TIME Televison

The Leftovers Spins the Wheel of Fortune

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

A confounding but compelling episode feels like an "Are you in or out?" moment for the show. I'm in.

“Two Boats and a Helicopter” is the episode of The Leftovers that convinced me I was sticking with the show for the season.

This is not the same as saying that I left it convinced that The Leftovers is a great show, or that it will become one. It’s still tremendously confusing. It’s mysterious, and not necessarily to a purpose–we’ll have to see. And this episode was structurally very different from the first two, suggesting that The Leftovers is still figuring out what it’s going to be. What it’s going to be may, I realize, turn out to be a fancy pile of nothing.

But this tense, wrenching episode felt like an “Are you in or out?” juncture for The Leftovers, and I’m in. In part, it was a function of story; in radically shifting its approach and concentrating on one character, Christopher Eccleston’s Rev. Matt Jamison, the show had a drive that felt missing from the beautiful but diffuse first two episodes. The mood and sense of aching were still there, and how, but “Two Boats” also gave us one character with a specific problem, and even in a show like this, that makes a difference.

I know we’re all tired of the Lost comparisons at this point, but I can’t help it with “Two Boats,” which echoed the structure of producer Damon Lindelof’s earlier series–specifically Lost‘s flashbacks, with their reversals, cruel dramatic ironies, and hints of larger forces at work. It’s also remarkably directed for tension–see, for instance, the final roulette spin in the casino, where we hear the ball land but don’t see it, instead seeing Matt’s face tense up, then finally break into the release of a smile. But The Leftovers is distinctively its own thing: its characters are torn not between faith and science but between purpose and despair.

Rev. Matt is a man of God who has suffered loss almost Biblically: he was spared death as a child, we learn, only to lose his parents in a fire, to all-but-lose his wife (Janel Moloney) to a car accident caused by the Departure, and to lose most of his flock to the aftermath of Oct. 14 and its crisis of belief. Eccleston’s stressed-out performance here is commanding top to bottom. Every blow in Matt’s life has hammered a spring within him tighter; if you put a mood ring on him, it would probably explode.

The way Matt has reacted is not exactly likeable; his campaign to prove that bad people were among the departed may be his idea of defending his religion (this wasn’t the Rapture, so God’s plan continues unchanged), but it’s also pretty spiteful and face-punchable. But at least he hasn’t given up, and a lovely little sequence in mid-episode shows all the little things that not giving up means: changing light bulbs and hymnal numbers alone, sweeping, scrubbing rugs. It’s a complicated thing he’s doing, both self-interested and genuinely–if misguidedly–idealistic. It’s hard to tell where his work to keep God’s place in people’s hearts ends and his struggle to maintain his own place in the community begins.

“Two Boats” is an episode full of what seem to be signs and portents–the red lights, the pigeons–but unlike in a Lost flashback, it doesn’t necessary to some larger grand design. Like Hurley, Rev. Matt wins big and loses disastrously, but it’s not clear there is really any mystic power like The Numbers at work here. Instead, his story may simply be like the Departure itself–a dramatic, inexplicable stroke, but a random one with no discernable purpose. On the one hand, there has been an amazing, superhuman event; on the other hand, there is no particular sign that it happened because of anything we recognize as God. This may simply be life: unimaginably wonderful things happen, and unimaginably terrible things happen, and the only patterns to be found in it are the ones we impose on them after the fact. If Twin Peaks told us that the owls are not what they seem, this episode suggests that maybe a pigeon is just a pigeon.

There’s a lot to think about here, but what puzzles me most about “Two Boats and a Helicopter” is what’s meant by the title. It’s taken from an old story about a man who’s stranded by a flood and refuses help, from one vehicle after another, saying that he instead will wait for God to provide–until he drowns. When he gets to Heaven, God tells the man that He did provide–He sent two boats and a helicopter, didn’t He?

So what were the two boats and a helicopter here? Matt, after all, does not spend the episode placidly waiting around for divine intervention–no one, by boat or helicopter, offers to save his church, so he desperately tries to do it himself, and nearly does. How does the parable apply, then? Maybe–and maybe I’m being morbid here–losing the church was itself the two-boats-and-a-helicopter. Maybe the universe is offering Matt an out: a chance to let go his crusade, get his life together and care for his wife, pocket his winnings and let the Guilty Remnant take the punches.

Maybe, but–call it foolishness or heroism, vanity or selflessness–he’d rather do anything than let go of his one way of making meaning from what’s happened. The Leftovers has shown us several ways people deal with a world-changing event: violence, hedonism, insanity. Matt’s way is to accept his losing cause and stick with it, no matter what color the wheel lands on. “I had to try,” as he tells the young man who came to church for a baptism but admits that he won’t be coming back. “If I don’t, who will?”

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