We Are Living Reminders
An overwhelmed mother tries to handle laundry, phone calls, and an upset baby in a local laundromat. Her rumpled appearance shows her fatigue and stress. With her cell phone glued to her ear, she moves from washer to dryer. Her baby cries as he watches her complete the chore. Finally, mother and son make their way to a generic sedan. She secures him in a car seat, and his cries become more frantic as she climbs into the driver’s seat. The cries stop. There is sudden quiet. The mother realizes that the baby has vanished. She screams “Sam” over and over, as if a litany of his name could return him to her. The scene fades to black as we hear 911 calls reporting similar disappearances.
Thus begins HBO’s The Leftovers. The show appears, at first glance, to be yet another Rapture story. A portion of the population disappears, possibly by a supernatural cause. The show, based upon Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, centers on the suburb of Mapleton, New York, as its citizens react to the disappearance of 2% of the global population. This, however, is not the familiar Rapture tale, because it is unclear whether this actually is a rapture, or some other kind of event. Unlike in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series, or the truly awful film adaptation thereof, the reason for the mass disappearance is unknown. The not-knowing visibly wears on the characters in intimately harmful ways.
While the Left Behind series presents an obvious evangelical vision of the Rapture and the apocalypse, The Leftovers avoids that moral clarity to dwell in uncertainty. The event of October 14th remains mysterious. Why did these people vanish? Why were some chosen while others remained behind? The series so far refuses easy answers to these questions. The event isn’t really the point. Instead, the show focuses on what happens to those left when time moves on. What happens to a life in the aftermath of an inexplicable trauma? How can they grieve when they don’t know what happened to missing loved ones? How can they not grieve? What we get is pained glimpses of what life looks like three years later.
We meet the characters on the day before the third anniversary of the event. Some grieve. Others detach. Many pivot between the two. Pill bottles on nightstands suggest that a few medicate. There are many attempts to create some semblance of normal life after trauma, with varying degrees of success. We watch characters run, play sports, drink beer, drive, sleep late, go to school, smoke pot, attend meetings, and talk at one another. They exist in the trenches of the mundane. Life wears them down. A Congressman seeks to be unburdened by visiting a charismatic leader, Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), who hugs away the pain. A few high school students pray for the lost while fellow students mock them by miming suicide. Others, like police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), seem conflicted about whether they actually want to move on. A blaring television shows us a Congressional hearing about the disappearances. A council of clerics from a variety of world religions couldn’t agree on what happened. When religion provides no tidy answers, Congress, then, turns to scientists. Science also fails to provide answers as to why 1 out of 50 humans on the planet vanished. While being interrogated by Congress, a scientist notes, “God sat this one out.”
While the scientist seems certain about the absence of God, some of the people of Mapleton are not as sure. For the group known as the Guilty Remnant, those who didn’t disappear are being punished. Their members dress in all white, chain-smoke cigarettes, and live together in suburban homes converted into communal living spaces. They don’t speak, instead communicating with pens and notepads. As Laurie (Amy Brenneman), Kevin’s estranged wife, brushes her teeth, we see their slogan etched on the bathroom wall: “We are the living reminders.” The Guilty Remnant embraces as fact that they were “left behind,” that those who vanished function as the “chosen elect,” while everyone remaining is not. The Guilty Remnant steep themselves in their guilt; they cultivate despair. They give up their families, their work, and their possessions to gather together to atone for their wrongdoings. Their lives serve as constant reminder of their faults, and their silent stares unnerve those outside of their movement. Silence and smoke becomes the marker of their despair and grief.
Unsurprisingly, the police chief and many of the townspeople view the Guilty Remnant as a dangerous cult that might be prone to violence. Their behaviors appear beyond the pale of acceptability. Monochrome uniforms, cigarettes, and silence signal extremism, especially when juxtaposed to how other Mapleton citizens manage their grief—with memorial T-shirts, murals, blue ribbons, and signs. What causes discomfort is that the Guilty Remnant owns their guilt by displaying it on their bodies. Mourners’ black transforms into white. They affix blame for the disappearance on those remaining, so it is no surprise that they are unpopular.
