Troubled chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) first encounters the penguin of “Penguins One, Us Zero” during an exchange with the police department psychologist assigned to evaluate his fitness for duty. Garvey’s massacre of a pack of dogs (gone wild, local myth has it, after witnessing the Sudden Departure firsthand) has Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) and the chief’s colleagues on the force worried about his mental state, and Garvey’s unsubstantiated claim that an unnamed “mystery man” (Michael Gaston) joined him in the shooting does little to quell their doubts. Amid the combative atmosphere of the counseling session, the most jarring detail is the presence of a goofy, inflatable black bird with large blue eyes and toucan-esque splashes of color on its body. “I work with a lot of kids,” the shrink explains. “They use it for aggression.” As its title suggests, the second episode of The Leftovers teems with flashes of anger, but it’s the objects of frustration that end up winning out.
More Revolutionary Road than The Road, “Penguins One, Us Zero” employs the strange details of a world more than three years distant from the Sudden Departure as a point of entry into the ordinary dissatisfactions of suburban existence. As in the pilot, the result is an uneasy détente between everyday rhythms (of coffee houses, cut classes, neighborly disputes) and grand mysteries (of messianic figures, Guilty Remnants, “Departure benefits”) that’s as unreasonably dull in certain moments as it is positively electric in others. Compared to “Pilot,” “Penguins One” is more focused, but the ambivalence it provokes remains the same. I have the sneaking suspicion I’ll come to love The Leftovers once it finds its footing, but it’s not yet clear whether there will be anyone else watching with me: In a televisual landscape cluttered with worthy series, the statute of limitations on unrealized potential is short.
The most promising development in “Penguins One” is the reintroduction of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), Mapleton’s martyr of note. Last spotted on the “Heroes Day” dais, describing the loss of her husband and two young children in the Sudden Departure, she now appears anything but an uncomplicated victim. While Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley) and her friend, Aimee (Emily Meade), speculate on the gory details of the woman’s stricken life, the truth proves far more unnerving than the teens imagine. Coon emerges as force to be reckoned with, playing Nora with a calculated calm interrupted periodically by plays for sympathy. Idly pushing her mug off the table at a busy cafe, Nora relishes her ability to elicit kindness simply by dint of her family tragedy, and it’s a tribute to Coon’s skillfully modulated performance that one might read the character as both profoundly damaged and possibly monstrous. In the episode’s best scene, she conducts an interview with an elderly couple, the Pattersons, regarding a “Departure benefit” claim for their vanished son, Charlie. What begins as valiant, self-effacing bureaucratic work—the town’s foremost emblem of bereavement ensuring that all affected families receive their due—soon sours. As her bizarre line of questioning proceeds through food allergies, travel to Brazil, and enjoyment of cooking, discomfort mounts: “My son had Down syndrome,” Mrs. Patterson says tearfully, before Nora continues the interrogation. “To your knowledge,” her next question demands, “did Charlie have more than 20 sexual partners?” As with much of The Leftovers, the sequence provokes ambivalence, though in this case it’s the meaning, and not the quality, that seems be in doubt. Nora repeatedly expresses regret about the peculiarity of the questions, but it’s clear from the earlier interlude in the coffee shop that she’s also an accomplished manipulator. Is she there under false pretenses, or is the interview simply a brutish mechanism by which the government attempts to suss out a pattern linking the departed?
Outside the Patterson house, Jill and Aimee surveil Nora’s movements from the front seat of a Prius belonging to obsequious twins Adam and Scott Frost (Max and Charlie Carver). While the girls struggle toward independence, mistaking mean-spirited puckishness for maturity, the boys blandly follow; unfortunately, none of the four manages to conjure much recognizable human emotion. By the end of the hour I found myself hoping they’d break out an iPhone and burn each other with hot forks, which might at least force them to feel something other than cruel diffidence. With the purported “drama” of Mapleton’s high school population, as with the self-abnegation of Holy Wayne henchman Tom Garvey (Chris Zylka), The Leftovers in fact evidences quite the tin ear for youth culture. Working over the fallow terrain of mean girls and tough guys, the series neglects to treat the particulars of growing up in a traumatized society with the same vigor with which it attends to the adults. Whether terrorizing the neighbors with disturbing questions, hallucinating dog murderers, taking a vow of silence, or burning a departed family member’s clothes on the grill, Mapleton’s adult population has essentially gone crazy, and in this context the “kids will be kids” approach is deeply unsatisfying. Married homeowners hold no monopoly on complex inner lives.
The older folks are far from uniformly nuanced. Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), with his wide, beseeching eyes and belief in “magic fucking hugs,” turns out to be a nutcase with a taste for underage Asian girls. For now, The Leftovers appears to be less interested in exploring the actual causes and consequences of religious fanaticism than deploying faith as window dressing for villainous ravings—though to be fair, with the exception of Sundance Channel’s Rectify, that’s par for the course. (Notably, the one faction The Leftovers has followed extensively thus far, the Guilty Remnant, isn’t what you’d call “faith-based.”) Nor does the tired trope of the hard-drinking cop estranged from his family and wrung out by workplace pressures seem adequate to Kevin Garvey’s desperate straits. Discovering if he’s following his former-police-chief father (Scott Glenn) into sanity’s borderlands is immaterial if he remains a grizzled cipher with an advanced case of male pattern sexiness. (As an aside, if he ends up fucking Aimee, as faintly suggested by an early dream sequence, I may have to bid The Leftovers adieu.)
In “Penguins One,” the women carry the weight, and as in the case of Nora Durst, The Leftovers is at its best when it homes in on the ways the post-Departure world amplifies and denatures commonplace, socially coded emotions (grief, wrath, suffocation, ennui) until they become almost unrecognizable. “THE OLD WORLD IS GONE,” reads the slogan projected from a television screen in the Guilty Remnant “pledge house” where Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) awaits initiation. In referring to a prelapsarian past, the mantra recalls the pilot’s concern with marking “before” and “after,” an understanding of time that Meg and her GR overseer Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) echo in a shared, haunted moment near episode’s end. One prerequisite for membership in GR is the nightly relinquishment of an artifact from one’s former life—“Surrender,” Laurie writes in her notebook—and Meg pleads for a respite with an allusion to Laurie’s personal history.
“Do you even remember what it feels like to care about anything?” Meg asks.
“I remember,” Laurie scrawls.
Member, dismember, remember, commemorate: The consonance that The Leftovers begins to unearth here is potent, suggesting a society torn limb from limb and haltingly pieced back together. The final image of “Penguins One” shows Meg laughing maniacally as she takes an ax to a sturdy tree, yet another object of frustration and aggression in an episode full of them. Stripped of the superegos that maintained the old world now gone, the residents of Mapleton revert to the id of animal instinct. Deep down, perhaps, we’re all just feral dogs waiting to be unleashed.
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