HBO dramas, it respects the intelligence of the people viewing it enough to let them either fill in the blanks or appreciate and find intrigue in each hour without knowing every last detail. Unfortunately, the loudest voices seem to be the ones that are decrying this show for not being absolutely perfect right out of the gate. The debut episode did have its overwrought moments, but it also did a great job of laying the foundation for this first season. This week was just another layer of the structure, and a great next step for The Leftovers.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.