“Two Boats and a Helicopter,” the third episode of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” is the first episode to inspire the kind of emotional engagement that the writers have clearly been chasing after since the show’s beginning. Most of this is due to a combination of Christopher Eccleston’s acting and a distinct lack of Garveys. It’s a shame to consider what this show could have been without Kevin Garvey’s pseudo-everyman at the forefront.
Eccleston, who you might remember as Doctor Who in the 2005 revival, plays the Reverend Matt Jamison, who previous this has only been seen in brief snatches, handing out fliers detailing the dirty secrets of the disappeared. Matt, like his dwindling congregation, is experiencing a serious crisis of faith following the events of October 14th.
As Matt tells the casino guard, whose workplace he goes to after a tip concerning a departed’s gambling habit from a man seeking a furtive baptism for his infant son, “If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, then everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless.”
But is it? This curse of knowledge – the guilt of knowing too much, and the torture of knowing too little – has been the crux of Christian scholarship and theology since, well, its beginning. Matt is on a fool’s journey if he thinks he’s entitled to an answer.
Outside of the church, Matt is continually watched by the GR, their whites blending in with the snow around them. Inside, he continues printing his desperate fliers, his hands stained black from the printer’s spilled ink. The metaphor is obvious, but effective. If Matt thinks he’s morally above all of this, he’s wrong; he is, after all, only human.
The central problem of the episode, we learn when Matt visits the bank, is that the church’s property is in foreclosure, and if Matt doesn’t pay the required $135,000 by the end of the next day, he’ll lose the church to a hedge fund interested in purchasing the land and razing the building. Matt, horrified, visits Nora, who it turns out is his sister, to ask for money from her departure reparations to buy back the church. The church, it turns out, belonged to their parents, who died in a fire when Nora was seven. (This is a little much.)
Nora refuses, and Matt reveals the one secret that he hasn’t yet plastered around Mapleton: Doug, Nora’s husband, was cheating on her with their children’s preschool teacher before the events of October 14th. In a nice bit of filming, Nora’s wedding band teeters in and out of the frame as she reacts to the news first by abruptly laughing, and then gasping for air.
What right does Matt have to do this, to designate himself some kind of truth-teller, a trumpeter of personal tragedies, for those who have lost their loved ones? When he returns home, we see a glimpse of his own domestic life: his wife, Mary, is paralyzed from the neck down, and Matt can’t afford to pay the nurse he’s found to help care for her. “Help me,” he prays.
Matt wanders to what is apparently Kevin’s father’s home (maybe?), where Laurie is waiting, watching. She writes, “Please don’t tell him, I love him,” which Matt agrees to if she doesn’t tell anyone about this. Laurie walks away and Matt finds a peanut butter jar buried in the grass, filled with a large roll of money ($20,000 to be exact) tied up with one of Matt’s fliers, detailing a local judge’s bribes. A note reads, “Rev, you deserve this. – KG.”
Matt goes back to the casino with a crazy plan in mind: gamble the $20,000 until he can pay off his church. It works, to the astonishment of some troublesome looking bystanders cheering him on, and Matt leaves with a grand total of $160,000. In the parking lot, though, he’s attacked by those bystanders, who steal the cash-filled envelope. The whole sequence is probably the most suspenseful scene of the series thus far, and – oh, wow! Matt snaps, fights back, and gets his money, the manila envelope now covered in blood.
Morning arrives. As he drives back towards the bank, Matt sees a rowdy car fling a rock at two GR members. Concerned, he stops and, as he examines the man lying hurt on the ground, the car drives back and throws a rock at Matt’s head, too. What follows is a simultaneously revealing and confusing dream sequence: Matt in a full church, Matt and a young Nora, his wife’s car crash on October 14th that paralyzed her, and making love with his wife who suddenly turns into Laurie. Is this what Laurie referred to earlier? Did Matt simply desire her, or did they have an affair? – What was Kevin’s flashback in the first episode referring to?
After waking up in the hospital, Matt hurries to his bank, money in hand and desperate to buy back his church. The envelope is still blood stained. As it turns out, he has been unconscious for three days and the sale has gone through. It’s not a hedge fund that bought the church – it’s the Guilty Remnant.
In the episode’s last scene, Matt stands outside of his former church, watching the GR paint it white. He locks eyes with Patti (Ann Dowd), the GR’s leader. She stares, and he stares back. It’s all very dramatic and, if we’re going to explore Christian theology and the folly of humanity this episode, let’s just go all the way and remind ourselves of Satan’s famous lament in “Paradise Lost”: “Me miserable! which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Matt’s world is now his hell, and it's never going to be the same. Which direction will he fly?