The Leftovers episode 5 recap: What happens when Matt meets God
The greatest trick The Leftovers may have pulled isn't bringing Kevin Garvey back from the dead, it's breathing new life into Matt Jamison. Over the course of the show's three seasons, this gadfly preacher has harangued the ordinary citizens of Mapleton and Jarden about the inherent sinfulness of the Departed and the inherent sinfulness of the people left behind (basically the inherent sinfulness of everyone); informed his desperately grieving sister that her Departed husband was screwing the kindergarten teacher; and driven away the wife and son whose mere presence should have been nothing less than miraculous — all so he could chase some fantastical vision of being the wisest of wise men, the prophet who finds a scruffy, tattooed Messiah. For these actions alone, Matt (Christopher Eccleston) has earned his place in the pantheon of TV characters who are just The Worst ™, taking his throne between Rory Gilmore and King Joffrey. So many viewers may react to the title of this week's episode, "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World," with some measure of trepidation. "A Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World" is a hard terrain, bristling with righteous indignation and neurosis — but this episode isn't just about exploring that terrain, it calls masterful bullshit on everyone's (not so) favorite holy man, and, in doing so, brings him to a state of actual grace.
The episode's opening sequence — wherein a French submariner violently steals both keys needed to release the nuclear missiles aboard his ship, and then nukes parts of the Pacific Coast — doesn't just explain the cataclysmic events from the very end of "G'Day Melbourne" or serve the purely tactical function of grounding flights and forcing our core players onto the wildest ferry ride: The nude Frenchmen's dash down the narrow corridor is symbolic of how Matt has pursued his often-times obliterating version of faith. The Frenchman circumvents the fail-safe, stretching his body in an elegant gesture of balletic madness to turn both keys at once, one held between his fingers and one pinched between his toes. Matt has been ostensibly seeking evidence of a divine order (like his passion to prove that the people who Departed weren't actually Raptured because only good people get Raptured, and if only good people get Hoovered into Heaven, then he should have gone too), or humankind's potential for salvation (his preoccupation with Jarden as a Holy Land and Kevin as its personal Jesus) — but, like the two-key system on the submarine, it's a fail-safe that doesn't work. No matter how devout he is, no matter how much he martyrs himself, he can't pray away the cancer that may have spared him as a child, but has now come to claim him.
So it's fitting, then, that the episode's other symbolic device — the cult of Frasier the Sensuous Lion — is very much about decrepitude and vitality; embracing, or at least accepting, the whims of fate (or the divine) in all their terrors and virtues. Frasier the lion was a motley beast, an ancient, underweight fleabag with a lolling tongue, rescued from a bankrupt Mexican carnival by a do-gooding park preserve with its own woes, since its pride of lionesses rejected, often quite violently, all the available young males. The morning after Frasier was first introduced to the lionesses (mostly as a joke), the animal keepers got quite a surprise: He was more Sean Connery than Methuselah, and singlehandedly sired a whole new generation of lions. Frasier was old, and his body was failing, but he found some joy and purpose in life — a joy and purpose that Matt has willfully ignored even when it was right in front of him. No wonder, then, that he should be so incensed by the Frasier cult's amorous revelers, who look like they're auditioning for a mash-up of The Lion King and Eyes Wide Shut, while his fellow travelers, John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo), and Laurie Garvey-Murphy (Amy Brenneman), take everything in stride.
They're on the ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne to support Matt in his monomaniacal pursuit to bring Kevin back to Jarden where he can do — well, Matt hasn't worked out exactly what, yet, but something (you know, Hunky Jesus stuff) to stop the forthcoming flood. Except for Laurie, who believes that Kevin is delusional and needs help. Brenneman and Eccleston are deliciously vicious. Brenneman gets some truly spectacular lines: "I was married to Kevin for 15 years. He used to look through all of our cabinets before he found the wine glasses; he has a tattoo that's misspelled and he shits four times a day, so I refuse to believe he's the goddamn second coming."
