It’s hard to know where to situate “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” the stellar third episode of The Leftovers, within the HBO drama’s still-elusive arc. Following the distracted ensemble fireworks of “Pilot” and “Penguins One, Us Zero,” each of which featured a handful of compelling threads within an otherwise fractured narrative, the concentrated attention “Two Boats” gives to Episcopal Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is an invigorating tonic. But it’s unclear whether the structure by which Matt’s perspective illuminates the lives of Mapleton’s other residents, as he encounters them over the course of a tumultuous week, is evidence of co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta striking upon a strategy for dealing with the overabundance of material, or simply a tremendous one-off. For now, The Leftovers remains a hesitant, inhibited series, unsure exactly how to transform its promising grace notes into a harmonious whole.
“Two Boats” improves on the preceding episodes by a wide margin, rendering the details of the reverend’s place in the community in the economical shorthand of a psalm. The episode begins with a lovely montage of Matt dutifully preparing his church for Sunday services. As his delivery of the sermon plays on the soundtrack, we see him polish the lectern, sweep the steps, set out a jar of communion wafers; the camera periodically cuts back to Eccleston’s hardened face, his deep-set eyes beseeching prayer for a gravely injured girl as surely as his heavy voice. The sequence speedily disrupts our foregoing image of Matt as a nettle in Mapleton’s side. His decision to distribute flyers accusing vanished townsfolk of immoral behavior, which formerly seemed to be the rambling of a Jesus freak, acquires new depth once we witness the full measure of his devotion.
Pieties and doubts, both religious and secular, increasingly provide a thematic backbone for The Leftovers, and “Two Boats” offers the most thorough treatment of the subject thus far. If the cracked fresco of the title sequence, with its painterly figures rising to the heavens, labors too strenuously for the sheen of high art, the extended, intimate portrait of Matt’s existence suggests a richer, earthbound understanding of faith. More than the brutal attack that interrupts Matt’s sermon, in which a relative of one of the maligned departed shoves a crumpled flyer in the reverend’s mouth, the high-angle image of near-empty pews that concludes the opening montage poignantly captures the failure of mainline religion in the face of the Sudden Departure.
Indeed, the congregation’s contributions have dropped off so precipitously that Matt’s church is in foreclosure, and the adventuresome plot of “Two Boats” primarily concerns his efforts to come up with the money to save it. In the process, Eccelston, writers Lindelof and Jacqueline Hoyt, and director Keith Gordon peel the onion of Matt’s own struggle to keep the faith, deftly moving between moments of renewed belief and intimations of profound uncertainty. Even amid the satisfaction of an infant’s baptism (Eccleston, superb throughout, delicately kisses the child’s cheek after the anointing), the shadow of the inexplicable casts a rueful pall. “Someone has to expose these people for who they truly were, and what they truly did,” he tells the child’s father about his flyer campaign. “Because if we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless.” As is faith’s wont, however, personal sustenance easily segues into public cruelty, and impugning the departed for bribery, adultery, and drug dealing to shore up his own understanding of October 14th makes Matt a pariah. He’s unwilling to mince words even with his own sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose husband and two children disappeared. Shortly after asking her to lend him the money to buy back the church (from the three “Departure benefits” she received, no less), he has the temerity to describe the Sudden Departure as “a test.”
“Not for what came before, but for what came after,” he explains. “It was a test for what comes now.”
“Well, if it was a test, I think you might be failing it,” she says incredulously.
He then reveals that her husband, Doug, was having an affair with her children’s preschool teacher. It’s a savage act, sending her into a fit of laughter and subsequently into quiet disbelief, but Matt frames it, like all of his choices, as a courageous form of truth telling. “Had to try,” he says to the baptized infant’s father after the man rebuffs his request to begin attending services. “If I don’t, who will?”
By the end of “Two Boats,” however, the fragile basis of Matt’s conviction emerges as the episode’s foremost development. The dreamlike, garishly colored series of events by which he ends up with enough cash to rescue the church seems out of place given the closely observed realism of the episode’s first half. (Briefly, he digs up a $20,000 stash at the Garvey house, gambles it on red at a lucky roulette table following what he interprets as sign from God, defends it from a derelict who tries to rob him in the casino parking lot, ends up hospitalized after being caught up in an attack on two members of Guilty Remnant, and misses the bank’s deadline for payment by two days.) The unspooling of what Matt first understands as fate and then, as he tackles the casino thief, becomes a function of free will, finally comes undone by dint of a random act of violence—much like Matt’s entire life since October 14th. As we learn in a flashback to the prologue that opened the pilot, Matt and his wife, Mary (Janel Moloney), were involved in a car accident as a result of the Sudden Departure, and her grievous injuries have left her in a vegetative state. Matt’s faith in his explanation of the events of that day, his understanding of why he and Mary remained to suffer through the desperation of the succeeding years while the ostensibly undeserving vanished, continually bumps up against the available evidence, which points to a world run through with inexplicable, ruthless acts—including, perhaps, his own.
Indeed, the terrible mistake that the major characters commit, responding in disparate ways to the Sudden Departure, is that which so often accompanies social conflict: believing that one’s own system of understanding, religious or secular, speaks the truth, while all others are regrettable fictions. Holy Wayne, Guilty Remnant, dissolute teens, politicians, policemen, Heroes Day mourners, and Matt Jamison all in one way or another consider the rest to be blind fools, apostates, or infidels. The fraying of post-Departure society is the consequence of ideological assurance muzzling individual uncertainty, as the unexpected nighttime encounter between Matt and Laurie (Amy Brenneman) in “Two Boats” seems to illustrate. In deciding to keep their presence at the Garvey house a secret, each chooses adherence to faction over acknowledgement of doubt, rejecting the deeply human emotion that ultimately binds all of the show’s characters together: the fear of meaninglessness itself.
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