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How a Black Family Brought Exquisite Toni Morrison Vibes to ‘The Leftovers’

How a Black Family Brought Exquisite Toni Morrison Vibes to 'The Leftovers'

“Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are

varied and complicated.” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The New York Times Magazine

There’s a preacher in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise,” the epic novel about an all­black town and the

complex families—and one powerful group of women at a former convent—who live in it, and he

defines love for his congregation as such: “divine only, and difficult always.” If a fan of HBO’s

The Leftovers” was forced to describe the show in two words, those two would just about cover

it. This second season especially, which shifted greatly, in part due to the introduction of the black

Murphy family, was utterly divine and wonderfully difficult.

“The Leftovers” is based on the Tom Perotta novel of the same name, but Season One ended at the

same point of the book and opened up the door for showrunner Damon Lindelof to move in a new

direction. The plot remained the same in Season Two—“The Leftovers” is a show about how

various people respond to an unexplained phenomena in which 2% of the world’s population

disappeared (because of the rapture, because of a tragedy, because the world is ending—answers

vary from character to character). It’s about family, grief, trauma, religion and intimacy. It’s a

violent series that does not give up answers easily. And on Sunday night, it completed the most

powerful season of television all year, if you ask me (and a few other critics, like Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall).

I had high hopes when I saw that the series was getting a black family, because I knew that if the

show stayed true to itself, this would be a black family like no other on television. If Lindelof and

his writers were going to treat the Murphys as they had the Garveys, the white family headed by

Justin Theroux’s Kevin at the center of the first season, then no one—not the Johnsons on “black-
ish,” not the Popes on “Scandal,” not the Calloways on “Survivors’ Remorse,” or the Lyons of

“Empire” (though all fascinating and entertaining in their own unique ways) would compare. And I

was right. With the introduction of the Murphys (Kevin Carroll as John, Regina King as Erika,

Jasmin Savoy Brown as Evie and Jovan Adepo as Michael), as well as a few other black characters

like Darius McCrary’s Isaac, Lindelof continues on in some of the work that the writers and

creators of these other shows have started—that is to say, he continues the work of redefining the

black family next door on TV, but he does so with a world and with a set of characters that are so

out of this world, they’re more comparable to people I’ve only seen in the pages of great works

like “Paradise,” “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.”

This golden age of television is, in so many ways, an ode to literature. The stories of series like

“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” (Season One, ahem) have been novelistic in

their depth (and cinematic in their presentation). But an ode to what literature? Unsurprisingly, not

very many, if any, black literary traditions can be found in the storylines of these powerfully good

shows. And Damon Lindelof is one of the first showrunners to openly admit that his first season

failed in those respects:

“Last year—with the exception of Paterson Joseph, who played Holy Wayne, and Amanda

Warren, who played Lucy—we did not do a good job of presenting a diverse worldview.”

Still, Lindelof knew that “diversity” isn’t merely resolved with black faces. It’s resolved in the

story—in those literary aspects of the TV show. It’s also important that when black faces are

introduced, they are not othered in a way that marginalizes their experiences. Knowing this, he

began the new season in an episode centered almost entirely on the Murphys, with the Garveys in

the periphery—to the point where the white family (and their adopted black baby) almost function

as an intrusion:

“If we’re spending all this time with a black family and then a white family moves in next door

and they are the other family, they are the ones that are new to the neighborhood, the ones that do

not belong, the ones who do not have roots down.”

There are multiple episodes throughout the season that focus on the white characters who round

out the cast, but the season is bookended by the Murphys in a big way. It’s also important that the

othering we experience in the first episode holds true throughout the season—the Garveys continue

to function as an intrusion and a distraction in the already­complicated hometown of the Murphys’

Jarden, Texas. The white character as other is also something we’re familiar with in Morrison’s

work. It’s not necessarily an active political statement on her part, but a way of centralizing the

characters who are important. Where her work deviates greatly from “The Leftovers” is in the fact

that, even with the Murphys, the main family of the show is still the Garveys—but the interactions

between the two dominated this new season heavily.

This is a show where people disappear out of thin air, holy men predict their own deaths, character

die, then haunt other characters, and protagonists experience the miracle of resurrection (all this,

and the show still plays like a drama, rather than a sci­fi or horror series). So when you create a

group of black characters—who are also not the main characters—it’d be fairly simple to turn

them into magical negroes, or super strong and mythical black women. What keeps these tropes at

bay is actual, believable and slow­burning character development.

It’s the same thing that makes the audacity of a Morrison novel so believable and utterly human.

By the time you get to know Sethe and her definition of love (where “thin love ain’t love at all”), it

makes perfect sense that she would slit her own daughter’s throat before surrendering to a vicious

slave owner. When Milkman hits his father, just as Mr. Dead’s fist connects with Mrs. Dead’s

face, by the end of the book the entire episode makes perfect sense, from every single character’s

perspective. The violence we see in “The Leftovers” is given similar nuance. In any other

situation, we might cringe at the thought of a black male character like John, formerly incarcerated

and prone to violent outburst; burning down homes as a way to exact control over an entire

neighborhood. A young black girl running naked and free in the middle of a forest (two nude white

girls on her side)? A black woman who buries birds in the forest, without explanation (at first)?

