Rejecting Forced Order: Blackness and The Leftovers

TV Features

By the end of season two, it’s clear that searching for order in the storytelling of The Leftovers is a futile endeavor. And yet, like so many other viewers, I’ve found myself repeatedly attempting such order anyway, as if certain problems will be rectified if I can just try harder to force the pieces into place. This season’s 10 episodes are like 10 nearly indescribable puzzle pieces, even now that we can finally look at them altogether, since Sunday night’s magnificent finale, “I Live Here Now,” and still we see no solutions, no edges that match up perfectly.

Creators David Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have already explained we won’t ever have an answer to what happened to the 2% of the world’s population that disappeared last season, and perhaps these story pieces were never meant to fit seamlessly together in anything resembling a straightforward narrative.

Even so, this is series made up of patterns and consistencies, not just in how traumas and struggles are dealt with in consistently true-to-character and believable ways, but in stories that may not make sense, but still remain stories. Perhaps more importantly, The Leftovers challenges our very notion “sense,” and instead asks if there is more to gain from rejecting the concept altogether.

In season one, the show centered primarily on the Garvey family, following Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey as he reeled from the loss of his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), to the cult of the Guilty Remnant—a group that makes it their mission to ensure the world doesn’t forget the pain of the Departure—while slowly losing his mind. Season two brought a noticeable change in tone and themes, in addition (and arguably because of the addition) to another central family, the Murphys, headed by Regina King and Kevin Carroll as Erika and John Murphy.

Conspicuously, the Murphys are black. Discussing casting choices in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lindelof explained, “If my gut is telling me that these characters should be black, then that’s what they’re going to be.”

The Murphys represent a previously under-explored reaction to the Departure —which had largely been represented by either the longing to forget, or the need to remember/make sense. In Jarden, Texas (sometimes referred to by the name of the national park now surrounding it, Miracle), where the Murphys reside and where Kevin and his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) migrate with Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and their adopted black baby Lily, the city boasts of not losing a single soul in the Departure. John Murphy makes it his duty to seek out anyone positioning themselves as a prophet—anyone seeking to give sense to why Miracle was spared—and brutalize them.

John, and to a lesser extent Erika, literally fight to keep anyone from making sense of this illogical situation. “There are no miracles in Miracle,” John says, though when millions of people disappear everywhere but in Jarden inexplicably, others find it much easier to accept the miracle narrative. Quite a few townspeople hold onto rituals—whatever they were doing on the day of the Departure—believing their actions may have had something to do with why the town was spared. Many who lived elsewhere at the time, the Garveys included, force their way into town in the hopes of finding safety in Jarden’s miracle.

Throughout the season, Jarden becomes the site of struggle between forced order (determining an explanation for the town’s presumed safety—as represented by the Garveys), and the violent resistance to it (there is no explanation—the Murphys).

Lindelof explained in the same interview from The Hollywood Reporter, “Tom (Poretta) wrote the book (on which the first season was based) as kind of a 9/11 parable.” Critics have explored this post-9/11 (and post-post-9/11) aspect of season two before, but perhaps there is no bigger character of the post-9/11 world than the racialization of control as a safety device.

The Murphys are not white, purposefully and overtly, just like millions of Muslims who were subjected to heightened levels of scrutiny and suspicion in the wake of a senseless loss, and just like over-policed black and brown communities who continue the Movement for Black Lives in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin and the events in Ferguson last year. For black and brown people, making sense of national tragedy, for society to regain control when it seems lost to acts of terror or inner city violence, always comes at our expense. Order, then, does not benefit uniformly across all racial lines.

Lindelof explained that this season and the racial dynamic it demonstrates was not meant to take “on Ferguson or any of the incredibly important things that are happening in terms of the racial divide in our country right now.” If you were to take him at his word, The Leftovers isn’t telling a race story, but undeniably, a race story is there. And perhaps that’s the beauty of the show—those ten puzzle pieces can say so much, even when they haven’t been made to line up. What is not said explicitly can certainly be interpreted in powerful ways. Perhaps we can learn much more about Ferguson without the show saying anything about Ferguson at all. Indeed, what if rejecting any order to the racial narrative is exactly how one understands it?

