The return of the deer. The crack in the wall. The proverb on the calendar. “The Garveys at Their Best” is one long presentiment of disaster—the “tremors,” as Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) remarks, before “the big one.” Circling back to the day before the Sudden Departure, this striking interlude in the season’s narrative arc satisfies our desire to know what life was like in Mapleton before October 14th, and to understand the intensity of the grief that followed. But the episode rejects our craving for an explanation as to why, littered with premonitions that add up to nothing more than the knowledge that the course of human events is beyond our command. “A man said to the universe, ’Sir, I exist,’” Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) reads, toasting his father (Scott Glenn), Mapleton’s Man of the Year. “’However,’ the universe replied, ’that fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.’”
“The Garveys at Their Best” is, principally, a reconsideration of characters we believe we’ve come to know, and the hour’s string of surprises nimbly steers between continuity and change. The Sudden Departure, we learn, has left the residents of Mapleton both recognizably themselves and profoundly transformed. The accoutrements of pain that mark The Leftovers, from the Guilty Remnant’s unforgiving manner and Kevin’s animal obsessions to Matt Jamison’s (Christopher Eccleston) delusions of grandeur and Nora Durst’s (Carrie Coon) grocery list, turn out to be leftovers of a sort too: emblems of everyday regret frozen in time, totems of the unbridgeable gulf between “before” and “after.”
The brilliant cold open unfurls matter-of-factly, a disorienting change of pace. (“Gladys,” “Guest,” and “Solace for Tired Feet” begin, respectively, with a stoning, a shooting, and a near-suffocation.) As Kevin sneaks a cigarette after a job and returns home to a sprawling, minimalist mansion, an unseen woman with an unrecognizable voice pacing in his kitchen, a smarter critic might make the imaginative leap necessary to realize that we’ve traveled into the Garvey family’s past. But there’s a certain pleasure in being easily tricked, and I delighted at the revelation. The woman in question is the formerly silent Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), and she enters the frame asking the most mundane of questions: “Want some french toast?”
Much of the episode is similarly buoyant with normalcy, though the aforementioned presentiments cloud the horizon. Jill (Margaret Qualley), in braces, sings along to her iPod enthusiastically—but the song is “Without You.” Nora interviews successfully with Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) for a job on her long-shot mayoral campaign—but Nora explains her commitment by saying, “as far as you’re concerned, for the next four weeks I don’t have a family.” Tom (Chris Zylka) jokes good-naturedly with his kid sister—but ends up handcuffed to the past, drunkenly visiting his estranged biological father. Matt’s wife, Mary (Janel Moloney), celebrates his clean bill of health—but promises, fatefully, to let him get drunk while she drives. Only Patti, visiting her therapist (none other than Laurie Garvey), appears as leached of hope on October 13th as she does three years later, convinced that “something terrible’s about to happen…like the world is gonna end.”
To wit, Jill’s science project is about “entropy,” or the tendency of order to become disorder; Kevin discovers a leak in his coffee cup; Nora’s daughter wonders, about the rampaging deer, “maybe it lost its family.” The profusion of foreknowledge at first seems heavy-handed, but the experience of loss is often wrapped up in crazed attention to the otherwise unremarkable detail. In her incomparable handbook of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the weeks, the days, the hours preceding the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, again and again, circling back to recite the facts of the matter once more. “If I did not believe he was dead all along,” she writes, “I would have thought I should have been able to save him.” Perhaps Kevin thus startles at the sight of the deer in the The Leftovers’s pilot because he encountered the creature twice before the Sudden Departure. Perhaps Nora continues to buy her children’s preferred food in the beginning of “Guest” because she complained to Lucy Warburton about “figuring out which juice box is certified organic.” Perhaps Laurie joins the Guilty Remnant because she dismissed Patti’s warning, Tom follows Holy Wayne because he needed his father, and Jill embraces her anarchic streak because the word on her mind was “entropy.” The Leftovers is a tale of the magical thinking that accompanies absence, a portrait of people submerged in the same insane belief as Didion. I should have been able to save them.
It appears that Patti was wrong, in “Cairo,” to scold society’s failure to remember. What, in fact, defines the wrenching conclusion of “The Garveys at Their Best” is the impossibility of forgetting. How could Kevin forget that the out-of-towner he fucked after a fight with Laurie vanished from the motel bed? How could Laurie forget that the fetus inside her disappeared from the ultrasound? How could Nora forget that her last words to her family bore not love, but petty frustration, before they were gone from her kitchen forever? Didion writes:
At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster, we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.
“The Garveys at Their Best” closes the circle on the Sudden Departure with the recognition that there’s no forgetting “the ordinary instant,” that the terrible thing that happens is terrible, in part, because we failed to see it coming. Appropriately enough, then, it is a broken circle that I’ll remember as the singular image of The Leftovers this season. Tom, Jill, and several others at the science fair join hands to form a circuit, the camera peering down from above as their connection illuminates the bulb at their center—and then, just like that, the light is extinguished. A hand holds empty space where once there was a link in the human chain. The plane falls, the car bursts into flames, the rattlesnake strikes. “Before” becomes “after,” and there’s no going back.
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