A little recap…
There is no other show on TV right now that explores religious issues like HBO’s The Leftovers. The first season, based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same name, and developed for TV by Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame), examined the effects (social, psychological, spiritual) of a Rapture-like event (named the “Sudden Departure”) in which 2% of the world’s population simply vanishes without any logical explanation. The story focused on the citizens of the small fictional town of Mapleton, New York, who are trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of this devastating event. The Chief of Police, Kevin Garney (played by Justin Theroux), struggles to keep his family and his town from falling apart with little success (he is, in fact, losing his mind in the process, hearing voices and walking in his sleep). His wife, Laurie, abandons him and their two children to join the Guilty Remnant, a new religious cult whose members have taken a vow of silence, smoke cigarettes as “a declaration of their faith” (they see the Rapture as a sign of the end of times, so why bother keeping healthy), and follow people around town to “remind” them of the message delivered (by God?!) on the day of the Departure. Their daughter, Jill, embraces teenage angst and nihilism as a response to the apparent randomness and cruelty of the event. Their son, Tommy, drops out of college and becomes a follower of Holy Wayne, one of many new prophets and religious leaders that emerged after the Sudden Departure, who claims that he can take away the pain of those who have lost a loved one by hugging them. Nora, the only resident of Mapleton who lost her entire family (her husband and two children) can only continue living by digging down into her pain (this includes her hiring of prostitutes to shoot her while she wears a Kevlar vest). There are many other interesting characters, and through them all Perrotta and Lindelof explore the issue of loss: how do we honor the loss of loved ones, how can we process the incomprehensible event that took them away, how do we move forward (if we can move forward at all)…
This very dark first season ended up on a slightly hopeful note with a scene in the finale in which Nora finds an abandoned baby at the doorstep of the Garvey’s house (the son of Holy Wayne, in fact, a Moses or baby Jesus of sorts bringing hope to a broken world?) as Kevin and Jill are getting back home after the dramatic and climactic confrontation of the citizens of Mapleton and the members of the Guilty Remnant.
A New Beginning
The show’s second season is upon us, and if its first episode is any indication, Perrotta and Lindelof make very clear that religion, faith, spirituality, and the mysteries of existence are still at the center of the show. The opening credits of the second season, in fact, reveal that the scholar of religion Reza Aslan has been added as a producer and consultant to the show.
The first episode, “Axis Mundi,” moves its main characters to a new location, Miracle, Texas, offering a reboot to a show that had run out of the primary source material found in Perrota’s novel. If the focus of the first season was loss, the central theme of the second season seems to be hope (the new opening credits of the show are less somber than those of season one, and include a more uplifting song, “Let the Mystery Be,” by country/folk singer Iris DeMent). Our main characters leave Mapleton, NY to look for a fresh start somewhere else, and what a better place than Jarden, Texas, a town that has been renamed Miracle, due to the fact that it did not lose any of its inhabitants during the Sudden Departure.
The Silent Prologue
The episode though begins with an intriguing and mysterious prologue set in an undefined pre-historic time and location in which a (very) pregnant woman wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom only to witness that an earthquake collapses the cave where she and her companions were sleeping, leaving her alone in the world. That same night she delivers her baby (in a very explicit scene), and after a few days of rest she begins wandering around (with the help of her totem bird… an eagle?). At some point, she climbs a tree to harvest some eggs to feed herself, only to see from above that a snake is going to attack the baby, whom she has left on the ground. While trying to save the baby, she gets bitten, creating an infection that will finally kill her close to a river. Right after she dies another woman appears and takes the baby. The episode then cuts to the present time, indicating that the new location of the show (Miracle, Texas) is the same place in which the prehistoric episode we just have witnessed took place.
The prologue is relevant for several reasons. First, the episode is titled “Axis Mundi,” which can be translated as “world axis,” or “center of the world.” Mircea Eliade described the Axis Mundi as “a vertical feature, [that] was seen as the center of the world and as linking together all three cosmic levels [the underworld, earth, and heaven]” (Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane, 1957). This is a not so subtle hint to the notion that Miracle, Texas is some sort of “center of the world,” a place where the earth is connected to heavens… but also possibly to the underworld (various previews of season two already hint at the idea that the idyllic Miracle is not what it seems). The prologue is filled with Biblical symbols, hinting at the idea that the town of Miracle sits on some sort of primordial ground, a paradise, a Garden of Eden (the town was originally called Jarden, get it?). The primitive woman may stand for a primordial female (Eve), the eggs she eats from a nest in a tree can be seen as a substitute of the forbidden fruit, and we obviously have the snake. The prologue seems to be out of place with the tone of the show, which in the first season was clearly grounded in a realistic, contemporary setting, but I think it is safe to argue that Lindelof is trying to expand the mythology of the show and, in fact, the prologue recalls similar techniques used during the six season run of Lost, and it particularly closely echoes the back story of the Lost’s mysterious Island and its first protectors, Mother and Jacob.
