Welcome to our recaps of The Leftovers, in which I focus on the various religious and philosophical issues of the series. This really was a Matt, Matt, Matt episode. Matt, John, Michael, and Laurie travel to Australia to try to bring Kevin back to Jarden before the 7th anniversary of the Sudden Departure in order to stop the end of the world. In their journey, they accidentally end up traveling in the Love Boat (or the Biblical, Sodom and Gomorrah version of it), we meet Frazier the Lion, and the always so righteous Matt (or is he self-righteous?), finally completes his Biblical Job-like journey, filled with suffering and sacrifice, by meeting God (or is he?) and confronting him about the reason for it all. The episode also includes references to Daniel 6:22, we hear Jewish prayers such as the Avinu Malekeinu and the Ashrei, and Carl Gustav Jung’s Answer to Job may help us understand that final scene. The title of the episode is also an homage to the 1963 comedy directed by Stanley Kramer “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
This week, the opening credits have the song “Je ne peux pas rentrer chez moi” or “I can’t go back home” by Charles Aznavour, which describes pretty well where Matt is at this point in the season: alone, abandoned by his wife and son, and ready to embark on a journey away from home to prove, once again, his unconditional faith to God. The show has made very clear that Matt sees himself as a Biblical Job of sorts (Thomas Horton wrote a nice piece about this in Medium), a righteous (or is it self-righteous?) individual who sees his mission in life to devote himself to God, and interprets all of his suffering as tests to his faith. Episodes like “Two Boats and a Helicopter” in season 1, and “No Room At The Inn,” in season 2 are very good examples of his Job-like journey in the show. If being alone and having nothing to show for all of his faith is not enough, Matt is now dying of cancer, something he is concealing from everyone.
Why Wait For The End of The World? Let’s End It Now.
The episode opens with a little prologue (still using Charles Aznavour’s music) in which we see what will be reveal as a rogue French naval officer in a nuclear submarine, who manages to launch a nuclear missile that, fortunately, lands in an uninhabited area of the world. The incident, though, sets the world into a panic, only compounding the anxiety over the upcoming 7th anniversary of the Sudden Departure, and complicating the journey of our main characters to Australia.
“God has Placed an Obstacle in Our Way”
After the nuclear incident prologue, all international flights, with the exception of those carrying humanitarian aid, have been grounded due to nuclear fallout. Matt, who believes that Kevin needs to be in Jarden for the day of the 7th anniversary of the Sudden Departure, sees this as another test of his faith and resolution by God:
“God has placed an obstacle in our way, but he wants us to overcome it. He wants us to demonstrate our faith. He wants us to get this man [Kevin], and bring him home”
In case the Biblical references were not clear, Matt jokes about the original group of people flying to Australia (John, Michael and Matt) as the Three Wise Men and, when he finds out at that Laurie is also going with them, Michael comments that they are like the apostles (“Matthew, Michael, and John they were all disciples, maybe Laurie is one too”).
The addition of Laurie to the group, very much like in the previous episode, brings forth the debate between faith and reason. Matt/Job is the man of faith who believes that Kevin is the Messiah, and that God has sent him for a reason. Laurie is the woman of reason, the psychotherapist who diagnoses what happens to Kevin as a clinical disease. In her view:
“Three years ago, my ex-husband experience severe delusion and tried to kill himself, and instead of acknowledging his mental illness, you turned it into fucking scripture, and when he found out about it, he relapses and run half way across the world.”
So who is right? As usual, the show keeps sending mixed signals about it. Last week, the seemingly strong argument that The Leftovers had made towards suggesting the reality of Kevin’s experiences was undermined by his seeing of Evie, the dead daughter of John, who ended up being a delusion (although as I argue at the end of my previous recap, the delusion could also be read as a divine sign, since it allowed Kevin Sr. to find Kevin). In this episode, the reasonable and convincing argument presented by Laurie of Kevin’s delusion, is stopped when the cargo plane in which they are travelling to Australia (they are pretending to deliver humanitarian aid) undergoes great turbulence, to the great delight of Matt, who sees this as a sign of God indicating that she is wrong.
During that scene, we also hear in the background the Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”), a Jewish prayer usually recited during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Avinu Malkeinu is a litany, supplicatory prayer requesting God to end all trouble and suffering in the world:
Our father our king, hear our voice
Our father our king, we have sinned before you
Our father our king, Have compassion upon us
and upon our children
Our father our king
Bring an end to pestilence,
war, and famine around us
Our father our king,
Bring an end to all trouble
and oppression around us
Our father our king,
Our father our king,
Inscribe us in the book of (good) life
Our father our king, renew upon us
Renew upon us a good year
Hear our voice
Hear our voice
Hear our voice
While John, Michael, and Laurie are sleeping in the plane, an increasingly sick Matt, reads Daniel 6:22, in which Daniel avoids being eaten by lions due to his strong faith in God, who “sent his angel, and […] shut the mouths of the lions.” This seems a clear reference to Matt’s faith in Kevin as some sort of angel or Messiah sent to earth to help us, but it also points to the self-righteousness of Matt, who sees himself as Daniel, as someone who has never done anything wrong in the eyes of God. This idea of (self)-righteousness will play a very important role towards the end of the episode. The Avinu Malkeinu playing in the background reinforces the devotional and supplicatory nature of the relationship between Matt and God.
