Over the course of its first season, “The Leftovers” has quietly established itself as a show that is unafraid to continually shake up its approach to storytelling. With a vast sprawl of characters, supernatural elements and more, the creators have realized that a mystery isn’t worth investing in if you don’t care about the people involved. We’ve seen a handful of character-based “standalone” episodes that deepen our understanding of their individual plights and the reasons behind their actions. But nothing has been quite like this week’s “The Garveys At Their Best,” which radically jumps back in time three years to October 13th, the day before the Sudden Departure. A riveting 50 minutes of television, this episode shows the further links between these characters, and in most cases, the circumstances of their lives that made October 14th all the more devastating.
If the Garvey family seem lost now, they weren’t that much different three years ago, despite outward appearances of happiness, wealth and success. It turns out that Laurie (Amy Brenneman) is a successful psychiatrist, who can afford a beautiful and large modern home where she lives in seeming happiness with Kevin (Justin Theroux) and a bubbly, almost shockingly happy, Pop Tart Cat-loving Jill (Margaret Qualley). However, trust and openness are already hard to come by. On his morning jogs, Kevin runs to a hidden pack of cigarettes to enjoy a vice that he told everyone he quit. Meanwhile, Laurie hides some big medical information from her husband, all while discussions of getting a dog for the house appear to be a superficial patchwork to a foundation of a marriage that is clearly crumbling. Outside the home, both Kevin and Laurie have discoveries and experiences that will come to bear after the 14th.
For Laurie, one of her clients happens to be none other than future Guilty Remnant head Patti (Ann Dowd). But she’s a much different woman in Laurie’s office, scared and ill at ease with herself. She is consumed by persistent thoughts that something bad is going to happen, that a world ending event is imminent. These are thoughts she’s had before, but as we know, this time it’s real, and Patti ominously suggests that Laurie senses that something doesn’t feel quite right too, and even correctly guesses that the doctor has something going on inside her (either emotionally or physically). Laurie unconvincingly shrugs it off, but there’s another GR connection (albeit strained) — the woman she meets about getting a purebred pup is none other than Gladys (Marceline Hugot), in front of whom, she breaks down and cries, likely overcome with the state of her relationship, but also due to a revelation that comes later.
Meanwhile, Kevin experienced oddities all around him since before 2% of the population disappeared. The deer that terrorized his kitchen earlier this season wasn’t just a one-off incident. Three years prior, another deer was breaking into homes and schools at will, leaving a path of destruction behind. And while he may not see visions, Kevin seems to be around whenever something odd happens, such as a manhole randomly exploding skyward, which he explains away later as a ConEdison mistake in laying down new gas pipes. Then there’s a brief moment when he’s sitting by the side of the road, after a jog, smoking a cigarette. A car with four people in it rolls up in front of him and one of the passengers asks, “Are you ready?” Kevin obviously has no idea what they’re talking about and they drive away, but he’s wearing a white t-shirt. Could the occupants of the vehicle have mistaken him for a GR? And if so, what were the GR doing before the Sudden Departure?
The episode’s other significant thread follows Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose marriage is also rocky. We already know her husband Doug (Sebastian Arcelus) was cheating on her, and that knowledge makes him all the more smarmy here, as his emotional distance from his wife is clearly palpable, at least to the audience. But for Nora, it’s just another thing to deal with in an already busy day with two kids, but she’s eager for more. She’s smart and talented, and she’s wants to apply her intelligence to something more rigorous, so she interviews for a job on Mayor Lucy Warburton’s (Amanda Warren) election team.
Other characters are fleshed out too, in particular Matt (Christopher Eccleston), with recurring checkups following his bout with childhood leukemia, and his wife supporting him through his time of anxiety and fear. Their roles will be cruelly switched the next day. There is also more about Tom’s (Chris Zylka) biological father. It certainly gives us a better idea of why he seems to be seeking a father figure in Wayne, though he may not realize he’s already got one at home. And all of these strands built up to October 14th itself, when the where-were-you moment is both mundane and tragic for Kevin, Nora and Laurie.
