Well, I hope you weren’t too set on knowing more about the missing girls at the quarry this week, because now we’re back in the Mapleton side of the story. The latest episode of The Leftovers, “Off Ramp,” departs from the ensemble storyline (in classic Damon Lindelof fashion) to focus on a single character or two – think about your favorite episodes of Lost, and how most of them probably fit that category. It’s a storytelling tool that Lindelof often returns to and reaps the benefits, able to explore the grandest themes of the show in an intimate portrait. Consider the show’s best episode to date, Season One’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” which followed Matt Jamison through a crisis of faith and asked big questions about destiny and fate. Here Lindelof uses Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and Tom (Chris Zylka) — whom only briefly appeared last week — to explore the themes of rebirth and return. Various characters deal with their own sense of struggle in returning back to normal, and whether that is even possible.
A lot has changed for the two since the Season One finale. Laurie is completely free of the Guilty Remnant, highlighted by a charming visual gag of her buying a dozen packs of Nicorette. She’s writing a book about her time in the Guilty Remnant and works to help people escape, providing shelter and group therapy. Laurie’s got her old job back as a therapist, which defined so much of her before the departure. But is she herself again? Who is “herself”?
Amy Brenneman was producing quality work last season even without the use of her voice, and with all of Laurie’s communicative senses back, she delivers strong work again. In this episode, Laurie slowly deteriorates with spikes of violent acts (she runs over two cult members and kills them), however Brenneman makes the moments incredibly felt and compelling. Laurie gets a meeting with a publishing company, and it’s here that she completely unravels. The scene feels like a rebuff from Lindelof to the series’ critics. The publishers want more clarity in Laurie’s book, they want explanations for the more bizarre aspects of the cult (like the constant smoking). She doesn’t feel the need for an explanation and responds by attempting to violently choke the publisher. I could ask for some subtlety, but Lindelof’s writing wouldn’t be as compelling.
Tom is helping Laurie rescue people, as he infiltrates various factions of the cult to find those in need of help. There’s been a savior complex surrounding Tom throughout the series that hits a moment of clarity in “Off Ramp.” He couldn’t save Christine, so now he’s trying to save others. This is going well until Tom picks someone who doesn’t want to be saved, blowing his cover. He is taken to an abandoned road where Meg (Liv Tyler) appears, having taken Patti’s place as the sort of queen mother of the cult. She and Tom have sex — complete with a refreshing occurrence of male genitalia in a TV landscape dominated by the male gaze — before threatening to light him on fire, a moment that’s not even in the top 10 most bizarre scenes of the second season.
In Season Two of The Leftovers, the first two episodes saw two parallel timelines of narratives, and this one plays into it as well. About a third of the way through “Off Ramp,” Tom has a meeting with Jill from the previous episode. It’s conveyed through Laurie’s perspective and explains why Tom said he was sick, as all that nicotine can’t be good for your health.
The recurring theme within “Off Ramp” is the notion of returning to your old self, and if that’s even possible. Passages of dialogue and interaction highlight this concept, as Laurie tells Tom to take a few days to rest after returning from a cult infiltration — “get yourself back” — and he repeats the three words as a question. With Laurie, she needs the file from a laptop for her book, saying that she can’t start over again. On The Leftovers, returning to your old self isn’t as easy as going from Point A to Point B, it’s a constant struggle and effort.
A theme of personal rediscovery is embodied by a rescued cult member, a mother and wife named Susan (Heather Kafka). The Guilty Remnant tracks her down and leaves a crumpled note for her, but she stays strong and returns home to her husband and son. A piano cover of The Pixies’s “Where is My Mind?” plays, and it somehow doesn’t feel ham-fisted, but healing. The sequence ends with Susan approaching her house, and it’s an unexpected moment of catharsis and hope for a show about how fleeting those ideas are.
Susan doesn’t feel like her old self, however, as she cries at the fact that her own son is seemingly willing to pretend she never left. Susan misses the quiet of the remnant, evidenced by her expression when she turns off the noise machine by her bedside for some silence before her husband’s alarm goes off. The turnaround goes south when she reads the note reading “Any Day Now,” and she’s compelled to drive her family into an oncoming semi-truck. The most believable moments of hope and catharsis in The Leftovers stand alongside some of the darkest moments through Susan’s storyline.
In the final scene, and in the aftermath of Susan’s tragedy, Tom tells his own story to the group of people “rescued” from the cult. He talks about his time with Holy Wayne, who exists like a specter in the episode, and reveals that Wayne gave his powers of healing hugs before his death. What’s curious is that “Off Ramp” stops before he can use these powers, which harkens back to the ambiguous nature of Holy Wayne’s hugs in Season One. Was it faith? Was it supernatural? Was it even real? In this episode, the questions are whether Tom telling the truth or if he’s making it all up to give these people something to believe in. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, as Tom finally becomes the savior he always wanted to be, accepting that his old self is only an idea at this point, not something that can be recaptured.
“Who wants a hug?” Holy Tom asks. After each episode of The Leftovers, I do.
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.