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HBO’s The Leftovers is a hard series to watch and an even more daunting one to explain. A melancholic, darkly humorous, and often difficult drama about the aftermath of a world in which two percent of the human population suddenly vanished, this was never going to be the sort of show that made for easy viewing. A series that constantly wrestles with seemingly impossible questions—Is God real? Is there a purpose to suffering? How can we keep hoping for a better future in the face of so much pain happening right now?—it often dances on the knife’s edge between sorrow and joy.
These are weighty, difficult issues of the sort that most television series never bother to even acknowledge, let alone structure their entire narrative existence around. The Leftovers is not only unafraid to embrace wildly polarizing narrative topics, but it’s also willing to admit upfront that it doesn’t know the answers to the existential questions it raises. And, for the most part, it doesn’t even seem to consider the answers that important in the grand scheme of things.
This isn’t a show that will tell you whether God exists or if humanity is damned or what, precisely, caused the precipitating event of the series. It won’t even bother to explain how of much what we, as viewers, are seeing is real: Whether Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is having visions or a garden variety mental breakdown, if Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) really somehow crossed over to another world to see her Departed children again, or if Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) was really hugging the pain out of people back in Season 1.
Nowhere is this grim, frustrating, and strangely beautiful dichotomy more apparent than the show’s treatment of Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a kind and well-meaning Episcopal priest who struggles to understand how the God he loves could not only allow an event like the Sudden Departure to happen, but would leave his creation to suffer so blindly in its aftermath.
Over the course of the series’ three seasons, Matt’s faith is constantly tested: battered by circumstance, frustrated by the oddity of timing, and besieged by what seems to be little more than terrible luck. Yet, his is a story of a man desperate to forge meaning out of repeated horror, to spread the good news in a world that often seems to value or offer neither.
Whether or not he’s ultimately successful is a question that is left up to viewers to decide. The Leftovers is a show that will land differently depending on what you believe the story you’re seeing to be. For some, that will be wildly freeing, the equivalent of watching a sort of visual Rorschach test from episode to episode where you, as a viewer, take what you need from the story at the moment. For others, The Leftovers’ aggressive lack of specificity and its repeated rejection of the concept of objectifiable truth can prove frustrating and infuriating by turns.
It makes a certain amount of sense that Matt, of all people, would be particularly invested in the truth behind the Sudden Departure. For a man of God whose literal job is to prepare his followers for the End Times, the threat of the Biblical Rapture having happened while he wasn’t paying attention on a random October day is upsetting on multiple levels. That he has subsequently chosen to devote his life to disproving the idea that there was anything particularly holy about the people who disappeared often seems cruel on the surface—and there’s something truly awful about distributing pamphlets to grieving people insisting that they need to admit their loved ones gambled and cheated and stole—but it comes from a place of deep belief.
As a character, Matt incorporates aspects of various Biblical figures including Job, Joseph, and Daniel. (He literally walks through a lion’s den at one point in Season 3. This show is not often subtle.) He suffers through childhood cancer, his wife’s vegetative paralysis in the wake of a car accident caused by a Departed driver, the loss of his beloved church home, multiple beatings, general public scorn, and more. His wife finally wakes up from her coma, only to ultimately leave him and take their son with her. His cancer comes back. He journeys all the way to Australia to find Kevin, only to realize along the way that his friend was never truly the answer he needed.
It would be easy to write the character off as The Leftovers’ sort of emotional narrative punching bag—literally every time one slightly positive thing happens to Matt, disaster almost immediately ensues—a man, like Job, who basically exists to suffer. Eccleston’s expressive face is, after all, great at conveying every bit of pain, confusion, disappointment, and sorrow Matt experiences on any given day, alongside his all-too-fleeting moments of joy. Instead, his character is the series’ emotional center, the one person who somehow continually keeps on believing in something greater than himself, whose experiences range from tragic to miraculous to existential disorientation, and yet still insists there must some kind of meaning behind it all.
It’s often difficult to depict faith on television, whether it’s trying to accurately present the reasons someone follows a specific religion, or simply indicating a person genuinely believes in something outside of themselves—whatever that thing might be. Therefore, TV faith tends to fall into one of several categories: Extreme proselytizing that aims to make you believe a thing is true, deep agnosticism which often tries to convince you something isn’t, or the sort of hopefully bland Instagram inspiration that calls itself thoughtful while saying nothing at all.
But faith, in its purest sense, is a mystery and a gift, something that will look different to everyone who experiences it. It is, as the Bible says, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It is hard and weird and asks you to accept disparate, difficult things daily.
Perhaps that’s why The Leftovers’ unique depiction of faith is ultimately so appealing. Matt’s belief system is specifically Christian, and he wrestles with explicitly theological questions about whether God is vengeful, kind, or somewhere in between. But the show’s idea of faith is something much more expansive, and more willing to accept that there is more than one right answer to the questions it poses.
The truth is, we live in a strange world, where both terrible and wondrous things can happen, and we have to make sense of them—of things that are objectively often senseless—as best we can. God can seem demonstrably present or bafflingly absent. Meaning can come via a loud voice or through a deafening silence. Perhaps the idea of believing in anything at all is, on its face, ridiculous. But it’s also what makes us human.
The Leftovers ultimately lets viewers decide whether Matt Jamison met God, lost his faith, or finally made some sort of peace with the burdens he has spent so long trying to carry. All of those answers are equally possible and equally likely and may actually all exist simultaneously. But if you’re looking for a signpost, just remember—this is a series that ends on an image of two doves returning to their roost, which is, for those who keep faith with such things, a sign of long-looked-for grace. Did Matt find it? I hope so. If only because it means we might, too.
Watch on HBO Max
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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