Their unpopularity becomes obvious on Heroes Day, a national attempt at a day of remembrance for the departures. Mapleton’s mayor (Amanda Warren) plans a big event as a moment of recognition as well as closure. She explains to Chief Garvey, “Everybody’s ready to feel better.” Yet, how can they memorialize something that they can’t explain? The ceremony proves forced. There’s the unveiling of a memorial statue, which features a baby floating away from its mother. Townspeople carry signs proclaiming, “Where did they go, we want to know.” Members of the Guilty Remnant interrupt the ceremony by holding up letters that spell out, “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH.” The Guilty Remnant refuses to celebrate the vanished “heroes,” and the gathered crowd attacks them for this refusal. The crowd batters them with punches and kicks. Blood mars their white clothing. Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?, I think as I watch the injured members of the Guilty Remnant fall to the ground one by one.
This is only the first of many moments of violence that GR members face. Bodily harm emerges as another level of punishment. Passengers of moving cars pelt them with rocks. One member, Gladys, is captured by two men, who tape her to a tree and stone her to death. Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone, I murmur. We can hear the rocks smashing into her flesh with muffled thumps. We can hear the crunch of her bones and the belabored breathing of her pain. Bright red blood flows into her face. Gore splatters her white uniform. The pain defeats Gladys. She breaks her vow of silence to utter, “Please don’t.” Her captors ignore her pleas and throw a final stone that kills her. Her body sags against the silver duct tape.
I get nauseous as I watched, and now write, about this particular moment of the show. Since I’m perpetually behind in watching television, I happened to watch this episode while protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri. Gladys’s death felt strangely evocative of current events. I couldn’t help but think of Michael Brown. His life was ended by six bullets, not stones. It hurt to watch because the brutality of her death is too reminiscent of real-world brutality. I can’t distance the fantasy from the reality. Again and again, broken bodies become the evidence of systems that fail, prejudice, and hatred. It is too much to bear.
A novice member of the Guilty Remnant, Meg (Liv Tyler), in reference to the townspeople’s anger at the GR, asks her mentor Laurie: “Are you surprised? We want them to remember something they want to forget.” Laurie reacts with a panic attack. I reacted with tears. I’m not surprised either. I hurt. I don’t want to forget, but the horror is too much to bear. I understand why Mapleton wants closure. They can’t move on, because trauma changes us. It digs into our skins, and we can’t pry it loose. Life changed irreparably for Mapleton on October 14th. To move on requires forgetting. They can’t forget, and we can’t forget either. I don’t want us to.
Mapleton’s Heroes Day ceremony is an attempt to limit grief and pain to a day on the calendar. If only we could dwell in our grief for a moment and abandon it just as quickly. If only grief would cooperate with our attempts to box it in, to limit its parameters, and to only bother us one day of the year. Mapleton gathers together for a cathartic release, and the Guilty Remnant becomes an easy target to assuage collective grief. Grief, however, refuses to be tamed. It cares not for a calendar. Grief owns us and breaks us down. We try to rebuild ourselves in its wake. We often can’t.
The power of grief is on display in the character of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). Nora becomes a local celebrity because she lost her whole family—husband, daughter, and son—on October 14th. At Heroes Day, she describes one of her favorite days with her family at the beach: “I felt like I didn’t deserve something that good.” Nora insists that’s she is “not greedy”; she wishes that she could get back the most miserable day with her family, not the best one. Her desperation registers: any day with them would be better than no day at all. Nora’s grief cannot be confined to an awkward attempt at memorial; it is expansive. Her red eyes and shaking hands suggest that loss is her constant companion. Grief is the most painful because of its ordinariness.
Later, we find out that Nora works for the Department of Sudden Departure. She conducts surveys of the remaining, so they can get monetary benefits for their departed loved ones. Her job forces her to confront her own loss with every survey. We learn that her house is a shrine to her family. One of her children’s room remains a mess of toys and a half-finished puzzle. On the kitchen counter, a paper-towel roll remains in its holder with one torn towel left. She waits for her family to reappear any moment; she courts pain and punishment.
