Uncertainty & Stories All the Way Down: On the Beauty & Brilliance of HBO’s “The Leftovers”
So, yes, this essay has spoilers. But what’s a spoiler, exactly? And do they matter? “The Leftovers” is an odd beast that is at once highly expressive, leading with affect, sentiment, and feelings. In fact, its affective intensity is downright relentless even, or especially, as it’s inflected by strong, incongruous music choices.
At the same time, the show is fundamentally driven by narrative twists and turns. In fact, the show is of, and about, competing narratives on the cosmic, societal, and personal level — narratives that will never have been veneer or ornament but, on the contrary, are ontological in that they are the shaping of life itself.
“The Leftovers” argues that stories are relational, putting people, data, events, and feelings in relationships to each other. This makes them epistemological as all knowledge claims are first, foremost, and finally stories that link things together in a way that makes sense. And ontological in a sense as stories don’t create the world but, in their distribution of experience, data, and events, they are always already shaping life itself. Stories don’t come after the fact or before the fact: stories always already inflect, deploy, and distribute facts.
Bear with me, please.
One of the great things about “The Leftovers” is that there is no master narrative to which we are privy. There is nothing we know that the characters don’t. We never know the limits of actions, of what’s actually possible. Like the characters, we never know what’s going to happen, what’s real and what’s not, what’s dream, hallucination, what’s madness. We are contemporaneous with the characters’ discovery of the limits of the world after it’s now possible for people to literally vanish from the face of the earth in the blink of an eye.
So, in this sense, this essay does have spoilers as you’ll know how some things turn out. But, on the other hand, the ambiguity of competing narrative never resolves. There is no end point per se. In “The Leftovers,” as with most great stories, it’s the living through that matters — which is to say, it’s all in the storytelling.
But I want first to talk about “The Walking Dead,” another show that opens with an event that destabilizes societal and institutional power — a virus that turns the majority of the world’s population into flesh eating zombies. (Both shows feature handsome, grizzly white male cops as their lead but that’s where the commonality ends: “TWD’s” Rick and “The Leftovers’” Kevin enjoy radically different postures towards others, towards power, towards the story, towards us — but that’s for another essay. I’ll say this: Kevin will never have been the master of anything other than abiding the demented flux around him — and taking a beating in the process.) In “TWD,” the structures that determine the consequences of our actions — institutional ethics — no longer exist for two interrelated reasons. One, there is simply no government left, no police, no church. They’re all dead, or undead, but in any case certainly not alive. And, two, the ethics of those institutions no longer apply. How do you determine murder for, and of, the undead? Old ethics are predicated on a near-globally shared understanding of the distinction between life and death. Once that distinction goes, so goes the foundation of ethics.
“The Walking Dead,” then, gives us a series of ethical structures competing to effectively govern and control people — from forms of democracy and anarchy to ideological and practical fascism. This is what drives the show episode to episode, season to season: in the face of the collapse of existing institutionalized ethics (what Deleuze and Guattari would call their deterritorialization), we witness the emergence of competing ethical modes — or what we might call territorializations as different camps in different regions with differing ethical structures vie for resources and control.
Sure, this has some existential ramifications but only in as much as one is defined ethically. The show doesn’t explore other aspects of one’s constitution such as, say desire. “The Walking Dead” explores what it is to be a “good person” in the zombie apocalypse, never what it means to be in general. There is no cosmic exploration; the show’s horizon is limited to the constitution of the self within the social (if you’re a Kierkegaard fan, this is what he calls “the ethical stage” — not aesthetic or religious immediacy but the mediation of self by the social; this became the basis for what would become existentialism).
Like “TWD,” “The Leftovers” is propelled by a destabilizing, deterritorializing event: the sudden departure of 2% of the world’s population, more or less evenly distributed (although the terms of this distribution become one element within the drama as one town had no departures: is it for a reason? If so, why?). Needless to say, this undoes the power of certain institutions. The police state’s hold on things is redistributed: in what becomes a mostly background refrain, a kind of sick joke, the police state now more openly and aggressively kills emergent competing structures while at the same time tolerating a higher level of day to day chaos and murder. It seems that when citizens can simply vanish into the ether without a trace, it’s not so easy to govern.
Science, too, is crippled, at least as master of knowing this unknowable event. In the end, science plays an essential role — not in understanding it but in reckoning it. A group of outlaw scientists have presumably created a way for people to go where the departed went. This is fantastic: science here offers no explanation, no knowledge per se, only more facts that become elements with “The Book of Nora” (the title to the series finale). Which is to say, science here offers data, not knowledge: the story creates the knowing.
Generally speaking, “The Leftovers” doesn’t care as much about the ethical structures that are deterritorialized. It focuses instead on the epistemological and existential scaffolds that buttress identity and social relations. If people can suddenly vanish without a trace, thereby breaking all existing laws of nature, what else is possible? What else don’t we know — or even know how to know? And then what are the limits of a self, of a life, if it’s no longer death and the rules of life are so cruelly unknowable and seemingly capricious? Say what you will about the mystery of death, we have no shortage of beliefs about what causes, and protects us from, it. There is no such explanatory scaffold for the Sudden Departure.
This epistemological quandary calls all departures into question. Suddenly, divorces and break ups, parents abandoning their children and children moving away from their parents, comas, the inability to have kids, not to mention regular old death are all cast out of their petrified stories and back into uncertainty — and the grief that such unknowability of loss creates. The Sudden Departure, it turns out, is one event within a vast network of loss that pervades life all the time. Only now, all that loss is no longer asleep within tired narratives: they’re all alive and flailing as everyone in this show, along with this show itself, is careening.
