Oct 19, 2015

The Leftovers tops itself again with its bleakest episode yet

Joshua Alston
A.V. Club
October 19, 2015

If season two of The Leftovers were flying too close to the sun on wax wings, it would have become obvious during “Off Ramp,” the episode that most closely resembles the show’s polarizing first season. With Kevin, Nora, and Jill rebuilding their lives in Jarden/Miracle, it seemed as though those characters, and by extension the show, had moved beyond the Guilty Remnant and the dour happenings in Mapleton. Of course, to scrub the estranged Garveys from the story would be too much like a creative retooling, and that isn’t what this season is. Season two is an ambitious expansion of the story already in progress, not an attempt to scrub away the more punishing aspects of that story. Though the more hopeful tone in the first two episodes, achieved through the Texas relocation, is nowhere to be found in “Off Ramp,” it still manages to be the most solidly crafted and emotionally affecting episode in an already confident season. The Leftovers isn’t just adding new stories, it’s finding shrewd ways to tell the old ones.

“Off Ramp” almost feels like the backdoor pilot for a Leftovers spin-off featuring Laurie and Tommy’s dangerous, unstable new lives as cult deprogrammers. Like the rest of the season, “Off Ramp” is so complete, nuanced, and lived-in, it’s a bit of a bummer that it could possibly be weeks before Laurie and Tommy are seen again. The Leftovers is starting to feel more like a traditional miniseries about the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, with each installment focused on a few of the interconnected lives affected by the global catastrophe. That’s not a bad thing, but as was the case with season one, it’s hard to stop expecting The Leftovers to be the traditional television drama Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta appear to have zero interest in making. But those dashed expectations contribute to the appeal. As the show becomes a grab bag of fascinating characters, part of the fun becomes seeing which of them get pulled out in any given episode.

In “Off Ramp,” it’s Laurie and Tommy, who have joined forces after parting ways with the Guilty Remnant and Holy Wayne and are working to break-up GR houses—don’t call them hives, Laurie says—by sending Tommy in undercover to smuggle people out one at a time. The first lost soul led out of the GR is Susan, a forlorn wife and mother of one who was recruited into the chain-smoking cult two months ago. Laurie talks Susan through the shame and regret she feels after abandoning her family to join the GR, a decision that’s hard to take back once it’s made. Laurie destroyed her relationship with Jill, perhaps permanently, through her involvement in the GR, and she wants to do her part to pull others out while their families can still be repaired. Susan looks like she’s going to be a success story, but being out of the GR and back in her old life isn’t as fulfilling as she hoped it would be. Haunted by the GR, Susan steers her car into oncoming traffic, sealing her fate and that of her husband and son.

The central theme of The Leftovers is the human need for faith and inclusion, even if that faith doesn’t take an explicitly religious form, and even if you’re included in something you don’t totally understand. Laurie thinks she’s offering an alternative to the GR, which she says believes the world has ended already, but she’s actually just building a new cult. “Would you like to join us?” Laurie says every time Tommy brings a new GR refugee into the fold, and of course the answer is yes, they want to be included. But people are drawn to the GR not just to belong to something, but because they want a sense of purpose, even if all they’re doing is smoking cigarettes and silently glowering at people all day. Laurie and Tommy have their new sense of purpose, which is destroying the GR, but they aren’t giving the same kind of direction to the people they’re saving. Even Tommy is susceptible to the GR’s appeal, and Laurie has to give him his own deprogramming session after his harrowing encounter with Meg leaves him wondering if the GR might be onto something after all.

Laurie and Tommy are making all of this up as they go along, hence the bursts of improvisational jazz percussion that scores most of their movements throughout the episode. But even though she’s escaped the GR, Laurie remains a true believer. Now that she has lost her faith in the GR’s mission, she has to believe in her own mission with all-consuming blind faith. There’s no good reason for Laurie to tell Susan’s husband, with absolute certainty, that she isn’t going to leave him again. There’s no way for her to know that, especially without having addressed the underlying feeling of hollowness that led Susan away from her family to begin with. Like everyone scraping by after the Sudden Departure, Laurie has to have faith in something, and if it isn’t going to be the GR, she has to put faith in the rectitude and inevitable success of her new anti-GR mission.

If that means giving into the huckster behavior that led her and Tommy astray to begin with, Laurie is comfortable with it. She encourages Tommy to essentially steal Holy Wayne’s entire act, and as he does so, their group of dutiful refugees is transformed into a small army of passionate soldiers. Are Laurie and Tommy’s actions justified? Is their mission more noble or altruistic than that of the GR? Likely not, seeing as how Laurie’s new attitude toward the GR is “If you can’t beat ‘em, run ‘em down with your car.” It says a lot about The Leftovers that there’s no attempt to cleanly redeem Laurie and Tommy. Though they appear to be the good guys now, there still aren’t good guys and bad guys in the world of The Leftovers, only flawed people doing their best to cope in a world turned upside down.

Stray observations
The scene with Meg and Tommy in the back of the truck, and the subsequent immolation threat, is bound to spark some interesting conversations. Beyond the obvious vulgar display of power, what does it mean that Meg raped Tommy and threatened to set him on fire? It’s pretty devastating to watch Tommy veer toward the GR’s way of thinking after concluding there has to be some good reason, some higher purpose for what he just went through.
The performances in this episode are just stunning, especially Amy Brenneman, who stands a real chance at Emmy consideration armed with this episode.
The lovely piano cover of “Where Is My Mind” was an elegant, subtle way of linking all of the Garveys together even though they’re miles apart.
As much as I loved this episode, I need the Murphys back on my screen, like, right now. Looks like they’re back next week though.

http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/leftovers-tops-itself-again-its-bleakest-episode-y-227059
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