Is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? —Daniel 6:20
The drop of blood on the Bible’s page is the sort of premonition one finds in scripture, though by now we know that Matt (Christopher Eccleston) sees signs of God only when it suits him. He scrambles to wipe the spot from the passage in the Book of Daniel, with its tale of a true believer delivered from the lions’ den, and in his haste to hide his illness, he misses the moment’s portent: In “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” the reverend is the supplicant sealed in with his fate, and no higher power deigns to save him.
As has been the case since “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” The Leftovers’ first in a long line of astonishing entries, Matt limns the world for spiritual messages as if born of another age; his faith is closer to the millennialism of this season’s opening sequence than it is to the Episcopal tradition in which he was trained. See his conviction that Miracle is “special,” or the smirk that comes to his face after the jolt of the plane, when Laurie (Amy Brenneman) dismisses the notion that Kevin is “the goddamn Second Coming of Christ”: Matt identifies God’s purpose in occurrences great and small, find plans in probabilities, meaning in mere chance. (Of course, he doesn’t see it this way: “You have the better story,” Laurie admits at one point, strategizing Kevin’s retrieval. “My story,” he replies matter-of-factly, “is true.”) En route to Melbourne with Laurie, Michael (Jovan Adepo) and John (Kevin Carroll), Matt spends much of the episode’s first half defending his belief against competing interpretations; as John points out, for instance, Miracle’s ostensible place in God’s design could not prevent the death of his daughter or the dissolution of his marriage. It’s Laurie’s challenge that turns out to be most formidable, though, in part because Brenneman offers it with such biting sarcasm:
Three years ago, my ex-husband experienced severe delusions and tried to kill himself. And instead of acknowledging his mental illness, you turned it into fucking Scripture. And when he found out about it, he relapsed and ran halfway around the world, probably to get the fuck away from you. Is that what’s happening here? Am I grasping it, Matt?
The episode sets up a situation in which, to paraphrase my description of Kevin and Nora in “G’Day Melbourne,” faith and science are modes of understanding between which there is no translation, and The Leftovers is careful not to leave Laurie with the upper hand. Across from that smirk, her face bears concern; when she attempts to account for John’s calm by saying, “He found peace,” Matt rightly retorts, “He think his daughter’s still alive. That’s not peace.”
As is the series’ wont, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” poses such profound questions in the midst of pure chaos: Diverted to Tasmania after the detonation of a nuclear weapon in the South Pacific, the characters join a group of the “debased and sinful” on an 11-hour sex cruise to the mainland, replete with an actual lion. (They’re granted passage after Matt tells the filthiest joke he knows: “What’s the difference between a pimple and a priest? A pimple waits until you’re 12 to come on your face.”) Once on board, Matt finally meets “God”—a murderous former Olympian and broadcaster—face to face, and when his desire for justice crashes into the pride’s resistance to judgment, all hell breaks loose. I must admit that The Leftovers lost me here, for the first time this season; the series is emphatic, bold, but rarely so blunt, and its reimagining of Daniel in the lions’ den, with the man of God almost pumped for his “seed” by a “pride” of debauched predators, read to me as lingering residue of Season One’s more unappealing excesses.
For it’s in the hush of the ferry’s bowels that “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” creates its most remarkable image, of the confrontation with “God”—the reckoning, the judgment—as a terse conversation, one in which the most profound question is “Why?” “Because there has to be a reason,” Matt protests, recalling last season’s treatment of The Book of Job. “Because everything in my life, I’ve done for a reason… For you!” As in “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” the first appearance of Max Richter’s main theme, accompanied here by the lion’s growl, wrenches the episode from its moorings, and the result, with due credit to Eccleston’s extraordinary performance, is the real-time depiction of a disciple forsaken.
In my notes on this sequence, I have my own “Why?” — “Why is Matt even having this conversation?” — and I’m not sure I can answer it, except to suggest that faith is not the absence of doubt, but the courting of it, that belief derives its shape from skepticism. Its demand, which is to trust that mere chance contains meaning, that probabilities are plans, is one in which the opposite is omnipresent, and to search for proof of the existence of God is to risk unutterable disappointment. Eccleston’s childlike question about the return of his sickness, “Why is it back?” is shot through with a lifetime’s worth of premonitions and portents, tests of faith and moments of doubt, and it sets up perhaps the cruelest double cross in the entire series: The soaring variation on that musical theme cuts out with “God” snapping his fingers, and “Ta-da. You’re saved,” seems poised to sever Matt from religion forever.
Then again, the final sequence itself seems a sign: In a, well, fateful confluence of events, Matt’s accusation that “God” pushed a man overboard is corroborated by the discovery of the body; when the police meet the ferry at the dock in Melbourne, “God” tries to escape and is mauled by the lion—released from his cage at that very moment by a trio of the pride’s opponents. Is this just coincidence, or some grand design? Is this, as Kevin says in the season premiere, “karma,” “kismet,” “whatever”? Is there enough meaning in it to construct a story, and can we say with any confidence that said story is true? I don’t know, and neither, in its enduring wisdom, does The Leftovers: It is, despite the episode’s central reprise, more interested in the how than it is in the why, because none of us can quite answer the latter.
“I cannot go home / Because my past is already there,” Charles Aznavour sings in the opening sequence, as a Frenchman strips nude, stretches and blows up his submarine, setting the episode’s action in motion:
As soon as I open the door
It comes to escort me
And follow me everywhere step by step
Speaking to me in silence…
“You’ve never done anything for me,” “God” says. “You did it for yourself.” When it comes to the faith of his childhood prayers, of Mary’s recovery and Noah’s birth, it turns out Matt can’t go home again, either.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.