Dylan Moses Griffin

Recap: The Leftovers ‘Axis Mundi’ and ‘A Matter of Geography’

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The first thing to note about the return of The Leftovers, HBO’s best and boldest show in their lineup right now, is the opening credits. Gone are the moving paintings of individuals being pulled to heaven over Max Richter’s operatic score, and instead, there is something much more generic, as a country song plays over images of photographs with people disappearing. The new sequence thematically captures the sense of abrupt loss in this world, but the presentation feels much safer than Season 1, which is understandable given that many critics didn’t like the first round of episodes. The Leftovers didn’t have the broad appeal that HBO was hoping for, and while the Season 2 credits sequence works thematically, it’s a relatively safe move.

Thankfully, the opening scene of the premiere, “Axis Mundi,” proves that The Leftovers is still incredibly baffling and poetic. A prehistoric (and pregnant) cavewoman watches her clan get crushed in an earthquake before giving birth alone and making her way toward a distant fire with her newborn. A rattlesnake slithers over the baby, and the mother gets bit in the process of killing the serpent. Hours later, she dies after crossing a small creek with the child. The baby cries and wiggles its way out of her mother’s dead arms, as another woman comes and rescues the newborn.

What does it mean? I have no clue, and I’m okay with having no clue. Let the conspiracy theories for this cold open come forth, but it should be noted that although The Leftovers has its premise rooted in an event ripe for discussion, it has never been about figuring out the central mystery, but rather about how to move on from loss, trauma and the unknown. The Leftovers has a fascination with babies and births, seeing them as a sign of renewal, and the absence of them serving as a sign of unknowable loss. In the open of Season 1 episode “B.J. and the A.C.,” a baby doll is built in a factory, shipped and then prepped to be a baby Jesus. However, it then disappears, just like all of the people. The characters in HBO’s drama haven’t just been robbed of their family and friends, they’ve been robbed of their faith as well.

The Season 2 premiere doesn’t focus on the Garveys in Mapleton, New York, but on the Murphys in Jarden, Texas. The latter city is located in the aptly named Miracle National Park and unique because it’s the only town in the world that didn’t have any departures. The Garveys do eventually show up when they move in next door halfway through the episode, but the strength of the premiere lies in the fact that we didn’t even need them to be engaged. It’s a testament to how settled the family and location feel in both writing and performance. Jarden doubles as a town and livable tourist attraction, as the spot has become a mecca of sorts for people who travel far and wide to find spiritual healing and enlightenment. The Murphys have adapted well to living in a place with a self-serving economy, and they present themselves as pillars of the community.

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With Erika (Regina King) as the loving mother and John (Kevin Carroll) as the devoted father, their son Michael (Jovan Adepo) spends his free time raising money for the local church by selling spring water to tourists, and their daughter Evie (Jasmine Savoy Brown) has choir practice when she’s not spending time with her friends or working on her softball pitching. There’s an undercurrent of unease that runs through the Murphy family in the Season 2 premiere, and it becomes stronger with each scene. An earthquake that mirrors the cavewoman’s story reoccurs at certain points, signaling a coming of darkness and disparity, as pikes of bizarre, dark and confounding images poke holes in the family’s portrait of utopia. The more time one spends in Jarden, the more clear it becomes that something unsettling is taking place.

Each of the new performers is felt, with Carroll being the standout as the Murphy patriarch. There’s a sense of veiled doom in how calm John remains under duress. Each conversation and interaction contains the chance of provocation, as people both fear and love John. He’s got a grip on the town, and Carroll rides the line between calm and danger magnetically. One of the best scenes comes when John invites the Garveys over for his birthday party, and as they make conversation at the dinner table, Mr. Murphy reveals he was in prison for attempted murder. Of course, the Garveys have to know more, and they ask what happened. “Well, I didn’t try hard enough,” John coldly answers. Carroll can sell the menace along with the charm. The premiere episode ends with feelings reminiscent of Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. After going out, both Evie and her friends never return home. John and Michael find an empty car by the quarry, and all the water has disappeared. It’s as if the kids just vanished into thin air.

Now hit rewind. The second episode, “A Matter of Geography,” is all about getting the Garveys to Jarden. Kevin tells Jill and Nora about his involuntary kidnapping of Patti, her suicide and the subsequent burial. Nora reveals that she hires prostitutes to shoot her, that’s why she has the gun. “I’m okay,” they all repeat to each other, as if they’re trying to convince themselves. However, Kevin doesn’t seem to believe this, and he can’t convince himself that everything could be okay. They successfully adopt Lilly, but Kevin still isn’t convinced or maybe he doesn’t believe that good things can happen. He digs up Patti’s body and makes sure he gets pulled over, but an ATF agent with an eyepatch dismisses Kevin’s crimes at the station and lets him go. Given the eyepatch and shadowy nature, I doubt this is the last we’ve seen of the character.

What’s interesting in “A Matter of Geography” is how the direction of Mimi Leder parallels Season 1. A scene with Kevin doing his best to ignore his crying baby bears a striking resemblance to the series premiere, which saw the baby of an annoyed mother disappear. The first two episodes of Season 2 speak to each other in how they dissect a lie of security perpetuated by the Garveys and Murphys. Both of the family patriarchs are suffering a crisis of comfort and normalcy; John keeps hearing a cricket chirping in his house, and Kevin repeatedly looks out into the trees as if he sees something. It could be Patti (if the showrunners were smart enough to find a way to keep the incredible Ann Dowd around), or it could be something else entirely. John reaches into the sink like he’s entering the unknown, just as Kevin reaches for a stove in the same manner. Both men know the sense of security won’t last.

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The narratives come to a head in the final scene at the quarry. What’s different in “A Matter of Geography” is that Kevin woke up in the middle of the drained quarry minutes earlier from previous events and was tied to a cinderblock, just minutes before John and Michael arrive. Kevin hides, and his behavior only presents more questions. The lid has been blown off the sense of safety for John and Kevin.

What made the first season of The Leftovers so compelling was how it strode between science and faith. Everyone’s seeking a grand truth, but the truth is a relative concept. Could it be a reoccurance of departures that caused the quarry incident? And what part does Kevin play? We can speculate as viewers, but the mysteries and conspiracies aren’t the end goal for the show’s existence, but a means to explore loss and faith within these characters. What critics derided about the first season of The Leftovers — the unwillingness to explain itself — was actually its greatest strength. Damon Lindelof and company don’t need to give answers if they’re asking the right questions.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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