The Leftovers Season One: The Inferno

By Lukas Wilhelmi

We have to start in hell. That’s where The Leftovers begins; that is where I watch it for the first time. I am self-quarantined. The universe is grieving. On TV and on my TV, where two percent of people have vanished in Mapleton and around the world. Coincidentally, two percent is the pandemic mortality statistic we are reckoning with right now.

And yet, there is a difference. The ones who left their Leftovers all left at the same time. Which does two things: It creates one of the most existential openings of a TV show ever, and it separates me from the show. Our lived experience is a slow departure, not a sudden one.

One could argue our life in Trump Hell is no departure at all. It is a never ending cycle of idiocy, with an enabling media and failing institutions, grown in the fertile soil of the master narrative of American Exceptionalism, which promotes hope as an anesthetic and makes low expectations the norm.

But the main reason America can’t reckon with all this madness is that its resources for tragedy are all used up. There were needed in Waco, in Oklahoma City, in Columbine, on 9/11, in New Orleans, at Sandy Hook, in Ferguson, in Parkland, in Puerto Rico, in Las Vegas. And with all that pain what was ritual became the routine. The balloons, the parades, the salutes, the plastic doves, minutes of silence, cable news, national anthems, pins, statues and speeches. #neverforget #Mapletonstrong and, of course: #thoughtsandprayers, and routine is empty and emptiness is hell.

Which brings us back to The Leftovers. It is a hugely ambitious attempt at being a classic. It is a classic. The intro already brags with hubris. All that trauma needs the counterweight of biblical pathos. To lift us and everything out of years of numbness and cheap narratives. The Leftover text is everything *but* a tweet. Its not short, it isn’t looking for polemic answers and it definitely doesn’t fit in 280 characters.
It’s the gesture itself that becomes the message. The size of the canvas alone tells us how serious everything is. It’s fucked up. And just by saying that out loud and unashamed the show is already a form of therapy. It’s the opposite of gaslighting. It is an alarm clock to our slumber of apathy. We woke up to madness. No, you are right, the show says, this is really the apocalypse. This doesn’t make sense. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to grieve. It is okay not to have answers. Its not okay but its okay its not okay. 

But! Grief wants answers. Nothing but answers. In The Leftovers the apocalypse sets the stakes and the grief creates the conflict. Grief as an infinite conundrum. We seek a replacement for the ones gone, yet our loss itself removes us further from others, the world. Because we mourn different things and in different ways. The void can't be filled and every try is another step away from those who suffer as well.

The collective attempts to grieve are the usual collective experiences, that try to establish connectivity through a bland vocabulary of symbols. Grief in America and therefore in The Leftovers is a state of mind and an aggressor alike. Thoughts and Prayers. Those who are not allowed to grieve in their way and rhythm are choosing the role of the villain. Laurie (Amy Brenneman) can’t mourn her terminated pregnancy, Meg (Liv Tyler) her regular deceased mother and the depressed Patti (Ann Dowd) never found a way to grieve before 10/14. So she finally thrives in the apocalypse. In an America where the church has lost all its power, she found her comfort-zone. She fills the vacuum for all those that have given up on the oldest story. Those who can’t pretend anymore that the old narratives are of any use.

And yet, the need for narratives, for meaning, for stories is infinite. Grief wants answers. Answers create routines. They are helpful for some. The cheesy, cringe-worthy statue from the pilot turns ultimately into an image of hope.

"Context is everything" is one of the best one-liners of Season 1. For some these traditions are harassment. And they react with counter-violence. And so, in the end, when the world is burning, this time literally, Mary aka Nora (Carrie Coon) preaches: "I want to believe it can all go back to the way it was, I want to believe I'm not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization, I want to believe it's still possible to get close to someone." The violins cry. The show is never ashamed of its exuberance. It uses it to communicate understanding. Yes, this is the apocalypse. Yes, we can’t go outside or people will die. Yes, Trump is still president and has – after everything – a real shot at re-election. Yes, it was rough, is rough, will be rough. Yes, we are grieving. Even for America this isn’t routine. It’s time to accept that, with violins and pathos. Do you what you must to feel it. You can pay a hooker to shoot you. You can make imaginary friends, you can fuck around or lock yourself in an old freezer. You can grieve however you like, just don’t fall back into your routines of numbness.



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