With just two episodes so far, Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers” has already laid out a strong handful of mysteries, the central one being what exactly happened on October 14th that caused 2% of the world’s population to vanish. But as Lindelof has been stressing since even before the show first aired, that instigating event is not the hook of the series. “If that’s why you’re watching the show, don’t watch the show,” Lindelof recently said. And as I’ve emphasized over the past two recaps, “The Leftovers” is about the characters and consequences, and no better is this exemplified than in this week’s “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” which rewardingly breaks the format.
In their early review assessment, AV Club called this episode “stunning” adding that it “works almost as a very short feature film” and while I wouldn’t go quite so far with the superlatives (a couple of more banal plot developments — such as the casino parking lot sequence — seem unnecessarily added just to try and trump up the action while also straining credulity), it’s certainly a bold move that pays off in turning Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) into a three dimensional character that thus far was mostly shaded as a self-serving antagonist.
With a full hour to dive into his story, a much more complex portrait emerges about Matt, a man whose relationship to God seems to have been tested since childhood, when his parents perished in a house fire. That might have been the first time that Matt learned that faith doesn’t always equate to benevolence from a loving God. Indeed, in a bitter irony, it’s learned that his parents actually owned the church, which is how it managed to come into his hands. Meanwhile, fast-forwarding to the events of October 14th, an accident while driving with his wife has left her bed-ridden, paralyzed and unable to speak. Matt’s church is now empty, he can barely afford to pay for a nurse to give his wife the care she needs at home, while his crusade to reveal the sins of those who have departed isn’t endearing him to the community. Lastly, the bank informs him that an unnamed hedge fund is offering to buy the land the church is on, and unless Matt can come up with $135,000, they’re going to foreclose, and he’ll lose it all. And oh yeah, he’s only got 24 hours.
The ticking clock is a bit clumsily established but it works in pushing an already desperate character to even more desperate places. Matt’s first stop is to see Nora (Carrie Coon), aka the Heroes Day Speech Woman, who we quickly learn is actually his younger sister. In the episode’s solid cold open, Matt gives a sermon about his childhood jealousy of Nora, and how he prayed that his parents would redirect their attention from their newborn back to him. And whether it was God punishing him for envy or rewarding him with a perverse new appreciation for his life, Matt soon developed leukemia, which he survived. Now he’s in her kitchen asking Nora to use her claims money from October 14th to give him a loan to help save the church. She refuses and suggests, out of love, that perhaps it’s time to let go of the church, that his work and mission simply isn’t coalescing. And in turn Matt informs Nora that her husband, who has become central to her narrative as Mapleton’s ultimate victim, was actually cheating on her, but "it’s the one thing he will never publish." This is something he too tells her out of love, perhaps hinting that after three years it’s time to face the reality that Doug might not have been the person she thought he was.
And this mix of kindness and cruelty in Matt manifests itself in other ways. Another sequence finds a former parishoner visiting Matt during the church off hours, with his newborn. The man’s wife has found less reason to stay faithful following October 14th, but he still wants his child baptized. Matt happily agrees, and even waives away an offer of money, instead asking the man to bring his wife to his next Sunday service. As that seems like an unlikely prospect, the man instead offers intel on the sins of the man he knows, which Matt gladly takes.
However, there is still the matter of the money, and in another of the episode’s contrivances you’ll have to overlook, Matt suddenly remembers in the middle of the night, that there’s a jar of $20,000 dollars hidden in the Garvey garage, presumably left to him by Kevin Sr. (the note says “You deserve this — K.G.”), the proceeds coming from a judge outed by the pastor as having taken bribes. So Matt hops into his car and heads for the casino he visited earlier, researching the past of the individual fed to him by the man who came to baptize his child. During his previous visit, Matt became intrigued by a roulette table that had its business interrupted by a few pigeons. The birds are something of a sign for Matt — he also found them oddly hanging around the steps of his church as he swept — and he takes the money (and his inexperience at gambling) to the table, and places it all on red. And he wins. He hits again. He wins again. And soon he has all the money he needs to save his church.
But good luck or Godly fate soon runs out. Heading back to his car, Matt finds himself fighting off a man who tries to steal his money (as I mentioned, this moment feels added as an afterthought, and really stretches believability), but he manages to get away, and least temporarily, he’s back in Mapleton feeling triumphant. But witnessing a GR get hit in the head in a rock by a group driving by in a Jeep, he stops to help. But the assailants circle back, throwing a rock at him too, and he blacks out. A surreal dream follows (Lindelof loves these) and Matt wakes up in the hospital, hurriedly throws on his clothes and races to the bank, arriving ten minutes late. He pleads with them to take his money, when the empathetic bank clerk tells him, with some wonder, that the deadline was actually three days ago. Matt has been blacked out for longer than he thought. And the bitterest pill to swallow? The hedge fund that wound up with the church are actually the GRs, who he’s been donating supplies to.
“It was a test. Not for what came before, but for what came after. It was a test, for what comes now,” Matt tells Nora about why October 14th happened. “Well, if it was a test, then I think you may be failing,” Nora counters. While that is up for debate, Matt has certainly been the most tested. While his sister may have lost her family, Matt has seen everything he has founded his life upon emotionally and spiritually taken to the precipice. It’s almost remarkable that he maintains his faith, even if God continues to undermine his most earnest work.
And this is best illustrated in perhaps the episode’s most telling moment. At the hospital, Matt inquires about the status of a little girl, Emily, who has been in a coma for nine days. When he arrives at her room, he finds it empty, with a nurse making the bed, and he informs Matt that Emily woke up suddenly, asked for a Sprite and has been discharged. Matt beams proudly, “My congregation, this morning, we prayed for her.” To which the nurse replies, “Well, she woke up last night.”