Christopher Eccleston is one of those great British character actors that pops up in movies and TV shows both large and small, making a nice impact and then moving on. He’s been Destro, Doctor Who, John Lennon, and even took the time to appear on an episode of The Sarah Silverman Program, a workaday thespian that hasn’t nabbed the big, blowsy part that brings in awards by the boatload.
That could very easily change once folks get a chance to see Eccleston in The Leftovers, particularly his tour de force acting in this third episode of the series. It helps that this installment is all about his character, Matt Jamison, a priest in Mapleton trying desperately to keep his church and his sanity intact following “The Departure.” And he helps “Two Boats” become the best episode of this new series yet.
The trouble for Jamison is that he also spends time trying to make sure that no one views the incident of three years before as an act of God. He digs up dirt on the people in the town, insisting that because these wretched sinners were taken away as well, it can’t have been The Rapture. Unfortunately, because the Lord wasn’t involved, that has left many people without faith, and Jamison’s church pews are empty come Sunday.
What this episode turns the priest into is The Leftovers’ version of Job: he is faced with trial after trial, his beliefs are deeply challenged and he barely comes out of it in one piece. His first obstacle is keeping his physical church, as the bank has long since foreclosed on it and let him stay there until a buyer came along. One finally did, but if Jamison can come up with enough cash to beat their offer in 24 hours, he can stay.
He tries to borrow the money from his sister, Nora (the woman who lost her whole family in The Departure), but she begs him to let it go. It’s in this scene that the darkness of Jamison starts to come out. When she refuses, he throws out that Nora’s husband was having an affair. Instead of anger or sadness, she responds by bursting out laughing.
Things get interesting thanks to some pigeons. He sees one in his church, and spies a couple landed on a roulette table at a nearby casino (he’s there investigating the story of a man who apparently gambled away his children’s college funds). It finally dawns on him that a sign is being presented to him. He digs up some money left to him by the former police chief, gambles it all on red at the same table, and turns $20,000 into $160,000 with three spins of the wheel.
From here, Jamison’s story spirals downward. His money is almost stolen from him in the parking lot of the casino but he beats the thief to a pulp to retrieve it. As he’s headed to the bank to hand it over, he stops to help a member of The Guilty Remnant who has been hit with a rock thrown by someone in a truck. The assailant comes back, hits Jamison square in the face, and he’s out cold. When he finally wakes, and rushes to the bank to deliver the funds, he finds out that he’s been out for three days and missed the deadline. If that weren’t enough, when he finally visits the church building, he finds that it was The Guilt Remnant that bought it. The camera stays on his stricken face for what feels like an eternity before snapping to black.
The whole thing is devastating to endure. An emotional yo-yo pulling you in and sending you spinning and reeling back down to earth. But it is Eccleston that keeps you watching every excruciating minute. He exhibits such tenderness in the face of the shit being flung his way. Even after getting punched by the friend of someone he was trying to expose as unworthy of the true Rapture, he doesn’t press charges or assign blame. He moves forward and tries to visit a little girl in the hospital.
As the episode reveals, Jamison has every reason to just give up on God. We learn that his parents were killed in a house fire, and that his wife is stuck in a vegetative state after their car was plowed into on the day of The Departure by a vehicle whose driver disappeared. (A nod to those Rapture-themed bumper stickers, perhaps?) Yet, he tenderly bathes his wife, tucks her in, and rolls out a foldaway bed to sleep by her side. And the look of sheer joy that comes over him when he wins the final roulette spin is something to behold. It also makes his moments of anger and vindictiveness cut even deeper.
Eccleston honors each shade of Jamison’s personality through this hour of television so perfectly. He lets loose for only one moment, but otherwise keeps this portrayal from going over the top. The body language is stiff and economical, the facial expressions barely betraying the real emotions going on behind the scenes. And his vocal choices are perfect, coming across as someone who has spent his whole life over-enunciating so as to be understood from the pulpit and shepherding people through life’s rough patches. Considering what he endured on screen for the previous 50+ minutes, Eccleston would have been forgiven a few scenery-chewing outbursts, especially at the very last scene. Instead, he stands stock-still, letting us read the terror, anger, and confusion playing behind his eyes.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.