The Leftovers, one of the most divisive shows of last year, returns with an out of the box episode that shifts the action to a new location populated by new characters.
Let’s bitch it out…
It is a bold decision to cast by the wayside all of the characters and the location that we came to know in S1 and focus on a new family, John (Kevin Carroll) and Erika Murphy (Regina King), residents of
Jarden Miracle, Texas. Following an absolutely audacious prologue set millennia-ago (more on that below), we are introduced to the Murphys and their two children, Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Michael (Jovan Adepo), in the only town in America unaffected by the Sudden Departure. There’s no attempt by The Leftovers‘ writers to reassure us that we will see Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) or Jill (Margaret Qualley) later. In fact if you hadn’t read any pre-premiere reviews or seen the casting notices, you might have thought that the show had merely dropped the Garveys and started back over with a new cast.
In effect ‘Axis Mundi’ is a soft reboot. After chewing through the entirety of Tom Perrotta’s source material with S1, a new direction was required to keep the series going. Still this opening episode makes very little effort to connect to what has come before; there’s no mention of the Guilty Remnant, or the events that rocked Mapleton at the end of S1. In their place is the general oddity and sense of mystery that pervades “Miracle National Park” – a town that is clearly hiding some significant fractures beneath its proper, organized facade. The fact that the town has reinvented itself as a tourist mecca, catering to religious folk and paranoid individuals looking for protection in the event more people disappear highlights that despite not losing any residents, it is nonetheless a different place as a result of the Sudden Departure. As an introduction, ‘Axis Mundi’ highlights its opportunistic capitalist side: you can buy everything from specialty tobacco to local water in test tubes – everything is available for sale at stalls that are set up like a county fair just down the road from the local homeless / messiah figure.
Although we spend all of our time with the Murphys, they remain mysterious figures. Regina King is excellent (as always) and Erika is warm and bemused, although she’s not really the focus. The hour mostly belongs to John and Evie, with a small but significant amount of screen time dedicated to Michael (whose faith helps to unravel some of the town’s mysterious practices).
John is shaping up to be a central protagonist (or maybe he’s Kevin’s antagonist?) and he’s not necessarily the kind man he initially appears to be. The shiny veneer that accompanies his interactions with his family at the breakfast table wears off following a visit to Isaac (Darius McCrary), a childhood friend who peddles medication & palm readings to susceptible tourists. Isaac gives John an ominous warning about danger befalling him, though it’s clear that John doesn’t believe Isaac is more than a dime-store trickster. Later that night John and his firefighter squad take a page from Fahrenheit 451 and burn down Isaac’s house. John’s argument is that Isaac is “taking people’s money”, which is ironic when you consider the profits that are clearly being made in the tourist square every day.
It takes a while for a hint of John’s past to come out. It occurs quite randomly over birthday desert: John arbitrarily drops the truth bomb that he was in prison for six years for attempted murder, but before the details can come out, Evie has an epileptic episode and John’s sentence goes unaddressed. It is clear from his reaction to different events over the course of the episode – cautious, controlled – that he is a figure who seeks control, someone with authority, though it’s not entirely clear what that role is. If nothing else, I think he’s more than just a fireman. Why, for example, does Erika admonish him for “working” on his birthday when he extends an invitation to the Garveys to stop by for a BBQ?
Add to this a slow creeping infiltration of police state imagery over the course of the hour. It begins when Michael must show approved identification to park rangers before setting up his stall, and kicks into overdrive when he goes out after dark to deliver food to the local messiah. On the ride home, Michael bikes past a couple being arrested and is caught in the headlights of a police chopper alongside a fenced road – all of which is suggestive that there is greater control and restriction in Miracle than initially meets the eye. Perhaps this is why Evie and her friends rebel by running naked through the woods and take off at night?
These and many other mysterious events – the earthquakes, the cordoned off glass areas on the street and, of course, the town’s fabled reputation – make for compelling viewing. There are so many tiny details that demand explanation or invite inquiry that it’s hard not to keep a running tally of questions that will hopefully be addressed.
All in all, this is an exciting first episode back. The Leftovers was never easy viewing in season one and season two’s staunch refusal to retain a level of familiarity is formidable. If nothing else, with ‘Axis Mundi’ the series retains its crown as one of the most distinct TV series on air. For that reason alone, I’m glad to have it back.
- I can’t recall the last time that a series completely revamped its opening credit sequence with a brand new song. In this case, it’s a very dramatic shift from the religious-Rapture overtones of the first season to the more accessible country-twang of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be”. The decision to focus on the everyday moments embodied in household pictures, absent the missing 2% from the Sudden Departure, is a clearer storytelling technique that doesn’t have the same turn-off effect that the cathedral paintings of S1 had.
- What to say about the 10 minute 2001-esque opening of a cavewoman who gives birth on the same night that an earthquake kills the rest of her tribe, stranding her in the wilderness with a newborn? It’s actually a very clever way of exploring the series’ themes of rebirth, loss and salvation. I’m just awestruck by the audacious decision to open with this sequence; it’s like a miniature-cinematic f*ck you to people who can’t just go with the flow of the show. Ironic considering it follows the revamped, accessible opening credits.
- It’s hard to miss the parallel between a cavewoman picking up and caring for another woman’s child and Nora’s decision to adopt the baby on her doorstep in the S1 finale.
- What to make of Matt Jamison’s (Christopher Eccleston) interrupted introduction at the pulpit by the Reverend? It’s clear that the line he feeds John when questioned following the service is a lie.
- Erika is a runner just like Kevin and just like him she has mystical encounters with animals on her runs (in this case, a bird that has survived being buried in a box). Perhaps these two can start a club?
- Should we assume that people and animals can’t die in Miracle? Michael seemed remarkably unafraid to stick his hand down the garbage disposal.
- Hands in garbage disposals = no. Just don’t go there show.
- Speaking of which, Alan Sepinwall at Hitflix rightly acknowledges that both Kevin and John have a habit of losing things others find easily (bagels for Kevin, spoons for John).
- I had also forgotten how much the series loves Perfect Strangers until I read Sepinwall’s piece. The bit about Mark Linn-Baker re-appearing after faking his Departure is a riff on a bit last season about famous celebrities who disappeared.
- When Kevin appears in Miracle, he already has a gash on his head. Knowing this series, he most certainly did not fall…or at least there’s more to it than that. I suspect we’ll find out more when we see the Garvey perspective next week.
- I’m hoping to convince harrisonfanatic to check this series out so that he can dive into the score/soundtrack – it’s clearly a massive component of the series but I’m ill-equipped to discuss it in the depth it deserves.
- Finally, welcome to coverage of The Leftovers. This promising debut augers well for the season to come and I think we’ll have plenty to chat about as the season progresses.
- Yvette (pitching softball with John): “Knock knock.” John: “Who’s there?” Yvette: “Broken pencil.” John: “Broken pencil who?” Yvette: “Never mind, it’s pointless.”
- Nora (when Erika comments that Kevin is pretty): “His secret is moisturizing.”
Your turn: what did you think of the premiere? Were you awestruck by the opening or confused? Like the new theme song? Did you miss the Garveys as our narrative anchors? What’s the deal with the Murphys and Miracle, more generally? Where did Evie go? Sound off below.
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO