Kevin Garvey is standing alone on the stage at a hotel bar, anxiously scanning the crowd as he chokes up to the microphone. “Sta-start it,” he mumbles. The opening guitar chords begin to play. It’s “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel. Kevin sings. I’m sitting in the railway station got a ticket for my destination…Although the former police chief played by Justin Theroux can’t really hold a tune, the lyrics seem to shake something loose inside him. For the past few years, this potentially schizophrenic hothead has been alienating himself from everyone he knows and loves. He lost his wife. His son. His father. And, of course, about four years prior, two percent of the entire world’s population vanished around him without a trace. But instead of seeking therapy or religion to help cope with this unspeakable loss, Kevin has instead pulled up his anchors and surrendered himself to the abyss. He’s been drifting.
Here in this remote hotel, though, Kevin looks different. Decked out in full uniform, his eyes glossed over, a lightness in his voice, it looks like Kevin is beginning to float back to shore. It may have taken two near-death experiences, but Kevin’s ready to admit it–he wants to go home.
I know, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, writing about The Leftovers right now. To be clear, the post-apocalyptic HBO series is not really comparable at all to the real-world crisis we’re facing today–at least not in any substantial way worth discussing. The show charts the tumultuous few years that follow a mysterious disappearance of two percent of the people on Earth. Heavy on religious allegory, Leftovers spends most of its time with Theroux’s Kevin, the angry, aimless police chief who might just be Jesus Christ. We find Kevin singing karaoke in an other-worldly place in the Season Two finale, “I Live Here Now.” It’s a powerful scene with big spiritual undertones. But whether the hotel represents heaven, hell, or purgatory, it’s purely fictional. Here, in our real world, there are no freaky voyages to the after-life. No prophets. No miracles. Only hospitals, ventilators, and the essential workers who are risking their lives every day to keep everything from falling apart.
I’m watching The Leftovers for the first time right now. And I’ll admit, that might have been a masochistic choice. Though it’s a fantasy, the series sure does feel familiar–specifically in the way it reverse-engineers that venomous cocktail of melancholy and uncertainty that will forever be associated with life during this pandemic. Hunkered down here in my tiny studio apartment with my girlfriend in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, we don’t really have a lot of space to clear our minds. Unlike our regular comfort foods of homemade cookies and Always Sunny, this apocalyptic HBO show doesn’t quite help to lift the mood. Hell, with all the sad characters trying and failing to find meaning in their irrevocably altered lives, it barely even provides an escape.
But The Leftovers, as the best series always do, hooked me good. And as I ingested episode after episode in the dark before bed each night, the line between our world and the world of Miracle, Texas really began to blur.
The unyielding, ever-present anger from the Guilty Remnant, the show’s chain-smoking cult led by Ann Dowd, evoked that specific rage I feel every morning when I wake up and discover more about the negligence of our government. Dressed all in white, the Remnant is an aggressive, constant reminder of the people that disappeared. They don’t want the leftover folks to just move on and start over. They’re not going to pretend like something horrifying didn’t occur. And they’re certainly not going to stand for any “It all happened for a reason” bullshit. Like them, I won’t soon forget what happened here.
Jill Garvey, the young daughter played by a chaotically-bored Margaret Qualley, brings to life a more destructive attitude in the show. Like her father, Jill is spiraling. But it’s not just the Departure that has her spurting out. She’s been deprived of what should be the best days of her life. And her parents have kept her in the dark about their divorce. Everything feels unfair. So Jill rebels. She slams doors, abuses drugs, and burgles houses. In one gristly situation, Jill plays a breath-holding game that gets herself locked in a refrigerator in the woods. The compulsion to lash out and destroy is so tempting right now. I get it.
No character in the series feels as close to me as Kevin Garvey, the pressure-cooker police chief that is always quietly hurtling towards immolation. Kevin’s morbid fixations and violent obsessions are pushed to the maximum in Season Two. Longing so much for his past, Kevin chains himself to the bed each night for fear that he’ll run off in search of it. Like all of us who are boarded up away from our former lives, Kevin’s burning for an escape. As it turns out, the escape that he’s seeking is the ultimate one–death. But when he finally gets there on a stage singing “Homeward Bound,” the remote world of the dead only makes him long for what he already had–his family. His friends. That calming look in his wife’s eyes outside by the pool on a cool summer night. All those little moments that he took for granted so long ago.
I miss karaoke. I miss my parents, I miss my friends. I miss dozing off on the window of a subway train and I miss talking with a drunken stranger in the bathroom line of a bar. When my girlfriend brought her suitcases, her cat, and his litter box to my apartment four weeks ago, I thought this place would feel like our new home. But it doesn’t. It feels like the hotel. We’re lucky, we have a warm bed, running water, and enough boxes of pasta to last until Christmas–but we’re on an island here. Reports of deaths in our building are adding up, our superintendent has contracted COVID-19, and we’re afraid to leave the apartment. Even the outside world, with all the masks and latex gloves everywhere, it feels foreign. It’s not that I want to escape from my apartment or my life or this plane of reality, it’s that, whatever this is, whatever we’re all doing separated from each other every day, it doesn’t feel like home. And I just want to get out of this god damn hotel.
The Leftovers is a little rough to take in right now. But when Kevin finally gets back in the finale of Season Two, seeing his daughter, his son, his ex-wife, his friends, all of them standing there in his house waiting to greet him, that warm and fuzzy look on his face certainly made home feel a little bit closer for me. Hopefully, we’ll all be homeward bound soon.