With the police on the hunt for the aberrant deer, and the Chief of Police (Scott Glenn) — who has a party in his honor in the episode — ordering his officers to use deadly force if necessary, Kevin wants to use a more humane method. So, he’s told to get a tranquilizer gun, and if the deer is spotted, and he can get there before any of the other cops, he’ll be able to save the deer’s life. It’s a good plan in theory, but bad in practice. When the deer breaks into a home and the cops are called, Kevin gets the heads up and is first on the scene. But the deer is much more ferocious than expected, and Kevin can’t get the shot off. The panicked deer eventually crashes its way outside, only to be hit by a car. The woman in the vehicle is shaken up, but fine, and after the two exchange pleasantries and smoke together, Kevin offers to drive her back to her motel (she’s in Mapleton for a conference), while her car gets towed. “Are you a good man?” she asks when they get to the parking lot of the low rent place. “No, I’m not,” Kevin says. And with that, they wind up in bed together….when she vanishes.
At Nora’s, it’s breakfast time, and the kids scream for food. Doug is distracted on his phone and not helping, and Nora is trying to get a meal made, while awaiting a call from the Mayor. When it does come, her daughter accidentally spills orange juice on Nora’s iPhone, and she reacts angrily, grabbing the mobile and trying to dry it off with paper towels. And when turns around, her entire family is gone, and that moment is the last interaction they had together.
It’s Laurie, however, who experiences the most profoundly devastating moment. Finally in to see the doctor, with Kevin still in the dark about what’s going on, it’s revealed that she is pregnant. She watches the growing baby on the ultrasound, and even listens to the heartbeat. Out in the hall of the clinic there’s a scream. The doctor carries on with the examination, but when Laurie turns back to the look at the screen, her face says it all. Her baby is gone, right out of the womb. If that happened to us, we’d take a vow of silence after that too.
Like in life, you don’t know when your last moments are going to be with the people you love, and you wish you could’ve planned them better. Kevin’s lasts words to his wife before the Sudden Departure were, “Fuck you, Laurie” after they fight about trust and openness when she figures out he has been smoking on the sly (not that she minds, but why the subterfuge?). He wishes he could take that back, and same with Nora whose final time with her kids was a blur of stress and anger. And even Tom and Jill — at the latter’s science fair, holding hands with other students and completing an electric circuit via a Van de Graaff generator — see their innocence broken thanks to this unexpected event, as students around them vanish.
And while it is easy to dismiss these characters as unlikeable or flawed, it’s their humanity that shines through because of their reaction to what’s happening around them both before and after October 14th. Outside his birthday party, Kevin Sr. offered his son some sage advice about purpose (in an interesting irony given the events two episodes back) — that middle age comes the anxiety that this is all there is. A career and family. The instinct is to want more, but according to Kevin Sr., these things are what life its about, and that yearning is unrealistic. And yet, for Kevin, Laurie and Nora it’s that desire for more that hurts and haunts, yet also perhaps enables them to survive. It keeps them on their toes in a new world that is rapidly changing, but it also makes them confront harsh realities that a less inquisitive mind would be happy to overlook.
“The Garveys At Their Best” is brilliant in its approach because this is all the kind of stuff you expect writers to put into a pilot episode. This is all backstory, and yet, because the creators held off, and allowed us to see these characters after the Sudden Departure, carrying grief and a variety of complex emotions, the reveal of their histories carries so much more weight. It adds new dimensions to who they are, and makes their pain all the more powerful, especially after having spent so much time seeing how they cope. It adds a notable texture to the tragedy that any other approach would’ve numbed. But most importantly, it sets a complete stage for all the characters, for the season finale, and the best part? This is one of the few shows where I have actually no idea what it will pull out of its sleeve next.