Three minutes into “Gladys,” the titular member of Guilty Remnant is dead. The episode’s central event, her brutal murder, is already in the past. And in the long unwinding that follows, as the emotional, social, and political consequences of that terrible act reverberate through Mapleton and beyond, the gulf between those who need to remember the Sudden Departure and those who wish to forget it grows ever larger. “Grace period is over,” Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) warned in the show’s pilot, and though he meant to suggest the transformative power of his own charismatic presence, tonight’s episode demonstrates the broader implications of his foreboding words. The chronological conceit of the series, picking up the thread of October 14th three years later, suddenly appears canny indeed. With “Gladys,” an enthralling portrait of what happens when the urge to move on collides with the persistence of grief, The Leftovers joins the ranks of television’s must-see dramas.
As in “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and “B.J. and the A.C.,” “Gladys” cultivates the ripe tension between ideology and the individual, between faith and doubt, deftly working through the varieties of religious experience without delving, except in the most tangential sense, into niceties of doctrine. The most forceful expression of this astute understanding that belief rarely operates as the mere recitation of catechism comes midway through “Gladys,” as Patti (Ann Dowd) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman) linger over breakfast in an out-of-the-way diner. It’s an extraordinary scene, not least because it shatters Guilty Remnant’s austere silence with a wholly unexpected eruption of feeling.
Laurie, the first to stumble upon Gladys’s (Marceline Hugot) battered corpse, has suffered a panic attack, and Patti, recognizing the symptoms of wavering commitment, treats her to a “day off.” What lends the culmination of their time away from the GR compound such unnerving intensity are the precise details that precede it. Patti jauntily swivels her shoulders as an oldies station plays on the car’s radio, and later tucks into a plate of eggs with wild-eyed satisfaction (“This is fuckin’ good,” she purrs); Laurie, used to GR’s dormitory-style living arrangements and all-white garb, briefly luxuriates in the motel bed’s expanse of sheets, and awkwardly shuffles toward Patti’s table sporting a pink blouse, khaki skirt, and tan pumps. In running counter to the strict regulations by which GR members are bound, each of these little glimpses is its own surprise, and yet it eventually becomes clear that the entire series of events is in fact a masterful sleight of hand.
For Patti’s message to Laurie isn’t one of respite; it is, rather, a crazed, tempestuous plea to stay the course. Dowd is simply astonishing, running through sobs and snarls and manic laughter, rocking like a ship on storm-tossed seas. The moment exposes the human wreckage undergirding Guilty Remnant’s stern countenance: “Somehow she got word that her son had died,” Patti says of Gladys, “and as you can imagine she did not take it very well. She questioned her commitment, she became distracted, and she began to feel again.” Is Neil, the name Patti writes in black marker on a white paper bag, her own vanished kin? Why is stifling the ravages of bereavement the Guilty Remnant’s way of forcing society to acknowledge the Sudden Departure, to remind Mapleton’s residents, as Meg (Liv Tyler) comments earlier, of “something they want to forget”? What are Patti, Laurie, Meg, and Gladys guilty of, besides remaining? Patti’s mad, hot screed raises a host of questions that succeeding episodes may or may not answer, but in the interim the ferocity of the moment is what matters. “Doubt is fire,” she explains, “and fire is going to burn you up until you are but ash.”
Patti’s fleeting revelation of formerly tamped-down trauma isn’t the only emotional about-face in “Gladys.” Police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), often enraged by GR’s very existence, responds to Gladys’s murder with a remarkable seriousness of purpose, even sympathy, handing out whistles for the members to blow should they find themselves in danger. In thus acknowledging the importance of their vow of silence, as in his tearful admission to Jill (Margaret Qualley) that he and Laurie are getting divorced, Kevin exhibits a refreshing, heretofore unseen social maturity. (His sexy, brooding, cursing, tattooed antihero side, scarcely more than a TV-drama cliché, finds itself momentarily positioned against his home security system and the unfortunate owner of a local dry cleaning business.) For her part, Meg coolly assumes Guilty Remnant’s affectless manner, while Dean the dog hunter (Michael Gaston) manages to seem both protective of GR and, when he stirs up public opposition to Kevin’s proposed curfew at a city council meeting, somewhat disgusted by it.
“Gladys” isn’t perfect (most frustrating is the still-fruitless mystery of Dean’s enigmatic presence), but nevertheless the episode sustains an impressive thematic and narrative command. Despite his arrogant conviction that the members of Guilty Remnant need saving, for instance, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) echoes no one so much as Patti herself when he relates a bibilical parable to Kevin near episode’s end: “If I tell you what [Jesus] spoke to me,” he recites, “you will pick up rocks, and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks, and devour you.” The passage comes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the first verse of which reads, “And he said, ’Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.’” In “Gladys,” though, such sayings ultimately go unheard, drowned out by the shrill blare of Laurie’s whistle. It’s the taste of death, not its avoidance, that haunts the episode from first frame to last.
As we learn in the course of Kevin’s telephone conversation with an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, to which Gladys’s corpse has been transferred, it’s not only in Mapleton that some consider Guilty Remnant an “infestation” to be eradicated. The final image depicts the body devoured by flames, summarily burned up until it’s but ash alongside innumerable others in an ATF warehouse. In its suggestion of a pandemic of violent religious persecution abetted by the relentless machinery of majority rule, the episode’s conclusion in fact resembles its beginning, writ large. Gladys, with grandmotherly glasses and a thin-lipped unresponsiveness to both human cruelty and human frailty, need not be a beloved figure for the opening sequence to register as barbaric. Kidnapped from a gas station in the dark of night, the faces of her assailants invisible behind the harsh white glare of a flashlight, she’s tied to a tree and stoned to death. The sounds that accompany the killing—the whoosh of the rocks in the air, the thud and bloody squish of their landing, her whispered cries for mercy—are almost unbearable, calling to mind another tale of stoning in which the maintenance of the status quo becomes the justification for senseless violence.
“’It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed,” reads the final line of Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery,” “and then they were upon her.”
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