Jesus’s Pinch Hitter: The Leftovers Episode 4
The opening sequence of this week’s The Leftovers (episode 4) was the best scene yet in a series that still seems unsure of what it wants. Opening shots show mysterious bubbly goop and mechanical processes that are soon revealed to be the machinations for making latex baby-doll heads. The heads are matched with eyes and a body, packaged, sold, then swaddled in clothes by a woman, and eventually placed in a crèche in Mapleton’s town square. The beat of The Black Keys “I’m Not the One” rises as quick shots of the crèche through night and day follow each other, until the camera zooms in on an empty manger. The baby Jesus has been stolen.
Various townspeople are troubled by the disappearance, but Mayor Warburton tells Police Chief Kevin Garvey to just run over to the Biggie Superstore and buy a new one. He balks at the idea, his expression making it clear the suggestion is a little preposterous, as if you could just replace Jesus. The mayor retorts, “For fuck’s sake, Kevin, it’s not the actual baby Jesus.”
Nonetheless, Kevin goes to the store, but then can’t go through with it. He can’t buy a replacement. He wants to find the “real” doll-baby Jesus.
A few years ago I wrote about the rise of “reborn” baby dolls (an actual phenomenon), in light of the film Lars and the Real Girl. I said that the “film speaks to a deritualized society that has forgotten how to mourn.” Lars mourns the loss of his mother via a repurposed sex doll, and through this object is able to work through the grieving process.
Something similar is going on with The Leftovers, as it straddles the line between melancholy and mourning. While Freud may not have been right about everything, his distinction between the two is useful. Mourning grieves a “lost object,” but Freud says that for the melancholic, “one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” Thus, melancholy becomes a neurotic state of being; grieving without end.
Since there are no lost objects to grieve for the leftovers of Mapleton, their mourning can only be melancholic. Melancholy, in turn, drives people to the Guilty Remnant, to drink, to Holy Wayne, to self-destruction.
A little later in the episode, a semi truck overturns and human bodies spill out of the trailer and all over the highway. Only they are not real humans but “Loved Ones,” surrogate dolls that are lifelike, and that the leftovers, we’ll find out in later episodes, buy to replace those who were taken in the Departure. The objects allow people to mourn.
Just as the real baby-doll Jesus reappears, a replacement is laid in the crèche by the twisted local priest, who “had an extra one.” Garvey lets the replacement stay.
On his drive home late at night, Garvey throws the real baby-doll Jesus out the window.
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.