The Leftovers — "Two Boats and a Helicopter"

Note: As with all TV recaps, there may be some mild 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.

You've heard the joke before, probably from a pulpit: there once was a man named Al who sat in his house watching television as the meteorologist warned that life-threatening floods were rolling in. Al flicked off the TV and went to bed.

He awoke in the middle of the night, feeling cold. Realizing the flood waters had risen so high that his house was flooded, he climbed to his roof. Still, the waters climbed. Al waited patiently.

Soon, his friend Jim came by in a rowboat, kids and wife huddled in the bow. But there was room for one more. "Hop in, Al," Jim said. "We're headed for higher ground, and we can take you with us."

"That's okay," Al said brightly. "Thanks, Jim. But God will save me. I'm waiting on him." Jim exchanged glances with his wife, then yelled, "Well, okay—good luck, buddy," and rowed on.

The waters continued to creep higher, and when they were within a foot of his gutter, another boat rowed by—this one containing the local police. "Come on," they said to Al. "Get in the boat. We're evacuating the area."

Al shook his head ruefully. "No," he said. "No, thank you, but I'm not leaving. The Lord's looking after me, and he'll save me."

The police argued with him, but it was fruitless. Al was waiting on God. So they finally shrugged and moved on.

The waters kept rising, and eventually reached all but the peak of the roof. Al was soon going to be drowned. "Save me, Lord," he said. "I'm waiting on you. My hope is in you!"

Just then, he felt a mighty rush of wind from above. Al looked up. A helicopter with a FEMA shield on the door moved toward him. The door opened and a man holding a megaphone hollered at him: "Get in the chopper! We're lowering the rope now!"

A rope ladder swung down, nearly hitting Al in the head. He looked at it, then looked up and shook his head. "No!" he yelled. The man, unable to hear him, pointed. Al looked at the rope ladder again, shook his head, then turned away and crossed his arms. "God will save me," he said to himself.

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Finally, near dawn, the waters rose too high and Al, who had never learned to swim, drowned. As his body floated lifeless on the waves, his soul rose to meet his maker. He was face to face with God.

Al was a little upset. He looked at the Lord. "You said you would save me," he said. "I believed your promises. But you didn't! What's up with that?" He crossed his arms again and waited to hear how the Almighty would reply.

God looked at Al and cocked an eyebrow. "I sent you two boats," he said. "And a helicopter. What else did you want?"

That (very American) joke, whatever its theological deficits, lends its punchline (though it's never referenced) as the title of the third episode of The Leftovers, in which the town's minister, Matt Jamison, is in the stickiest of situations. This episode focuses entirely on Rev. Jamison, though it starts to connect some of the dots between other residents of Mapleton.

The Leftovers, as I've said, is not so much a show about the Rapture as it is about the ways humans respond to tragedy. The Rev. Jamison is an interesting case (and, I think, one of the more complex portrayals of a true believer who's losing his grip that I've seen in a while). The biggest disappearances in his life (apart from his philandering brother-in-law, niece, and nephew) were directly due to the October 14 departures, but not through disappearance; rather, his beloved wife is paralyzed, nearly catatonic, because of a car accident, and his congregation has dwindled to almost nothing. He has no money. The bank has foreclosed on the church building and is about to sell it. He can't pay the woman who cares for his wife while he is at work.

Yet the Rev. Matt Jamison sustains a clear faith that the work of the Lord is worth doing—we see him sweeping his church, fixing the lightbulbs, cleaning the pulpit—and that prayer is effective. He baptizes a baby, a sign (unlike the smoking GRs) that he has faith that there is a future for God's people on earth. He visits the sick. He comes home every night and kisses his wife, a living disappearance. In tears by her side, he whispers to Jesus: "Help me."

