The second season of The Leftovers, on HBO, begins with what feels like a Paleolithic parable.
A woman, very pregnant (and mostly naked), wakes up in the deep of night and staggers out of a communal cave, needing to pee. She looks up and sees an eagle fly across the full moon … just as an earthquake destroys the cave she’d been sleeping in. The woman gives birth just moments later. Miraculously, it would seem, a call of nature saved her and her baby—and the eagle seemed to be a messenger from the gods.
Later, the woman sees the eagle again, flying near a column of smoke. She and the child, now alone, begin the long walk toward it. But along the way, as the woman gathers eggs in this strange Eden, a poisonous snake slithers over her baby. The woman keeps her baby safe, but she’s bitten in the process.
When the woman sees the eagle for a third time, she’s dying from the snake bite. The child is still in her arms, hungry and squalling, but the woman cannot move. The eagle is the last thing she sees as her eyes go dark, her baby’s cries the last thing she hears.
The baby sees the eagle, too, and it quiets him for a moment—just as another woman comes and picks the child up, carrying it to a new tribe and a new home.
And so we ask the unanswerable: Did God save the baby? Did God demand a horrific sacrifice? Was there a supernatural intention here? Design? Or was it all—the earthquake, the snake, the baby’s rescue—simply a cosmic accident? Was the eagle just an eagle?
The Leftovers is obsessed with such questions.
Based on a book by Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers is helmed by Perrotta and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. It was criticized in its first season (and rightly, I think) for being punishingly bleak and brutal: Some critics stopped checking in with the show after a character was stoned to death. I only watched one episode last season, wanting to steer clear of the show’s gloom.
But it’s also an inherently spiritual show—”the most spiritual drama on television,” according to The New York Times—and because I liked what Lindelof did with Lost so much (it was a great ending, people!), I decided to give The Leftovers another shot.
A content warning here, since I didn’t review this episode for my other job: The show is filled with premium cable content, including language, blood and violence and a passel of nudity. But is it spiritual? Oh my, yes.
The Leftovers is predicated on a mysterious, rapture-like happening wherein two percent of the world’s population simply disappeared. Scientists can’t explain it. Religious leaders try, but it makes no sense who was taken. And the folks left behind must deal with the mystery, the loss and the pain.
Except for those in Jarden, Texas.
As we learn in Season Two’s “Axis Mundi,” no one left Jarden behind. No one departed. And as such, the town’s been essentially renamed Miracle, and people from around the globe visit there in hopes of finding … something. Answers. Spiritual revelations. Safety.
When a couple of tourists ask to buy flasks of “holy water” taken from the town’s river. The seller—sincere Christian Michael Murphy, who hocks the vials as a way to advertise his church—says it’s whatever they’d like to donate. The tourists are exasperated. “Will it keep us safe?” they ask. Michael hesitates: “It’s just a souvenir,” he says, and the tourists tromp away. (How often we do the same thing, looking to religion as a magic talisman rather than something deeper and more complex.)
Many see a divine will behind Miracle. But no one really knows. Is it God? One guy seems to think that sacrificing a goat in the middle of a diner might be a way to keep the Almighty on Miracle’s side. Is it the water? The Murphy family drinks water from the river, just to be safe. Is it the dirt? Perhaps. Erika, Michael’s mother, digs up a small box and sees a tiny, living bird inside. She’s not surprised: Did Erika bury a live bird in the box, and somehow it survived? Was the bird dead and somehow resurrected? The show hasn’t given us that answer yet.
Or could Miracle’s miracle be really just dumb luck? A cosmic accident? John Murphy, the family’s dad, may lean toward that answer. Unlike the rest of his family, John’s not a regular church-goer. And as the town’s fire chief, he seems to have taken it upon himself to put out any overheated religious fires, too—rooting out frauds and false prophets who’d leverage Miracle (and its gullible tourists) for their own benefit.
But it’s not always easy to see a charlatan. When a childhood friend of his is turns spiritual palm-reader—the walls of his office papered with red hand prints—John stops by and asks him if this new shtick of his is on the level. Wayne, the palm-reader, assures him that it is: He can’t explain the gift, but he has it—and warns that John’s own palm portends disaster. “Be careful,” Wayne says. John smiles with an air of cynicism. He returns later with the rest of the fire department and, ironically, sets fire to Wayne’s house.
But even for a skeptic like John, sometimes it’s difficult not to read portents in what he sees. When John makes a rare appearance at church with his family, his son climbs to the stage and reads from 1 Thessalonians 5: “See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people.” John, thinking back to Wayne’s fire-gutted house, wonders whether his son knows something. But when he asks whether he chose that verse for a special reason, Michael replies innocently that the church’s Scripture readings are predetermined.
It’s interesting how that verse goes on, though: In the NIV, it says in verse 19, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt.”
Is Wayne’s own prophecy (albeit unscriptural) on the money? Is someone trying to tell John something through some serendipitous Bible readings? Or are these false omens, signifying nothing?
“I do think that this idea of serendipity, or meeting people at precisely the right moments in your life, you attach meaning to that and go, ‘I was at exactly this place, and this person was at exactly this place, and it was the perfect time for us to meet.'” Lindelof told Entertainment Weekly. “I’d rather live in that world than the world where everything is arbitrary and we’re just bouncing off of each other for no reason.
Lindelof says that The Leftovers is “about a search for meaning.” It is not a Christian show by any stretch, but nor does it demean Christian faith—at least not in the very early goings of Season Two. It cares not a whit for pat or predictable answers, but it is obsessed with the questions.
And at a time when most television shows are terrified of the questions, that’s something.