My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.”
Due to the nuclear fallout, their plane is forced to land in Tasmania, which explains their journey in the “Love Boat” for the rest of the episode that will take them to their final destination: Melbourne
The Love Boat: There is going to be Sex in this Boat… There is Going to Be Lots of It…
Stranded in Tasmania, the only way to make it to Melbourne is to take an overnight ferry but, the only one available has been completely booked by a group who is throwing a party/bacchanal to honor Frazier the Lion. The story of Frazier the Lion is a real one, and it involves a very old lion who, at the age of 19 (the equivalent of 70s for a human) was abandoned, skinny and malnourished, by a Mexican circus and ended up in a rescue shelter in Los Angeles in 1972. There, Frazier was brought back to health and becoming the favorite of all of the lionesses in the den. He ended up fathering 33 cubs in 16 months. In the episode, the boat is carrying a descendant of Frazier from Tasmania to Australia as part of a world tour that will take the lion to various zoos to spread the powerful seed of Frazier.
Frazier the lion seem to operate as a symbol at two different and apparently contradictory levels, which brings richness to the episode (which interpretation do you choose?). On the one hand, Frazier is a symbol of fertility, of sexuality, and of life, and the human ritualistic bacchanal centered around him is a celebration of that. Sex is life, so let’s celebrate it. On the other hand, the lion is also an important biblical symbol that sometimes refers to Jesus (C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series are a famous example of the modern use of the Lion as a metaphor for Jesus) and sometimes even God itself. The Book of Job, indeed, has a reference of God as a lion that will become relevant at the end of the episode:
‘Should my head be lifted up, You [i.e God] would hunt me like a lion; And again You would show Your power against me.
So what is it? Is God a source of life that should be celebrated it? Or is God a mystery that demands devotion without providing any proof of its existence?
How Can We Be Certain In Our Faith?
The Leftovers is a show about faith and meaning: is there a God? How do we explain the terrible things that happen all around the world (the always sticky issue of theodicy), if God exists, can it be known, or we have only access to it through faith? Matt and John have a conversation dealing with some of these issues that reveals their respective positions. For Matt, Kevin is some sort of angel or Messiah sent by God, and Jarden is a special, sacred place: “It cured my wife, and it gave me my son.” He evens says that Mary leaving him “is a test, a test to my faith in that place to see if I leave.” For John, the same place, has a very different meaning, since Jarden, “my wife left me and I lost my daughter.” Here, obviously we deal with the issue of interpretation, how can the same place, Jarden, be both things: a place of miracles and hope, and a place of misery and loss? That is the ultimate question presented by the show.
God Reads Louis L’Amour Novels
In the boat, Matt hears that there is a man who claims to be God. When hearing about this, an outraged Matt confronts him for his blasphemy and, to his surprise, he responds by simply handing him a card that says “Yes, I am God” with a list of answers to FAQ (he seems to be getting that question a lot). An amusing moment in this scene is seeing the character who claims to be God reading a cheap Louis L’amour novel, Lonely on the Mountain, as if God were trying to understand humanity through these pulpy/western novels, as if humanity was as much of a mystery to him as God is to us. The short interaction between Matt and the person who claims to be God, leaves Matt puzzled, and we hear the song “Do You Believe” from the Supreme Jubilees.
After Matt tells Michael about his encounter and how angry it has made him, Michael suggests that he talks to Laurie, which he does. Laurie tells Matt the story of Frazier the Lion, which explains the reason for the orgy in the boat. Matt and Laurie rehash again their faith vs. reason argument, although this time, Laurie agrees to go along with Matt’s story since she thinks it may be the best way to bring Kevin back (as she did in the previous episode, do not tell a person having a psychotic break that they are having one).
Why Would God Do Something Like This?
After Laurie leaves, Matt stays on the deck for a little longer (he throws up, pointing to the severity of his illness) and sees the person who claims to be God throwing another person overboard. He tries to get some help, but everyone is so busy having sex and a good time that no one bothers. He, then, decided to take matters in his own hands and jumps overboard to try to save the person. The captain stops the ferry and Matt tells him that he jumped because he saw a man, the one who calls himself God, throwing another one overboard. He demands something to be done, but the captain says that there is no evidence against him since he was the only witness.
The captain also tells him that the name of the person who claims to be God is David Burton, and he is a celebrity of sorts in Australia. He was a bronze medalist in the Olympic games in the 80s, and the voice of the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. One day, after the Sudden Departure, he was rock climbing with a friend and he had an accident and broke his neck and died. The friend left him there and went to look for some help to retrieve his body and, when they came back, he was there without a scratch and claiming to be God. Since his friend saw him dead, some people started believing that there may be something to it.
