‘The Leftovers’ Season 2 Is Still TV’s Most Poignant Drama
Last year, HBO and Damon Lindelof gave us possibly the toughest and most depressing show in the history of television. Based on Tom Perrotta’s book of the same name, The Leftovers took place three years after the events of a mysterious incident known as The Departure, in which three percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared. Set in the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, the first season looked at the after-effects of the global event and those left behind.
From brutal stoning deaths to horrific suicides, the first season of The Leftovers was full of violent, disturbing moments with an unending sense of grief throughout. Writing about the series, I realize how absurd it sounds for anyone to subject themselves to a show which, for its first 10 episodes, hardly let up for a moment of relief. While a handful of critics stopped watching after one horrific episode, it still maintained an audience as Lindelof further examined the uncomfortable, traumatizing depths of human bereavement and sorrow.
But Season 2 of The Leftovers, which premieres on HBO this Sunday, has drastically changed things up — just look at the new opening titles, which are vastly cheerier, for example. After the first season reached the ending of Perrotta’s book (though Perrotta remains an executive producer), Lindelof’s series is now free to further explore other, larger areas of the story. The first three episodes of the new season, which were provided in advance to press, do exactly that. The premiere goes back in time to a foreign landscape of cavewomen, which can be interpreted as the dawn of mankind, or at least pretty close to it. Then we head south to Jarden, Texas, a town with a population of 9,261 and zero departures. Nicknamed Miracle, there is something incredibly special about this town, as it’s seemingly the only area in the world where no one disappeared. But the cataclysmic event didn’t leave Miracle totally untouched — multiple residents claim to have supernatural abilities, similar to Season 1's Holy Wayne who hugged away people's pain.
Within the first 20 minutes of the Season 2 premiere you’ll likely check your channel guide to make sure you’re actually watching the right show. Nothing feels familiar, from the new setting to the new characters to, most strikingly, the completely altered tone. People are happy here. There is laughter, smiling and — wait for it — blaring upbeat EDM music, which becomes a significant theme for the next few episodes.
In Miracle, we meet the Murphys. A family that sits down to breakfast together, goes to church together (religion continues to be another major theme) and actually gets along. In one scene, Erika (Regina King) and her teenage kids Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) giggle as they try to wake up their deep-sleeping father John (Kevin Carroll). For a second The Leftovers almost feels like a feel-good family comedy. But the reason the Murphys, along with the rest of Miracle, are so jubilant is because their town was so blessed. They, unlike the Garveys or the families back in Mapleton, haven’t suffered the apocalyptic misery. Instead, they carry with them a beautiful, rejuvenated hope.
That’s part of what Season 2 does for the show’s freshman season. It injects a sense of optimism, a look towards a possible new future in place of remaining engulfed in the despondency of the past. The poster for the new season reveals this new perspective, with Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey reaching up towards Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst, her hand outstretched, but not yet touching his. Along with the tagline for this season, “Begin again,” the poster may seem like a sappy repudiation of everything Season 1 stood for. The new brighter tone may also feel like a slap in the face at first. “You’re going to make us sit through an entire season of horrific anguish only to quickly abandon it all for a more buoyant approach?” was one of my initial thoughts watching the first episode. I wondered if the feel-good positivity from Lindelof’s Tomorrowland had an influence on these episodes, or if last year’s criticism of the violence had any effect on this shift. But even as I missed the dense, dark emotionalism of Season 1 (and as I still dislike the new opening credits), I realized just how necessary and smart this reboot was, and how it became affecting in unexpected ways.
The first season exhibited the many ways people react to stark tragedy — from joining a cult vowed to silence to following a supposed savior to craving physical pain to mask their emotional anguish. Lindelof’s characters were infused with the anger and hurt of both their present and their past. It was the Departure that unlocked everyone’s dormant suffering and allowed for the catharsis that was Season 1 as a whole. But now The Leftovers looks to explore the next stages after the grieving process. (After all, we could only remain in the ultra-depressing Mapleton for so long.)
While the first episode hones in on the Murphys, setting up a contrast to everything from Season 1, the second episode catches us up with Kevin Garvey, his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), Nora, and their new baby Lily (the infant Tom Garvey left on the porch last season). The two worlds collide in the second episode, as the Garveys enter Miracle hoping to escape their past and start fresh while their new neighbors, the Murphys, experience their own devastating loss. The third episode switches the focus back to Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and her son Tom (Chris Zylka) while offering a lot to chew on regarding the Guilty Remnant and how significant or calamitous they may actually be. (Ann Dowd’s Patti returns as well, as the trailer revealed, but I won’t spoil how.)
A new mystery is set in place within the first two episodes, which becomes more of a symbol of the families’ emotional, spiritual, and mental states rather than a puzzle to be solved. Similar to last season, the series assures us that it’s not going to explain any unknowns or reveal the origins of its mysteries. If that’s what you kept watching it for, you might as well stop now. Instead, the series uses the scenarios of the disappearances and the healing powers to further examine how humans face and express their pain, anxieties, joys, and desires, and how those play into notions of faith and hope.
For that reason alone, The Leftovers remains the most powerful and poignant drama on television. It never was and never will be another Lost. While Lindelof employs elements of suspense, many of which leave the first two episodes on cliffhangers, the series reminds us that it’s doing much deeper, more personal work.
Looking back at the season’s poster you’ll notice that Kevin’s foot is tied to a rope leading downwards into the water. While this season is much more concerned with the possibility of a better future, it’s still grounded in the past. The new, cheerier opening titles may not pack the heart-wrenching punch of the old sequence and the more optimistic vantage point may not feel like the same show many came to love last year. But this new reboot has saved the series from potentially collapsing in on its own sorrow, and has also given it a longevity for possible seasons to come. For now, we can take a break from the violence and melancholia of Season 1 and start to understand the trauma within the world of The Leftovers through a more multifaceted spectrum of emotions.