Why The Leftovers' gently suicidal mood is perfect for this age of American decline

What The Leftovers knows about our secret desire to abdicate power

Justin Theroux in The Leftovers.
(Image credit: Ben King)

Back in 2014, The Leftovers had a peculiar problem: The HBO show was too bleak.

Critics found it unendurable. For some, it was too violent. For others, too slow. (Los Angeles Review of Books' Phil Maciak wrote an incisive essay about this.) These are surprising objections to come across some years later. After all, our tolerance for scenes and even entire seasons when nothing happens has only increased (looking at you, Better Call Saul and The Americans). But it's instructive to compare this moment with the moment when The Leftovers, which ends its three-season run on Sunday, was first made. 2014 was a very different time in America. And The Leftovers' exquisitely rendered hopelessness didn't match the national mood the way it does now.

Now, bleak fits. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a show that more beautifully captures something deeply true about being alive right now, as our stakes and standards slip into oblivion. The show — which explores what America is like a few years after 2 percent of the world's population mysteriously vanished — is depressive, certainly. But it's also acerbically funny, intermittently surreal, and perplexingly accurate in some deep affective sense I don't know how to name.

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In 2014, that wasn't true in quite the same way. Sure, some people disagreed with the critiques I've outlined above even then. Citing Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, BuzzFeed's Jamie Etkin countered that there were obviously far more violent shows that weren't getting the same pushback. "Instead," Etkin argues, "The Leftovers offers emotional torture and that's perhaps what some critics and audience members have most struggled with."

But the other complaint was — as Kelly Braffett put it then in Vulture — that "not enough is happening on this series." Maciak argued that this was both exactly the show's point and the logical culmination of all those serial dramas in which nothing happens: "We talk about the bottle episodes and domestic details of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, and we laud them for being willing to show nothing happening," Maciak says, pointing out that co-creator Tom Perrotta's novel describes the aftermath of the Sudden Departure in precisely those terms: "Nothing happened." That's the experiment. "The thing that happened already happened," Maciak says. "It's over. That's not what this show is about."

In practice, this apparent lack of incident permitted the show the time and space and psychic bandwidth to reckon truthfully with loss in ways other action-packed shows don't. This is Allison Willmore's point: "One of the things I like about The Leftovers is that it tries to do something that most of those shows, despite their body counts, don't have time for. It deals with grief and what life is like in the wake of something terrible instead of as it's happening."

That's our own Laura Bogart's argument too: Laurie's apparent suicide is preceded by our first long introduction to a compelling character whose motivations have remained opaque. It does so by forcing us to understand the emotional burdens a therapist bears:

The cold opening of "Certified" establishes, with an acidic bleakness that is startling, even for The Leftovers, that Laurie's role as a healer forced her to sit with the real pain of life post-Departure in ways the other characters simply haven't had to. She watches her patient weep bitterly, describing her struggles with infertility and how she lost her miracle baby when he Departed from his car seat.

So why is this show scanning differently now than it did in 2014?

For one thing, because the show is a little different than it was. The first season really was kind of unrelenting. Compared to later seasons, which featured delightful set pieces like Justin Theroux's bewildered karaoke and stylishly ineffective assassinations, the first season's humor was subdued and unsettling. Carrie Coon making out with a mannequin in "Guest" was mordantly funny, but watching a sheriff hear voices and shoot dogs as he tries to enforce laws in a world where nature went haywire is only funny if you're in a very particular mood.

Still, in some ways, I found the second season more distressing. The genre-busting cavewoman sequence added some much-needed perspective and resonance and horror to the story. So did the increasingly frequent dips into the Underworld Hotel. But the desperation outside Miracle wore me down faster than anything in the first season, and "No Room at the Inn" is one of the most harrowing episodes of television I've seen.

But there's more to it than The Leftovers evolving into a slightly weirder, slightly less depressing show. The in-group/out-group dynamic the second season established (between those who lost people and the inhabitants of Miracle, who didn't) also set the show up for unintended relevance. The 2016 election was a Sudden Departure of sorts — equally startling to the winners and the losers, and the massively confusing aftermath has produced a lot of pain and a lot of panic. People have seen friends and family members deported or detained. Families have split over political disagreements. People harboring long-repressed sentiments are suddenly feeling emboldened to air them out — and in extreme cases, kill people over them. The strange subcultures we see on The Leftovers suddenly seem more recognizable than they would have in 2015.

That newfound relevance also owes a great deal to a discovery we've stumbled on that the show made long ago: namely, that humans harbor an unsuspected appetite for powerlessness. The success of "fake news," the animosity toward journalists, the increasing insistence (from the president's supporters) that he be venerated despite his constant and unprecedented mistakes — these are symptomatic of a preference to believe and not know. It's a desire to be allowed to stop thinking. A drive to be subordinated. If the slogan was once "with great power comes great responsibility," the impulse now is to shove away both.

