“Cairo” begins with a song, climaxes with a poem, and concludes with a whisper, but it’s what each of these leaves unspoken that captures the testy relationship between faith and doubt at the heart of The Leftovers. As the opening montage augurs the coming collision between Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) and Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), suturing her arrangements for the Guilty Remnant’s next radical act to his preparations for dinner, the music we hear is excerpted from “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” an African-American spiritual. Left out when Patti closes the church door, however, are the lyrics that traditionally come next: “Ain’t goin’ to lay my ’ligion down,” the hymn resolves, “no, Lord.” “Cairo” is a dark night of the soul, but the power of conviction is omnipresent at its margins.
Directed by Michelle MacLaren with the same steady hand she brought to the moral hazards of Breaking Bad and the narrative density of Game of Thrones, “Cairo” sees the residents of Mapleton tested in the same way God tested Abraham, and more than a few are found wanting. Yet even those whose commitments flag receive a full measure of empathy. Meg’s (Liv Tyler) screaming, cursing attack on Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) violates the Guilty Remnant’s core precepts, but who can blame her for responding in kind to his relentless provocations? Jill’s (Margaret Qualley) nasty insinuation about an affair between Aimee (Emily Meade) and Kevin sees her retreat from the warmth she displayed in “Solace for Tired Feet,” but hasn’t her question been on our minds all along? The point is not to celebrate those who hold steadfast or condemn those who waver, for though “Cairo” strains each character’s way of understanding the Sudden Departure, the series remains more interested in its Abrahams than its gods. “To be okay,” the elusive state of grace that shadows Jill and Aimee’s argument, requires adherence to no particular system. As Patti tells Kevin later, “it doesn’t matter what happened,” and indeed The Leftovers pays little attention to doctrinal distinctions among Mapleton’s various factions, to say nothing of offering a single, “correct” interpretation of October 14th. What matters instead is the rough work of living by any moral code, religious or secular, in a world that constantly confronts us with the unexpected, the misremembered, the accidental, the inexplicable, the false.
In some sense, every creed is a deceit if you’re not among its followers, and “Cairo” focuses on the conflict between the person convinced he knows the truth and the person convinced he’s a liar. Or she, as the case may be. After Jill loses her dinnertime showdown with Nora (Carrie Coon), she conscripts the Prius twins (Max and Charlie Carver) to help her search the Durst house for Nora’s handgun. One of the twins (eight episodes in and I still can’t tell them apart) glosses the quest thusly: “If the lady who lost her family’s, like, lying about the gun, then, like, no one can ever be okay again.” Jill’s tearful reaction to discovering the gun, hidden in a box for the board game Trouble and shoved under one of the departed children’s beds, invests it with an almost talismanic importance; the rest of the episode witnesses her cut ties with Aimee, the dog, and her father in quick succession, ending up face to face with her mother, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), at the GR compound. This sequence of events is striking because Jill’s response rests on an exceedingly narrow body of evidence. Nora once carried a gun in her purse; Nora didn’t carry the gun in her purse when she came to dinner; Nora claimed that she no longer carried a gun at all; Nora lied, and is keeping the gun tucked away at home. Whether or not this in fact means “no one can ever be okay again,” Jill cannot know the whole truth of the gun, or of Nora: “the whole truth” is an oxymoron, a statement of impossibility.
In “Cairo,” then, misapprehension is as potent a force as understanding, propelling the hour to its devastating conclusion. The fallacious assumption that it’s possible to have someone pegged turns up again and again, as Nora throws a jab about Laurie’s relationship with Jill, or as Matt explains that Meg’s grief over her mother’s death was “hijacked” by the Sudden Departure, which occurred the following day. Meg herself, hateful and shriveled, chatters away outside the church, certain that Laurie’s as angry as she is, but the latter’s vicious retort is, like her whistling cri de coeur near the end of “Gladys,” a desperate plea for silence. How dare you presume to speak for me?, her slap to Meg’s face, her hand clasped over Meg’s mouth, her guttural, aggressive “Shhhhhh!” all seem to say. How dare anyone?
“How did the members of a seemingly homogenous American suburb arrive at such disparate understandings of what they had, what they lost, and where to put their regret?” I wondered after the show’s premiere episode, and only now am I beginning to understand just how important the Garveys have been to working toward an answer. The decision to focus on Kevin, Jill, Laurie, and Tom (Chris Zylka) once registered as strange, but I’ve since come to think of the Garveys as Every Family precisely because none of their close kin departed. The world of The Leftovers, as traumatized as it may be, is still a world in which family members of the departed merit a special name, “legacies,” and the Garveys represent the healers and flagellants, the wretches and waifs, the vast number of people who feel as though they have something to grieve, but will never be able to name it. Or, as Wittgenstein was quoted in “Pilot,” “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
Intimations of dark deeds pepper “Cairo” throughout: the image of Kevin’s missing shirts pinned to a copse of trees and the mystery of his nocturnal fugue states; the news that the Guilt Remnant, with Gladys’s blessing, was responsible for her brutal stoning and the truckload of dolls delivered to the GR church; Dean’s (Michael Gaston) ghostly lack of identifying information and his strange words for Patti as he departs, after Kevin saves her life: “Oh, shut the fuck up. I tried.” (It wouldn’t surprise me if Dean turned out to be in on the game all along, and I fully expect GR to terrorize the people of Mapleton with life-sized replicas of the departed.)
But it’s the failure to articulate his own convictions, and to understand another’s, that mark Kevin’s experience in the upstate New York encampment of Cairo. The abduction of Patti Levin provides Theroux with his first great showcase and Dowd her last, as Kevin’s sickly panic and Patti’s spitting, swearing defiance reflect their respective reversals of fortune. Despite being strapped to a wooden chair, she’s the one in power. She has “purpose.” The climactic conversation between them culminates in Dowd’s ferocious performance of lines from “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace” by W.B. Yeats, “O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire/The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay…,” and it’s here that The Leftovers begins, perhaps, to elucidate its grand design. Underlying the Guilty Remnant’s pledge to act as “living reminder” of the Sudden Departure, to combat the forces of distraction, diversion, and “moving on,” is ultimately a nightmarish ideology in which remembering is the only reason to exist—an eternal recurrence of catastrophe. Yeats, in both the early folk poem Patti recites and his famous “The Second Coming,” expressed an idea of apocalypse similarly beset by psychological terror, communal ritual, crushing circularity:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Kevin is clearly a man, however, whose moral code will bend, not break. “I have responsibilities, I have commitments,” he told his father in “Solace for Tired Feet.” “I’m not going to leave my family.” Nor did Yeats, who once poked fun at “a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies,” fail to appreciate the power of such declarative simplicity.
What resounds through “Cairo” is this counter-narrative, that no amount of rebuke or scorn, misapprehension or falsehood, will shake the sincere belief. No one in The Leftovers lays their religion down easily. Despite her protestations, Kevin doesn’t appear to understand Patti, and yet he shows her mercy: He remains as steadfast in his devotion to a basic sense of decency as she does in her commitment to a cause. By the time her gruesome suicide arrives in the final frames, the spreading shock of crimson on her white clothes suggests that the brewing clash of convictions is likely to be trouble indeed. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” Yeats wrote, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
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