Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Grief Goes On

The third (and final) season of HBO's amazing series The Leftovers premiered on Sunday. In another era, Easter Sunday might not have seemed the best day to continue a series so steeped in ongoing, overwhelming grief and guilt. But the weird way in which the series has ceaselessly played with spiritual and eschatological themes might actually suggest a deliberate choice. (Or perhaps Easter has become so culturally irrelevant - apart from the White House Egg Roll - that it is all just a coincidence!)

I have written here about this show several times before - my first reactions (July 14, 2014 "The Optics of Despair"), comparing the TV series to the book the first season was based on (July 19, 2014 "Dystopian Despair: The Book"), celebrating season one's penultimate episode that finally depicted the actual Departure day (August 25 "Apocalypse Eve"), reflecting on season one at the end (September 8, 2014 "The Leftovers: Season Finale"), and finally reflecting on season two (October 13, 2015 "The New Leftovers"). 

My overwhelming impression in season one and continuing into season two was the sense of despair. It reminded me, as I said at the time, of P.D. James' 1992 evocative dystopian novel The Children of Men (later made into a movie) about a world with no more future, because the human race had inexplicably become sterile and stopped reproducing. While in The Leftovers people can still reproduce, the past they have lost through the inexplicable sudden disappearance of 2% of the world's population seems to have burdened everyone's present so much that the future seems beyond any aspiration.  While everyone gets to be sad in his or her own special way, the whole thing is like a parable about collective grief - a seemingly apt image for our post 9/11 world. Meanwhile the one "normal" episode - Mapleton on the eve of the Departure - coming near the end of the first season let us all in on all the unresolved problems which the Departure would prevent any final resolution of, leaving grief and guilt as the only possibilities. As I wrote at the time: We identify with the normality that has been snatched from them. But we also wish that they had made better use of those final 24 hours of normalcy to start fixing things they will never get another chance to fix!

Then came season two which took the Garveys form Mapleton to Texas and introduced a whole new cast of characters along with them. Their trek to Texas confirmed that you can change your location, but you take your problems with you, and no place is ever really safe from the demons in one's head and heart. Indeed, the weirdly demonic dimension seemed to intensify in season two, especially with Kevin's strange experiences somewhere between life and death.

Season three starts with them still in Texas several years later (but seems to foreshadow an ending in Australia). While grief and guilt seem inexorable, one lesson I took away from the first two seasons was how much worse everything was because of the characters' consistent failures to communicate honestly. It looks as if we can expect more of that in season three.

With the passage of time, one might hope (even expect) that grief and guilt might be ready to yield to something milder - to disappointment, a kind of chronically resigned existence in the day-to-day. Based on the first episode of the third season, however, the demons that stalk so many of the characters - Kevin, above all - seem even more firmly entrenched.

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