We Are the Chosen, And We Are Not Spared: Making Sense of Season Two of The Leftovers

In an effort to keep his show alive, Damon Lindelof and company are doing a […]


In an effort to keep his show alive, Damon Lindelof and company are doing a lot of interviews after the finale of their mindblowing second season. This is a good thing, because nearly everyone I have talked to who’s been (ravenously) watching The Leftovers is desperate for more details. (That doesn’t mean the show is doing all that well, ratings-wise. In fact, no one is watching it.) The show has kept a lot of boxes buried in the woods, if you know what I mean. It has kept a lot of reasons carefully undefined.

This is frustrating for viewers, but it really shouldn’t be. Obscurity is The Leftovers’ starting point. In an interview with HitFix this week, Lindelof explains his reticence to talk about the missing links and “magical” elements of the show, mainly because The Leftovers’ world is first defined by an utterly unexplainable event.

It’s interesting to me that people watch “The Leftovers” and they don’t want it to be magical. They want the Departure to have happened and everything else to be entirely grounded in reality. I embrace that presentation. But I also feel like, the rule that we’ve set for ourselves as storytellers, more or less, is that if 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared, 2 percent of the show should be magical, and the other 98 percent should be grounded.

Touché. I’d say he hit the 2% quota, no matter what your magic rubric is. Which is why this show is so difficult to write about, much more an entire season’s weird-ass happenings. It’s not like many of the grounded family dramas we’ve come to love—Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, Breaking Bad—it has a lot of plotline in the ether, something that is quick to turn some viewers off. Nonetheless, The Leftovers is the best show I’ve watched since Breaking Bad, regardless of my inability to understand it, and perhaps because of it. I’ve tried to pare down a few of the thematic signposts that I think make us—those of us who have watched it—love it. And I hope it makes you get your friends to watch, too, because a few GR costumes outside the HBO headquarters probably isn’t enough to get it a third season. Hat tip to fellow watchers CTP and GP for the help. Oh, and spoilers! 


1) Faith versus Reason(s). One of the recurring images of this season was the handprint. The “real deal” Isaac, who, in Episode 9 we find to be Meg’s “real deal,” uses primary color preschool paint to tell John’s (not so good) fortune. John can’t handle the bad news, and burns Isaac’s operation down. The other handprints are taken as evidence in the case to find the missing girls. Kevin’s handprint is proof that he was there at the river where the girls’ car was left. These two ‘handprints’—fortune-telling and evidence, magic and proof—are like two realms that Lindelof and Perrotta are keen on keeping divided.

This is the tension we see between Jarden’s troop of cultic characters and John—John who is so adamant that nothing is happening in Jarden that cannot be explained, and each of Jarden’s tourist attractions; Pillar Man, Goat Man, Wedding Dress Woman. It is finally the tension that resolves between John and Kevin—because Kevin, who should be dead, is still alive. As John tends to Kevin’s wound, there is a glimmer of relief in his teary admission of confusion: “I don’t know what’s happening.” All his attempts to confine his life to causal proof evades him. There’s simply no explanation. This moment of surrender seems like a turning moment of repentance for John. As Justin Theroux, the actor who plays Kevin Garvey, explains,

Well that scene was, I think for me, about forgiveness, and I think for him, it was being forgiven. And also the admission that he doesn’t understand anything. He said, I think, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” That’s the first time he’s ever been on the back foot in any situation. He’s so forward-leaning throughout the season, so proactive about burning guys’ houses down. The only person who can absolve him or at least forgive him for shooting Kevin is Kevin.

It is the same tension we find in The Rev. Matt Jameson, the show’s resident Episcopal priest, who has left his wife Mary to the care of his sister, so that she can stay in Miracle. He would leave his wife if it meant her getting better.


In this world, though, faith is existential. Amid the liars and false prophets (hugging Tommy and the Miracle street vendors), the people who “believe” on the show believe because they’ve experienced something miraculous. Matt only believes Mary should stay because he saw her wake up. Kevin is only willing to die because someone “told him everything he ever did” (John 4:29). At the same time, the show continually braces for our inner confirmation bias, that we always look for proof before belief, and we tend to construct the stories we want to believe. As Lindelof says in the interview, “One person’s magical thinking is another person’s cynicism.” Faith seems to happen to us.

2) I believe it is an AA axiom, that “hurt people hurt people.” Season Two does a lot of archaeology into the pasts of some of our hardened characters. We know Patti Levin was damaged goods, and so is Meg, and so is Tommy—and so is Evie Murphy, for that matter. It is easy to look at the movement known as the “Guilty Remnant” in light of some collective retributive anger at the Departure—and Meg’s flavor of it certainly ups the ante. Fake grenades in schoolbuses, Airstreams with explosives. This is not just reminding people, it is terrifying them into submission.

