As The Leftovers returns with its second season, we break down what’s weird, what’s mysterious, and what’s simply The Fuck? on this intriguing, frequently puzzling, never dull show. Without further ado, let’s dive into the third episode, “Off Ramp.”

What’s confounding:

That sex scene. I’m sure I speak for every viewer when I say, “um, what??” This show is no Game of Thrones or True Blood, where sex and nudity are as par for the course as window dressing. When The Leftovers goes there, it means something. The only sex we’ve seen so far is Kevin and Nora and Kevin and the random woman who Departed. Both were crucial to our understanding of his character. Now we have Meg and Tom in their disconcerting, ambiguous, capture/kidnap sex.

Is it rape? We don’t see male rape on TV much, and when we do, it’s usually inflicted by another guy. Female-on-male is rare, in part because it’s rare in real life, but it does happen. For anyone who says, “but how can it be rape if he seemed okay with it?” — he was at her mercy, in a vulnerable position unable to move, and he was alarmed and filled with adrenaline.

Now, you could argue that Tom’s mental state is not exactly the average person’s, so for him, it was an intimacy rather than a violation. And that’s a valid point — one the actor made when I talked to him about it — and I suppose the actor knows his character better than I do. We’ll leave it at this: whenever there’s a question of consent and a wildly uneven power-balance, something’s fucked-up. And since The Leftovers doesn’t do sex just for the hell of it, this must be leading somewhere. This show also likes its baby motifs, and I saw no protection…

What’s intriguing:

Tom’s push over the edge is simultaneously sudden and has been a long time coming: his ordeal last season, going undercover in the GR this season, getting captured and fucked and threatened by his mom’s old friend, hearing about that murder/suicide, bailing his mom out of jail. Poor Tom has had a rough couple months. That final monologue he delivers at the end of the episode is up there with any of the best monologues on recent TV: Jamie Lannister’s kingslayer monologue or Billie Piper’s in Penny Dreadful. A good monologue is game-changing for the character; causing you to re-evaluate them and their place in the story.

As Tom tells his heavily-edited Holy Wayne story, seamlessly blending truth with fabrication, it’s unclear whether he’s starting to believe his own lies or he’s become a surprisingly good actor. But either way, the disillusioned but somewhat cheerful frat boy we’ve seen in “The Garveys At Their Best”, and even at the beginning of his scene with Jill last week in “A Matter of Geography”, is gone. Tom is completely unhinged — in a different, but no less intriguing way than Kevin. I never would have said this last season, but I can’t wait to see where Tom goes from here. Only on The Leftovers could a scene with a guy smiling and saying “who wants a hug?” be one of the most chilling episode endings.

WTFs to file away for later:

  • This was Laurie’s episode just as much as Tom’s, but I always hear critics sing Amy Brenneman’s praise and I’d never even heard of Chris Zylka before this show — not to mention, I wrote him off before this and thus was blown away by him in this episode — so that’s why I chose to focus on him. I’m sure there are many other articles discussing Laurie, because “Off Ramp” does for both Laurie and Tom what “Guest” did for Nora last season.
  • Tom fell asleep watching a Holy Wayne vide. Does this indicate he doesn’t think he’s a fraud after all?
  • More in Something Is Rotten In The State of Australia: in a clip of a news report we hear about a possible resurrection in Australia.
  • As someone who is also trying to publish a book, blindly sending an entire manuscript to a publisher without an agent is not how publishing works.
  • A brief note on full-frontal nudity: this is the first show where I’ve ever seen it done in equal opportunity between both genders. With the Murphys, this show presents a developed black family nonchalantly, without seeming like they’re patting themselves on the back for diversity or making them into stereotypes or using them to prop up someone else’s story. Now this nonchalant presentation of equal-opportunity nudity solidifies it: The Leftovers is casually and way-too-quietly winning TV right now.
  • Meg’s plan: Phase 1: have sex with prisoner. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: profit

The final verdict:

I’ll be honest, Tom Garvey bored the hell out of me last season. His story felt like you turned the TV on in the middle of a show you weren’t caught up on: it looked meaningful, there were angsty faces and soaring music, but we lacked the context and background to care. I was especially disappointed because Tom was my favorite character in the book. I assumed it must be the actor’s fault that Tom was boring. But after this episode I can safely say that is 100% not the case. For the first time, I find myself caring about Tom, and it’s thanks to Chris Zylka’s dark horse powerhouse performance. In fact, this episode made me feel so bad for underestimating him that I ran out to talk to him about it (and also to ask him about that WTF sex scene).

His IMDB page told me why I’ve never heard of him; it lists mostly teen stuff (a CW show, 90210) and roles literally called Mr. Hottie — sound like any other actors on other HBO shows? In a just world — a world where the Emmys recognize what The Leftovers is doing this season — he would be the next candidate to go, Matthew McConaughey-style, from “Shirtless Guy #2” roles to “holy shit, somebody hand this guy an Emmy.”

I compared his monologue to Jaime Lannister’s kingslayer monologue and Billie Piper’s in Penny Dreadful, but instead of watching an asshole reveal a humane side or a meek girl reveal a hidden crazy side, we’re watching a regular guy go off the deep end in an explosive, satisfying way as Tom’s slow-burn characterization pays off. Tom is a fucking mess, and on another show that might be tiresome, but the combination of writing and acting make Fucked-Up Tom absolutely riveting. The fact that a character and storyline that had seemed directionless is proving to be anything but makes me trust the writers, which is crucial to crafting an effective show. To realize a character who used to bore you is abruptly one of the most fascinating — now that’s a powerful character evolution. I said this before but it can never be said too many times: The Leftovers is quietly winning TV right now, while far too few people are paying attention.