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Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'Image: HBO

Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

The Guilty Remnant (or "GR," as everyone calls them) popped up within the last year, and now there are about fifty of them. They stalk everyone in the town, mostly people who are trying to get on with their lives, like Meg (Liv Tyler), who is planning a wedding but seems about to fall to pieces. When the GR stalks you, there's no violence: they just stand there, in pairs, smoking, silently watching you. "We Are Living Reminders," the poster in their bathroom reminds them.

The overarching feeling in the town is not guilt, exactly—nobody really knows whether they should feel survivor's guilt, or sinner's guilt. Without knowing if they're the lucky ones or the damned, they're stuck. The mayor wants to hold a "Remembrance Day" so that everyone can feel better and remember their "heroes"; Kevin fires back that the only reason they're calling it that is because they can't call it "we don't know what the f*** happened day."

But the GR is just as confusing; they won't speak to anyone, and are increasingly driving everyone mad. "Where did they come from?" asks Kevin, desperation and fury in his voice. "What do they want?" Meanwhile, Holy Wayne is quite clear about what he thinks is happening: the three years' grace period is up, and now it's time to get to work, he tells Tom. (Those who've read the novel have a sense of what's coming next, but it's still ghoulishly, terrifyingly chilling.)

This whole pilot is well-directed and wound tight, ready to pop—"Nobody's ready to feel better. They're ready to f***ing explode," as Kevin puts it—such that it's a relief when the guns start to go off at the end of the episode.

'The Leftovers'Image: HBO

'The Leftovers'

So The Leftovers is about people dealing with the fallout of an inexplicable tragedy. But to say that out loud is to hint at what really lies at the heart of this show. The choice of a "Rapture" is merely a plot placeholder. It's a sort of science-fiction choice that stands in for something more real, something that haunts us nearly every day: how do we cope when bad things happen for no reason? What do we do when despite our best efforts, our most sincerely held beliefs, we can't figure out why God, or the Universe, or whatever seems to have done things that defy goodness and logic?

Locked into the center of the episode is a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, the German philosopher. At the end of his seminal Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein—having spent the whole book trying to identify the relationship between language and reality—finally ends with a single aphorism before he falls silent: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

That quotation quietly surfaces in the middle of the episode, in the middle of other voiceovers, a cacophany of commentary mostly mediated through the radio and TV. That constant chatter that tries to make sense of tragedy can only happen in a world like ours, with a 24-7 void that needs to be filled with media commentary, with talk, with endless voices.

To turn on the television today after any confusing tragedy—say, a senseless school shooting or a hurricane or a terrorist attack—is to be driven almost mad by the constant hashing and rehashing of theories and "what we know" and angles and commentary, commentary, commentary. (One can hardly imagine that emotional moment of silence in Walter Cronkite's broadcast after the assassination of John F. Kennedy ever happening again.)

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.
Previous Watch This Way Columns:
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