In Defense Of The "Most Desolate, Despairing" Show On Television
The most recent episode of The Leftovers has some critics quitting the show. But here’s why two BuzzFeed staffers are still riveted.
The most recent episode of HBO's The Leftovers began with a particularly horrific murder. It was so brutal, in fact, it lead Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz to pen a piece titled "Enough, already: Why I'm quitting 'The Leftovers.'"
"I don't mean to complain that The Leftovers is too sad. My favorite shows of last year were all fairly dark. But The Leftovers doesn't earn its sadness," she wrote of the series' fifth episode, which centers on the inhabitants of a small town three years after the world experiences a rapture in which 2% of the population disappears. "Brutally killing characters who haven't earned our grief can feel borderline exploitative. It turns your attention away from the human being, and allows you to be dazzled by the sheer salaciousness of the murder." Eventually, she concluded, "For me, The Leftovers is too much of an endurance test."
The series — co-created by former Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the author of the book upon which the series is based — has gotten similar feedback since it screened for critics in January. "The Leftovers is all bleakness all the time," Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz wrote. "Parts of it feel as though the show is emotionally blackmailing you into watching: What, don't you care about these poor, miserable people? Well, go ahead and change the channel then, you monster." John Lopez at Grantland called the series the "prestige television equivalent of a cilice" and Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club said it was "some of the most desolate, despairing television on air."
But the physical brutality of The Leftovers' fifth episode seems on par with the violence we've seen on similar cable fare, from Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad, and it's not even the show's speciality. Instead, The Leftovers offers emotional torture and that's perhaps what some critics and audience members have most struggled with.
Below, BuzzFeed's deputy entertainment editor, Jaimie Etkin, and film critic, Alison Willmore — who was previously IndieWire's television critic — both fans of The Leftovers, discuss why the series has been shunned for capturing the pain of loss and mourning, while other television brutality gets a pass.
Alison Willmore: So I'll confess — when The Leftovers premiered, I was actually taken by surprise by the apparent consensus that it's a gruelingly depressing show. I sure as hell wouldn't describe it as cheerful, though it's sometimes darkly funny, but watching the first few episodes handed out to the press, I honestly didn't think it was any grimmer than so many other series, cable or otherwise, that are currently on TV.
"Bleak" has pretty much become the default mode of the quality drama, from Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead's repeated killing off of major characters to the loneliness and quietly self-destructive tendencies of the folks on Mad Men. Then there are all those shows that use murder as their narrative engine — like True Detective, The Bridge, and The Killing. Death or thoughts about it are a constant in so much of our critically acclaimed TV, to the point where it can feel numbing, all those corpses like so much sad set dressing.
One of the things I like about The Leftovers is that it tries to do something that most of those shows, despite their body counts, don't have time for. It deals with grief and what life is like in the wake of something terrible instead of as it's happening. The Leftovers is set three years after The Sudden Departure, and everyone's dealing with it in different ways, at different paces. Jaimie, do you think this process is somehow harder for people to watch than actual violence?
Jaimie Etkin: I absolutely do. This week's episode aside (RIP Gladys), The Leftovers is largely not a violent show — save for the dogs, and I'm not discounting those scenes, because my heart is actually aching as I merely type about them.
But when we watch a graphically violent scene on one of the shows you previously mentioned, we can cringe or partially shield our eyes until it's over. And we have the assurance that it will be over soon. But with The Leftovers, we don't know when (or if) there will be relief for us as viewers and for those suffering in Mapleton.
I think it's more challenging to watch someone grapple with emotional pain rather than the physical, and with many cable dramas, the most violent scenes come at the end of the episode (oh hai, Red Wedding), and then when the series picks up the following week, we've missed most of the grieving that comes along with those scenes.
On The Leftovers, we have no choice but to sit along with the Garveys and the rest of the Mapleton folk as they struggle years later to come to terms with the loss that resulted from this supernatural-y event that wasn't exactly violent, but was certainly horrific. What's so interesting to me about the show is that the entire series is based on this rapture that we, as the audience, much like the people of Mapleton, will probably never get an explanation about. And I'm OK with that, because that's not what this show is about. It's actually the anti-Lost in that regard. We're not waiting for answers because we know we'll never get them. And that's reality.
AW: Yes, I love that there's no rhyme or reason to the mass disappearance — that it included solid citizens and criminals, that babies vanished and so did Gary Busey, and that there's that one poor woman whose entire family is gone, leaving her alone, the unfortunate local figurehead for everyone left behind. It's a broad-spectrum trauma that defies any easy read, and I'm also very on board with it being left without explanation. There are moments that recall 9/11, but it's bigger and stranger and more global than that. There's no one to even begin pointing fingers at, which accounts for the apparently many crazy-looking cults that have sprung up since the event, as people look for answers or meaning.
I agree that emotional pain is tougher to take in than physical, but I do feel like TV can fall into the habit of depicting one without the other. As you've pointed out, even carnage-heavy Game of Thrones tends to leave its major scenes of violence to the end of episodes, and its characters rarely have the luxury of time or freedom to deal with how they make them feel — whereas The Leftovers is all about that, and about the different ways people try to move on (or refuse to, in the case of the Guilty Remnant).
