Episode 10: "The Prodigal Son Returns"

Note: As with all TV recaps, there are 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.

Earlier this summer, we ran a review by Jack Cuidon of Snowpiercer, in which he pointed out that most movies dealing with the apocalypse ask a simple question: “Are we worth saving?” In other words: when the end is near, does humanity deserve to keep existing?

It's a question that's been asked since the earliest days of man, one that seems implicit in the stories as far back as Noah's. It's asked again with Sodom and Gomorrah, and it crops up over and over. If mankind is wicked, why keep them around?

The line between apocalyptic and dystopian in part is drawn by the answer to that question. Hunger Games is dystopian, and seems to imply, in the end, that it would serve humans right if they got wiped out. A story like The Road (and perhaps against its author’s will) implies that it is the small acts of human kindness that make us worth preserving; the fact that we’re capable of loving and caring for one another means we deserve to go on as a species, even after the social order has been wiped out. Even after the rules and structures that keep the barbarians at the gates from entering have disappeared.

Even after the barbarians that reside in us have taken over.

The season finale of The Leftovers wanders tenuously down this line betwen apocalyptic and dystopian, and never comes to a definite conclusion. That’s in keeping with the series as a whole. Now that the first season is over, I find myself both appreciating its ambition and a little exhausted by its attempts to be profound without constructing a coherent mythology (or withholding its mythology in a way that feels disappointing). It keeps hinting that something is going on cosmically, but thwarting us every time it gets close.

Which is annoying mostly because something is obviously going on beyond the people on earth. Obviously something big and unexplainable happened: that’s the setup. But I don’t know if the show knows if it was some kind of quantumphysical blip or if a Force or Being or even God took them.

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In the case of the novel—which I think is ultimately far less successful than the show—the disappearances are never explained, but it also never tries to make us wonder at the reason. It simply moves on, without all this Kevin-is-maybe-a-prophet, Wayne-might-be-for-real, National Geographic nonsense. The novel focuses on people responding to grief, which is kind of an okay thing to do (certainly Broadchurch does the same, but to much better effect). I wonder if The Leftovers is doing too much for what it has available to it as a ten-episode season HBO show.

In any case: the finale takes place immediately after the events of episode 8, and it asks, urgently, that question: is this apocalypse (which promises a renewed order) or dystopia (which promises ultimate destruction)? Is the Leftovers universe one in which humans are worth saving, or one in which they deserve to be wiped out?

On the side of apocalypse: there is the man from the bus with “Grace Church” on the side, who travels around the country apparently asking people if they need help. But immediately after, there is Christine, abandoning her child. But then there is Tom, saving the baby girl . . . and then possibly leaving her.

There is Kevin refusing to kill Patti, but he is the same Kevin who, unconsciously, tried to kill her. But this same Kevin wants justice and right treatment for everyone, even those he personally hates; this same Kevin wants to save his family. But this same Kevin was sleeping with a stranger, who wanted to leave his family, right before the disappearances happened.

There is Wayne lying and manipulating, but also Wayne, alone and helpless, unsure of whether he was real or not. He is a Wayne who wanted to take people’s pain by hugging them. He is a Wayne who wants to grant Kevin a wish.

There is Nora, full of humor and even love, who is lost and adrift. She too wanted out; she too got her wish, and repented.

There’s the Patti who led the GR, who masterminded their horrible stunt, but who did it because, in some part, she was abused and neglected, and she didn’t want people to forget those who actually loved them.

There is a Laurie who, whatever her beliefs, stands firm for them, willing to do the difficult things in order to do what is (she thinks) right—but the same Laurie abandoned her family and is willing to lead a group of people in doing heinous things. The same Laurie who nearly got her daughter killed.

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And there is the GR as a whole: broken, grief-stricken people who have chosen a difficult path to—judging from their name—atone for their sins on earth.

I suppose it is telling that the only two characters who seem to keep turning up completely blameless in this show are Tom and Matt, both of whom have been apparently abandoned by their respective deities, and both of whom keep soldiering on - perhaps showing the show's hand. Tom, who is willing to spend his life to protect a woman who doesn’t love him and a child who is not his, who belongs to a man who deceived and betrayed him. (Of course, he may have learned that self-sacrifice from Kevin, who is not his biological father, either.)

And Matt, who despite having nearly every reason to believe he’s been abandoned by God, seems to persist in trying to serve him, or at least serve others. This is, for me, the most startling part of The Leftovers: the portrayal of a clergyman stripped of his ministry who—not always well, but with some kind of intention—is a real friend, a repentant brother, a good neighbor. And let’s not forget that Matt got, well . . . left behind.

But he seems to believe still, the persecuted prophet, and the passage he has Kevin read at Patti’s graveside shows that (they’re reading Job 23:8-17 from the NIV, by the way):

But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.

When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

My feet have closely followed his steps;
I have kept to his way without turning aside.

I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

But he stands alone, and who can oppose him?
He does whatever he pleases.

He carries out his decree against me,
and many such plans he still has in store.

That is why I am terrified before him;
when I think of all this, I fear him.

God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me.

Yet I am not silenced by the darkness,
by the thick darkness that covers my face.

Kevin looks up at Matt with tears, a move I first interpreted as him hearing echoes of his own experience in the passage—and so it might be. But I think now that it’s certainly Matt letting his own story come from Kevin’s lips. Matt is the one who has not departed from the commands, the one who has treasured the words of his mouth. Kevin knows this, as he tells Matt in the diner; he knows (or thinks he does) why he got left. But Matt remains, steadfastly. (At least for now.)

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So anyhow: this episode covers a day of apocalypse. The tribulation, in some sense, has begun. Wayne is dead, just another guy who thought he was god. The thin structs of civility that have been sustaining Mapleton to this point are gone, and people are openly hostile toward one another. And, importantly, this tribulation is not a judgement visited from on high, or not explicitly; no bolts of fire came down, no curtains were rent or chasms opened in the earth.

Rather, the Guilty Remnant quite purposefully brought it on themselves, willingly, gladly. This is a man-centered tribulation, an anthropocentric apocalypse. And the people took the bait. Do they deserve to be saved?

One might assume this is dystopia, and that the second season of The Leftovers will bring us more of this. The barbarians are at the gates, and it turns out . . . it’s just us.

But then.

Some clues: first, the wild dog that lacked all civility walks up to Kevin and Jill, suddenly tame, no longer wild (a mirror to the pilot), willing to be led by the leash, as dogs are wont to do because of training and civilization. Laurie, about to do something rash, is approached by her son. And Nora, about to abandon town and those she loves, finds a baby.

Did Kevin wish for his family to come back together? Did Wayne grant that wish?

Do they, and we, deserve to survive?

Other Notes:

  • It is, of course, possible that the answer to my annoyances will reveal itself upon further pondering. I hold all opinions lightly. What do you think? (Comments enabled below.)
  • See you next season.
  • And watch this space in October, when I’ll start recapping Gracepoint, the American remake of the BBC show Broadchurch, which has profound questions about the nature of innocence, evil, and sin both individual and corporate. (For some preliminary thoughts on that, see my post from last week.)

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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