In a devastatingly beautiful scene in the episode “Lens,” Nora administers a Departure questionnaire to Erika in order to determine whether or not Evie (the Murphys’ daughter, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown) has departed—a questionnaire Erika had previously refused to take. Projecting her own fear of being responsible for her own family’s disappearance, Nora attempts to disprove Evie departed; no one can depart in Miracle, after all.

For Nora, the safety given by Miracle which she so desperately needs means Evie must have left on her own accord, bringing her love for her family and parents into question. This narrative (the simple explanation of Evie’s loss) comes with dangerous implications to Erika—abandonment—and the back and forth ends with Erika smashing a brick through Nora’s window (after Nora had done the same to the Murphy home at the beginning of the episode, when the Murphys became a reminder of her own pain).

At the very end of the ninth episode, “Ten Thirteen,” Nora’s hunch proves correct. Evie is discovered to have staged her own Departure and joined the Guilty Remnant, though the discovery brings anything but order. Evie’s return in the finale was marked by a terrorist threat, infiltration of the town by the Remnant, and subsequent rioting of Jarden. The town may be safe from the Departure, but what of other safeties? As the other Murphy twin, Michael (Jovan Adepo), stated in the church’s commemoration of the day of the Departure, “Nobody disappeared from here on October 14th four years ago, but they did before, and after.”

Sense—or an explanation that reaffirms the power of Miracle—doesn’t save the Murphys. The Departure isn’t the only grief. The Garveys’ concerns, the concerns of people who lived outside of Miracle, aren’t the only concerns, and centralizing them came at the cost of their new neighbors. An obsession with the Departure and with emphasizing the importance of order consequently destabilized the Murphy family.

And for black people in America, centralizing the concerns of white America has always resulted in a breakup of our families, the over-policing of our communities, in other losses and griefs that aren’t as easily identified and hardly recognized. Blackness—represented by the Murphy family—rejects forced ordering not only because it is familiar with senseless loss, but also because it is able to find safety in what society views as non-sensical. Blackness itself is nonsensical when viewed through a White American lens, so White America’s “sense” becomes a dangerous thing.

When Evie returns, now dressed in the customary white of the Remnant and threatening to blow up the bridge to Jarden, there is a phenomenal scene in which Erika breaks through the police line to confront her daughter, letting her know that if she plans to blow herself up, she’ll have to kill her mother, too. Toward the end of the harrowing interaction, Erika pleadingly proclaims that she doesn’t understand why her daughter would do such a thing, to which Evie responds for the first time by writing on her notepad, “You understand.”

You understand. I understand that people deal with grief in different ways, and I’d like to think I understand that more deeply now, due to how The Leftovers thoroughly explores the concept. I understand that my grief is not yours, and White America’s grief is not black. I understand that, even for those who exist at the margins of community and for whom social order can mean danger, rejecting order can also become a pattern—its own order, and danger, and maybe that is why Evie responded the way she did, and left her own family. After all of her and her husband’s fighting against easy answers, Erika still found herself pleading for one from her daughter. She didn’t get it, but maybe she understood anyway.

For Black America—for the Murphys—there are no easy answers, even if sometimes we, too, want them. ISIS and the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernadine have re-exposed America’s fear of black and brown folk. Most Americans say we should no longer accept Syrian refugees fleeing their own terrorized lives, and every other day it seems another black person is gunned down by the police. This is the order we have come to agree upon when using conventional sense to keep America safe. But who is going to save the rest of us?

In so many ways, America’s race story reminds me of The Leftovers, of mysteries and letting them be, and the power in doing so, especially for those of us at society’s margins; of how we were never meant to fit seamlessly together—and yet, we are together. It reminds me of how “sense” means something different when you’re a black boy in a hoodie, than when you’re a white person on the jury judging his murderer—when you’re a Murphy, than when you’re a Garvey.

Toward the end of the season finale, after John Murphy shot and killed Kevin Garvey because he thought Garvey had something to do with his daughter’s disappearance (and, more importantly, after Garvey implied maybe Evie did not love her father), Garvey escaped limbo once again to return to the land of the living, only for John to nurse him back to health, realizing his mistake. Admitting what he was perhaps fighting for all season for the first time, he wearily told Kevin, “I don’t understand what’s happening.” “Me neither,” Kevin replied. And in that moment, it seemed not understanding was finally okay.

Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller. He is the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. He is also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.

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