Fantasizing Consent: The Leftovers, Rape and TV Criticism

TV Features The Leftovers

Disclaimer: In the past, I’ve fantasized about what TV rape scenes would look like if writers and directors took a different and more vengeance-enthused approach. This season The Leftovers has presented two storylines that deviate greatly both from my own vision and from many traditional narratives involving rape. My interpretation of this presentation is not meant to diminish the realities of rape by comparing the violent act to TV criticism, nor do I wish to condemn the work of critics by likening their work to violent sexual assault. I especially do not want any references to ambiguity and consent to be misconstrued as an argument for the consideration of so-called “grey areas” in rape cases. If I’ve done my job correctly, none of this will happen. But then again, this is the Internet, and rape apologists be trippin’.

The Leftovers is one of the first shows I’ve fallen in love with where I’m fully convinced that the series and the writers do not, for the most part, care about my feelings. My questions are not all that important, nor are my beliefs. Watching this show is like reading the book of Ecclesiastes—all is vanity, saith the preacher. As a result, it feels dangerous to point out patterns in the series, or to argue that one scene absolutely “means” one thing or another. But this season, as many critics have already pointed out, things are a little different and the narrative unfolding seems a bit more inviting to those interested in writing and talking about the show. There seem to have been, for instance, some very specific attacks against the work of critics. And like most people in my line of work, I just can’t leave it alone.

In episode three, “Off Ramp,” we finally catch up with Laurie Garvey, who is far-removed from her time in the Guilty Remnant (so it seems, at first), working on a memoir and consuming nicotine gum by the bowl-full. She’s… “healthy.” And she’s trying to rescue others from her former life as well. Her book is meant to work as a critique of the group that kept her estranged from her family, and her therapy sessions are, in many ways, yet another critique of the Guilty Remnant. In one intense session, as she attempts to convince her latest convert, Susan, that her family wants her back, and wants to forgive her, Susan says that she knows her husband and son are angry. They’re angry, just like Laurie is angry. When Laurie immediately replies that she isn’t, we realize just how deep her performance has gone. So one of the biggest reliefs of the episode comes later, when her laptop is stolen and her performance of a “healthy” person at peace with the world must abruptly end.

Another violent, but cathartic, scene—and one of the best of the season so far—is one that every writer and critic (and human person, arguably) should see. Laurie’s moment of glory finally arrives, and she’s waiting on her meeting with the big publishing agency. She gets a call about the woman she’d tried to save (whose every scene should have featured Project Pat and Three Six Mafia’s Don’t Save Her), and it’s devastating… but not devastating enough for her to walk out on that meeting.

The Leftovers is, among many other things, a show about suffering. And while we have seen a character stoned to death, and another cut her own throat, and another woman bitten by a venomous snake who then dies with her infant in her arms, I’m not sure we’ve seen suffering quite like Laurie sitting in that office, as her book is simultaneously praised and taken down by those men in suits. There’s mansplaining, whitesplaining and #Damonsplaining, but this scene was a beautiful, horrifying snapshot of the power of criticsplaining.

We know what the Guilty Remnant does. But what do they believe?
They believe the world ended.
Great. So you and Martin will work on that… But the bigger issue is, we gotta put some feeling into this thing.

These publishers play like bad critics, taking this beautiful thing—this confessional work of art—and breaking it down into these tiny, consumable and profitable bits. That moment when the house was on fire. That moment when her ex-husband had to save their daughter. The Christmas present—the lighter (of course, they mis-quote the inscription, because it’s not important to them)—all of it was personal and powerful, until it had an audience. Watching the scenes flash before us again, we remember how we felt witnessing these horrors during Season One, and it pales in comparison to this shitty TV recap they’re delivering.

What’s worse, this critical audience demands more from Laurie. She didn’t explain the Guilty Remnant and the cigarettes. She didn’t tell them what the cult was really about, what they believed in, exactly. These questions rattling off from the publishers—her critics—are akin to those live-tweeters who dared watch The Leftovers Season Two premiere, asking that the opening be explained soon, or that the show “start making sense,” or else they wouldn’t keep watching. When Laurie lunges at the publisher and begins choking him out, she doesn’t say a word, but the scene is crafted so perfectly that we know why she has to do this. Who the fuck is this guy to critique her story, and ask for more? Who is he that the work, as it stood, wasn’t enough? Who gave him consent to wrap up her story so neatly, and present it as the next big thing in Departure literature?

