In the universe of the TV show The Leftovers, based on Tom Perrotta’s book of the same name, one day, suddenly and without provocation, 140 million people disappear. If you think people are affected by this “Departure,” ahem, you’d be right.
The first season picks up three years after the Sudden Departure, but in that time, things haven’t returned to normal—far from it. Organized religions, already struggling to stay relevant, have further ceded territory to cults like the Guilty Remnant, whose members wear white, smoke, and don’t talk. Dogs, apparently driven insane by the incomprehensibility of 2% of the world’s population up and vanishing, wander the streets in wild packs. In the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, Kevin Garvey Jr., has taken over as police chief for his father, who is institutionalized and claims to hear voices. So, yeah.
The events of The Leftovers are fictional. Still, amid this pandemic, we’ve seen scores of people leave us over the past half a year in real life, or they or we have contracted COVID-19. While not so inexplicable or sudden, it nonetheless leaves a mark on us survivors, be it physical or emotional/psychological. Coping with this is difficult, and trying to carry on with any semblance of normalcy is damn near impossible.
Simply put, these are strange times. Hell, unless you’ve also lived through the Spanish flu—and if you have, God bless you—these are unprecedented times. Consequently, acting as if each day is just another day seems out of step with the peculiarity of it all and sets the individual up for a significant amount of cognitive dissonance, not to mention it arguably doesn’t prepare them well for how long these “uncertain times” (stop me if you’ve heard that phrase before) might last.
In The Leftovers, the craziest characters seem to be the ones who act as if everything is the same or as if they’ve moved on. The series begins as Kevin Garvey the Younger, the symbol of law and order, tries to remain rational and preserve the status quo during the three-year commemoration of a Rapture-like event. It doesn’t go as planned. The anniversary vigil, disrupted by the Guilty Remnant’s protest, ends in violence as fights break out.
At this writing, more than 25 million positive tests for COVID-19 infection have been recorded and more than 840,000 people have died as a result of infection. More than half of the world’s reported cases belong to the top three countries in terms of total cases and deaths: the United States of America (“We’re #1! We’re #1!”), Brazil, and India. Major world economies like those of the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom have reported steep drops in gross domestic product in 2020’s second quarter.
In the U.S., over a million unemployment claims were filed last week. A housing and rent crisis looms with tens of millions of people facing September obligations due and a stimulus deal not close. To top it all off, it’s hurricane season and protests for racial justice continue while African-Americans are still getting gunned down with regularity by police and protesters themselves are subject to police brutality and violence from counter-protesters. This is not standard operating procedure, by any means.
With all this in mind, to think and behave as if to “keep calm and carry on” is straightforward feels as quixotic as Kevin Garvey’s quest to keep the peace in Mapleton. I keep thinking back to a Tweet back in March from comedian Rob Whisman regarding the relative meaninglessness of all the minutiae with which people concern themselves. He ends with the quip, “‘DO I look good in yellow?’ Who cares when doorknobs are poison?”
Seriously, though. For better or for worse, COVID-19 has changed the economic, political, and social calculus in the short term, and with the idea that the concerns of the present could be more durable than many of us would like to admit, this seems like as good a time as any to reassess our priorities as a society. On one hand, this moment, stripped of many of the usual distractions, can help sharpen our focus and imbue us with a newfound sense of purpose.
On the other hand, however, the changes we hope to see won’t happen overnight, and what’s more, the forces that benefit from an unequal and unjust society have become that much more entrenched in their resistance to transformation, even in a pandemic. As dramatic as it sounds, this is the fight of our lives, and in the fighting, it will take inner strength on top of what we’re already expending coping with a loss of life and a sense of loss for the world we are leaving behind.
Because there will be setbacks. There will be pain. There are times when we’ll feel deflated and we’ll have to pick ourselves back up again. You already may be feeling like this, a sense of dread hanging over the mounting number of cases and deaths. And while business leaders and politicians alike may aver “the best is yet to come” or treat COVID-19 precautions like some exciting new feature, you might feel depressed. That’s called being a human being.
On top of an economic crisis, leadership crisis, and overall health crisis, we’re facing an authentic mental and psychological health crisis. Sure, it’s something we must overcome—the alternative is not a good one, to put it mildly. But, yeah, if you’re not doing OK right now, it’s understandable and OK to admit that. Don’t let people tell you it hasn’t been that long or that the number of deaths is “acceptable” or that COVID-19 isn’t *that* deadly or that things have gotten that much simpler as a result of the pandemic. Shit sucks right now and you’re not crazy for feeling how you feel. Pretending otherwise is the real craziness.
If I sound like a cheerleader for The Leftovers, it’s only because I am. Its premise requires perhaps more buy-in from its viewers than some shows because of its supernatural elements, but that investment pays off beautifully. The show gets better as it goes along and stays strong despite an end to the source material (unlike another HBO show we all know, am I right?). I’d like to believe that has something to do with Tom Perrotta’s direct involvement with the series, but regardless, I feel it’s a criminally underrated show, especially in light of its increased applicability to today’s real-world circumstances.
I should note that The Leftovers received middling critical reception for its first season. While some of the criticism was reserved for its deliberate pacing and what was seen as an incoherent or confused narrative, a number of detractors focused on its grim or depressing tone. As if to say that in a world where 140 million people suddenly vanished without explanation or provocation, maybe it shouldn’t feel so “bleak” and “oppressive.” Right, but how would you personally deal with an event like that? Besides the notion that the show has its clear moments of lightheartedness and optimism, wouldn’t you imagine that some characters aren’t handling it all that well? What did you expect exactly?
As the series goes along, though, replete with additions and subtractions to the cast and shifts in location, the Kevin Garvey of Season One undergoes his own dramatic transformation, turning from a man who tries to preserve order amid chaos into someone who plunges himself headlong into uncertainty, even as it may concern the space between life and death itself. At first, his encounters with his demons are unsolicited, but confront them he does, and the result is a more complete and nuanced character. By the end, questions still linger for the central players and the audience alike, but we understand that Kevin has come to terms with aspects of his existence as part of our fundamental search for meaning and purpose. Again, I think viewers are richly rewarded for their investment, but I recognize The Leftovers isn’t for everyone.
It’s been less than a year for the world dealing with COVID-19. While we’ve seen some incredible instances of selflessness and service from essential workers and everyday people of every make and model to meet the need created by such widespread human suffering, we’ve also seen incredible greed from corporations and the wealthy, brutality from those who have pledged to serve and protect, and inaction from our elected representatives. Presented with its demons, the U.S. has only begun to confront them, and for many people, delusion and denial still prevail. After all, we’re either going to elect Joe Biden or Donald Trump in November. Progress, that is not.
At some point, America is going to have to rip the bandage off and truly expose its various wounds, some of which run deep. And it’s going to hurt. There will be more sadness and pain on top of what we’re already feeling. However, if we’re going to make real positive change in this nation, we’re going to have to—pardon the expression—take the mask off. And we need to be honest with how we feel and what we think in the process.