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Penguins, Trees, and Tragedies
Image: HBO
Liv Tyler in 'The Leftovers'

Note: As with all TV recaps, there may be some spoilers below for those who did not watch the episode. If you're only looking for a content advisory, I'll tell you: this HBO show, were it a movie, would be rated R for language, violence, sexual content, and thematic material, but it changes from week to week. The first commentary carried a Caveat Spectator, so you can check that out.

I lost my father to an aggressive leukemia nearly eight years ago, less than a week before my wedding. I was 22. He was 47.

And that still makes no sense to me.

I know all the ways to explain what happened eight years ago, and even why. But no matter. It doesn't—it truly doesnot—make sense.

My faith is supposed to sustain me through tragedy. I always (unwittingly) took that to mean that it was supposed to cheer me up and help me feel less angry and upset about it.

It took a long time for me to understand that faith also demands I speak and bear witness to the tragedy of human life, to the balance between hope and doubt. To brush past tragedy is to degrade faith: the assurance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. Failing to acknowledge tragedy for what it is—tragic—is a way to deny that all things will be set right in the end, but they are not right, not now.

Paterson Joseph and Annie Q. in 'The Leftovers'Image: HBO

Paterson Joseph and Annie Q. in 'The Leftovers'

Everyone responds to loss differently. I responded by locking myself up inside for a long time, sure that to doubt or complain was wrong, needing to be strong for others. Others respond by acting out, or self-destructing, or slipping into deep depression, or even madness.

I continue to learn how to properly experience and understand tragedy through art—movies like Krzystof Kieslowski's Blue that left me longing for the world to come; books like Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin that challenged how I thought about light and darkness, hope and sacrifice; poetry, like Anna Kamienska's, that let me doubt and believe at once. Mahler's symphonies. Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion.

The Leftovers might also wind up on that list, in some capacity. As I mentioned in my commentary on the pilot episode, what's important to keep in mind about The Leftovers is that it is not really a post-Rapture show. I persist in thinking of The Leftovers as a religious show, in the way that True Detective and The Americans (and many more) are religious shows.

They are interested in entertaining us, which is a good thing to do. But they have ambitions that surpass entertainment—with artistic integrity, they explore matters of ultimate concern that extend beyond humans on earth. This is what makes them religious. These aren't merely character studies: they're explorations of things too mysterious for human understanding, though that doesn't keep us from trying.

If The Americans is about what commands our loyalty and shapes our identity, and True Detective wants to know whether evil is a real force or just something we invent, then The Leftovers is about how we respond to loss when we can't explain it in rational terms. Tellingly, the words we use to talk about sudden, inexplicable loss deal in the transcendent: "act of God," or "senseless tragedy" (which is to say, not conforming to human reason).

The Leftovers uses its Rapture-like disappearance as the backdrop from which modern man's various responses to loss fan out across the spectrum. This second episode ("Penguin One, Us Zero") took that full range seriously.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Penguins, Trees, and Tragedies