Well, he was Laurie. In other words, he was there to give Laurie a taste of her own medicine. Who was Laurie to critique the Guilty Remnant, and attempt to share that story with the world? And who was she to tell a woman, clearly struggling to adjust to her life back home, that everything was going to be okay, and that her family had absolutely forgiven her? Who gave her consent to pull that woman (and the others) out of one life, and put her back into another? When Susan swerves into oncoming traffic, it is, in some way, a response to Laurie’s attempts to impose upon her life. Laurie’s meeting and subsequent arrest by the end of the episode prove that all of the critics in “Off Ramp” have failed, and they have failed partly because their critiques were an attempt to save someone or something. The publishers are trying to save the book. Laurie is trying to save a former member of her former cult. Apparently, a critic who attempts to be a savior—especially without expressed consent—is quite a terrifying thing.


“Off Ramp” deals with the issue of consent in an even more direct way, with Tommy’s rape.

With “The Leftovers,” because the show is saturated with a state of mind what Lindelof terms “emotional apocalypse,” sexual assault takes on different meaning. Or rather, it takes on, no meaning—“The Leftovers”’ characters confront meaninglessness in its endless loops and eddies. The pain and humiliation of rape is just another facet of the same dark landscape.—Sonia Sarayia, Salon

“But how do you know for sure if someone gave consent?” so many people have whined over the years. How do you determine if consent was given in the case of, say, a rape? When I read Sarayia’s piece, I was first impressed that she was firm and unwavering about the fact of Tommy’s rape. Others might argue that the rape is difficult to read, partly due to the fact that Tommy, at one point in the act, is very clearly receiving some physical pleasure from the encounter. But expressed consent was not given—and expressed protests were. And although Meg’s act was sexual in nature, it was more about power than anything else—and not even power over Tommy, but power over his mother.

Tell your mom, Meg says “hi.”

Sarayia is correct—sexual assault has no specific meaning on The Leftovers, and it’s certainly not used as a plot device the way it might be, and has been, on so many other shows. It doesn’t completely transform how we feel about one character or another, although it does add another layer, perhaps, to Tommy, who goes on to assume the position of savior (or Holy Wayne, le deux). It’s not any more shocking or interesting than the other things we’ve watched these characters endure or perform, but the question of consent does seem to be an issue The Leftovers is interested in exploring, and “Off Ramp” opens that door in a big way.

The exploration continues in episode five, “No Room at the Inn.” Matt Jamison is a character whose storylines are always shocking, and upsetting and Job-like, but last week it was suggested that he might also be a rapist. When a doctor informs him that his wife Mary is miraculously with child, he also informs him that he believes a rape has occurred.

If your wife isn’t capable of giving consent for a test, she cannot give her consent for anything.

With Tommy and Meg we were able to watch the event for ourselves, and make a determination about what happened. But the question of what occurred between Matt and Mary weighs heavy on the episode, and becomes a recurring theme throughout the many other strange and violent happenings.

And it’s not just a question of the sexual relationship between husband and wife. Mary is sick and has basically no agency whatsoever. So what does he—as her husband and caretaker—have a right to do to her, or with her? He dresses her, feeds her and talks with her. But he also takes her to the hospital for what is likely an unnecessary trip. Later in the episode, he nearly drowns her trying to escape from the camp, when they get spat out of that tunnel like Jonah from the belly of the beast—all this, without her consent. Mary exists, but not like other people (an interesting aspect of her character, considering what Matt says about Job’s wife—she is a nameless figure in the Bible, while Job is the emblem of suffering and faith). So we allow Matt to make these decisions. But when we watch him trying so damn hard to “save” her, and to bring her back to life in a way, there’s a part of us that just wants to scream, “Leave her alone! Let her be!” It’s the same feeling we have listening to those publishers trying to “save” Laurie’s book by transforming it into something it’s probably not meant to be. Why can’t they just leave this thing—though it may be unpleasant to bear—alone?


