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If asked to describe HBO’s The Leftovers in just two words, my best attempt would be “drama” and “uhhhhh.” On its surface, it’s basically a bunch of people dealing with change in different ways, with everyone’s emotions always at a fever pitch. But in its delivery, both in terms of structure and information being given, The Leftovers like a Twilight Zone episode that isn’t shooting for an ironic ending, but a sorely suicidal one. This week’s episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” treats viewers to a full-length dip into the acid-filled baptismal pool that is Reverend Matt Jamison’s life, and Christopher Eccleston’s superb performance will make you want to drown yourself in it.
I was wondering if The Leftovers would ever pull an episode off that resembled Damon Lindelof’s work on Lost, and this episode will probably come as close as any, though it’s far more singular in focus and much stranger from moment to moment than Lost ever was. (And this series is upfront in its religiousness.) In the previous two weeks, Matt’s role in Mapleton was seen as the congregation-light preacher whose post-Departure campaign amounts to publicly denouncing the Departed who don’t deserve to be called heroes. For this third episode, we leave everyone else behind and find out more about that and then some. A lot of then some.
Matt’s life is like a permanent Garfield Monday, where each step forward is presented with the loss of the ability to walk. It’s clear he uses his time at the pulpit as catharsis, regardless of how few people happen to be listening, so it’s all the more harrowing once it’s revealed his church went through foreclosure and there’s a corporate LLC that’s made an offer to buy it. And like the most downer SNL movie ever written, Matt has to come up with more than $130,000 by the end of the next day, or he loses the church.
Why’s he always so behind? Because he doesn’t seem to have a paying job and his wife, Mary (The West Wing’s Janel Moloney), is in an eyes-always-open coma; he isn’t even making enough money to pay for Mary’s caretaker. (Who, incidentally, worked for him far longer than anyone in their right mind would have.) Though he’s got good intentions up the wazoo, he’s kind of a sad sod about all things non-religious, and that becomes even more apparent when he attempts to borrow that enormous amount of money from his sister, revealed to be Nora Durst, the Mapleton mother and wife who lost her entire family in the Departure. Once she makes it clear she won’t be giving it to him, he responds by not-that-maliciously telling her that her husband had an ongoing affair with their children’s preschool teacher. Harsh move, rev.
It’s not just about verbal pain with Matt, either, as he gets beaten up in church thanks to his tabloidish flyers. A desperation-heavy prayer for help leads to a cryptic epiphany that Kevin Garvey’s father buried a bunch of money for him; he uses some of that money to make a fortune playing roulette, and then gets beaten up by a thug posing as a fellow gambler. Matt gets immediate revenge on this guy and quite possibly kills him, but all of his trouble is for naught, as he later gets smashed in the face with a rock while stopping to help an injured Guilty Remnant member (who was probably hit in the face by the same person).
After a bizarrely stunning dream sequence, we find that Matt can’t save his church; he gets his casino winnings to the bank three days too late, as he'd been unconscious all that time. (A lot of minor and major comas going on in this episode.) And all of it is guided by the appearances of pigeons. Is Bert from Sesame Street pulling Matt’s strings?
There’s no question why Matt is always walking around so pissed off all the time, when it’s revealed he and Mary were in the car crash heard at the beginning of the first episode, the one that put Mary in her coma. I’m guessing the other driver, who disappeared with the rest, was the first person who set Matt on his quest to talk shit about all the rotten Departed people. I mean, there’s no sign that his life was super amazing before everything went to shit, but it had to be better than this, right?
And guess who bought the church? Those chain smoking Guilty Remnant bastards. They’ve been trying to sway Matt to their side, as they did temporarily with Liv Tyler’s Meg. The episode ends on a staredown between Matt and Patti, and one wonders where his faith will land by next week’s episode.
Despite a few questionable details, this was truly a moving hour of television, with the “moving” part referring to how many times my eyes widened. From an early visual of Matt standing next to a grimacing clown to the hilariously absurd Loved Ones commercial, this was an episode rife with systematically placed weirdness. But it all came to a glorious culmination with that dream sequence, in which Matt’s entire disaster of a life is played out – he is diagnosed with cancer as a child and soon watches his house burn down while inefficient fireman stand by. In perhaps the most psychologically telling scene on TV, Matt finds himself thinking about other women (and both vibrant and invalid versions of his wife) while having sex, and then he catches fire while his sister’s voiceover is heard. Don’t ask me what it all means, though, because I’m just the TV guy.
I continue to be mystified in a positive way by all the negative emotions that come up during The Leftovers. Like yard work in the summer sun, nothing about what I’m feeling makes me feel good about myself or the world at large, and yet I’m pleased with the final results. I think this is my punishment for always pointing out when movies or TV shows wear their exposition on their sleeves. There’s a bit early on when Kevin makes his only appearance while visiting Matt in the hospital post-attack, and Matt says he can’t go to Kevin’s for dinner because “nights are tough” for him. It didn’t occur to me until I started writing this that he was talking about taking care of his wife, who hadn’t been introduced yet. It’s simple to do something like that, but too few series know how to get away with it successfully.
It’s worth noting (or nothing) that The Leftovers is the second HBO show in four years to use the “two boats and a…” joke as a title; a Season 2 Boardwalk Empire episode was called “Two Boats and a Lifeguard.” Fairly different meanings for each, though.
If I had to guess what happens next week, I’d have to say…(lights cigarette, puts on white T-shirt and writes prediction on a piece of paper).