I am watching it. I am compelled, and I should not be writing of this while I know so little, while so much is unexplained. But that is my life, my “subjective” reality: the unknowing. And not knowing doesn’t stop me from writing or doing my job.
I am four episodes into The Leftovers, an HBO series adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta which is set in the aftermath of a rapture-like event in which 2% of the world’s population has inexplicably disappeared. October 14th of 2011, is a 9/11-style shorthand for a mass “departure” that scientists can’t explain. This results in a social malaise that recalls P.D James’ Children Of Men. In that novel (also made into a film), the world’s population has become sterile for similarly mysterious reasons, and in the aftermath an aging (and therefore dying) population is variously depressed or psychotic. Cultists speculate that mankind is being punished; that its hubris, perhaps manifest as a privileging of science, is to blame.
In Leftovers, the focus is not so much on a failure of science as it is that of mainstream religion. Major denominations are nowhere to be seen. A baby Jesus replica is stolen and later desecrated by the acting out daughter of a local police chief of a grim, middle-American town. Baby Jesus is later returned, but significantly, the response is indifferent, and the police chief ultimately dumps the rejected figure on the side of a road. Meanwhile, cultists are represented by a group call the Guilty Remnant, a name reduced to the letters GR until episode two. This tidbit of withholding is typical of the series thus far, which parallels the air of unknowing by minimizing exposition, thus keeping viewers in the dark, and not just about the headline departure, but also about personal details. I am gripped, but optimally frustrated—the essence of suspense, I suppose. Four hours in, I am yet to understand the following: why do all the followers of GR smoke (an ironic play on ‘don’t waste your breath’?) Have the departed transformed into dogs or birds, creatures of either violence or passivity, as is also suggested? Why do the dreams of some enter those of others, as indicated by the profusion of nightmares featuring strangers and foreshadowed events? Why is the police chief estranged from his kids and his wife? It seems implicit that something happened, and whatever it was, it happened before the departure.
It’s just a story, after all: a good one that promises more about meaning; perhaps how religion, ostensibly exiled, has a defiant, parting comment on humanity. The stories of those who enter therapy are good stories also, and the details are likewise often obscured; divulgence of truth, not to mention meaning, is delayed. It is a feature of projective identification, a primitive defense yet more ubiquitous than most imagine, that individuals communicate in fragments: through play, language that is reduced to slang, idioms and inside jokes; by ‘acting out’ infused with terse revelations; by somatic displays that medicine can’t explain. Symbolic expression, via the articulate, coherent use of language, has broken down, though it may repair and unfold over time. Unpleasant emotion is dissociated, replaced by a standard of flatness and baffling obsession. When something has happened that is traumatic and not understood, life goes on, promise onlookers. It goes on with ritual, structure; with substitute things to do that mark time but also betray, in pieces, an epistemological drive.
The police chief of Leftovers loses his bagel in its inadequate incubator, and he’s not gonna take it lying down. He bemuses colleagues by not giving up on the search: for his bagels, for that baby Jesus. He finds the bagels also, eventually, through a semi-violent dissembling of machinery. They were stuck in back of the toaster, trapped in a secret passage, burnt. As the chief pulls them out, he sits back, moping over burnt food, dead…something. He is mildly relieved, having discharged energy from a nagging mystery. He is also depressed, aware that mysteries will keep coming, and that unfolding reality may yet be horrific. “Say it! Fuckin’ say it!” he later cries towards the wife who won’t speak, won’t explain. But she wants to leave him, she writes, giving an answer. It’s not enough. He pleads to know why. About everything.