If the pilot for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” established the landscape of the show — one where semi-supernatural phenomenon bump up against personal drama — the second episode, “Penguins One, Us Zero,” makes a smart play and narrows the focus. Unlike “Lost” which forever expanded the question marks around the central mystery, Lindelof pivots much more wisely here to the repercussions on his characters. For now, “The Leftovers” is less concerned with what happened and why, and instead on how it has altered the people still dealing with the loss and grief three years later.
Identity is the theme that courses through this week’s episode, both in how characters are perceived from the outside, and how they perceive themselves. And Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) finds himself battling the preconceived notions of those around him, along with his own disquieting awareness that he might be going crazy. He’s haunted by vivid dreams, while at work, mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) and his police force colleagues, are concerned about Kevin’s state of mind. He’s the only witness to the Mystery Man (Michael Gaston) and the shooting of the wild pack of dogs, an incident which has landed him in workplace designated therapy. Meanwhile, the continued search for the Mystery Man’s truck has resulted in an unusual conclusion that doesn’t help the theory Kevin is losing his grip on reality — it has been found in his own driveway with the keys on the dashboard. Later, the Mystery Man shows up on Kevin’s doorstep — now seen by both his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and her friend Aimee (Emily Meade), at least confirming he’s real — with an offer to go out and shoot more dogs the next night, and do the “Lord’s work.” He also gifts Kevin his pickup truck.
Not helping the perception of Kevin both from the outside and from within is the fact that his father (Scott Glenn) — who was the former chief of police — is now institutionalized after suffering under a similar set of circumstances as his son. And a visit to Kevin Sr. by his son late in the episode yields both reassurance and doubt for Kevin Jr. His father maintains that everything he experienced was real, and yet, partway through the conversation, he begins speaking with someone who isn’t there. Kevin has no idea what to think, or what to believe. He even begins to doubt whether or not a bagel — that got stuck and lost in a rotator belt style toaster in the break room at work — was stolen by Lucy, or if he even put it in the machine at all. It leads him to head to the police department late at night and take it apart, discovering the burned pieces of bread in the back of the machine, confirming at least for the moment he isn’t losing his marbles. At least not yet. And while everyone around Kevin wants him to just tell the therapist what he wants to hear — he was under stress when he shot the dogs, he’s sorry, it’ll never happen again — he can’t admit to being wrong about something he believes was right, telling Lucy, “They’re not our dogs anymore.”
But if Kevin is still grappling with who he’s becoming, Nora (Carrie Coon) is settling into the part of playing the rolemodel victim. She’s the face of Mapleton’s collective tragedy, giving the speech at Heroes Day about losing her husband and children, but privately there’s more going on than just a woman grieving. Happening upon Nora in a coffee shop, Jill notices that she’s carrying a gun in her pursue. It’s odd but not unusual perhaps, but things take a different turn when Nora casually but intentionally pushes her coffee cup off the table, allowing it to smash on the floor. It’s a small gesture, but one that turns all eyes in the restaurant on her, with the coffee shop clerk going from irritation to sympathy once he realizes who “accidentally” dropped their mug. It’s weird enough to spur Jill and Emily on a bit of cornball Teen Detective mission with the two super dorks who always seem to be around in their Prius.
The quartet skip school to tag behind Nora and see what she’s up to. They don’t discover much except that her minivan is in a permanent state from “that day,” with the CDs and stale candy of her departed family still littering the front seat and glove compartment. But the audience learns that instead of trying to let that day go, Nora seems intent on finding out as much about as possible. She’s a claims clerk for payments made to those who have lost loved ones, and she goes to the homes of claimants to take video statements about their family members before the cheques are issued. It’s an odd job for someone who has experienced such a profoundly large portion of their life taken from them. But in another sense, there is probably no one better experienced to handle the task, and it likely allows the people of Mapleton to revere her even more. Still, with a gun in her purse, one wonders what other secrets she’s still hiding.
But no one is more full of secrets than Wayne (Paterson Joseph). In the episode’s terrific and chilling opening sequence, we learn that the healer has landed himself on the radar of the federal authorities, wanted on charges of statutory rape in Pennsylvania. He claims to “hug the pain out of people” with his services extending quietly to those in political circles (as we saw in the pilot). However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that puts him in the category of a “threat to national security.” And so a raid on his compound is planned, and it’s horrific. In a setpiece clearly influenced by the controversial siege on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in 1993, the authorities go in guns blazing, killing numerous unarmed occupants as they search for Wayne. He’s long gone, but there’s one person who might know where he is — Christine (Annie Q).
Cornered by an agent threatening her life with a gun, screaming at her for Wayne’s location, just when things look to turn deadly, Tom (Chris Zylka) — tasked by Wayne with protecting Christine in the pilot because she’s "important" — comes out of nowhere and shoots the heavily armed man in the throat. He grabs Christine and they head to an abandoned gas station to rendezvous with Wayne. When Wayne finally arrives, he’s grateful for Tom’s help, and offers to pay him back, by taking on the “poison” in his body he’s received after murdering someone. But Tom refuses. “You’re the one motherfucker I can’t figure out,” Wayne responds. “You’re all suffering, and no salvation.” But still, he trusts Tom immensely, leaving Christine in his care, and instructing them to get off the grid. Wayne destroys Tom’s cell, and gives him one that will ring when the time is ready for them to meet again. Until then, Tom and Christine will have to hit the road and stay out of sight. Once Wayne is long gone, Tom can finally process what’s happening, screaming "fuuuuuuuuck" behind the wheel of car, but Christine tells him it’ll be okay. How? “Because Wayne told me.” But perhaps the bigger question for Tom is whether or not this is the salvation he wants, to rid him of the indescribable feeling of something perhaps akin to malaise that Wayne has sensed in him.
It’s certainly an intangible emotion that Meg (Liv Tyler) can relate to. Now staying with the GRs, she’s in what’s known as the Pledge House, a sort of orientation and testing ground for new members. She can still talk and isn’t yet clad in white, but she’s slowly being assimilated to the group, and seeing if she can withstand the pain of letting go of her old life. That means doing repetitive chores, giving away all the possessions she brought with her and trying to figure what exactly the GRs want to approve of her. “I don’t want to feel this way anymore” she tells her GR guide Laurie (Amy Brenneman), which also serves as something of an answer to dilemma of whether to stay with the GRs and prove to them she has the stamina to stick it through (the leader Patti (Ann Dowd) wants her out) or try and endure her past life (one that will see her return to frustrated husband-to-be Darren (Bill Heck) whose patience has run out). And since the resolution of her sorrow clearly hasn’t been found in the three years since the event, she decides to go down a new path the GRs.
In Kevin, Tom, Nora and Meg, we see them try and wrestle with the people they have become with the people they perhaps think they should be. Kevin just wants to be a good cop and father, while putting his life back together, but can his psyche handle the changes that have come, and those around the corner? Can Tom figure out the answers he’s looking for as he becomes drawn further into Wayne’s world? Is pain the only life Nora can understand? Can Meg find comfort with the GRs? These are rich characters Lindelof is putting together, each with some significant emotional stakes early on in “The Leftovers.” The building continues with the drama series, and it’ll be interesting to see how these characters play out once the plot mechanisms really start moving.