A lot of The Leftovers is about ordinary people seeking explanations for extraordinary events, and the lure of accepting outlandish theories that avoid common sense. These concerns usually play out with the big picture issue of 2% of the world’s population vanishing, and how such an irrational event has upended everyone’s belief systems. “A Most Powerful Adversary” tackles the same kind of idea, but with a narrower focus on Kevin (Justin Theroux) seeing the deceased Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) and struggling to reconcile her existence: is she a delusion invented by his own diseased mind, or a genuine paranormal occurrence proving he’s gifted or cursed?
This seventh episode was another incredible hour from a series that really seems to have found its voice this year. You’d be forgiven for thinking “A Most Powerful Adversary” was season 2’s penultimate instalment in many ways, and yet it’s astonishing to think we have another three hours left. Where can the show go from here?
Picking up the morning after the night Kevin admitted to Nora (Carrie Coon) he’s being visited by Patti’s ghost, he woke to find himself cuffed to his bed and his girlfriend gone with baby Lily. It seems that telling the truth didn’t have the desired effect, and Kevin was too optimistic or naïve to believe Nora would happily play nursemaid to him—particularly now she’s bringing up a baby, while caring for her brother’s catatonic wife. It’s little wonder Nora’s decided to leave and clear her head, but the fear of losing everything he’s been building in Texas consumes Kevin and this episode concerned his tenacious attempt to get Nora back and exorcise Patti forever.
Much of this episode was something of a tour around Jarden, as Kevin first had to try and remove his handcuff because he couldn’t find its key, but found that pestering Patti is something he’s starting to find impossible to hide from puzzed onlookers. Increasingly desperate for help and answers, Kevin found unexpected comfort from his daughter’s boyfriend Michael (Jovan Adepo), who actually believed his crazy tale and insists his grandfather Virgil (Steven Williams) can help banish Kevin’s so-called “adversary”.
There’s been a pervasive sense that Virgil is linked to the supernatural, heightened by last week’s episode referring to an old wive’s tale about using buried dead birds as a shortcut to wish-fulfilment. Here, it became clear that Virgil’s an example of the ‘magic negro’ trope (as Patti amusingly describes him later), and believes he can rid Kevin of the spirit that’s on him. Unfortunately, Patti’s expulsion involves stopping Kevin’s heart with poison and reviving him with an injection of norepinephrine before he’s too long gone. A trick that allegedly worked on Virgil himself once upon a time—the reason his son John (Kevin Carroll) shot his father—and has previously worked with Edward, the Pillar Man in the town square.
But it’s always worth getting a second opinion, right? If Virgil represents the new tendency for mumbo-jumbo to be taken seriously by desperate people at a loss to rationally explain things like the Great Departure, then Kevin also had the ear of someone with a more down-to-earth and pragmatic point of view: his ex-wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who’s arrived in town to find their runaway son. In her motel room later, Kevin let his ex-wife in on his secret and she offers him an far more sensible explanation for Patti’s visitations: the likelihood his father’s psychosis has been inherited, and knowing that some of the secret knowledge Patti knows are taken from facts buried deep in Kevin’s subconscious mind.
Laurie’s explanation is the more coherent and reasonable one compared to Virgil’s bizarre claims, but her course of treatment requires time, patience, love, and medication—which Kevin, eager to get Nora back home fast, isn’t prepared to take. He’s after a shortcut, so it’s back over to Virgil’s cabin on the outskirts of town for a cup of thick grey poison with a hypodermic chaser…
Sadly, in one of The Leftovers’ most astonishing and distressing moments, as Patti screams that Kevin’s about to make the wrong choice, Kevin downs Virgil’s gluey potion and… it becomes clear his saviour’s no benevolent mystic, but a twisted serial killer who saw easy prey in tortured Kevin Garvey. Virgil squirts away the ‘antidote’ and commits suicide by eating a bullet after chalking up his final victim, with the motionless Kevin foaming at the mouth on the floor. Adding a sour aftertaste, young Michael then entered the cabin to dutifully clean up the mess and drag away the bodies. It seems grandson and granddad did more than just pray together on the outskirts of town; they were plotting murder.
That’s a powerful ending, particularly for merely a seventh episode. The Leftovers flies enough under the pop-culture radar that I’m not entirely sure Justin Theroux hasn’t been written out of the show (it would certainly make sense to try and keep the story fresh by removing key players from the cast and bringing in new ones). But a part of me refuses to believe The Leftovers would do something this bleak, just over halfway through a season…so perhaps someone’s about to arrive at the cabin, fight off Michael, then administer the drug Kevin needs? But if so, who?
“A Most Powerful Adversary” was another fantastic hour with a literally heart-stopping cliffhanger ending that felt absolutely crushing; brilliantly performed by Theroux (almost wandering through this hour like a lost little boy, keen to keep his family together any way possible), and Williams as the spider drawing him into his web of lies. Given this season’s Biblical overtones with the town of Jarden, it seems Kevin found the serpent.
Or might there be a further twist to the tale, if Virgil somehow knew, or believed, that Kevin was responsible for killing his granddaughter and was therefore just taking revenge and ended his own life to spare the messiness of a murder enquiry? And a way to repent for his past sins, which we’re led to believe was sexually abusing his son John?
- The ending of “A Most Powerful Adversary” was so wrenching that it overshadowed a lot of my main review this week, but it’s also worth remembering that even if Kevin survives his ordeal he’s now had his palm print taken by neighbour John, and it won’t be long before they find he’s a match to the print found on the vehicle near the emptied lake where Evie and her friends disappeared.
- I really love this show’s sense of humour about itself, and must confess that Patti’s po-faced declaration that Kevin must find the ‘Wishing Cup’ from Cairo, Egypt, before using it to imbibe his own semen, almost had me believing her! Almost. A clever reminder, pertinent to this episode’s moral, that if you’re in the right frame of mind you’ll swallow almost any old codswallop.
- It wasn’t entirely clear why Laurie decided to go to Jarden to see Kevin. Nora already told her they haven’t seen him on the phone. Maybe she didn’t believe Nora? Or just didn’t know where else to look? It just felt slightly odd to me, like the episode just needed to unite Laurie with Kevin somehow—but that could’ve been achieved by removing the scene where she called Nora last week. Odd.
- Well, it seems that quite a lot has happened since we last saw Laurie, with Tommy getting frustrated with his self-appointed role as Holy Wayne’s successor and running away. I expected this to form part of a Laurie-centric episode in the season, but instead it’s been downgraded to characters verbally playing catchup. Fine, I guess. Or will we get an episode that jumps back in time, shedding more light on what actually went down with mother and son? I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens next week, just to make the wait to learn Kevin’s fate even more agonising!
- We finally learned why Kevin woke up with a cinder block tied around his ankle. Or did we? Virgil claims he sleepwalked to the lake to commit suicide having been told it’s the only way to get rid of Patti. A discussion he doesn’t remember. But knowing that Virgil is a murderous liar, did that really happen? I’m beginning to think that Virgil killed his own granddaughter Evie, then framed Kevin with his own palm print and staged a suicide. But if that’s true, then it really was something of a miracle the lake emptied, sparing Kevin’s life.