With one episode left in the season, this week’s “The Leftovers” goes into overdrive, and proves that that season renewal might have been a good idea after all. “The Garveys at Their Best” is a fascinating, snide little look at Mapleton life pre-October 14th, sympathetic towards its characters while also giving its audience some much needed answers. The only question is, why couldn’t this episode have aired halfway through the season?
As you might have guessed, it’s a flashback episode, taking place in the day and a half leading up to October 14th. It opens with Kevin running, perky ’60s rock music in the background, before he sneaks a cigarette and returns home to a sweeping, light-filled modern house that’s a far cry to his home three years later. It’s also pretty evident that this is not a house that he can afford on a cop’s salary alone. Sure enough, Laurie’s there, first off-screen and talking into a telephone, and then next to Kevin, asking him how his run went. “A little hot for October.”
After the opening credits, we’re treated to a little more Garvey domestic bliss as an adorkable young Jill (wearing braces!) waltzes into the entryway, singing along loudly to her iPod as her father stares at a crack in the wall. (Foreshadowing!) In a different part of town, Nora is also beginning her day, but it’s not quite so idyllic: her kids are young and loud, while her husband sits around at the kitchen table and does zero parenting. It’s also the same day as a job interview Nora has with not-yet-Mayor Lucy’s campaign. “Mommy’s getting a job,” her husband tells the kids, a little pointedly, who then decided to chant this at the tops of their lungs.
Laurie, it turns out, is definitely the Garvey breadwinner. She’s a therapist and, in the first of the episode’s many spot-the-GR-member cameos, Patti’s one of her clients. Before seeing Patti, though, Laurie has an ominous-sounding phone call from the doctor’s office, and agrees to come in for an appointment she had previously canceled.
Kevin’s smoking again, brooding outside of an elementary school. All of the kids run out screaming, and when he goes to investigate, he finds a music room filled with blood and broken glass. It’s an interesting callback to the library decimated by his father a few episodes ago, especially when a teacher tells him that it was a deer that did the damage. The deer definitely represents something, but as the episode unfolds, it seems clear that Kevin’s identification with it is a mistake on his part.
Nora’s interview with Lucy, at this point just a councilwoman, goes well. Nora doesn’t think that Lucy has much of a chance at winning the position of mayor but, when asked why she’s even applying, her response is poignant: “I want to use my brain for figuring out more than which juice box is organic. I want – I need something for myself.”
Kevin, too, wants something for himself. His father, still the chief of police in 2011, has just won the Mapleton “Man of the Year” award, and Laurie, obviously more successful than her husband, is planning a surprise party for that evening. Kevin’s reactions to his own feelings of inadequacy, though, are childish: he argues with his father during a meeting concerning the deer, picks fights with his wife and refuses to give her any insight into his real emotions, and, near the episode’s end, has an affair. At this point in the episode, he also gets a phone call from Tommy, who drunkenly harassed a man named Michael the night before. (Michael's also pretty strongly implied to be Tom’s birth father.) Kevin’s reaction is again immature: he drives to Michael’s house, punches him in front of Michael’s young son, and hisses, “You touch my kid again, I will fucking kill you.”
What’s refreshing about this episode is that, while it definitely empathizes with Kevin’s suburban entrapment, it also criticizes him. He’s still an anti-hero, but he’s an anti-hero who, unlike during his laundromat attack a couple of episodes ago, is clearly meant to be understood by his audience as not entirely justified in his unhappiness. It’s his own refusal to work through his feelings and to instead sabotage his life and marriage through passivity that’s the problem. During the surprise party, Kevin Garvey, Sr., catches him smoking outside and, having noted the emptiness of his son’s speech, gives him a talking to.
“That was a beautiful speech,” he tells Kevin. “I almost believe you meant it.”
“Why isn’t it enough?” Kevin asks.
“Because every man rebels against the idea that this is fucking it,” his dad tells him, and essentially warns him to stop moping and not fuck up the happiness he already has. “You have no greater purpose, because it is enough. So cut the shit, okay?” It’s harsh, but Kevin needs to hear it. Unfortunately, the message doesn’t really go through.
The Way Some People Live
The next morning, as Kevin smokes his secret cigarette during his run, a group of four older women pull up next to him. “Are you ready?” they ask him, before realizing he’s not whoever they’re looking for. “I’m sorry,” one apologizes, “I thought you were somebody else.” It’s appropriately creepy, especially considering that we know what is going to happen later that morning. After they leave, the manhole in the street explodes.
Kevin hurries home and explains this to Laurie who, after talking to Tommy that morning, has other things on her mind. They start arguing and it quickly becomes clear that the problems in their marriage can be traced back to Kevin’s refusal to talk about his emotions and his resentment concerning their suburban domesticity. “I don’t even want a dog,” he tells Laurie, referencing the puppy she almost picked up for them yesterday. “Why didn’t you just tell me?” she asks, bewildered. “Because you wanted it…Fuck you, Laurie.”
Kevin goes to the home of the elderly couple that Nora interviewed a few episodes earlier, ready to investigate another crazy deer sighting. This time, the deer has trapped itself upstairs, and Kevin, obviously displeased by his inaction, can’t even manage one tranquilizer shot before the deer runs free and is promptly hit by a passing car. Kevin, staring into its eyes, shoots it out of its misery with an actual bullet, and starts flirting with the woman who hit it. He ends up driving her back to her hotel.
At the doctor’s office, Laurie bumps into Matt’s wife. They’re waiting to hear about some test results (cancer, probably). Matt’s test turns out clear, so they go off to celebrate, with Matt’s wife offering to drive. Ugh, we know how this goes.
It turns out that Laurie is pregnant. The doctor lets her listen to the heartbeat, and she starts crying. She says that it’s Kevin’s, though she hasn’t told him yet.
In her own home, Nora is trying to feed her kids, who scream and goof off as her husband does literally nothing to calm them down, choosing instead to sit beside them at the table and look through his phone. Nora’s situation is so similar to Kevin’s and yet so different: this shouldn’t be it for her because while Kevin’s reality allows for him to have both a happy family and a job, Nora’s entire identity is subsumed into her children. Her cell phone begins to ring with a call from Lucy, until her daughter spills all of her orange juice on it. “Goddammit,” Nora yells at them, “I said two hands!” She turns away, searching for a paper towel.
And this is when it happens. At the high school science fair, a classmate of Jill’s disappears. Kevin, naked in a hotel room and cheating on his wife, is left alone as the woman that hit the deer disappears. Nora turns around and finds that her family has disappeared in a terrible moment coinciding with her frustrations at them. Laurie's pregnancy, in what the writers probably didn’t mean but what comes across as pro-life mission statement concerning the personhood of fetuses, disappears. The episode ends immediately after this, and we reel alongside the characters.