Getting Weird With 'The Leftovers': Episode 2.1, 'Axis Mundi'

Breaking down 'The Leftovers' Season Two premiere  

As The Leftovers returns with its second season — which is very strong judging by its first three episodes — welcome to our weekly coverage, where we break down what’s weird, what’s mysterious, and what’s simply The Fuck? on this intriguing, occasionally maddening, frequently puzzling, never dull show. Without further ado, let’s dive into the season premiere, “Axis Mundi.”

What’s confounding:

The opening with the cavewoman and her baby is jarringly disorienting, at first making you wonder if you accidentally turned on a different show (sidenote: between Vikings doing vikings, Black Sails doing pirates, Game of Thrones doing medieval, and Outlander doing highlanders, how is there not a show about cavemen yet?) When you realize you’re watching a prologue, it’s not bad, but it’s too heavy-handed: yes, the new cavewoman taking the dead cavewoman’s baby echoes Kevin and Tommy’s relationship, the Garveys and the new baby, Nora and Jill’s new dynamic, and maybe some others that have yet to be unveiled. But this brand of symbolism feels too much like the writers are nudging you and going, “Do you get it? Do you get it?”

What’s intriguing:

After the cavewoman prologue, we’re introduced to a new family, the Murphys, who seem so normal, their dynamic so comfortable and easy, that we almost continue wondering if we’re watching a different show. But telltale signs point to something ominous and patented Leftovers-y brewing beneath the placid surface: the Murphy daughter and her friends’ weirdly silent car ride after their swimming; the woman watering a lawn in a wedding dress; a prophet guy on a tower; casual breakfast goat sacrifice in a diner — just another Sunday morning! And, oh yeah, a guy with the power to read futures in painted handprints and his subsequent Fahrenheit 451 style eviction from his house. We’re not in Mapleton, anymore, guys. And that’s a good thing. This show needed a shake-up.

The new town of Jarden — aka Miracle — very clearly has a lot to unpack, and the episode expertly builds a sense of dread and intrigue without feeling like they’re overloading us with clues or info-dumping. Other shows, take note: this is how you do exposition.

WTFs to file away for the future:

  • Naked woods frolicking: Is this a normal teenage activity in Jarden, or is the Murphy daughter up to something weird with her friends? That’s barely even a question; it’s The Leftovers, of course it’s something weird. File it away, guys. Naked Frolicking: What Does It Mean?
  • Dr. Goodheart, the Australian water man: do we think he lives up to his name?
  • The tell-tale heart cricket that John Murphy keeps hearing
  • The banner in the church reads, “and they both went down into the water.” Hmmm. Put into the context of the mysteriously vanishing water along with the mysteriously vanishing Murphy daughter, hmmm.
  • Hostile preacher is hostile to poor Matt Jamison. If you don’t want to raise Matt’s suspicion, guys, this is not the way to go about it. They might as well have hung a banner saying “Welcome to Jarden: Definitely A Totally Normal Town”
  • Mystery pie. I’m glad, at least, that Mrs. Murphy said aloud what everyone was thinking: Poison? Just when you think this show is being too obvious, it winks at you with self- awareness.
  • John Murphy went to prison for attempted murder. That definitely won’t be relevant.
  • Mrs. Murphy is deaf in one or both ears. That might or might not be relevant, but this show rarely shows things like that purely for the sake of it.
  • That brief news clip about the actor who fakes his Departure is possibly the funniest thing this show has ever done.
  • Kevin’s head injury: he fell. Of course you did, Kevin. An average, everyday fall. Definitely no hallucinatory dogs or dead cult leaders involved, that would be crazy.
  • So far, son Michael Murphy is the most normal member of the Murphy family — which means either a dark secret will be revealed or something bad will happen to him. Alternately, as he was making flirty eyes at Jill, she might corrupt him.

The final verdict:

The Leftovers excels at taking risks with style and structure, and this episode makes it apparent that Season Two is running with the best elements of Season One and then some. We don’t see any familiar faces until 36 minutes into “Axis Mundi” — when Matt Jamison shows up— and the Garveys don’t show up until 45 minutes in, but the narrative risk pays off. Like all good dramas should, the episode unfolds like a miniature film or novel but with a hell of a hook at the end. Re-introducing us to the Garveys at a distance is a smart move. It’s a refreshing change from last season’s hyper-close focus on them and yet it also makes us want that again, as it piques our curiosity about what’s brewing beneath their surface.

The episode effectively weaves a bunch of threads without feeling convoluted and introduces a new cast of characters —developed, non-token diverse characters at that! — without making us say, “hey, where are the old guys, what is this bullshit?!” Nearly everything about “Axis Mundi” works. Even the prologue, which didn’t completely work for me, is drawing praise from other critics, so it’s not objectively bad — like the universally panned Season Two of True Detective — but rather depends on the viewer. “Axis Mundi” is the kind of season premiere that’s so strong, it should send anyone who was on the fence about this show toppling off.

To be honest, I was one of those people. In Season One, I couldn’t decide if I liked The Leftovers; I watched it more out of a weird compulsion — the can’t-look-away twisted fascination of the beautifully fucked-up — than any real sense of enjoyment or anticipation to see where it went. But just one episode into Season Two, it’s transformed into a show I can genuinely say I’ll look forward to each week. After a long series of mediocre slogs and duds, I had almost forgotten what it was like when a show feels like the best kind of art: captivating, exquisitely crafted, provocative, and interesting and meaningful in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be Interesting and Meaningful. Thanks for reminding me why I watch TV, Leftovers.