If you, like me, were cautiously optimistic that “B.J. and the A.C.” would replicate the focused structure and rich characterization of last week’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” a celebration of sorts is in order. “B.J.,” eccentric and tersely expressive, may not yet signal a trend, but for the first time since The Leftovers premiered, I’m not simply enamored of its potential, I’m excited by its proficiency with an unorthodox brand of suburban drama, part Left Behind and part Leave It to Beaver.
The episode, written by Damon Lindelof and Elizabeth Peterson and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and Carl Franklin, opens with an arresting montage that counts among my favorite moments in The Leftovers so far. Speedily tracing the production, assembly, shipment, and purchase of a baby doll, the sequence casts eerie close-ups of glassy eyes and latex heads in macabre, shopping-mall fluorescence. It’s a welcome respite from the show’s otherwise dour palette (funeral black, shit brown, corpse gray, dirty white), not to mention a genuine surprise: The doll in question turns out to be the star of Mapleton’s nativity display. As the camera pulls back to reveal the manger’s spot-lit proscenium, an American flag hanging limp in the background, the Black Keys’ bluesy, blunt “I’m Not the One” unwinds with cruel irony on the soundtrack: “You wanted it all/But I’ll give you none/’Cause I’m not the one.” In a post-Departure world of strident beliefs and niggling doubts, this suggestion of misplaced faith in a higher power proves potent indeed.
“B.J.” closely resembles “Two Boats” in that it manages to keep tabs on most of the cast while limiting the main thrust of its attention, in this case to police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his estranged son, Tom (Chris Zylka). The prospect of future episodes devoted predominantly to other major characters is exciting. If the concentrated narrative of “B.J.” can enliven even the brutish, affectless Garvey boys, imagine what sustained attention might accomplish when turned to more complicated characters like Laurie (Amy Brenneman) or Nora (Carrie Coon).
First at the behest of Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) and then as a result of his own stubbornness, Kevin spends much of the hour tracking down the missing baby Jesus. This petty, absurd task—not beyond the realm of real-life possibility, as the police log in any small-town newspaper might indicate—is sufficiently goofy to allow Theroux and the writers to expand the range of the chief’s emotional thermostat. (Though it’s Warren’s “Madam Mayor,” berating an underling over the phone about a replacement doll, that steals the biggest laugh: “Obviously the fucking white one, Marlene,” she says. “Fuck!”) Kevin negotiates unsuccessfully with Guilty Remnant leader Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) for a Christmastime détente, lands a dig at the Prius twins (Max and Charlie Carver) by threatening a felonious blemish on their college applications, and evidences the tender underbelly of that gruff, muscular exterior. When Laurie turns up on his doorstep with Meg (Liv Tyler) in tow, in fact, it’s not his ardent desire to save his marriage, but his subtle play at normalcy that renders Kevin, finally, a character worth caring about. The sad little plate of pastries he brings out reflects just how unmoored he is in these troubled times, trying to convince himself that the performance of propriety somehow still matters.
If Kevin remains obsessed with the insignificant gesture, Tom is consumed by the grand plan. Six weeks after the raid on Holy Wayne’s Nevada compound, Tom and Christine (Annie Q) find themselves in Amarillo, Texas. With no word from Wayne, Tom grows increasingly antsy. It probably doesn’t help that a frizzy-haired man in a teal T-shirt, limp dick swinging free, approaches them with a foreboding message in the early going. “Why are you in my dream? Are you Christine?” he cries, and then, as he begins to choke her, “You walk over the dead! They’re all in white! I know! I know what’s inside you!” This is, admittedly, just about the oldest dramatic trope in the book, but the stark-raving-lunatic-as-prophetic-sage gambit gives Tom a chance to flex his valiant biceps and imbues the otherwise tiresome road-trip subplot with an (unearned) sense of urgency. This crazy dude is talking about Guilty Remnant?! She’s pregnant with Wayne’s baby?! Amarillo really sucks that much?! Not since the Bethlehem innkeeper told Mary and Joseph to sleep in the fucking barn has an ostensibly sacred pregnancy mattered less to someone than Christine’s does to me.
While absent of the psychological complexity The Leftovers increasingly displays with regard to Mapleton, Tom and Christine’s journey at least begins to suggest that Tom, too, suffers from intermittent crises of faith. As he awaits a bus home, having momentarily abandoned his trust in Wayne’s curative powers, two GR members hand him a pamphlet, “Everything That Matters About You Is Inside.” He opens it to reveal a forbidding blankness inside, and his desperate laugh offers a useful reminder that he is, after all, just a kid. There are stretches in The Leftovers, like the adolescent bonfire of the vanities with the baby Jesus at the midway point of “B.J.,” that make me want to write 500-word recaps composed entirely of frustrated noises, but in the end, the series musters an admirable empathy for seemingly familiar characters facing an extraordinary situation in a host of disreputable ways. What’s impressive about The Leftovers, as it continues to hone its distinctive style, isn’t that we come to see the dead-eyed widow, the sorrowful cop, the directionless son, the exiled wife, and the cruel pastor as reflections of ourselves, but that we develop an understanding of their lives in extremis even though those lives bear so little resemblance to our own. Their world is, as far as ours is concerned, impossible, yet I nonetheless find myself enveloped by it more and more.
Suturing together Kevin and Tom across a 2,000-mile gulf is the episode’s fruitful juxtaposition of the workaday and the weird. What essentially boils down to an hour about a man fighting with his wife and daughter and a twentysomething guy trying to win over a girl is simultaneously beset by specters and saviors: Jesus Christ, Holy Wayne, Christine’s baby, the Bulls-Eye cult, Guilty Remnant, the washout of white-bagged human corpses spilled across the highway after an accident. In “B.J.,” The Leftovers finds its firmest footing yet, by dint of the episode’s powerful suggestion that “religion” is just a minefield of ghosts.
Indeed, as the Guilty Remnant invaded Mapleton’s darkened homes at episode’s end, removing every last photograph and leaving the empty frames (“There is no family,” Patti writes to Kevin earlier in the episode), I kept wondering if the blankness of Tom’s GR pamphlet might be repurposed. For “I’m Not the One” doesn’t apply solely to the baby Jesus. Two watchers from Guilty Remnant (nihilism), a man in a Santa suit (capitalism), and the American flag (patriotism) also figure in that opening montage, lovesick fantasies all. Perhaps more importantly, the song’s subtext is a sense of liberation from such entanglements: “I’m just trying to warn you/You’d do good/To move on.” Tom reads the empty whiteness of “Everything That Matters About You Is Inside” as a rebuke, and that does seem to be GR’s intention. But interpreted differently, the blank page suggests the control we have in writing the story of our own lives—the power of personal choice, rather than religious dogma, in defining what does and does not matter. That, as “B.J.” implies, might end up being the greatest savior of all.
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