All the talk about this second season of The Leftovers has concentrated on the blank slate that the writers and producers were given for this next run of episodes. The first season ended just like the book did, leaving an infinite number of avenues for the show to go down. It’s akin to the number of anthology series that are slowly taking over cable TV (Fargo, True Detective). Only this time, there’s the same characters and the hovering strangeness of The Departure still hanging over everyone’s heads. Still, this was practically a gift for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, as now, they can go anywhere.
They’re also allowed to mythologize a bit. That’s at least one way to explain the bizarre prehistoric sequence that kicks off this second season. Knowing Lindelof’s previous TV work, you have to imagine that this will get explained away or at least that the story of this pregnant woman wandering the world in what was, apparently, going to turn into Texas will get returned to and resolved in some manner. For now, it’s just another piece of this even bigger puzzle, sitting alongside the other mysteries presented in this new episode.
The biggest mystery of the episode, and likely the whole season, is exactly what the hell is going in Jarden, Texas? As any of you who were lucid enough during and after the attacks on the World Trade Center will remember, it was like the world had shifted just a couple of degrees off axis and we spent the next days and weeks (or longer) trying to find our feet. That’s the mood that has been hovering over The Leftovers from the start, and it’s even thicker in this town where, apparently, no one was taken away. There’s a strange confidence in the way everyone walks around in Jarden. Spines are a little straighter, resolves are a little stronger. Yet, they know they are walking on literal and figurative shaky ground. Everyone is bracing themselves for another departure or worse.
Knowing that, we can’t get comfortable even as we are introduced to what looks to be the perfect nuclear family in Jarden. The Murphys are the Platonic ideal of household harmony: happy mom and dad with decent paying jobs and God-fearing teens that get along and do well in school. We’ve been burned before by scenes like this. We’re just waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under us.
Slowly, the seams start to split. Daughter Evie not only has epilepsy, but is obviously hiding some kind of secrets that she doesn’t bring back to the house. Her brother Michael also has more going on behind the surface with his strange relationship with the filthy man who stands watch over Jarden from the town square, and his hawking of water from the nearby lake to the people who flock to the city seeking spiritual enlightenment.
The darkest dark side belongs to the patriarch of the Murphy clan, John, who is apparently the leader of a brute squad that looks to keep people toeing the Judeo-Christian line within the city. When he gets wind of a friend running a business where he tries to read a customer’s future from their handprint, he gathers together his posse and burns the man’s house down. Yes, the irony that the men doing the job are also the fire department is not lost on me. That’s the only plot wrinkle that had me rolling my eyes through this first hour.
Naturally, we haven’t lost everyone from Season One. Matt Jamison and his wife have moved to Jarden, where he’s taking over as pastor for a local congregation. The Garveys also find themselves in the town, too, seeking a fresh start from the awful experiences that befell them in Mapleton. And wouldn’t you know it, their neighbors are the Murphys.
Watching these two families interact was the most chilling part of the episode. You can see John sizing Kevin up and feeling him out with such creeping tension, as if he was just about to reveal that either he and his wife Erika were swingers, or that he has a closet filled with the skins of the folks who lived next door before. For all the mystery wrapped up in this first hour, one this is for certain: their relationship is not going to end well.
First we need to find out what the hell happened to all the water in Jarden’s beloved lake… and what the hell happened to Evie and her friends. Like a good showrunner, Lindelof leaves that little surprise until the very end of the first episode, leaving us gasping for air and desperate for just a few more minutes, if not a whole fresh hour of The Leftovers. No such luck, damn him.
If you’ve read any of my writeups about last season, you know that I’m an avowed fan of this series. Even with that, I can safely say that within the course of one hour-long episode, Lindelof, Perrotta, and everyone involved are playing an entirely new sport here in the second year. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and, if I may mix my metaphors, they all cleared the bar with inches to spare.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.