The Leftovers Isn't Just About Grief, It's About Guilt
The Leftovers is one of the strangest and most ambitious shows on TV right now. It’s a show where 2% of the earth’s population spontaneously disappears, but it’s not about that. Most people would tell you that it’s about grief, and I believe the first season was entirely about grief. But since then there’s been a separation in the emotional journeys of the characters, one that was driven home to me with the episode “Don’t Be Ridiculous” and the conversation that Erika and Nora have about losing children. Both Erika and Nora have experienced profound grief, but Nora is carrying something more with her and I think it’s guilt. Not the kind of guilt emphasized by The Guilty Remnant, who seemed more a nihilistic anarchist cult than anything else, but the bone-deep conviction that you have done something wrong which has irreparably damaged the world. And you can do nothing but make flailing attempts at making things right again.
One of the things that I’ve noticed tying the characters at the center of The Leftovers together is a sense that they were wishing away the Departed at the moment they disappeared. Nora listening to her kids fight and her husband bitch without doing anything about it, Laurie looking at a fetus she didn’t want, Kevin at the point of an illicit sexual liaison when the fun is over and shame sets in, all of them had good reason to be wishing the focus of their agitation would just disappear. And then they did. For a long time I wondered if that was the connection shared among The Departed, even after it became clear that the show would never answer that question. Now, with the introduction of John and Lindsey Duncan’s Grace Playford, we have people who feel responsible for the death of loved ones who were not Departed who have become members of Kevin’s death cult. With this, I’ve reconsidered that The Leftovers is not actually a show about grief so much as it is about the combination of grief and guilt that can cripple people after a loss. Even years after a loss.
Erika was grieving for Evie. She grieved. She has picked up and moved forward with a life without her daughter. John, however, seems to carry another burden with him. A guilt that will not allow him to grieve Evie or accept her death. The same is true of Grace, with her children. While they did not lose their loved ones to the Departure as Nora did, they still seek the same redemption and undoing that she is after for the same reason; because somewhere inside them they think they caused this, and now they must fix it in order to ever feel good again. Most of those who had loved ones who Departed are stuck in a place where they cannot carry out the traditions of grieving even if they come to terms with their loss, which is psychologically destabilizing all on its own. But for those who feel both grief and guilt? The situation is only worse. To not only be so close to such a profound and inexplicable loss, but to feel that you caused it is something that no one on the show has even put a name to yet. For all the emotions spilled and hearts laid bare, no one has literally taken the step to say “I feel I caused this.” How can you? It is both monstrous and ridiculous at once. Nora is unrelentingly cruel to herself, picking at emotional scabs, deliberately causing new ones, self-harming in a variety of ways. John has clung to mysticism and religion. Grace is so desperate for answers she drowns a man based on a strange book she finds in the desert. None of them will look into the center of their actions and name what they’re lashing out at, at least not so far.
The finale of The Leftovers is fast approaching. Dustin’s hoping that Lindelof brings the show back around to a joyful conclusion. I am not nearly so hopeful. In the penultimate episode we watched Kevin literally cut his own heart out in the purgatory/dream world where he confronts his feelings, before destroying that world for good. There is a release coming, but I don’t know that it will break through to joy for Kevin, or Nora, or John, or Kevin Sr. I think the best we can hope for is to see these people finally unburden themselves of whatever they’ve been carrying around for the last seven years, and simply live a life unencumbered.