It's about rebuilding, as tough as it may be, and how the difficulties of the moment also blend together with the everyday problems people have. That's something that really comes through with Jill (Margaret Qualley), who's reeling from her mom leaving to become a member of the GR, but who's also just acting out in a lot of shitty, moody, totally normal teenage ways.
JE: I think Jill is one of the most interesting characters on the show. The scene in Episode 1 with her and Aimee (fabulously played by Emily Meade) playing that game at a party was an incredibly telling moment, perhaps more than any others, in depicting just how much the world had stayed the same after the rapture, but had changed in seemingly slight but meaningful ways. In post-10/14 Mapleton, high schoolers play a hybrid game of Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle that includes options like "choke" and "burn" in addition to "kiss" and "hug." It's familiar, but also foreign to teenage life. It quickly becomes apparent that Jill wants to be able to run with the burning-and-choking crowd, one Aimee is a part of without thinking. But Jill is still struggling with what happened, and mourning the emotional and somewhat physical loss of her mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman), or at least the mother she'd known prior to The Event.
For as many times as this show is called "bleak," Jill's relationship with Laurie actually gives me the most hope. When she gives Laurie a lighter engraved with the words "Don't forget me" for Christmas, her mother initially throws it in the gutter, something the GR would want her to do. But in the middle of the night, she goes back to get it, showing that she isn't able to fully turn off her emotions and connections to her family, even though this is a woman who we haven't heard speak in five episodes. I don't think that moment was intended to give viewers a false sense of promise in what's obviously a very dark world; it just exists to show us how complex things are and how conflicted Laurie is in her situation. And again, I think that's just honest of the spectrum of human emotion. Let's talk about the GR, though. This episode gave us more insight than we previously had. Do you think we're supposed to be able to see them as more human and relatable now? And do you think our entry into that was a manipulative one?
AW: When the series began, I saw the GR as a kind of nihilist answer to the Westboro Baptist Church, a uniform and extremely unsympathetic group of IRL trolls showing up to rain on the parade of everyone attempting to commemorate their missing loved ones. They were amusing — I still think the chain-smoking as a way to emphasize how few fucks you give about your life is a nice little visual joke — but they also felt like smug jerks, holding up a sign saying "stop wasting your breath" outside the Heroes Day event, the Leftovers equivalent to picketing a funeral.
I wouldn't call it manipulative to portray them in this way, because it's clearly how most of the town sees them, as annoying downers at best or possible terrorists at worst. But Episode 5 ("Gladys") did a lot to change my view on them, first by showing the title character's horrific death by stoning, in which she broke character to beg for her life, and then by depicting how little compassion the rest of the Mapleton residents have for the woman because of her affiliation — those guys laughing over her body flopping off the tree. For them, the GR is just one brainwashed mass, but the members don't see each other that way. Patti (Ann Dowd) showed herself to be fiercely protective of the people she's been leading, even giving Laurie a time-out to see if she really wants to keep going.
The episode convinced me that, as callous as the GR's actions look on the outside, those on the inside sincerely believe in their importance, and haven't always had an easy time making the sacrifices the group demands. And while I think we'd both agree the show isn't perfect (I still have no idea what's going on with Chris Zylka and that whole other cult), its ability to make you feel empathy for characters who are initially so off-putting is something it does so very well.
JE: Ha! I also don't have a blessed clue what's going on with Chris Zylka's storyline (in fact, I often forget his name) and don't appreciate that a substantial part of it thus far involved him fighting a naked man.
Moving on, though: It's interesting to me that you read Patti's pancake sit-down with Laurie as an act of protection and genuine concern. I actually saw it more as a test of Laurie's loyalty to the GR, but it's hard to discern because we don't really know what Patti's motivation is or anything about Patti pre-GR, for that matter. But I trust that the show will find a way to provide that insight. After all, Episode 3 ("Two Boats and a Helicopter") was an excellent character study of Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), and I wish the show would've continued with that format.
It would've been interesting if "Gladys" followed a similar suit and the writers allowed us to actually see more of what Patti instead told Laurie about that character at the diner. But I still don't think The Leftovers is, as Maerz wrote on EW, exploiting viewers by "brutally killing characters who haven't earned our grief" and asking us "to be dazzled by the sheer salaciousness of the murder." Would viewers rather have seen Laurie go through that after all they've invested in that character? Or Liv Tyler's GR newbie Meg?
Besides, nothing was dazzling about the way Gladys died. It was painful to listen to and to watch (which I barely did, I have to say). And, like you said, the fact that Gladys "broke" and pleaded for her life when she'd been smoking her way into the grave and trying to help others see the futility of life was particularly poignant. It's a storyline like that where The Leftovers truly excels in its message, not to make its viewers feel hopeless about the complex world in which the show is set, but to depict what makes people tick, break, crack, and reject the things they once held firm.