And for all that the slogan was "Make America Great Again," much of what this group wanted would, in practice, diminish America to a bit player on the world stage. These are diminutions dressed up as greatness. Subtract the dominance language and you'll find that there's no actual interest in (for example) being the leader of the free world. Or living up to a superpower's ... superpowers.

That has ramifications for American pop culture. For decades now, American superhero movies and antihero shows have thematized the problem of power: acquiring it, having it, and dealing with the responsibility and unintended consequences it brings. That's unremarkable. Those are the expected subtexts for a superpower's commercial art. Nor is it surprising that those works have gotten more enmeshed in the proudly polemical antiheroic experiments that characterized so much good drama. But as America declines, so do the colors of its fictions. It turns out there was another fantasy lurking behind all those bleak films and shows about emasculated people seeking power, one that's finally been able to come to the fore.

That fantasy isn't power but its abdication.

What the gently suicidal mood of The Leftovers captures is less a desire for death than a huge and deeply human drive to give power away. The Leftovers explores that drive with a poetry and precision no comparable show can match. "Tell me what to f—king do!" a woman screams at our therapist Laurie. That woman — the very first character we see on the show — seems recognizable at this moment in American television and in American politics. She is powerless. And deep down, maybe a lot of us want to scream what she screamed. And for someone to scream back.

What The Leftovers shows is that when reality ceases to be comprehensible — which is true in the show's universe and true for so many in our own — our stories about complicated men dealing with power are spectacularly beside the point. In these confused circumstances, people reject agency. They want to be dominated. They don't want power or choice or information. What they want is to be told what to do.

That, of course, is what presidential candidate Donald Trump did for many: He was a giant bullhorn offering to issue orders to everyone. He'd fix it. Fix what, exactly? It. All of it. America. The world! Your problems. Whatever. It didn't matter to them that he didn't know how, or that his plans made no sense.

None of that seems logical, but if we know anything, it's that humans aren't actually rational actors. And The Leftovers makes this comprehensible and even sympathetic in ways arguments about "economic anxiety" do not. One understands perfectly why people join the Guilty Remnant — those white-clad cigarette smokers who mutely antagonize and recruit — even as one perceives its horrors from the outside. It's a matter of faith — faith not in any particular thing, but faith in the total inadequacy of their own judgment.

The abdication of power means just that. As anyone familiar with the Guilty Remnant knows, you turn over everything — your skepticism, your knowledge, your loyalty, and even conceivably your love — to someone who will tell you what to do. And if they tell you to smash your friend's head in while she's tied to a tree, you'll do it gladly.

For all that the president's supporters liked to use the vocabulary of macho domination to try to denigrate their "enemies," what many really crave is to be dominated. They want to submit to a dictator, an overlord, someone who will tell them what to do. Of course they hate Congress, protesters, the judiciary — every check and balance that gets in the way. That's troubling, of course: Any abdication of moral responsibility is, and democracy requires a great deal more of citizens than the forms of worship Trump's supporters prefer to deliver. But this election demonstrated a very particular and familiar kind of national exhaustion, a willingness to turn over power to whomever is shallow enough to take it, accept it, and give orders, no matter what they are.

In "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” the show's penultimate episode, we learn that even "President Kevin" has been infected by this malaise. He's a puppet reading words he didn't write, calling for the rejection of marriage and family as institutions simply because the words scroll by on the teleprompter. Acceding to orders is Kevin's superpower: He's a Messiah figure to the extent that he follows every instruction he's given, even and especially those in which he personally does not believe. (When Christopher Sunday asks him if he believes his father can stop the flood with his song, Kevin discovers, with some surprise, that he does not.)

But what Kevin believes is hardly the point, and he knows that. That's why he reads the words anyway, and that's why he hunts Sunday down. The long-running joke against this long-suffering sheriff is that his judgment is no longer useful: The logic he used to rely on to crack cases broke down long ago. It turns out he can swap into his "twin brother's" body by looking into a reflective surface. Fine. He rolls with that. He has to cut out his own heart. Fine. He rolls with that too.

Back in the real world, the crisis of faith in one's own judgment plagues liberals too, by the way. At a moment when "nothing matters" has become a kind of despairing catchphrase on the left, The Leftovers has emerged as a kind of national tone poem.

The Leftovers does a lot of things beautifully. At its best, this lovely, wrenching show deploys a dream-logic that doesn't just cohere (though it does, and that's no small achievement in this age of Bad Philosophical TV); it also works through the grief and ethical disorientation of this historical moment. Its surreal plot distortions and tortured metaphors (as Mo Ryan points out) make it as illegible to non-viewers as American politics are to anyone outside. But to those inside, it makes a perfect and sinister sense. This show's gorgeously flawed systems of faith produce something so psychologically accurate that I find myself shivering in recognition. What do you do when a stranger recruits you to hunt pet dogs? It doesn't matter. Nothing is what it was, and every ethical instinct you had is wrong, or inappropriate, or leading you astray. You push the girl down the well. You cut out your own heart. You shoot the dog. Why? Because you're out of power, logic is dead, and, as one character said, "they're not our dogs anymore."

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