Nora even hires a dominatrix to shoot her in her Kevlar-covered chest. The shot knocks her out for a brief moment. Is it a reprieve or punishment? It is hard to tell. At a bar, she tells a fellow patron, “I lost everything. There is no moving on.” She’s stuck in a life that no longer exists. Eventually, she pays Holy Wayne $1,000 for a healing hug. He describes her struggle, “Do you believe you will always feel that pain? If it starts to slip away, you seek it out again.” Her grief can only be cured by outside intervention. She can’t save herself.
Like grief, religion appears unavoidable in The Leftovers. The opening credits depict a Rapture scene that graces a cathedral. Holy Wayne offers solace from grief and anguish in his embraces. The Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) preaches to a tiny congregation and seeks to show that the departures were bad people, as if their moral failings proved the event couldn’t be a Rapture. Pundits on the news argue about the need for a secular conversation about the event, rather than resorting to religious interpretations, particularly Christian ones. High school students engage in prayer in school while teachers look on. The Guilty Remnant, in name and action, assumes their own wrongdoing as the reason that they are still around.
Yet The Leftovers appears skeptical of religious belief and practice. Wayne’s hugs take away guilt, but he impregnated teen girls at his compound. The reverend prays for divine intervention, but he’s thwarted. Patti (Ann Dowd), a leader of the Guilty Remnant, breaks her vow of silence when it suits her. In a conversation with the police chief, we learn that Patti plotted Gladys’s murder. Patti offers that Gladys was “okay” with it. The brutal stoning of Gladys is just a tactic for the Guilty Remnant’s leadership; and I find myself nauseous again. She mattered less as a person than as a message. Religion appears ambivalent at best and dangerous at worst.
I find myself frustrated with this show that I want to like. Rather than upending popular narratives about cults and danger, The Leftovers just reinforces them. As I watched the early episodes, I hoped that we would uncover that the members of the Guilty Remnant were not as fanatical as they seemed. I wanted to see more about what made the members join and what they gained in their membership. I hoped for a reflection on the humanity of members, and for a few episodes, this seemed to be the case.
After Gladys dies, Laurie breaks down. She can barely breath. Her shock and anguish were genuine. I sympathized with Laurie’s panic over her friend’s death. I understood how Meg shifted from despondency to purpose by becoming a novice. These attempts humanized the members of the Guilty Remnant, and I hoped the writers were building empathy for the members by presenting their reactions of grief. Instead, we learn that Gladys was killed for the movement and that Patti is committed to a plan that includes more martyrs. The Guilty Remnant becomes just another dangerous cult, which we should fear. Empathy dissipates, and I felt like the writers toyed with my emotions.
This was not my only frustration, as I found myself annoyed by the racial dynamics of the show too. The main characters are overwhelmingly white. Racial and ethnic diversity is limited to the supporting cast. The whiteness of the actors replicates in the uniforms of the Guilty Remnant. The Leftovers seems to assume a post-racial world, in which we can focus on white people because race no longer matters as much as it once did. Perhaps, this is an unfair criticism. After all, the main characters demand our attention. The show centers upon the Garveys and the Dursts. The Mayor and Holy Wayne, both African-American, emerge as complicated characters granted political and religious authority. Yet, I still worry that the show unintentionally stakes a claim on whose grief should concern us. When viewers dwell in the the pain of Kevin and Nora, do we overlook the pain of the supporting characters? Does their whiteness privilege their grief? I’m afraid so. The Leftovers illuminates the ways in which some bodies gain our sympathies just by existing and some bodies only gain our attention in their brokenness. I hurt again.
Yet, I still find the damn show compelling, because it refuses easy explanations. The Leftovers dramatizes uncertainty and the ordinariness of grief. The show’s mantra appears to be “I don’t know,” which feels more honest than the easy platitudes and pat explanations.
The citizens of Mapleton struggle to find meaning, when it is possible that there is none. It is heartrending to watch. It also seems necessary. There are many routes to explanation. Some offer comfort. Some offer none. In The Leftovers, the struggle for meaning is often unbearable. Life continues on after tragedy, in its wearying yet ordinary ways. We emerge as the living reminders; we bear witness to loss and tragedy. Our lives move forward as we seek answers for our grief. Often, there are no good answers.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.