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 seventh episode, “A Most Powerful Adversary.”
What’s confounding: Let’s not beat around the bush here: Holy shit, that ending. Killing off your main character is not a novel thing these days; the idea of Protagonist Invincibility has been thrown out the window in certain corners of TV. But The Leftovers isn’t Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.
It’s always been content to focus on character while plot is almost incidental; it doesn’t try to elicit gasps — which makes Kevin’s death all the more shocking. Although his death was being tossed about as a concept the whole episode — and in earlier episodes like “Orange Sticker” — I figured it was just that: a concept. Like most things on this show, I assumed it was being used as a lens through which to examine Kevin and his choices and pose open-ended questions about his psyche. It never occurred to me that his death was actually on the fucking table.
That final sequence was among the most disturbing The Leftovers has ever thrown at us: Patti’s last-minute effort to save Kevin, Virgil — who had seemed wise and eccentric thus far but hardly malevolent or disturbed — tossing the needle and blasting his brains out, Michael — kind, pious Michael!— dragging Kevin’s lifeless body off to parts unknown. The threads of horror unspooled slowly until suddenly it ensnared you in its sickening knotted clusterfuck.
The question is, did The Leftovers indeed Game of Thrones us, or is something wonky going down to save Kevin, in the same vein as the vanishing water when he tried to drown himself? Kevin’s plot line leaves a lot unfinished, so it would be maddening if he were truly dead — not to mention, Justin Theroux’s departure (no pun intended) would be a huge loss to the show. But this is a show where truly anything can happen, so either option would be valid. In spite of his insistence that he’s got responsibility, did part of him want to die? Patti aside, earlier in the episode, it seemed a bizarre decision to bring Laurie home; unless part of him wanted to be sure Jill would have a backup parent in case things went south.
What’s intriguing: Seeing Kevin and Laurie interact for really the first time. Sure, we saw them talk in last season’s “The Garveys At Their Best” but they were mostly just sharing space, separate even when they were together. Kevin isn’t truly seeing Laurie here either — otherwise he would have caught her expression as she lied about Tom being okay, a moment Amy Brenneman killed, conveying equal parts devastation and steely resolve in her eyes alone — but Laurie sure is seeing Kevin. Every pause in their dialogue felt tense and fraught and lived-in, weighted down with their history. Even though this was their first interaction with any substance, it felt like they really were an old couple who still has a rhythm together in spite of everything that’s happened since they’ve been apart. And it adds a nice extra dimension that we’ve been privy to how they’ve evolved, but each of them has no idea what the other has been through. The Leftovers is unparalleled at this manner of emotional shorthand: we get their history largely from reading between the lines, and yet their relationship feels clear and established and intriguing.
WTFs to file away for the future:
- “What would you do if I told you the solution to your problems is a magical black man at the edge of town? That’s borderline racist.” Even such a dark episode took a moment to throw in an on-point mini-deconstruction of the Magical Negro trope.
- “I figured I’d give all the innocent men the opportunity to be on the right list.” John Murphy’s cold, deceptively cheerful phrasing embodies his entire persona in a nutshell. Also, that handprint scene could be a point in the Kevin-is-not-dead camp, because that’s a Chekhov’s gun that’s sure to come back to shoot Kevin — but how can it shoot him if he’s already dead?
- Holy Tom-watch time: Part of me is disappointed we’re getting Tom’s story through Laurie, and part of me is relieved we don’t need to see the cringe-worthiness of Tom’s hugs play out in real time — not to mention, there are better ways for them to use Chris Zylka. Still, telling instead of showing is lame storytelling and I expect better from this show. Here’s hoping we see Tom in-real time soon, not just through secondhand accounts.
- “I’m sorry about the dog. You wanted to get a puppy. I was kind of a dick about it.” If these turn out to be Kevin’s last words to Laurie, it will be extremely fitting but also I might cry.
- If the guy on the pillar is a ‘success story,’ that’s really not the greatest advertisement for Virgil’s whole death-exorcism thing.
- If Kevin is really dead, since he brought Laurie into town, it means the town’s populations still creepily remains the same: The three girls disappeared when the three Garveys moved into town; now Kevin exits stage left when Laurie enters. We are the 9, 261 indeed. Well, shit.
- On the other hand, Virgil is dead too, so that could be another clue in the “Kevin is not dead forever” camp. And we’re not sure if Nora, Mary, and the baby are staying within Jarden or outside it — that surely impacts the numbers game.
The final verdict: I have to return to that ending, because that pretty much wiped away the rest of the episode. It’s a shame when that happens — a character’s death blotting out everything that came before it — because the rest of the hour held some spectacular tense, weighty moments, most notably between Laurie and Kevin but also between Kevin and Patti and Kevin and John. But Kevin’s death leaves a bad taste in your mouth that washes away everything else: it’s not noble or tragic or meaningful or even clean; it’s horrifying and undignified and full of unwarranted suffering. Poison was a terrible way to die even for a character as despicable as Joffrey on Game of Thrones, and poor Kevin is no Joffrey.
Watching it, I felt sick to my stomach the same way I did when Jon Snow died, and I never thought I’d care that strongly about Kevin — so in that regard, it’s a triumph. But emotional impact aside, is Kevin’s sudden death a triumph on a writing level? I’ve trusted the Leftovers writers so far because I’ve been astonished at what they’ve crafted this season. But if Kevin is dead for good, it is reminiscent of The Jon Snow Effect — if it leaves so many dangling plot threads, what was the point of following him all this time only to suddenly kill him? Of course, The Leftovers would argue that there doesn’t need to be a point; you’re reading into it and searching for meaning in the meaningless in order to comfort yourself. This season has been more lighthearted than the first, but this is as dark and fucked-up as Gladys’ stoning: perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of security.
Discounting any weird Jarden phenomenon that could swoop in and Deus ex machina this death (bird resurrections; vanishing water) let’s consider that Kevin might have permanently kicked the bucket, because it makes a certain amount of sense on a plot level. Thematically, for a show that’s about how people respond to senseless events, it’s absolutely fitting to senselessly kill off the protagonist and leave the audience wondering how to respond. And there are enough compelling main characters that Kevin’s departure wouldn’t leave such a large hole at the center of the story. Assuming, then, that he is dead, the jury is out on whether this is a dive in the show’s stellar quality or whether it’s an interesting turn.
I’m honestly not sure how to respond: as a viewer, I’m not pleased — I made the mistake of watching it before bed and I was too horrified and disturbed to sleep for a long time after — and on a gut-reaction level, I’m inclined to view it as negative simply because grumpy Kevin is a compelling character and I like the guy. But as a critic, I trust good writing and this season has yet to let me down. I’ll stretch my trust a little further and assume the writers are going somewhere intriguing and it’s not just shock value. But man, that image of Kevin’s convulsions and foaming at the mouth and that last shot of his lifeless body being dragged out will haunt me for a long time. Here’s hoping it’s worth it.