Margaret Qualley, Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Carrie Coon, and Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'
Image: Van Redin / HBO

Margaret Qualley, Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Carrie Coon, and Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

“Is anything more certain than that in in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”

These sentences—which C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of Joy Davidman, his wife—might just as easily have come from most characters in The Leftovers, the HBO drama (co-created by Lost creator Damon Lindelof) which premieres its second season on HBO on October 4. But their loss, it turns out, is only the beginning of the story.

The show's first season told the story of a group of characters in Mapleton, New York several years after “the disappearance,” a still-unexplained Rapture-like event in which about two percent of the world's population suddenly just vanished—children and adults, religious and atheist, sinful and saintly. But because the event corresponded to no set of beliefs belonging to an organized religion (some of the most believing and righteous were, well, left behind), the world was left without an explanation.

Watching the first season, I realized that this was not really a show about the Rapture or organized religious practice. Rather, it's a show about grief, and the way people respond to it: self-destruction, denial, depression, guilt, fear, and just plain going off the deep end. The way characters talked about their departed loved ones reminded me of the way I hear people talk about those they lost in 9/11—they were here, they say, and then suddenly they weren't.

Even someone like me, who professes belief every week in the final resurrection, has to admit that the logic of a loved one's death is pretty hard to turn up. Actually, I think anyone who's experienced the death of someone they loved knows the feeling—the gap that's suddenly there, the total illogicality of it. When my father died at 47, all of a sudden, too fast for me to even be present, I felt not so much like he'd gone into the next life as that he'd just disappeared, an empty seat at the table at Christmas, nobody to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, just gone.

The writer Joan Didion chronicled her own grief after her husband died in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, which opens with these words, the first words she wrote after his death:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

Article continues below

The question of self-pity. Do you go on? Is it selfish to do so?

Nora Durst, one of the main characters in The Leftovers, struggles desperately with this question after the departure of her cheating husband and her two small children. Her kitchen—the site of their departure—had remained untouched. Jill Garvey, Laurie and Kevin Garvey's daughter, goes even further, telling her brother Tom that she's happy, and that the whole family's happy, a move that feels almost like a betrayal.

The Garvey family, who all remained intact after the disappearance, had been splintered apart by the voluntary departure of Laurie for the Guilty Remnant (a cult of people who dress in white, smoke like chimneys, stay silent, and are a ghostly reminder to everyone else that they ought not move on with their lives) and son Tom for Wayne's cult of healing. Jill, the teenage daughter, is consumed by numb depression; Kevin, father and chief of police, fears he's going nuts. While they haven't experienced departure, they sure have had departures—and that serves to underline that it's grief, not Rapture, that this show explores.

And yet there is more to grief than the numbness and misery. The second season of The Leftovers seems poised to plumb the depths of what happens when we try to move on.

The season's premiere takes us to Jarden, Texas—a clear reference to the Garden of Eden—which wasn't touched at all by the disappearances, or at least they claim they weren't. Loudly. It's on their signs, in their lore, in the gospel-sounding songs they sing. Jarden lies within Miracle National Park, and though we haven't been clued in yet to what makes the Park special besides the lack of disappearance, the premiere's prologue (a weird segment of beauty and terror) suggests there's more than the present-day residents understand.

Kevin Carroll and Darius McCrary in 'The Leftovers'
Image: Van Redin / HBO

Kevin Carroll and Darius McCrary in 'The Leftovers'

Their bravado has taken on a very particular sort of religious fervor. In addition to their gospel-like songs, they hang banners in their church emblazoned with Ecclesiastes 39:22 (“His blessing covered the dry land as a river, and watered it as a flood”) and Acts 8:38 (“And they both went down into the water and he baptized them”). The process through which they invite outsiders into their town has at least a tinge of xenophobia to it, and their obsession with the park's spring is higher than you'd expect. And then there's the vigilante justice.

Article continues below

In the premiere, we meet a new family: the Murphys, who also haven't experienced any departures, being residents of Jarden—though it turns out that John, the father, has had time away from the family in another way—and who mirror the Garveys in composition: father, mother, two teenagers. But near the end of the episode, we catch sight of the Garveys (now composed of Kevin, Nora, Jill, and the baby Tom deposited on their doorstep in the season finale), who picked up and moved to Jarden on a bit of a whim, as did Nora's brother Matt—the pastor of the church in Mapleton—and his catatonic wife. Turns out the Garveys are moving in next door to the Murphys.

Jarden is not your average town. There are pilgrims clogging the highway. There's a market where you can buy water from the Miracle National Park springs. There's a guy who looks exactly like an Old Testament prophet living on a platform on top of a post, and apparently nobody minds.

The show does an excellent job of creating the world of Jarden in a hurry, and then in episodes two and three, we re-loop back on characters from the first season—Kevin, Nora, Tom, and especially Laurie, who left the Guilty Remnant and is working as a counselor to help others leave, though she and Tom vitally realize what's missing.

We also get whiffs of what's coming in the next part of the show. That's because grief doesn't end with grief. If you've been through grief over a loss, you know: grief brings fear. Elsewhere in A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief is like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

That fear is stamped all over these first few episodes. For instance, we pan briefly past an office full of people selling selling “departure insurance,” which people can buy in order to protect their families in the case of some future departure event.

Hang on. Departure can happen again?

Yes, and when a team of MIT researchers buy Nora's home to study its geography as a site of several departures, you can see the fear sweep across her face at that realization. In fact, the entire town of Jarden lives in either a state of fear of this, or bravado.

Carrie Coon in 'The Leftovers'
Image: Van Redin / HBO

Carrie Coon in 'The Leftovers'

When something bad happens to you unexpectedly—an illness, a death in the family, assault, theft, it doesn't matter—you're suddenly aware that something horrible can strike at any moment. Reading accounts from the families of victims of mass shootings (the all-too-familiar accounts, nowadays), you see the same response: Nobody thought it could happen here. We had no idea. We thought we were safe.

Article continues below

In the final paragraph of his article about the new season, the New York Times' James Poniewozik wrote this:

There is religion all over “The Leftovers,” from cults to mainstream Christian denominations, though the series itself has no consistent religious position. But in its willingness to sit with these questions, it makes a strong case for being the most spiritual drama on television. That this lovely, melancholy exploration of loss was able to find a place on secular TV, hone its technique and return stronger, is, itself, a minor miracle.

Perhaps what's most remarkable is that this season of The Leftovers is even more willing to range across the responses to not just grief, now, but fear of the future. Two of the most important questions religion seeks to answer are these: Where did we come from? And where are we going? In a way that's unlike any other show on television, the events of The Leftovers force every character to confront those questions. There's no way to sidestep them.

And it turns out, it seems, that the ways we cope with fear are just as varied—and just as “religious,” no matter who we are—as the ways we cope with grief. “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer,” wrote C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed. “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

Perhaps that's the most remarkable thing about The Leftovers. It's true: the “Rapture” in question is not a religious rapture. It bears no resemblance except in its suddenness to anything foretold in anyone's prophecy, and certainly isn't anything you might read in a Left Behind book. But in some ways, the show is more powerful for it, because in exploring the full range of human response to unexplained loss, it subtly goads each character into asking big religious questions with difficult answers.

Caveat Spectator

The Leftovers, were it a movie, would be rated R for nudity, language, and adult situations. In the first few episodes of the second season, we see a fair bit of nudity (both male and female), some of it sexual, most of it not. The world in which these characters live is violent and sometimes shocking. Their language is coarse at times. There is a scene of relatively realistic sex in one of the episodes. The feeling of dread is palpable.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.