There are a lot of unwanted visitors hanging around the Jarden of Eden these days.
Let’s bitch it out…
Well that was a bit of a humdinger, wasn’t it?
It’s no hyperbole to suggest that The Leftovers is dramatically improved in its second season, though powerfully evocative performances was never a component the show was lacking. The change in location for the show at both the macro level (from NY to Miracle) and micro (next door to virtual doppelgangers) has provided exciting new fodder to explore and, combined with the amazing performances, the HBO series has really upped its game. Thus far Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux have been killing it, while individual episodes dedicated to Christopher Eccleston, Amy Brenneman and Chris Zylka have included exceptional work, too.
The Murphys, on the other hand, haven’t had as much to do. Aside from the opening “set the stage” premiere that introduced the new location of Miracle, the Murphys have been more peripheral than I would have expected given the big name casting and prominence in the first episode. Or at least they were peripheral until now…
Let’s give a big round of applause to Regina King. Regina freaking King. Anyone who has seen her in Southland or American Crime likely had an idea of what King brings to the table in terms of acting prowess, but before ‘Lens’ The Leftovers didn’t seem to have much for her to do. That changes here as King delivers a powerhouse performance that is matched solely by Coon*.
*Let’s just shower them both with awards now and be done with it because it is hard to imagine two more worthy actresses.
With this episode, we move into the second half of this second season. In the timeline of the show, it’s been three weeks since the three girls disappeared (or were “lifted”). ‘Lens’ tackles the uncomfortable subject of blame and responsibility, specifically by focusing on two characters whose experiences so closely mirror each other that during their grandiose tete-a-tete that they are literally framed and positioned as the other’s counterpart. The title is two-fold: 1) the literal interpretation focuses on Nora’s (Coon) categorization by the looney scientists and the Department of Sudden Departure as a potential instigator of Departures and 2) a mental perspective that both Nora and Erika adopt in the wake of the loss of their respective loved ones.
Let’s break it down according to each woman’s story:
For the first time we spend a substantial amount of time with Erika. We’ve accumulated sporadic facts about her up to this point: she’s a doctor at the local hospital, she has a hearing impairment and she and John (Kevin Carroll) have an emotional but supportive relationship.
‘Lens’ does a great job of filling in the gaps. We begin to understand the weariness that Erika carries when she is forced to patch up a profiteer selling miracle water who ran afoul of John. We knew that she’s aware of John’s anger management issues, but it hasn’t been clear why she covers for him. The secret may lie in the previously unknown familial relationship she has with Virgil (Steven Williams), whom Michael (Jovan Adepo) has been sneaking out to visit. It turns out that Virgil is the man that John was sent to jail for shooting, so Erika may be attempting to keep her husband out of jail by downplaying his new crimes. There’s clearly more to the story, but there are certainly frought family relationships lurking beneath the calm veneer of Erika’s life.
Events conspire to send Erika over the edge of the day of the fundraiser. In addition to confronting Virgil for leaving her pie and coping with the byproduct of John’s anger – “You hit people because you need to hit people” she reminds/accuses him – Erika is also dodging George (Joel Murray), the DSD agent who wants to administer the fraud survey to determine whether Evie truly Departed. Things come to a head at the fundraiser ceremony when the beautiful slideshow montage of the three girls is interrupted by crazy Jerry, who prepares to perform a goat slaughter in the middle of the aisle. It’s completely understandable when Erika goes off and it’s a great explosive moment for King, who delivers an impassioned, accusatory speech to her fellow citizens that they have not been saved and they need to desist their repeated, desperate attempts to relive the events of Oct 14 (superstitiously or for profit).
But the real fireworks are still to come…
While The Leftovers has dedicated a great deal of time to exploring how Kevin (Theroux), and to a lesser extent John, are full of rage, for my money Nora is the angriest character on the show. Her grief fuelled much of her destructive behaviour in S1 and while on the surface she seems calmer in S2, it is clear from her sporadic outbursts that she still has rage bubbling under the surface.