In “The Leftovers,” people come in and out of our lives all the time. Yes, they die. But they also divorce, move away, drift apart. Departures are not new to this world. But all these other kinds of departure are, like death, situated. A lover leaving us may tear us apart but any mystery there has long been eradicated, explained this way and that until we no longer find it bizarre that people we were once so entwined with are no longer part of our lives. We even have remedies — psychiatry and its meds and a flourishing industry of self-help.
This epistemological event, this rupture in the edifices of knowledge, this glaring unknowability is more than a lack: it is a creative event, a productive vacuum that births relentless tales of meaning. Judeo-Christianity inevitably at once splinters and surges. But what’s so interesting is that the same event is situated in such radically different ways in these competing tales. For some, the departure is a rapture; for others, a damnation. And so there are competing narratives as to the status of the eponymous leftovers: are they the ones saved or the ones not saved?
This is one of the great profundities of “The Leftovers”: things are never just themselves. All things, all bodies and events, are always already situated within stories of cause and effect, stories of meaning. The same facts can be, and are, always read in fundamentally different ways. Indeed, on its own, a fact has no meaning. The departure, like all things, is always already taken up by competing narratives.
What makes the Sudden Departure so different is that it’s new to us. These emerging stories have not had time to lose their valence to become habits of knowing, to be metaphors that we’ve forgotten are metaphors (pace Nietzsche). All explanations — of knowledge or meaning — are wacky, poignant stories. Whether it’s religious creationism of Hinduism or Judaism; the scientific stories of big bang, black holes, and replicating crystals; or the psychology of motivation and affect: they’re all very strange stories we’ve forgotten are actually stories. In “The Leftovers,” all stories suddenly seem odd as we see them for what they are — stories, not facts.
This, in turn, inaugurates a widespread epistemological dilemma — or perhaps “opening” is a better word than dilemma. The dominant story of matter and life and death no longer applies and so now everything is up for grabs about what counts as knowledge, what counts as a way of knowing. In the last season, a refrain we hear come out of different character’s mouths is: “I don’t understand what’s happening.” This is the very conditions of the shows drama: uncertainty.
Suddenly, “The Leftovers” moves into a new semiotic regime in which signs no longer signify what they used to as they’re taken up by different people for different reasons. Dreams, coincidences, hallucinations take on new roles. Are Garvey’s visions actually hallucinations, signs of a psychotic break, as Laurie Garvey argues? Or revelations, as Matt Jamison believe? Or an inherited madness from his father who also hears voices? And do all such visions share the same viability? Are Kevin Garvey Sr’s voices equally valid because we believe his son’s visions are real? The show never lands any one place; the decisions are ours as to who’s insane, who’s a prophet, and who might be something else entirely. Holy Wayne and his hugs; Kevin’s deaths and resurrections; Dean’s conspiratorial dogs; Evangeline’s “seizures”; Kevin Sr’s voices; Patti’s ghost; Virgil’s ability to see the dead; the little girl pushed down the well; the town of Jarden; the “lens’ theory: the valence of each is sure and unsure, situated in different narratives in different ways.
Such is the way of knowing: we believe on the strength of the uncertain. How do you go home from the land of the dead? You sing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” in a hotel lobby bar karaoke.
In the second season, the show pays clear homage to David Lynch. Odd things happen as Lynch’s signature mechanical drone plays, a sense of impending menace. Meanwhile, in good Lynchian style, signs proliferate — a town without departures; cigarette smoking; silence; goats; leaking faucets; barking dogs; earthquakes; fake prophets; crosses and oar beatings; back doors; and on and on. They all seem somehow significant, brimming with meaning. Only we don’t know what they mean. And nor does the show. Rather than signification, “The Leftovers” give us the valence of signs without clear signification. Like Lynch, the show plays in the power of signs and where they might point.
But, unlike Lynch, “The Leftovers” never suggests some secret, impossibly strange cabal behind the red curtain. No, the show takes more from Pynchon: everything is a sign that at once connects and doesn’t connect with other signs. Lynch gives us a world where meaning may be unknowable but something knows — always off screen. Pynchon, on the other hand, gives us an endless proliferation of signs that circulate in different economies of meaning, coalescing and dissolving as they go.
In “The Leftovers,” signs are taken up by stories and made to work in vastly different ways. And no story ever prevails. Nor does the show itself give us any firm ground to stand on, no privileged perspective of knowing. The last season becomes explicitly about all these competing stories, who has the better story. The bookend episodes of Season 3 are entitled “The Book of Kevin” and “The Book of Nora.” In between, there’s “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” It’s all stories — science, religion, self. We’re constantly writing and rewriting our stories, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as a species.
And that is what the show is: this following of different ways of taking up signs, different stories that wind through and around each other at ever different angles without certainty. The ground will never firm up. The show is all these stories at once, all competing and colliding and intertwining, offering neither respite nor resolve.
Here, stories are not fiction: they’re creative, forging the sense of the world. Stories are epistemological: ways of knowing the world. And stories are ontological in that they are the sense we make of this life, the creative force always at work distributing facts, emotions, bodies, and events into relations with each other. We lost 2% of the world’s people; those 2% lost 98%. The Sudden Departure happened October 14 here, on October 15 in Australia. Kevin navigates the dead and hallucinates like a madman; he’s just a guy and he’s a prophet. Same events, different perspectives, different worlds, different ways of relating to each other, all happening at once.
It’s all always already stories. There’s no real underneath or above to curb the tides: it’s uncertainty and stories all the way down. And it’s downright beautiful.