After the prologue we are introduced to a new set of characters, the Murphys, an African American family that seems to be the reverse image of the Garneys (Patti, the leader of the Guilty Remnant who killed herself in front of Kevin and who now constantly appears to him, tells Kevin: “…very interesting family, the Murphys. It’s hard to tell if they’re part of your story, or you’re part of theirs.”). John Murphy, the father, is a firefighter and, as we will soon discover, part of a vigilante type group, that tries to protect Miracle from the many visionaries, charlatans, and prophets who have emerged in town. His wife, Erika, is a doctor with some unusual curative powers, and their two teenage kids have reacted differently to the new status of their town. Their son, Michael, is a quiet but God fearing believer, while their daughter, Evie, seems to reflect the paradise qualities of Miracle and is full of life and optimism (there is a scene in which she is running naked through the forest with some of her friends, as if like Ev(i)e in the Garden of Eden).
Miracle, Pilgrimage, and the Commodification of the Sacred
There is little doubt that Miracle is an Axis Mundi, a special place in which mysterious things do happen, and where people seem to be able to connect with something sacred (or at least mysterious). In the first episode we see individuals who can predict the future, shaman like figures who can hear the voices of the dead (is Kevin a shaman? Reza Aslan seems to think so…), ascetics living on elevated platforms, we witness the strange resurrection of a bird, etc. But we also witness the other, more mundane side of religion, its commodification, as seen in the transformation of the town into a spiritual marketplace in which people from all over the world come to buy all sorts of trinkets and amulets. Miracle is the new Jerusalem, Mecca, Lhasa, Lourdes, a place where the sacred and the profane converge, where Heaven meets Earth.
Biblical Times for the Modern Age
I enjoyed watching The Leftovers because it allows us to witness what it would be like to have lived during Biblical times, during the time of the Prophet Mohammad, during the time of the Buddha, times that acknowledge and describe the encounter of humanity with the divine (with God, with Gods, with the sacred), a time described in sacred scriptures all over the world, but also a time long forgotten. The Leftovers let us wonder what it would be like to actually witness one of those events, to live through it, and also to see humanity’s response to it. Religion, The Leftovers seems to say, is our response to those encounters.
The Sacred and the Search for Meaning
Damon Lindelof has made very clear that the show is never going to answer the question of why the Sudden Departure happened. Just as in real life, the characters in the show are searching for meaning, and the show offers a multitude of interpretations. In some cases, such as with the Guilty Remnant, there is an acceptance that an explanation is not possible at all. They are a cult without a theology, only unified in their conviction that what happened can not and should not be forgotten. The show, then, seems to oscillate between a notion that the Sudden Departure either doesn’t have any meaning, or that its meaning cannot be fully comprehended by any single interpretation. There is mystery in the world, and it is very much real (the show has made that very clear), what it means is another matter. God may have spoken, we just don’t know what s/he/it is saying.
Just as in real life, world religions and science offer different explanations to the meaning of life and the origins and mysteries of the universe with no apparent agreement. Nonetheless, meaning we search. The shows tension (as it occurred in Lost) is that the universe seems to send signs for us to interpret, Kevin hears voices that are telling him things that do happen in real life, Holy Wayne does connect with some sort of sacred force that allows him to heal people, Matt Jamison (Nora’s brother and the priest of a small church in Mapleton) does receive signs that allow him to make enough money in a casino to save his soon to be foreclosed church, only to be hit by a car on his way out of the casino and, therefore, unable to pay the bank on time. The signs are there, their meaning is not. What is the Universe trying to tell the characters in The Leftovers? Why would the Universe, or the Sacred, or God manifest itself only to make sure that s/he/it cannot be understood? What kind of cruel joke is that? And how are we supposed to live in such a world? The Leftovers explores all of these questions without being afraid of not providing answers. If we can’t find answers to those questions in the real world, why would we find them in a fictional one? The best we can do, the show seems to argue, is to struggle with those questions.
Keep Reading and Listening
There are a few interesting stories out there about the new season of The Leftovers. Reza Aslan has offered some clues as how to interpret some of the events of the first two episodes here and here. Justin Theroux recently talked to NPR’s Fresh Air about the new season, and Vulture and Grantland dedicated recent podcasts to the show.