Have you seen the show The Leftovers? Do you remember 9/11? I’m going to talk about both of those things and then tie in a third thing. That third thing is going to have something to do with politics, so I’m giving you fair warning that this post will be a departure from my usual fare of writing and self-publishing. I’m still going to be talking mainly about the creative element here, but there will be some political topics brought up that can’t be avoided. I won’t be grinding any axes, mind you, so you should feel safe to keep reading. And, as always, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.
So, The Leftovers. Have you seen it? You should. There’s something interesting going on in this show. I recommend it to everyone, but not necessarily because I think it’s one of those shows you’d enjoy watching while relaxing on your couch with a family size bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips, a tub of guacamole, a bottle of whiskey and a candy dish filled with amphetamines, aspirin, antacids and Skittles. No, it’s not exactly fun in that usual way is what I’m saying. I mean, it’s a good show, but it’s not all that, as the kids say. Do the kids say that? I don’t know kids.
Anyway, I’m certainly entertained by it, flaws and all (some episodes drag and others seem a little inexpertly executed) but I can see how some people would have difficulty getting into it. “An Apocalyptic event without zombies? Whhaaaaa…?” So, it’s suffered in the ratings and that’s most likely why HBO has decided to only renew it for just one more season. No, it’s not its entertainment value that recommends it. Instead, I want you to watch it because I think it’s talking about things we as Americans all need to spend some time thinking about.
If you’re not familiar, the show is based on Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name. The premise, copied from Wikipedia:
“The Leftovers takes place three years after a global event called the “Sudden Departure”, the inexplicable, simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, 2% of the world’s population, on October 14. Following that event, mainstream religions declined, and a number of cults emerged, most notably the Guilty Remnant.”
Immediately, we assume this is some sort of Rapture story, a la Left Behind, and I suspect Perotta plays off of the themes of that work in his book, although I admit I haven’t read either. In the show, however, we’re quickly persuaded away from this notion because it is revealed that people from all faiths, backgrounds and degree of moral character “departed” – that’s the word they use to describe it – from everywhere around the world. As the series progresses from episode to episode the writers continue to play with the religious theme, however, refusing to let the viewer dismiss it entirely. This is often done well, but sometimes it’s a bit heavy handed. I won’t get in to spoilers, but I will say the religious imagery in the final episode of season 2 is a bit of an eye-roller.
Overall, though, we’re left to try to make sense of this clearly inexplicable event in the same way as the characters. Grasping at any sort of meaning, they stumble and struggle to comprehend what happened and cannot deny the call to action such an event demands, even though no one can figure out what that action should be. Every time we get a glimpse of a logical response to both it and the more mundane but no less tragic events that follow it, that logic is ripped away to reveal again the raw nerve that was exposed by such a seemingly random massive catastrophe. The character of Nora Durst is pretty much the prime punching bag for the show’s study of how trauma can roger us but good.
There is no healing in this show, although everyone seeks it. Instead, we as viewers witness the most massive case of PTSD ever portrayed. Does any of this sound familiar yet? If you’re an American, it should.
Yes, I believe this show is talking, albeit in a hushed tone, about America’s response to 9/11. Not quite ready to go there? OK. I’ll do a little more due diligence. The Sudden Departure event is often referred to only by its date – October 14th (although it’s sometimes called Heroes Day) – and is somberly annually commemorated nationwide. Also, after The Sudden Departure, a special government agency (The Department of Sudden Departures) is established to investigate insurance claims made by those related to the Departed. Additionally, although the event was a world-wide phenomenon, the show only deals with how Americans cope with it, although I readily admit that this could be simply the creators of the show wanting to keep it on a more personal scale to match Perotta’s book. But finally, and I believe most importantly, each and every episode shows us the characters struggling to find above all else a way to feel safe and secure in a world that no longer makes sense to them.
The last point is the one that made me want to write this post. In the second season (no spoilers) the action revolves around a town in Texas that somehow suffered no Departures. Their response to the call to action was to believe that they were exceptional. They built walls to protect themselves from the outside world and only allowed in people under a draconian visitation policy. They celebrated their exceptionalism, used it as proof that they were somehow chosen by God and buried and excused the faults of their own people. “We have been spared” the townsfolk rejoiced.
Now, on 9/11 America certainly was not spared, but we as a nation have reacted no differently. Our own Departed were taken from us by an enemy we do not understand and in a such a sudden and ferocious way it defied easy explanation. When we look at how Americans by and large chose to respond to 9/11, we see close parallels to the Texas town in the show – not just in the immediate aftermath, but to this very day. Even still, many yearn for ever more security and more suspicion of everyone who is not “us.” We seek to identify enemies to blame – and certainly for 9/11 there were plenty – but at the same time we refuse to accept any of the blame ourselves.
Guilt is perhaps the biggest motivation of everyone in the show. All of the Leftovers constantly battle with guilt and what to do with it. Similarly, we who did not die in 9/11 have struggled with the same question. What do we owe our own Departed? We have sought vengeance, justice and even nation building in the days since, but has it brought any increase to our sense of safety and security? Certainly, 9/11 was a call to action, much like the show’s Sudden Departure, but has any action yielded the result any of us were looking for to assuage our guilt?
This is where the show really shines, I think. As I said above, there is no healing. There is no safe place to hide. The enemy (more or less portrayed as the cult-like Guilty Remnant, although there is no suggestion that they were in any way responsible for the Sudden Departure) is both elusive and ever present. The show does not judge anyone’s response to their guilt or their interpretation of the call to action, it only raises the questions:
Was it worth it? What ever you did in the wake of tragedy – did it give you the peace you were looking for? Are things better? Are they worse? Would more violence help? Would more running?
Asking the questions but never supplying the answers is what, in my mind, makes a great piece of artistic expression truly powerful. There’s always room for your own answer. In fact, it begs you to answer, but also suggests that even if you do there will always be more questions.
That’s life, I believe the show tells us. There are no morally absolute answers, no entirely correct solutions to problems. The best we can do is own our answers the way we should own our faults. Because that’s what they are – a kind of fault, but more in the meaning of accepting responsibility.
I won’t get into my political beliefs about what we should have done in the wake of 9/11 nor what I believe we should do now. I won’t ask you to defend your own. I will submit that perhaps the best way to honor and remember our own Suddenly Departed, not just from 9/11 but from every traumatic departure we’ve suffered, is to keep struggling to live courageously. Just to wax philosophical for a second if you’ll permit me, but I believe the show suggests that there’s plenty of time for fear when you die, but it’s a waste of a way to live.
“We have been spared” the townsfolk rejoiced. But that does not mean you are spared. You don’t survive one trauma just to wall yourself off from any further trauma. I’m no shrink, but I’m pretty sure that’s not healthy.
I was never a big fan of George W. Bush, but there is one thing he said for which I give him some credit as remarkably wise. When asked “Can we win [the War on Terror]” he responded: “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
You can interpret that quote your own way – up, down or sideways, I won’t judge – but I like to interpret it as an admission that there is no winning a war against fear itself, to echo FDR. In that regard, it’s an impressively honest and perceptive public statement. It means to me that the important thing is the struggle. And in the struggle against terror, the best way to proceed is with courage. Terror cannot flourish where courage persists. The Leftovers shows us that although the characters never find the security, safety or meaning they crave, they do find ways to grow as individuals when they stop being afraid and decide to be brave.
So, there you go. Enough deep reading of a TV show’s palm and getting all philosophical and crap. I’ll let you get back to your own stuff. But seriously, check out the show and let me know what you think!
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Until next time! You know the drill: Read, review. Order, tip.