As Alan Sepinwall notes in his review, the opening sequence is the most Lost-like vignette yet: a scientist assembles his tools, travels to Miracle, drives to Nora’s house and accosts her in an effort to collect evidence. Over the course of the hour we learn that she is believed to be a lens – a suggestion that, when broken down by George from DSD over breakfast, confirms Nora’s worst fears: she may have been responsible for the Departure of her family (and now Evie).
Much of the remaining Nora segments of ‘Lens’ are dedicated to Nora’s slow unraveling. There’s a palpable sense of relief when she learns that Drs. Joaquin Quarto & Allison Herbert believe that she has unintentionally been chosen by the demon Azrael because it’s such an absurd proposition that frees her of guilt. It empowers her to steal George’s new DSD survey and administer the test to Erika following the fundraiser, where the proverbial sh*t hits the fan.
The DSD Survey
In the aftermath of the fundraiser, the two women go head to head in Erika’s living room. Nora suggests that going through the survey will help Erika to overcome her fear that Evie didn’t actually Depart. Initially her belief bears fruit as all of Erika’s answers are no…until suddenly there’s a shift and then all of the answers are yes.
Both King and Coon are masterful in this scene. The camera framing is tight on their faces, so the focus remains on their facial expressions and their reactions to each other. Erika’s story about her grandmother’s folk story involving the buried birds is the centerpiece. The revelation about the revived bird from the premiere has the potential to be underwhelming, but the suggestion of a true miracle in Miracle weighs on Erika (and us) like an emotional ton of bricks. In Erika’s mind, she truly believes that her wish to protect her children after she left John is the reason why Evie disappeared that night. Nora calls her out on her hypocrisy, but when Erika throws it back in her face by (unintentionally) reminding Nora about her disastrous final encounter with her family. Nora cries and bolts.
As several other reviews have noted, part of what is so powerful about the encounters between Nora and Erika is that they are so similar. Unfortunately following the administration of the test, the distance between them has never been greater. In fact there’s even potential for escalation. Nora opens the episode by breaking the Murphy’s window (either for ruining her belief that Miracle is safe or for John’s abandonment of her brother). The episode ends with Erika paying Nora back in the exact same way.
- Dr. Joaquin Quarto needs to work on his people skills. A more welcoming introduction with Nora might have gone down better than an interrogation on her front steps.
- Michael invites Jill (Margaret Qualley) to the fundraiser, though if the look Erika gives them through the window is any indication, the burgeoning relationship may be cut short.
- I loved the inversion of expectations when Erika sees baby Lily abandoned on the hood of the Garvey car. At first we assume that Nora is so consumed with researching lensing that she has forgotten their child, but then it is revealed that it is actually Kevin who forget Lily because he’s freaking out over Patti. Seemingly the event is enough to drive him to confess to Nora at episode’s end that he is losing his mind, which should be interesting moving forward.
- It’s fascinating to see Kevin speaking to Patti from someone else’s perspective because he legitimately does look insane. I’d wondered if we would ever see this.
- The sequence when Erika chases the teenager who left the pie is a masterful combination of sound (or lack thereof) and editing. With only half of her hearing aid installed, Erika can barely hear the sounds of her environment and the frenetic editing keeps Erika framed in close-ups with blurry backgrounds that suggest not only what she’s experiencing, but also creates a palpable sense of danger. I was constantly waiting for her to be hit by a car (which admittedly half-happens).
- At one point Nora takes Mary (Janel Moloney) for a visit to see Matt (Eccleston) in Tent City and he seems to be doing fine. We should have known that he would thrive among the unwashed masses.
- Finally, one integral scene that will undoubtedly play into the future occurs when Laurie (Amy Brenneman) calls Nora to ask if she has seen Tom. This confirms my fears from 2×03 ‘Off Ramp‘ that Tom has fallen back in with the Guilty Remnant, possibly in the aftermath of that rape with Meg.
- Matt (when Nora refutes his claim that she would be hostile to the Murphys): “I don’t know. Why would you?”
Your turn: what did you think of King vs Coon? Are those awards-worthy performances? Surprised that Kevin confessed? What is Virgil’s connection to Erika and John? What has happened to Tom? Sound off below
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO