THE LEFTOVERS, 2.1 – ‘Axis Mundi’

All together now
5 out of 5 stars

The first season of HBO fantasy drama The Leftovers was a hit with critics, but audiences were less receptive. It’s easy to see why, because this is a show with a tantalising hook (that 2% of the world’s population inexplicably, instantaneously vanished), but isn’t offering answers to that mystery. It just wants to explore the myriad ways ordinary folk would react to such an extraordinary event; which means a lot of the drama revolves around serious themes of loss, regret, grief, guilt, and loneliness.

The Leftovers was unfairly criticised for being ‘misery porn’ in some quarters, and I’ll admit to finding season 1 a difficult year to get through; but it was also a fascinating, realistic look at societal changes and tragic human behaviour. Some of last year’s best drama happened during The Leftovers’ debut season, so it’s unfortunate the grim tone and downbeat subject matter has become an unassailable barrier for so many.

It was also a show that didn’t strike me as something that could run for years, as the source material (Daniel Perrotta’s acclaimed 2011 novel) had already been exhausted after ten hours. But here comes season 2, and with it an unexpected but welcome change of location, plus a freshening up of the main cast. Indeed, we don’t see a familiar face until halfway through “Axis Mundi”, as much of the premiere’s focus is on a new family living in Jarden, Texas—rebranded ‘Miracle, Texas’ because it experienced zero ‘Departures’ and thus retained its population of 9,261 people.

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Our new patriarch is John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), a volunteer fireman living with his hearing-impaired wife Erika (Regina King), epileptic teenage daughter Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and son Michael (Jovan Adepo). Or is John actually our new antagonist? There are already some troubling signs that John’s not entirely trustworthy, or isn’t as well adjusted as the figure he presents to the community. By the end of this opener, we’re already aware that he’s served time in prison for attempted murder and in one shocking sequence he burns down the home of Isaac (Darius McCrary), a childhood friend who claims to have developed special powers and is now giving palm readings to believers.

Skepticism is fine, but why does John take criminal action against an old friend who isn’t really harming anyone? And what’s the symbolism to John’s thwarted attempts to locate a chirruping cricket trapped somewhere in his house? He seems like a very troubled man, seemingly blessed by the happenstance of living in the world’s luckiest town (which is now a beacon for tourists, who buy souvenir vials of water from its local lake), but whose good fortune hasn’t rid him of some demons. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what makes John tick this season, and what his mysterious past is all about.

I can’t go much further without quickly championing the excellent prologue, which in typical Damon Lindelof fashion started the new season in a completely unpredictable way. Set thousands of years ago, it was essentially a short film about a pregnant cave woman living in prehistoric Texas, who became separated from her tribe after an earthquake sealed them inside a cave of fallen rocks. Having given birth to her baby, alone, we witnessed the immediate difficulties she faced by herself in a hostile, unforgiving land. A land where simply getting bitten by a snake is a death sentence because there’s no medicines, and the fate of her orphaned baby looked incredibly bleak. Notably, for a show criticised last year for being rather depressing, I appreciated the moment of hope after the cave woman had died, with another woman chancing upon her baby and adopting it.

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The whole prologue was a clever reminder that, while the nature of the mass disappearances at the heart of The Leftovers is incredibly fanciful and extreme, people have gone through the same basic emotions for centuries. Like so many characters on this show, the cave woman experienced a sudden and traumatic loss of everyone she knew (and by the same cruel hand of God, to her mind) and spent the rest of her life dealing with this separation to an ultimately depressing end. The people in the modern-day situation have a lot more support around them, but the departures are no less unfathomable and the repercussions just as tough in their own way.

But back to the meat of this episode’s story, and the clever thing about The Leftovers is the concept is proving to be incredible elastic. We’re now in a town that hasn’t experienced any departures, so thinks should theoretically be a lot more upbeat and business-as-usual for the townsfolk, but just being ‘the lucky ones’ brings its own unique experiences and weirdness. The way the town has become a Mecca for grieving people, who are regularly bussed into the centre of town to buy mementos, gives the whole place a peculiar feeling. The people of Jarden are blessed, but have also become a spectacle and defined by the fact that—well—nothing happened to them.

It was very brave of writers Damon Lindelof and Jacqueline Hoyt to spend so much time with a new family, in a new town, before gradually bringing in some familiar faces. First up was Reverend Matt Jameson (Christopher Eccleston), who’s been spreading the good world in Brazil with his paralysed wife Mary (Janel Moloney), but has arrived in Jarden as relief cover for the local church while the town’s reverend undergoes a hip replacement. Much later, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is seen moving into town from Mapleton, New York, with his new girlfriend Nora (Carrie Coon), daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and their black adopted baby Lilly. Like many others, they’re apparently moved to Jarden to ‘feel safe’ and live amongst people who shouldn’t be burdened by the same grief they’ve been struggling to escape, but naturally this town’s going to have its own challenges. The fact Kevin was the Chief of Police, and will presumably take on a law enforcement role in Jarden, and we know that his next-door neighbour John is an ex-con who goes around torching people’s houses, should definitely come into play.

The end of the episode resulted in a terrible event befalling John (something Isaac had predicted after his palm reading), with the apparent loss of his daughter Evie. But was it a departure? It seems she was sucked into a hole in the ground that drained the local lake she was swimming in, as the area is evidently prone to natural tremors and quakes. So, this is another loss for our new family to cope with—although one with a more grounded explanation to it, right? It’s sometimes hard to decide if we’re supposed to be thinking deeper with this series, and if there’s actually a stranger reason for Evie’s disappearance. Is the town about to become a hotspot for more localised departures, as if to redress the cosmic balance for their amazing good fortune years ago?

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After thoughts:

  • Jarden is very close to the French word ‘jardin’, which means ‘garden’, and which it’s also very close to spelling. And given how the episode opened with a sequence involving a baby and a venomous snake, before later introducing a young girl called Evie (seen running naked through a forest), I’m getting a very strong ‘Garden of Eden’ vibe from that place already. The town is clearly a very religious community (a man even sacrifices a goat in the middle of a diner, to little more than raised eyebrows), so it seems we’re definitely supposed to make that theological link.
  • Isaac seems to be season 2’s version of Henry “Holy Wayne” Gilchrest, the man who claimed he could remove people’s burdens through the power of his embrace. Is Isaac just a charlatan as John insists, or does he have a real psychic ability? His deduction that John has a birthday soon certainly didn’t impress me, as he went to school with John and might simply have remembered that. Not sure why John didn’t make that argument with him, actually.
  • What’s the deal with the old man (credited as Pillar Man, played by Turk Pipkin) living atop a concrete pillar in the town square, etched with the word ‘MIRACLE’ in vertical letters? And what was in the mysterious letter he asked Michael to post to a ‘Mr David Burton’ in Sydney, Australia?
  • Staying with Pillar Man for a second, he reminded me of Saint Simeon Stylites, who famously lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years to avoid being pestered for prayers and advice. Is the Jaden’s own pillar-dweller doing likewise? It was also said that Saint Simeon was trying to escape the world vertically because he couldn’t escape it horizontally, but in Jarden’s earthquake-ravaged case is Pillar Man afraid of “escaping” subterraneously? Simeon inspired lots of people, who came to be known as ‘stylites’ or ‘pillar-saints’.
  • Why was one large crack in the road covered by a transparent box and marked with a number? It that common practice in the U.S to cordon off earthquake damage, or is there something special about that particular fissure—and presumably a few others around the place? It was being treated almost like a museum piece, so perhaps it appeared during the ‘Sudden Departure’ and hasn’t been fixed out of superstition?
  • Is superstition also why Jerry sacrificed a goat in a public eating establishment? It felt like that’s a regular occurrence, and has become more an inconvenience than anything. Jerry brought his own plastic sheeting so he wouldn’t make a mess, which suggests he’s not out to cause embarrassment and work for the staff. It’s just a ritual he performs.
  • I wonder if there’s an opposite location to Jarden in the world. Somewhere everyone departed, so they left an empty ghost town behind. Did I just spoil season 3? This episode’s title, “Axis Mundi”, can also be chewed on by visiting the relevant Wikipedia entry.
  • Nice parallel with the prologue’s climax of a second cave woman choosing to adopt the orphaned baby she found next to her dead mother, and Nora’s recent decision to likewise raise a foundling.
  • You can’t fail to have noticed the show’s changes stretch to its opening titles, which have been overhauled. I think they’re a marked improvement, and particularly love how the lyrics to “Let the Mystery Be” by Iris DeMent underlines the producer’s desire for audiences to never expect answers. You ain’t gonna find out why 2% of the world’s population vanished, folks.

Final Song: ‘Let Tomorrow Be’, by Fern Jones.

The Leftovers airs on Sky Atlantic, Mondays @10PM, and is also available on NOW TV.

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