The Leftovers has captured my interest with its sensitive portrayal of nonbelievers attempting to grapple with a scenario seemingly straight out of Revelation. One progressive entertainment website proclaimed the show to be “…A Great Model For Coping With Other People’s Religion.” Ideologically The Leftovers is decidedly left-liberal, though not to the point of unpleasantness. Protagonists of various unbelieving stripes express confusion, shock, and rage when confronted with a cult of silent, nonviolent, chain-smokers dressed entirely in white. For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter what the cult stands for or what they do or wear. The Guilty Remnant, as they call themselves, are merely a stand-in for any organization of religious believers who wish to impact the public life of their polity. The viewer is not meant to sympathize with the Guilty Remnant, though. Our avatar in the series is Kevin Garvey, the hairless tattooed fitness freak who serves as chief of police in a small town in upstate New York.
Kevin’s story is one of redemption and new beginnings. Despite literally embodying the modern ideal of masculinity and holding a position of authority and respect in the community, we find out his wife has left him, his son is AWOL from college, he doesn’t understand his daughter, and he may be going insane. All of this may lead one to question whether it is really a coincidence that his outwardly “perfect” existence is falling apart. Kevin and his family are basically irreligious, though they are good friends with the local Episcopal priest. Father Matt Jamison is the face of organized religion for most of the series, an exception to the generally pathetic existence his denomination is known for. It is also astounding that he’s the best written supporting character. He proves to be a true friend to Kevin in a moment of need, allowing him to finally begin to understand the value of the Church’s sacred scriptures, something Kevin has been ignorant of for most of his life. This scene in the first season finale is incredibly moving. In reading aloud from Job, Kevin reads the declaration of an innocent, God-fearing man beset by trials sent by the Almighty. As he reads, he can only be realizing his own brokenness and wishing he could say those words and mean them. What follows is baptismal imagery and a quasi-confession of his sins to his friend the priest. Availing himself of the comfort of religion doesn’t magically solve Kevin’s problems, but it does offer the viewer a hint that perhaps this was something valuable missing from his life.
In second season of The Leftovers, Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie and son Tommy team up to free lost misguided souls from the aforementioned cult, The Guilty Remnant. The cult is not religious, though the members of individual cells resemble some sort of post-modern order of religious in their vows of silence and mode of dress. The cult aims to be a sign of contradiction in a world trying to forget recent apocalyptic occurrences. The obvious parallel is to Catholicism, maintaining a 2000 year history of steadfast witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Church He founded on earth and reigns in heaven. Though much of the world rejects Catholic principles of virtue and political governance, the Church still calls her children to reject the unbelieving liberal spirit of the age. However, perhaps a more thought-provoking parallel to the Guilty Remnant is ISIS. Beyond the atrocities and murders, ISIS exists as a rejection of secular liberalism, whether in the West or in the Middle East. How to confront ISIS is a mystery for modern liberals, just as dealing with the Guilty Remnant is puzzling to the protagonists of The Leftovers. The man who embraces a life of hardship, violence, and death as protest against an imperialism of decadent values is not someone easily dissuaded by the promise of material comfort and sexual liberation. What more can liberals do than protect freedom of speech and continue to export secular ethics along with the occasional bombing campaign?
For Laurie and Tommy, transitioning people back to “normal” everyday life after their structured cult experience turns out to be a very difficult undertaking. In a fascinating piece of dialogue, Laurie wonders why they have had so little success:
“Why are we losing?”
Her son responds:
“Because they’re giving them something. We can strip it away, but once it’s gone, we have nothing to put back in its place.”
It remains to be seen whether liberalism is actually losing. The Catholic Church’s political significance is often mystifying to those stuck viewing the world as a right / left dichotomy. ISIS may attract the odd European convert now and again, but that is hardly causing liberalism to cease being the bulwark of Western ideology. Liberalism is certainly suffering from internal strife if one goes by political discourse in the 2016 USA election cycle. Many assume the two front runners for the US presidency are a Socialist and a Fascist, respectively. While both are merely liberals who go a little further than their predecessors in populist rhetoric, there are actual Leftist & Reactionary movements slowly making headway on the peripheries.
Useful parable of resurgent illiberalism though it may be, The Leftovers has its faults as a television show. Sometimes it attempts to be too profound and piles significance on meaning until what the show is actually about is just a dizzying blur of weird symbolism. That said, my interpretation is that Kevin’s madness and the unexplained apocalyptic phenomena are more or less a MacGuffin. What kept me watching the show was the excellent character development and the parallels to our own political realities. For these moments I’ve recounted alone the whole series is really worth checking out.