Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. —Isaiah 41:10 (King James Bible)
Kevin Garvey, Sr. (Scott Glenn), the crazy whitefella of “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” comes to the home of one Christopher Sunday in search of indigenous wisdom. As with generations of white men before him, of course, Kevin prefers to press upon his host his own, self-made scripture, the missionary in a far country: He unfurls an impenetrable parable of powerful hallucinogens (“God’s tongue”) and nursery rhymes (“The Itsy Bitsy Spider”), landing on his belief that he must sing to stop the cleansing flood a few weeks in the offing. (Sunday, with a stand-up’s well-honed timing, chimes in that he specializes in bringing rain, not warding it off.) In the course of his long, strange ramble, though, Kevin describes an Outback village that seems almost familiar, from which all 14 residents, and the animals besides, vanished in the Sudden Departure: The opposite of Miracle, Texas.
“Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” otherwise so distant from The Leftovers’ main action, features more than one of these faint connections: Kevin’s calls to Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), the sole extant copy of that new biblical tract, a boy’s anxious questions about John Hinckley, Jr. and the behavior of ducks. On the whole, though, it is, in its way, the series’ most radical departure yet, an absurd, anti-colonial, apocalyptic sojourn alongside an unpleasant pilgrim; the hour contains so many ominous images—sudden storms, snakes, an ark under construction—it seems almost medieval, as if the script were torn from a forgotten prophet’s illuminated manuscript. (Its closest kin is the magnificent “No Room at the Inn,” which re-imagined The Book of Job in a makeshift encampment, or perhaps the prehistoric prologue of “Axis Mundi.”) It is a challenge to watch, and thereby to write about: With so few handholds to guide us home, whether to Miracle or Mapleton, it becomes a dispatch from another world, one we may not yet wish to enter.
Of course, as The Leftovers is at pains to point out, the borders among Mapleton, Miracle and the Australian Outback—or indeed among the remote past, the recent past and the present—are often more porous than we care to admit: Tonight’s razor-sharp satire of the white savior complex punctures the fundamental arrogance of imperialism, its conviction that its own God is more “modern,” more “civilized,” than the rest. In the process of “preventing the apocalypse,” Kevin, Sr. commits crimes of appropriation and theft, proclaims himself “a member of the indigenous community,” and accidentally kills a revered cleverman, a form of “going native” that recalls both frontier literature and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” down to its title, is a mordant assessment of the reign of chaos that comes when colonists attempt to find “purpose” in someone else’s space. (“I tried to miss you,” Kevin says to the unconscious Sunday after he tumbles from the roof, collateral damage being one of the white man’s signature inventions.) It’s stingingly funny and profoundly sad—an admission, though tacit, that contact with Europeans was an apocalypse for Aboriginals, West Africans, Native Americans, decimating their populations and disrupting their systems of belief to an extent that exceeds the Sudden Departure by several orders of magnitude. Even the end of the world is in the eye of the beholder.
Despite his feckless attempts to adopt Aboriginal culture, Kevin returns, in the end, to the Christian tradition, albeit in denatured form—brought low, in the interim, by a burning man, the destruction of his beloved tape, and the venom of his reptilian “totem.” When he collapses at the base of a metal cross, crutches splayed, for instance, director Mimi Leder’s high-angle image echoes devotional paintings of the crucifixion, not to mention the opening credits’ jazzy cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”; Grace (the extraordinary Lindsay Duncan), the woman who saves him, was once a true believer, satisfied that the Rapture had come. Fear thou not; for I am with thee, reads Isaiah 41, the chapter from which the page in Grace’s album was torn. Be not dismayed.
Were “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” to end here, its profusion of terrifying portents resolving into an affirmation of faith, it might read as an endorsement of the very act it critiques, a white man’s walkabout leading him back into God’s arms. That it does not—that it turns, instead, to other stories—is further proof that The Leftovers is uninterested in answers; its humane treatment of people bearing the unbearable resides, after all, in the drama of questions, the terror of ignorance, the needle of doubt. After one last laugh (“You looked through my photos.” “I was hungry. It was in the fridge.”), the camera turns to Duncan’s face, closing in, by degrees, on the greatest of sorrows. Though her husband departed, we learn, her five children did not: Unbeknownst to her, they set out on their own sojourn, desperate to find her, only to perish en route. As Max Richter’s theme, now almost delicate, appears on the soundtrack, she explains that her belief in the Rapture forestalled the search that might have saved their lives, and “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” finally broke me to pieces: Grace’s experience is the opposite of a miracle, not an object of wonder but the cause of her pain.
She continues to seek solace, though, first in The Book of Kevin and then in Kevin, Sr.’s tenuous offer of hope. In the interim, her expression of resignation, “It’s all just a story I tell myself,” suggests both the power of stories and their ultimate weakness, which is that we all have our own: Prehistoric mothers and their modern counterparts, Episcopal preachers and their antebellum forbears, prophets of every place and every time. None is the story, for their number is infinite—the miracle, its opposite, and the space in between.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.