These small moments become integral to the narrative threads of these characters as the season

unfolds.

It’s difficult to champion a show like this without giving away major spoilers, but to summarize

the events we experience through the Murphys, I can say that theirs is a story of the hypocrisy of

faith and the complex notion of miracles; theirs is a story of abuse, imprisonment and even

professional success (both Erika and John are well­respected in their lines of work); and theirs is

also a story of devastating choices, sorrow and redemption. Like many others on the show, they

seem to ask, “Who or what is God, and what stake does he have in our lives and in our world?”

Every member of the Murphy family, from the devout Michael, to the non­believing patriarch

John, has a different answer to this question, and their actions reveal, negate and complicate those

answers throughout the season. Their blackness does not seem to especially inform their answers,

any more than the whiteness of the other characters informs theirs.

As expressed so well in Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah story on “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,”
Morrison’s power comes from her decision to write stories with black characters where blackness

is, but is not a commodity or a tool for addressing racial politics in America. This is true for the

Murphys, and like characters in a Morrison novel, because they are so well­written, they certainly

invite critics to ponder the racial implications of their narratives, as writer and activist Hari Ziyad

recently did with Rejecting Forced Order: Blackness and “The Leftovers”.

In the same way that Toni Morrison’s most beloved characters—from Pecola Breedlove, to the

father who rapes her, from three whores named China, Poland and the Maginot Line, to a woman

lunging at a girl in a coffin, or a red­headed member of the Seven Days, or a veteran taking a long

journey home—resist almost all forms of categorization (we often don’t know whether they’re

good, bad, brilliant, or insane—and, more importantly, we don’t especially care), the Murphys

shape­shift far too much throughout the season to be labeled as either innocent, guilty or anything

else. They are dutiful neighbors who will bring over your child, should you have forgotten her in a

car seat on the hood of your truck. Later that same day, they might spit venom your way, as is the

case with Regina King’s Erika and Carrie Coon’s Nora in a powerhouse scene from “Lens,” where

the two face off about the Departure and how it brings up questions about their maternal instincts.

It’s true that Erika Murphy isn’t as odd or captivating as someone like Pilot from “Song of

Solomon” or, Consolata from “Paradise,” (at least not yet, she isn’t) but as a deaf person, a nurse

(a healer) and a character with a troubled husband and a complicated family legacy, she’s

presented with incredible nuance. The same is true for the other characters, though they also need

more time (and more seasons) to grow, complicate and surprise us further.

“The Leftovers” has always been a show hell­bent on breaking rules and deviating from all

conventions (just see the completely dialogue­free 10 minutes of the Season Two opener, “Axis

Mundi”), and it works as a powerful commentary on so many aspects of society. I’ve written about

how it takes on the very act of television criticism and instances of rape (even simultaneously). It’s so important that these unique approaches to storytelling be applied to black TV

characters.

Last month Todd VanDerWerff asked, What’s it gonna take for you to watch “The Leftovers”?. I echo those

sentiments, but I’m directing my plea specifically at my fellow black TV watchers, desperate for

something different. Those of us who aren’t satisfied with mere visages of black people on TV, but

are looking for diversity in the content for these characters should be watching “The Leftovers.”

Those of us longing for novelistic storytelling that continuously defies expectations, should be

watching “The Leftovers.” Those of you who might—gasp—not be taken in by the wonders of

every single Shondaland production, and who can’t quite get on the “Empire” bandwagon (or

refuse to even make an attempt to do so, and resent the implication that you should), because you

are looking for something different in the presentation of black characters, though you’re not quite

sure what that may be, should watch “The Leftovers.”

Those of us who wish a TV show could be so damn good that when the episode ends, we fully

believe that one character could bring another back to life, or resurrect a small bird, or disappear

into thin air and never return, or take a Toni Morrison­esque jump off a cliff, surrender to the air,

and ride it, should be watching “The Leftovers.” Sure, there are mysteries that go on unanswered,

and characters you’ll wish you could stay with forever. And yes, it’ll be painful if it turns out HBO

decides not to renew it (something which might not be an issue if, ahem, more of you had watched

this season). But, like the brilliant black characters you’ve met in some of the world’s greatest

works of literature, courtesy of Toni Morrison, the black people who populated this season of “The

Leftovers” have made their mark and will, hopefully, represent a real change in the way our stories

are presented in this medium. The Murphys are, indeed, one small step towards the diversification

of TV, and one giant leap towards the necessary blackening of this golden age. And for that, I

thank them.

***

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for

Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York­based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s

okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on

Twitter:https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.

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