Maybe a bagel is just a bagel. That’s the position taken by the second episode of The Leftovers, and in its way the show seems to take that to heart. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. The bagel is real, but what it represents is so much more, and it’s probably the best glimpse into creator Damon Lindelof’s state of mind as anything we’ve seen in years.
The bagel, in case you’ve already forgotten, was Kevin Garvey’s breakfast in “Penguin One, Us Zero,” the second episode of The Leftovers. He put it in a conveyor toaster so it’d be nice and warm, but then when he went back to retrieve it for his eating pleasure it was gone. Where could the bagel be? Such mysteries are the stuff of legend. Kevin Garvey later accuses Mayor Lucy Warburton of having taken it, though she doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s talking about. Or is she just feigning ignorance, all the while hiding the vast conspiracy of bagel thieves in the town of Mapleton? Or what if the bagel disappeared to the Island from Lost?
Damon Lindelof has had a rough go of it since the finale of Lost in 2010, which ended with overt spiritual affirmation, leaving many of the show’s greatest mysteries unanswered. Some of us were very satisfied with the finale, finding beauty in its redemptive character arcs; others were simply too perturbed by the lack of resolution in the mysteries. Many of those people made Lindelof’s life a living hell of emotional despair for several years, until finally he decided to quit Twitter. The whole story is detailed in an excellent New York Times profile. In it, Lindelof says about The Leftovers:
“More than anything else, me taking this show says: ‘Yeah, I’ve made my persona into the guy who is clearly emotionally affected by your dislike of “Lost,” but here we go again.’ I’m getting back on the roller coaster because I can’t help myself.”
The man has a complex — an almost masochistic one — and it’s clear he carries with him a lot of pain and resentment over his post-Lost experience. Thus, it’s hard not to view The Leftovers through that lens, reading into it some unfortunate motivations with unfortunate outcomes. Silly things like missing bagels begin to look like statements of authorial lashing out rather than good storytelling.
Much of the second episode of The Leftover is curiously given over to filling in the gaps left by the pilot. The mysterious Wayne is revealed definitively as a wackadoo cult leader charlatan. The Guilty Remnant is little more than a cult-like group recruiting members and looking for peace in a dark world. Kevin Garvey’s father indeed had a schizophrenic breakdown, while at the same time the mysterious dog-shooting, truck-driving, tobacco-chewing man is shown at the end to be very much a real person, and not in Garvey’s head. Lindelof knowingly gives his new show mysterious qualities, only to pull the curtain back, revealing their mundanity and luxuriating in the mild disappointment of doing so.
In Lindelof’s vision for The Leftovers, the mysteries of the world are purposely exaggerated, masking much simpler truths. One such truth is that a bagel is usually just a bagel. Near the end of the episode, Garvey opens up the back of the toaster and discovers the bagel stuck inside. The simplest explanation is the fitting answer to a banal mystery. Yet the show plays it as a big moment, with the score playing heavy beneath almost heroic shots. Banal as it is, the moment represents a kind of letting go for Garvey, and an acceptance of reality.
Which is where the depressing authorial intent sets in. By creating a mystery surrounding a missing bagel of all things, and then in a comically majestic scene smashing the mystery to bits, Lindelof offers a rebuke to his detractors. He’s stating point blank that the mysteries are important only as to how they shape a character. It’s a fine rebuke to be sure, but in a way that’s what the whole show has felt like so far. It’s beautifully shot, and well acted, and the premise is intriguing, but weighing it all down is the sense that Lindelof is a little too stuck in his own head and a little too concerned with fighting his trolls.
Only two episodes in and the show is suffering for it. The Cult of Wayne story is already tiring to watch, The Guilty Remnant is losing its luster, the Mystery Man plot is way too blunt, and the bagels are just bagels. Most disappointingly, the only real mystery left — core premise aside — is why we’re focusing on the Garvey family at all. Maybe we’ll learn that over time. Maybe the show will come together after this. Maybe not. Maybe the bagels won’t just be bagels in the end, but so far The Leftovers is feeling less like worthwhile television and more like Lindelof working through his own pained, angry relationship with his audience. Your mileage with that may vary.