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On ‘The Leftovers,’ Inheritance Is a Burden

A Kevin Garvey Sr. episode teaches a painful lesson

(HBO)
(HBO)

Kevin Garvey Sr. has spent the last several years in Australia, poring over the tape recording of a 1981 road trip he took with his then-8-year-old son. The part he’s latched onto, the part he’s convinced holds the key to his (and the world’s) salvation, is the clip where he sings “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to calm Kevin Jr. down during a sudden rainstorm. It’s clear why Kevin Sr. is so fixated on this part of the tape: The passage is a remnant of a simpler time, when his son looked to him as a reassuring authority figure who could make things OK rather than a raving madman who only makes them worse. But it’s not the most essential part of the tape. That would be the snippet where he’s explaining would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. to his son. “He tried to kill the president. Why?” tiny Kevin Jr. asks. “Because he’s crazy, Kevin,” his father replies. The following episode is essentially an hour-long, live-action version of the same exchange. Why did Kevin Sr. (accidentally) kill an aging tribal elder named Christopher Sunday? “Because he’s crazy,” or at the very least, not well.

The first Leftovers episode dedicated to Scott Glenn’s fallen patriarch is called “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” for a reason. This is the first time we’ve experienced Kevin Sr. and his delusions as the subject of an entire hour. Writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Spezialy immerse us in both the details of Kevin Sr.’s cosmology — the world will drown on the Departure’s seventh anniversary unless he sings it away, just like he did all those years ago — and the utter sincerity of his belief. That’s what makes “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” so upsetting, though different from The Leftovers typical devastation. Up close, Kevin Sr.’s response to the Departure feels like a perfectly reasonable interpretation of his eminently unreasonable circumstances. And if insanity can feel this sane, what are the chances that anyone else has a firmer grasp on reality? “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” ends on what should be an upbeat note: Kevin Sr. convinces a lost soul she isn’t really so lost. But it felt like a plunge into (even further) darkness: Everyone on this show is a lost soul. It’s just a matter of if and when they’re forced to realize it.

Kevin Sr.’s mental state is, both on paper and compared to where we first found him, dramatically improved. He’s no longer hearing the voices that landed him in an institution; he’s no longer (to the naked eye, that is) a raving madman, arguing with people who aren’t there. But that only deepens Kevin Sr.’s tragedy, because it soon becomes apparent that even though he doesn’t have to be sick, he needs to be. The last thing the voices told him was to go to Australia, so he goes to Australia. A man on the street in Sydney asks him if he wants to talk to God, so he takes a powerful hallucinogen and wakes up two weeks later in Perth. A TV broadcast spotlights a Departure-surviving chicken with mystical powers, so he asks the chicken to tell him what to do. And the chicken pecks on that fateful Niagara tape, so Kevin Sr. is convinced an epic flood will drown the world unless he prevents the apocalypse by memorizing a 23-part Aboriginal rain song. (Christopher Sunday has the very last part, or he did before Kevin Sr. fell on him.) Kevin Sr. needs a purpose so badly he turned to a prophetic chicken to give him one when his mental illness no longer would.

From the outside, we can see this sequence for what it is: random events with meaning projected onto them by a mind desperately in need of connection and significance. John Murphy’s panicked pronouncement that “We can’t be going through all of this for nothing, man” is starting to look like the thesis statement of this entire series. Kevin Sr.’s more afraid the Departure might mean nothing than the doomsday he’s invented to fill the void.

Kevin Sr.’s story would make for a cautionary tale in its own right, but The Leftovers is careful to put his complex directly in conversation with someone else’s. Matt Jamison, too, has invented a hero who will save the world. Held up against Kevin Sr.’s equally epic, Noah-esque mythology, the Book of Kevin — and the tiny part of Kevin Jr. that believes it — starts to look awfully familiar. The Leftovers ended last season by hinting that the afterlife is real, Kevin was seeing ghosts, and people can karaoke themselves back to life. This season, it’s showing us that stranger things have happened — or rather, that people think stranger things have happened to them, and those things seemed every bit as real as Kevin’s vision quest did to him (and us).

Kevin Sr. represents everything Kevin Jr. is terrified of becoming, a dynamic epitomized by Junior’s opposite reactions to similar circumstances. Where Kevin Jr. has always resisted the pull of the supernatural (or is it the delusional?), Kevin Sr. has embraced it with open arms. So where Kevin Jr. reacts to the Book of Kevin by beating his brother-in-law and threatening to burn it, Kevin Sr. responds with fury that he’s not in it. “I am not a part of Kevin Jr.’s story,” he growls. “He’s a part of mine!” The possibility that Kevin will become his father by succumbing to that messiah complex is one of the darkest The Leftovers has floated, and “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” suggests that this is the case more overtly than ever.

In the episode’s closing scene, we see just how Kevin Jr. might be pulled into his father’s temptingly self-assured way of looking at things. Kevin Sr.’s journey through the outback leads him, and the Book of Kevin, to Grace, a former missionary whose children died in the wilderness after she assumed they’d been Raptured. Grace leaps at the chance to talk to her children again through a resurrectable mystic, but ends up drowning an innocent man while Kevin Sr. lies in a coma instead. When he wakes up and finally meets Grace, she’s just starting to reckon with the depth of her sickness and the magnitude of her wrongdoing. “You’re not an angel,” she sobs. “There is no message. And God doesn’t care about me. It’s all just a story I tell myself. It’s just a stupid, silly story. And I believed it, because I’ve gone a bit crazy, haven’t I?” This is horrifically painful, but it’s also healthy. To move on, Grace must first embrace the fundamental illogic of the world she lives in, and learn not to substitute one bedrock ideology for another. Grace has to do what everyone on this show has to do — and what so many can’t — to survive this trauma intact. Resisting the urge to fit your life into a narrative is as necessary as it is impossible.

Before Grace can begin to heal, though, Kevin Sr. stops her. “I don’t think you’re crazy at all,” he says, with all the father-knows-best reassurance of Scott Glenn’s gravelly baritone. She just killed the wrong Kevin. Last week, The Leftovers dealt with the heartbreak of two mutually exclusive beliefs. This week, The Leftovers teased the impending heartbreak of two believers shoring each other up. What feels like renewed conviction really means kicking the can slightly further down the road.