Of course, Matt's scripture about Kevin is as silly and surreal as the Frasier cultists' kinky rituals — and the episode is quite explicit about this, because it's so obvious that it's almost beside the point. The Leftovers is often willfully inscrutable, so it's odd to see it apply its metaphors so transparently. The long tracking shot of Matt skulking wrathfully through the revelers — their writhing bodies covered in a hot wash of purple, blue, and green lighting — clearly references Daniel in the lion's den, a story where a man's faith moves God to save him from certain death. In that story, God may have closed the lions' gnashing mouths; but God will not dry up Matt's virulent nosebleeds or purge the cancer cells. The simplicity in this symbolism works so well because it relieves the viewer's need to "decode" the show and allows Eccleston's performance to deliver all the grit and nuance; Matt's zealotry isn't about performing God's will (at least not entirely), it's a Type-A tap dance to distract from his genuine existential terror. Life is capricious and mean (just ask the majestic lion jumping through hoops for the Saturday matinee), so it's best to appeal to the loving God who'll always save you in a pinch — unless he throws you overboard.
As Matt tends to one of his nosebleeds, another passenger asks him if God (Bill Camp) punched him in the face. God, apparently, is a friend of the boat captain, a taciturn bruiser with a sick wit, a mean left hook, and the will to use it. After a terse conversation with Laurie (in which she accidentally discloses that Kevin claims he saw Evie), Matt watches God push a man off the ship. Bringing God to justice soon becomes Matt's new and very singular obsession; however, the Frasierites simply don't care that one of their own has been killed, and the captain, who knew God back when God was Burton, a gifted athlete turned Olympic announcer, doesn't believe that his friend honestly committed a murder. The captain is rather blasé when he tells Matt about how Burton became God: Three years ago, he broke his neck while rock climbing and died. His friend pulled his corpse to a cave to shield it from dingoes; however, when the friend returned with help, Burton was upright and breathing, and he told them all that he'd become God.
The similarities between Burton sitting up in that cave and Kevin Garvey gasping and clawing his way out of the wet dirt are, again, obvious (right down to the fact that the respective resurrections happened in the same year). But this lets the episode deconstruct Matt's perceptions about God. Kevin is God as Matt wants Him to be — which is why Matt assigns such noble intent to Kevin's powers; why he so desperately needs Kevin to save them from the lion's den of the forthcoming October 14th. Burton, however, is God as Matt actually sees Him — thuggish and neglectful and randomly cruel. In a last-ditch effort at bringing about some Old Testament vengeance, Matt tries to goad John into becoming "the man who burned down people's houses," by revealing Kevin's vision of Evie. But John is not that man anymore; he's found peace in love, and he tenderly absolves Laurie ("I wouldn't have told me, either," he says). So, Matt goes to the ship's infirmary and gets a wheelchair, and then he grabs an axe from the wall. Matt hits God with the butt-end of the axe and ties him to the wheelchair.
Their final confrontation occurs, appropriately enough, in front of a caged lion (one of Frasier's descendants that the cultists have brought aboard: the living, growling evidence of miracles or cosmic jokes), and the dynamic between the two men has the taut, muscular intensity of animals pacing in a cage that's too small for them both. Camp radiates an eerie steeliness that could be a sign of deep delusion or authoritative evidence that he is the almighty in a battered baseball cap. He tells Matt that yeah, sure, he's responsible for the Departure. He did it because he could. Matt goes into insta-martyr mode, ranting about all the sacrifices he's made, all the suffering he's endured to please God (conveniently forgetting, of course, all of the people he's hurt along the way); it's a greatest-hits parade of his most sanctimonious, insufferable traits. And God absolutely levels him: "You thought I was watching but I wasn't. I'm not. You haven't done anything for me. You did it for yourself."
"Is that why you're killing me?" Matt asks.
But there is no why. Not when this God is like that deranged French submariner, wreaking havoc just because he can. God snaps his fingers in Matt's face: "Ta-da," he says. "You're saved." That finger-snap may not have burned away the cancer; still, it gives him some measure of peace. The next morning, he thanks John and Michael and Laurie for coming with him, and tells them that he's dying. He accepts that he probably won't find Kevin before October 14th. Matt stands on the upper deck and watches, calmly, as the lion escapes its cage, mauling Burton in a whir of tooth and claw. He sees, now, that nobody is coming to save him from the den of illness. And that's okay, because he can look the lions in their eyes.