Of course, the problem is that the disappearances are still unexplained, and that most of the suffering that people are experiencing—including Matt's—seems profoundly pointless. Matt's way of grappling is making him seem unbalanced and cruel: he seeks out stories of how some of those taken on October 14 were not, in fact, good or saved. There is the man who molested a young girl; the drug dealer; the judge who took bribes.

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In past episodes, we've seen him distributing a newsletter that details their sins, a sort of inverse of the silent, smoking, watching GR. Instead, Matt shouts it from the streetcorners.

In this episode, we get a better sense of why (and a better written character for it): Matt is no fire-breathing, Bible-thumping fearmonger. Actually, he is gentle and loving and broken. The reason he does this is because he believes that someone has to—as he tells a bouncer in a casino while investigating another case—in order to separate the guilty from the innocent who disappeared: the children, the loving, the faithful. "If we don't, all of our suffering is meaningless."

This logic doesn't quite add up, but nothing does in the post-October 14 world.

Matt is in trouble, though. He doesn't have money to save his church building, though he believes the church is still needed to baptize the young, pray for the sick, and be a community that witnesses to the Savior, dwindling though it may be.

One thing The Leftovers does impressively well is take an indisputably supernatural event—the inexplicable disappearance of a percentage of the world's population—and place it in the context of a disenchanted postmodern world: that is, one where we don't tend to collectively believe that things like miracles and mysterious acts of God actually happen. Even the most faithful of believers today like to find the scientific explanation for everything, from depression to the Star of Bethlehem.

But if something like the events of October 14 were to happen today, and a scientific or even rational explanation failed to present itself, our world would be jarred out of its disenchantment, but without the resources to cope—and if that event were to happen in a way that no religion could even consistently explain, we'd be left wholly without answers.

The answer The Leftovers seems to be advancing (or at least suggesting as one answer) is that, following materialists, these characters do live in a universe governed by random chance. But it diverges from the materialists in showing a universe where this coincides with irrational, inexplicable events normally attributed to a God.

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So basically, the universe is out to get us, but without any motive or reason behind it. That's just how it is. It's an interesting "what if," and not one that you need to believe in nor even actively reject to find both fascinating and disturbing to see played out on screen. When bad things happen, and we can't explain them (as I've experienced), we're left helpless in the face of mystery. And not in a good way.

Back to the boats and the helicopter: the episode draws its tension (and it is tense, and let's hope the show keeps heading in this direction) from Matt's attempts to draw on the lifeboats left in his path, and the universe's attempts (rocks and thieves and, well, gambling) to foil him.

But in the end, in the universe of The Leftovers, all the boats and helicopters can't save Matt or his church, because God didn't send them: they just happened to be there. In the end, you might pray for a girl in a coma who already woke up. When it comes down to it, you might miraculously survive attacks and win enough at the gambling table to pay your debts, but lose the church anyhow. You might believe in God and still lose your family. And what then?

Some notes:

  • I could have gone on at length about the parallels between what's going on here and what happens in Shusaku Endo's important novel Silence. The difference, I think, is in whether the writers think God is being silent, or whether the silence is because there's nobody there to respond.
  • And it's worth noting how many of our shows and movies are openly wondering about the silence of God today, in a venue designed for collective experience. I wonder if the church would benefit from doing the same when we encounter the same thing.
  • The pigeons are Matt's analogue to the dogs, I think—the animals are closing in on the end of human civilization. Perhaps. (Alternate theories welcomed in the comments below.)
  • This conversation is important:
    Nora: What do you believe in, Matt? Do you know where my family went? Do you know what it was?
    Matt: It was a test. Not for what came before, but what came after. It was a test for what comes now.
    Nora: Well, if it was a test, I think you may be failing it.
  • Major kudos to the writers for expanding this character so carefully. In the book, Matt is mostly a caricature, an angry priest with a vendetta. This is far better and, in many ways, more disturbing.
  • I like it, but I want to know what you think: how do you respond to this sort of self-contained episode so early in the show? (None of the other characters make more than a scene's appearance, besides a few of the GR.)

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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