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‘The Leftovers’ recap: Season 1, Episode 2, ‘Penguin One, Us Zero’

What are they writing about? Credit: Paul Schiraldi. What are they writing about?
Credit: Paul Schiraldi

This week’s “The Leftovers” does not improve the overall disappointment of last week’s premiere, choosing instead to overwhelm plot with melodrama. This is not to say that nothing happens – quite a bit does, actually – but the characters remain sketches, and no amount of brooding piano music will give them the development they so sorely need.

We open in what appears to be an FBI office, where two detectives have some expository dialogue concerning Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph). It turns out that the gaggle of girls he surrounds himself with are most definitely underage — the man already has eight counts of statutory rape in Pennsylvania alone — and his racket giving state senators magical hugs is enough to classify him as a threat to national security.

Cue the raid of the ranch. A squad member follows Christine (Annie Q.), the girl Holy Wayne warned Tom to stay away from last episode, and threatens to shoot her if she refuses to reveal Holy Wayne’s whereabouts. Instead, Tom shoots him from behind, saving the frightened teenager. “I’m sorry,” he tells the dead man, “she’s important.” Important to whom?

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This is the first episode with the series’ official opening credits, which are fine but nothing particularly interesting (in comparison to, say, those of “True Blood”). After the credits, Kevin (Justin Theroux) wakes up to the sounds of Amy, his daughter Jill’s friend, who leads him outside, toward the mysterious dog killer and a bonfire. Kevin then wakes up — of course it was a dream — to a small fire going on next door at his neighbor’s. He steps outside, and time has passed since the last episode. It’s now clearly winter, with snow on the rooftops and Kevin and his neighbor’s frozen breath hanging in the air as Kevin admonishes him.

In another part of town, Meg (Liv Tyler) is also beginning her day, in the Guilty Remnant’s initiation house. She’s not an official member of the GR yet, since she’s wearing dark colors and still speaking, but she seems enthusiastic about the cult. Meg is a cipher, and even by the end of the episode it’s unclear what her motivations for joining the GR are. We see a hint of prior dissatisfaction with her fiance, but these frustrations take the form ofhis words, when he’s speaking with Kevin about this at the police station. But what, exactly, does Meg feel about all of this?

The rest of the episode doesn’t tell us. Laurie (Amy Brenneman) tries to force her to chop down a tree, and is subsequently admonished by the GR’s leader that she’s being too nice to Meg. Even by the end, when Meg goes back outside and chops down the tree, the motivation for her sudden determination is unclear. The GR seems to encourage the abandonment of possessions and reminders of the pre-Oct. 14 world (the message “THE OLD WORLD IS GONE” flashes on a TV in the initiation house), which Meg at first resists and then appears to embrace, but we still don’t know enough about her home life prior to this to care about her decision.

It's the end of the world as we know it?

Meanwhile, whoever’s responsible for Jill and Amy’s lines has clearly never spoken to an actual teenage girl. Amy’s naughty language and bravado in the coffee shop sound more like a stereotype of what “bad” teenage girls sound like than a real human being. “I may have fucked that barista, so if he spit in your chai that’s on me.” Wait, what? How much sex do these writers think teenagers have, and would they really talk about it like Samantha in “Sex and the City”? We get it: In the wake of the departure, these high schoolers are depraved. It’s expected and dull.

Jill and Amy spy on Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who apparently carries a handgun in her purse. She works as some kind of insurance policy regulator, interviewing departure benefit recipients in case of fraud. It’s depressing work (the elderly couple filing for their departed son are forced to answer questions like “To your knowledge, did Charlie enjoy cooking?” and “To your knowledge, did Charlie have more than 20 sexual partners?” despite repeatedly telling Nora that their son had Down syndrome), and the sad, depersonalized monotony of it lends some sympathy to Nora. So far, she's the most interesting character we've come across.

While Nora conducts the interview, Jill and Amy follow her with the Prius guys. (Once again, the Prius is name-checked — is this product placement, or a strange, ineffective attempt by Amy to poke fun at their masculinity?) Amy breaks into Nora's car and steals some jellybeans (“They’re stale.” “They were probably for her kids.”) and then runs back to the Prius when Jill honks the car horn to scare her.

Near the end of the episode, Kevin visits a group home and speaks with his father, who is revealed to be mentally ill. The misfortunes piled on this character are almost too much (remember, in addition to his father, Kevin also has an absent son and wife, a troublesome daughter, a difficult job,and the mysterious dog killer to deal with). Tragedy for tragedy's sake has a cheapening effect, and it negates any emotional depth it could have lent Kevin by the sheer overblown spectacle of it all.

We end the episode with Meg returning to chop down that tree, and her storyline perfectly illustrates “The Leftovers”'s biggest problem thus far: We don't know anything about these characters' motivations. There is a way to craft mysterious characters while also dropping clues that reveal their essential humanity (Showtime's“Penny Dreadful” was surprisingly good at that this spring), but“The Leftovers” hasn't successfully done that yet. Meg's return to the tree is clearly meant to be a Moment for both the character and the audience, but it's unconvincing at best.

Grade: C+

 
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