In both cases, consent is difficult to determine. Matt maintains that his wife woke up one night, and they talked, and laughed, and cried and made love. Then she went back to being paralyzed and completely unresponsive. John Murphy advises him to “admit” that he got lonely and made a mistake one night, but he refuses to do this. In an earlier scene in “No Room at the Inn,” after being attacked in a car-jacking, he fantasizes that Mary speaks to him and tells him to get up—to save her and the baby. It makes you wonder if he didn’t have a similar slip in cognition on the miraculous night he keeps referring to. Did he fantasize consent? Whether he did or not is, in typical Leftovers fashion, less interesting than the question itself and the ambiguity it imposes on Matt’s character. His decision to take a man’s place on the “Repent” stock—to save him and sacrifice himself—is right in line with the character, but also suggests that he believes he has something to repent for. What does he mean, “It’s my turn?” Hasn’t he suffered enough? Why/whom does he still owe? Are these even the right questions, for this particular moment?

When we watch a show like The Leftovers, we can’t help but imagine ourselves in dialogue with it. In the same way that Matt may have imagined himself in dialogue with his wife, many of us may be fantasizing consent as we ask questions of the series and its creator, Damon Lindelof. But, even without asking the big questions, TV critics must, always, do a certain harm to our favorite shows. In his latest The Knick review, Robert Ham (who also covers The Leftovers) addresses this perfectly and honestly:

I’m undoubtedly taking the magic out of this scene by describing it like I am, but for all the breathtaking moments that we’ve been treated to in The Knick, this is, by far, the greatest of them.

It’s a conundrum for many of us. We know that we take something away from the beauty of some of these powerful works, as soon as we begin to say our piece. The violence done to works of art by critics is not a new issue, but many of the same questions from the days of formalism and post-structuralism still linger. Artists and audiences grant a certain kind of permission to critics, but every once in a while we all, also, find ourselves siding with the work, the art, or the TV show. Why can’t those critics do like Iris DeMent, and just let the mystery be?

Well, the answer lies in many of the characters themselves. In the same way that Matt can’t let his wife alone, or let go of the idea of Jarden as a miracle town, Nora can’t stop craving a family. At the beginning of this season she sells her home, and she’s told that the Departure could happen again. She could, again, lose the ones she loves, but still can’t stop loving them or wanting them. She must do what she does—she must interact. Much like the other characters, she still needs something to do, and something to believe in, even if it’s this new, makeshift family.

Many of us TV critics are, too, hungry for that interaction. But that very human craving doesn’t make us innocent (another lesson we might learn from our friends on The Leftovers). There lies a danger in fantasizing consent—in deciding we are in a position to make certain demands. We run the risk of becoming like Laurie’s would-be publisher. We run the risk of over-stepping a boundary that literary theorists, writers and critics have never perfectly defined; asking for meaning when the point of the work is to embrace a certain meaninglessness; telling the creator to be more explicit, to tell us exactly what they feel and, therefore, how we should feel, when that may not be their job. The Leftovers seems to suggest that, every once in a while, we critics might need a violent shock—like being attacked in our own office, surrounded by colleagues who can’t save us—to redefine that line.

Matt Jamison’s narrative is helpful again, in exploring this issue. Part of the reason we want to believe Matt—or want to forgive him, in the event that he has take something without consent (or with an imagined consent)—is because we are shown how much he loves Mary. After all the work he does caring for her, and after all he puts her through without her consent, he ends up locked in the trunk of a car with her, their faces barely an inch apart, telling her about a trip they took together years ago. He reminisces about the time when she brought up his quoting Yeats, and he admitted that he’d merely used the great artist to win her over.

I told you, “I don’t need poetry anymore.”
And you said, “You still need it.”

He goes on to lovingly recite the last stanza of “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”

A critic’s faults and many mistakes—including the problematic of assuming we have the right to do what we want with a particular body of work—might be forgiven if we can somehow show that we love the body with which we are interacting. We forgive Robert Ham because he has shown, time and again, reverence for The Knick. And we forgive other wonderful critics like Sonia Sarayia, and Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, Gazelle Emami, Margaret Lyons, and Matt Brennan as well—because their love for their subject is so palpable. If critics can, like Matt Jamison, remember that we will always need poetry—those creative forces that inspire our strongest moments in and outside of our work—there may be hope for us yet.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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