The question, obviously is what to make of such claims. What’s interesting is that, while Matt believes that Kevin is the Messiah, and that the end of the world is coming, he cannot accept that another person with a very similar experience to that of Kevin, can make claims to divinity.
During the scene we also hear the Ashrei, a Jewish exaltation prayer praising the greatness of God composed mainly of Psalm 145. The prayer seems to echo Matt’s exaltation of God above anything else.
And Matt Finally Talks to God
Since no one seems interested in serving justice, he takes it upon himself. He finds “God,” and whacks him in the head. He then ties him up and confronts him about what he did, and about his claims to divinity. Job, it seems, finally meets God and demands some answers.
While at the beginning of the conversation Matt is convinced that he is just a fraud (“if you are God, why don’t you just transform the ropes into snakes and free yourself?”), the more they talk the more he engages him as if he were God. The answers he gets to his questions though, are not what he expected. He admits that he threw a man overboard, but refuses to confess since he is “the authority.” Matt accuses him of inventing the story of his death and resurrection to be just like the one of Jesus (whose name, Matt sarcastically adds, he forgets to include in his FAQ card), but here God gives him a series of strange (stranger than strange) answers: Jesus was not his son (“Mary’s word vs. mine”), Jesus did not resurrect, he rotted in the cave: “Jesus had an identical twin brother, that’s who people saw a few days later creating some confusion” (for the notion of Jesus twin identical brother see Ron Cooper’s The Gospel of the Twin, you can also read this story from Princeton Prof. Pagels about it).
Matt accuses him of not taking responsabilty for sending his son to take responsibility for the sins of mankind, to which God simply answers “it seems a lot to ask of someone.” But he does take responsibility for the Sudden Departure “because I could.” For Matt that is not good enough, that is not a reason, and he has done everything in his life for a reason (“to guide people, to ease their pain). If the person in front of him is God, it is a nihilistic God. But God (or the person who thinks he is God) tells him that he never did any of the things he did for God but for himself. “Everything you’ve done, you’ve done them because you thought I was watching you, because you thought I was judging you.” His righteousness was simply self-righteousness. It was never about God, it was always about him. And somehow, something clicks in him, some sort of acceptance, and he unties him and lets him go.
Was he God? I don’t think that is really the question (although it is an interesting one, any thoughts?). What matters is that in that moment, in that conversation, he heard God through him. He heard a truth that he needed to hear and he felt at peace.
[Edit: in a very moving and insightful interview between Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz and Lindelof, posted after I wrote my recap, they do discuss this issue in very similar terms:]
At the beginning of the scene, Matt doesn’t even think this guy is God. He’s angry at the fact that the guy is claiming to be God, which is personally offensive to him. But by the end of the scene, he starts asking him questions as if he is God because he needs somebody to answer these questions.
David Burton, who may have died and come back to life and certainly is meant to have some sort of mythic significance to the audience, because he’s played by the same actor who Kevin experienced on both the bridge in “International Assassin” and then in the karaoke bar in the season two finale; and so you’re kind of wondering, “Is this guy God?” Because he’s been presented in a supernatural context in the show.
And then, what happens to him at the end of this episode and Matt’s response to watching that happen, is: it doesn’t matter if that guy was God or not. What matters to us as storytellers is, how does Matt Jamison feel about God/David Burton now, and what does that mean for him going forward? Is he separated from this idea? Has he learned his lesson? That was the equation we were working on.
In the context of The Book of Job, the presentation of God in this episode seems to resonate with Carl Gustav’s Jung interpretation of it in his Answer to Job. For Jung, the Book of Job poses the question of theodicy, or of why God, being all good, would allow evil and suffering in the world. His controversial answer was that, if we want to accept God as the creator of everything, we then need to accept that evil is one of his aspects. Evil is part of God. The book also includes an interesting idea about Jesus not being sent to the world to sacrifice himself for the sins of humanity, but the other way around, as God’s sacrifice for its sins against humankind. It is obviously more complicated and nuanced than this, but you get the jest of it. I bring Jung’s interpretation here, because I think it does help explain a God, as presented in The Leftovers, that includes good, yes, but it also explains things that we would qualify as evil, or as making not sense at all. If God is the source of everything that exists, it is only logical that it also includes the things we do not understand. What do you think?
Are You Ok?
When he reunites with the rest of the group, Laurie asks him if he is ok and he simply says “I am dying,” but he says it with acceptance, as if his meeting with God had given him a peace of mind.
The episode ends with an interesting scene with the ship boarding in Melbourne in which the police has been informed that David Burton, the person who claims to be God, may have committed a crime (the captain checked the passengers list and there was, indeed, one missing) and when the police was going to detain him, a group of people free the descendent of Frazier the Lion, and the lion eats him! The Lion eats God! Remember that quote of Job again:
‘Should my head be lifted up, You would hunt me like a lion; And again You would show Your power against me.
So what do you think? Did Matt meet God? Was he satisfied with the answers he got? If that was God, what do we make of it? Let me know what you think.
Next on The Leftovers: Certified