As we approach Sunday’s season finale of The Leftovers, HBO’s new series about a Rapture-like occurrence and its aftermath in a small New York town, let’s consider a Gospel story:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.” Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” And Jesus took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?” Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”
Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) recites this passage to Kevin (Justin Theroux), the town’s troubled police chief, to illustrate how it’s easier to stay silent than to speak hard truths. If this passage is unfamiliar, there’s a likely reason: it’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of “secret sayings” attributed to Jesus but not one of the four canonical Gospels.
In the wake of The Leftovers’ “Sudden Departure,” during which two percent of the world’s population vanished instantly, Jamison’s invocation of this unorthodox source seems entirely fitting. The world of this new hard reality, seen through the eyes of the grieving citizens of Mapleton, N.Y., no longer seems canonical, accepted. The rules seemed to have changed, and what once was considered out of bounds is suddenly in play. Thus, what better place for a pastor, who’s struggling along with his parishioners to make sense of the insensible, to seek wisdom?
Indeed, every character we’ve come to know in The Leftovers is seeking something - anything - that offers meaning for what appears to be a meaningless tragedy. This meaning comes in many ways, and sometimes not at all. Some in Mapleton proclaim a radical certainty by joining the “Guilty Remnant,” an eerie organization of religious activists formed in response to the Departure. They dress in white and silently haunt the town to proclaim their faith in God and deny the “Old World Order” that ended with the Departure. The leader of Mapleton’s chapter fervently proselytizes their vision to a new member, echoing the Gospel of Thomas: “There can’t be doubt, because doubt is fire. And fire’s gonna burn you up until you are but ash.”
More than a show about being left behind, The Leftovers is about people who are lost.
This zealous certitude contrasts greatly with the experience of other townspeople, who fluctuate between abject grief and resigned agnosticism. People still mourning their losses order life-like replicas of vanished loved ones (at $40,000 a piece) to be used in traditional burials. Others seek out the mysterious power of Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a messianic drifter who has attracted a cult-like following for his ability to remove people’s grief simply by hugging them (after collecting a hefty fee). But mostly what these seekers find are facsimiles, imitations of authenticity that may offer solace but rarely provide true relief from the underpinning dissonance pervading humanity since the Departure.
The series, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, is produced by Damon Lindelof, best known for his equally enigmatic show Lost. Both series share a comfort with mystery, with asking big questions and sitting in the empty space after the asking, even if answers don’t come or don’t feel good. But I wonder if The Leftovers was misnamed. More than a show about being left behind, The Leftovers is about people who are lost, who wander through the fog of fear and anguish toward whatever can restore normalcy - however incomplete it might be - and relieve their burden of despair.
For this, Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians is apt: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” He doesn’t offer a cure-all for suffering, nor a reason for it - only the motivation to persevere. When the sorrow is strongest, perhaps that’s all anyone can do.