In the episode of Master Of None where Dev takes his new lady friend on an adventure to Nashville, they are just about to head to the airport when he asks to swing by a barbecue restaurant to grab some bottles of sauce to take home. She balks because she doesn’t want to miss the flight, and her niece’s piano recital. After some convincing, she relents. And, of course, they miss their scheduled flight.
I bring this up because if you have watched any small amount of TV or films over the past 20 years or so, you saw that coming. You knew that he was going to make them late and make them miss their flight. It was all but spelled out in giant flashing letters on the screen as they were having the conversation. Thank goodness that kind of blatantly obvious script writing has all but fallen by the wayside, and moments like that in Master Of None are now becoming anomalous. Need one more example to add to the growing list of small screen fare that is bucking every convention around? Sit down with this week’s episode of The Leftovers.
The only certainty we had was the knowledge that Kevin was eventually going to come out of whatever netherworld/purgatory he would find himself in after swallowing the jarful of poison last week. (Though it would have added an extra layer of craziness if they simply killed him off.) We just didn’t know what form his journey was going to take. Or, if we’d see it at all. Personally, I was convinced that he was going to wake up in the urgent care clinic and tell us all about it later. Instead, we get every minute of the tale. And it is a lulu.
The entire hour played out like an episode of The Prisoner, that delightful cult series about a secret agent dropped into “The Village,” a surrealist vacation land where his superiors try to shake him down for information. Here it was Kevin. trying to unlock the puzzle of why he woke up in a bathtub full of water (a little heavy-handed with the symbolism, Lindelof) and finds a perfectly tailored suit in the wardrobe. It quickly becomes clear, though: he’s there to vanquish Patti, once and for all. The dreamlike logic of the hour unfurls from there, with dead characters from Season One reappearing, an assassination set up like Michael Corleone’s murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey in The Godfather, and lots of fucked up diversions—like Kevin’s dad appearing on his purgatory hotel room TV screen to offer a bit of advice, or the strange Gabriel/Phlegyas-like figure that stops him on his way to “The Well.”
Some points had to be taken away from the episode for the somewhat eye-rolling symbolics of having the real Patti appear as a little girl, particularly one that he just rescued from drowning earlier in the episode. It was easy to excuse that, considering how harrowing it made the moment when he finally shoved her into the well. And it set up that lovely, almost tender moment between Kevin and Patti, as they sat bloodied and soaked at the bottom of that pit. His drowning her became an almost merciful act, putting the poor woman out of her misery, just as he tried to release himself from his own anguish.
Not long after I watched this episode, I saw someone on Twitter lamenting that they missed the first season’s simplicity, that they were happy to just watch a show about people recovering from the events of “The Departure.” I just can’t share that sentiment. Even a lot of great shows play it far too safe. Master Of None has been a lot of fun to watch, especially as it gained narrative strength as the series has gone on. But it telescopes a lot of jokes, and gives you a lot of sweet syrupy liquid to help the bitter pills about the depiction of other races in popular media and the culture clashes between first generation Americans and their immigrant parents go down a little easier.
The shows that will continue to vault over those are the ones that dare to try new things and break narrative conventions, and make us swallow our medicine with no water at all. TV can be equal parts daring and entertaining. The Leftovers has continued to prove that, week after week, in this second season. With the ever-growing flood of series spilling out from network TV, cable, and streaming services every week, it would take a lot for any show to rise to the top of the heap. The Leftovers has done it with a fluid ease that should have all showrunners taking notes and rethinking how they want to tackle that next episode, that next season.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.