At the same time there seems to be an evasion of “remembering” when it comes to the personal lives of the GR. Patti’s political alter-ego doesn’t want to talk about her ex-husband. Meg doesn’t like how close to bone Isaac got. Last season, Laurie ditched Jill’s lighter. For a group so intent on “remembering” what was lost on the 14th, there is also an increasing religious fervor in detaching themselves from human love. I am reminded of that creepy exchange between Meg and Tommy; Tommy says, “There is no family,” and Meg whispers back, “You’re wrong…Family is everything.” There’s a vengeful air to those words. And remember Kevin’s words to Patti? “You want to destroy families.”

In the interview, Lindelof points out how he was reminded of ISIS in the making of Meg’s new incarnation of the GR—how something so threatening and heartless-seeming, comes from a very real place of deep woundedness.


3) Which brings me to these other recurring elements of abandonment and isolation, as well as the odd perseverance of family. The season begins with that bizarro primal cavewoman scene—the cave that fell in on her family, the snakebite that sealed her fate, and her abandoned child who was picked up by a new mother. Obviously, Kevin and Nora have picked this primal story up with Holy Wayne’s baby.

In Kevin’s Hotel du Death in Ep. 9, “Patti” tells Kevin about the campaign trail, how a baby was dropped off in her arms, and how she immediately dropped him into an orphanage. She describes the issues the child will have, presumably like her own, and how the baby will be stronger for it. This, we are to gather, is the foundational promise of the GR—leave, detach, you will be stronger for it.

All the while, Kevin and Nora are seeking the stability and comfort of a “home” that might actually last. It seems that family is what they know they need. Nora doesn’t just want to move to Jarden to be near Matt; she needs the safety it promises. And in the last episode, when her adopted child is taken (“This isn’t your baby!”) and left for dead on the bridge, we see the intended distinction between us and the GR—the primal urge to love another human, to be a family.

Despite the urge to be a family, it still isn’t like it should be. Kevin’s story (and the season’s) comes full circle with the cavewoman’s, as he returns to his cave after one last earthquake, his entire family—ex-wife, new wife, adopted son, daughter, in-laws—inside waiting for him. It may be a hopeful end, but it’s no less strange.

4) Finally, what to make of Miracle, Texas and miracles that (don’t) happen there? What to make of Kevin, the unkillable hero? Whether you’re an advocate for the supernatural in this show or not, Lindelhof and Perrotta definitely want you to see what you yourself are making of these occurrences. He isn’t giving any clean answers in these departments, but you might be giving some to yourself, and he wants you to pay attention to that.


In any event, Jarden goes from Nazareth to National Park in a matter of months. Whether it was lucky, or it was blessed, the show seems to zero in our human inclination for religion-making projects (and sloganeering). As soon as Jarden becomes a destination, its residents begin exploiting their good fortune for profit. They begin to see themselves as the 9261 Who Are Spared.

But it doesn’t work that way. The Miracle that put Jarden on the map did not save Jarden from itself, as young Michael Murphy preaches impromptu from the pulpit on the last Sunday. He describes the suffering that has come and will continue to come as a result of being human, of having the innate capacity for harm. Jarden is still Jarden and, in a way, the GR’s assault on Miracle is the same reality check that Michael is giving from the pulpit. All have fallen short, and now there’s (hopefully) no need to pretend otherwise. (Meg and Evie’s two-part harmony of the town song is terrifying, isn’t it?)

At the same time, and this is where I’ll close, the moments of true-to-God miracles continue happening just as inexplicably. Garvey is on his third life. Mary is awake, and pregnant. Birds are living in boxes under the ground, for crying out loud! In the world of The Leftovers, there seems to be an obstinance to your handle on Miracle, and an equal obstinance to your denial of it. It’s amazing that a show could deliver that kind of world without handing you the answers. It instead asks you what you believe.

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5 responses to “We Are the Chosen, And We Are Not Spared: Making Sense of Season Two of The Leftovers

  1. David Zahl says:

    What a great review of a great season of television. Thank you, Ethan. The way this show has skirted the line between the natural and supernatural, the real and surreal–stretching the audience without ever losing them–has been nothing short of breathtaking. It’s as though Lindelof is finally achieving what he was grasping for in LOST. Hoping and praying for, well, a miracle from HBO re: a third season.

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks for this. I appreciate your thoughts on what I agree is probably the best unwatched show on TV. I think you are right about the emphasis on belief over answers. The show, like the Departure itself, becomes a Rorschach for the viewer/experiencer’s spiritual imagination. I dabbled in a review of the season finale over here ( For me, the unknowing has become the main character of the show.

  3. Charlotte Getz says:

    Hubs and I JUST finished the show (which we started because of the mbird thumbs up). INCREDIBLE. However, I wish we’d immediately read this article after we finished – the show inspired some of our most heated discussions ever, all about the things you’re talking about here 🙂 So many questions. Also, Lily on the bridge – just like Wayne said…the baby will be the bridge. Ahhhh.

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