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THE LEFTOVERS: The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)

The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey standing in white suit in front of portrait of himself

“This isn’t my first visit to the other side of the world. Each time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave.” — Pres. Kevin Garvey, The Leftovers

“Of course this is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Everything is… just comes together.” — Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

The penultimate episode to the fantastic and under-appreciated series, The Leftovers, was the most enlightening, explanatory episode of all three seasons (which is no small feat, considering the majority of it follows Kevin through the world of the dead). It also is, quite possibly, the most explanation we may ever get about anything. Take the Departure, the event the series is born from: 2% of the population of Earth suddenly disappears one day. What the foop?! (As Titus Andronmedon would say.) But the series has never really been about where those people went, but about those left behind. How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? I don’t think we can expect answers to those questions. And, honestly, I don’t really want them–I feel certain that any explanation would be an underwhelming disappointment.

Co-creator of the show, Damon Lindelof, is no stranger to the grand themes explored in The Leftovers, nor to a show that presents mysteries with clearly no intention of ever solving them. This show has so many echoes of his other series, LOST, that it captures both what was great and what was completely infuriating about that series.

But those themes lend themselves quite well to this story, based (kind of loosely) off of a book by the same name, by author (and series co-creator) Tom Perrotta. The show’s protagonists grapple with faith, existentialism, belief, higher purpose….all with a kinda-maybe-sorta mystical science-fiction thing going on. Is the show going to explain how Kevin can die and come back to life? Apparently not. Does this mean that Kevin is important at all? Maybe not. Do random occurrences just happen, with no meaning behind them whatsoever? Probably. Is that infuriating to learn at the end of the series, once you have already theorized online with other people and have a million questions? KIND OF.

Like LOSTThe Leftovers has relied on creating intriguing mysteries that, ultimately, really have nothing at all to do with the story. LOST never told us what the Island was. It led us on a series-long path to the god-like character of Jacob, only to take him away almost immediately and show how little he mattered to the whole story. But a show filled with characters who have faith in something that maybe isn’t there is a compelling story to tell. It’s just, when Lindelof tells it, you have to wait until the very end to learn that all of those questions you have? Yeah, they don’t have answers. They’re simply catalysts. Like I said…infuriating. 

But he does it so damn well.

The choice of faith.

The Leftovers, Matt Jamison

The Leftovers has presented a dichotomy between choosing to believe in a higher purpose, or choosing to believe in nothing at all. We turn to faith for answers about the world, or we see the events of the world as a random occurrence, and we react accordingly. Following the Departure, Pastor Matt believes even more than he ever did before that he is God’s instrument. Whereas Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie, joins the Guilty Remnant cult, where they believe that nothing matters at all. Matt searches for a reason for the Departure. The Guilty Remnant sees no reason in anything, including being alive.

Nora, whose entire family departed, works for the Department of Sudden Departure, an agency investigating whether there are any links between the people who departed, in order to find any kind of explanation whatsoever. Her job is to visit the homes of people whose loved ones Departed and ask them a series of questions from a questionnaire. She asks questions as seemingly inconsequential as, “To your knowledge, did the departed have any food allergies,” or, “To your knowledge, did the departed enjoy cooking;” questions that suggest a scientific approach, “To your knowledge, did the departed regularly use aerosol hairspray and or deodorant;” and questions that insinuate that a higher power may have had a hand in this, “To your knowledge, did the departed ever attempt suicide,” or, “in your opinion, was the departed a charitable person?”

Nora leans in to her pain. In season one, she puts on a bullet proof vest and regularly hires hookers to shoot her in the chest. And while she investigates fraud following the Departure (people who claim they have some sort of answer), she also participates in it (hugging Holy Wayne of season one, and now entering a machine in season three that claims to Depart people using radiation). But she also only wants to believe it. She’s furious at the world–her job in the Department of Sudden Departure demonstrates how hell-bent she is on exposing fraud, and how offended she is that anyone would try and capitalize on her pain, which she clearly believes she has more of than anyone else.

There is simply too much about this show to unpack in one essay. And this particular essay is about the episode, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).” Like I said, this episode provided answers. For three seasons, we’ve been following Kevin Garvey through his seeming psychosis, consistently speaking with a dead person tethered to him (the inimitable Anne Dowd, as Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant). Through Kevin’s character arc, we are exposed to many of the mysteries of the show. In season one, we see him black out for long periods of time, not knowing what happened to him, and not knowing what is and isn’t real. In season two, we see him take increasingly more dangerous measures to rid himself of the dead Patti, culminating in his death and rebirth. And in season three, we see a Kevin who seems to have it together on the outside, but is also duct-taping a bag to his head when he’s alone in his bedroom.

And we see him come to the conviction that he has a Messiah-like purpose; a mission, a reason.

“Why does it matter?”

And that’s where we open in “The Most Powerful Man in the World.” Kevin, who told Laurie an episode earlier, that he had never felt more alive than when he had died the last time, is convinced he must drown, return to the other world he visited to rid himself of Patti in season two, and learn a song that will stop a flood that may or may not be coming to destroy the world. Kevin feels a sense of importance, ready to drown with a series of tasks that he goes over before submerging–find Evie and tell her she was loved (the message from John), find Faith’s children and ask them where their shoes went when they died, and most importantly, find Christopher Sunday, the aboriginal Kevin Sr. sought out, and learn the song that will stop the rain. And so, with these missions and a staunch dedication to a purpose he believes he has, Kevin allows himself to be drowned.

And now we’re seeing a sequel, of sorts, to the season two episode in which Kevin dies the first time, “International Assassin.” Post-death, he emerges from the ocean on a secluded beach in Australia. Once again, no clothes (which we’re all okay with). Immediately, a Russian man tries to kill him. He is saved by, lo and behold, good-old dog-killer Dean, who takes him to a hut a ways down the beach and gives him his assignment–he must assassinate the President of the United States. But first, he must destroy all reflective surfaces, as that is how “they found him” at all to begin with (“they” being the enemy we haven’t been introduced to yet). Shoving an earpiece in Kevin’s ear, we hear the voice of “God,” AKA David Burton, the man mauled by a lion two episodes prior to this, and the man who met Kevin on the afterlife bridge right before he pushed Patti into the well.

The Leftovers, David Burton talking to Kevin on bridge

And guess what? We finally learn what he whispered in Kevin’s ear on that bridge! He whispered, “You’re the most powerful man in the world.” You’ll also remember that he told Kevin on that bridge that what was happening was more real than Kevin even knew. This is an important piece of the puzzle.

There’s also a typewriter in the room with him, where Kevin is apparently writing a romance novel. Dean reads out loud the line, “He stood on the bow of The Merciful. The water endlessly stretching to the infinite horizon as he contemplated the impossible distance between them but he would not stop until he found her.” More on this later.

Kevin notices a scar on his chest as he is informed that his target is getting ready to launch a nuclear attack that will destroy the world, and he must put a stop to it. But Kevin demands something in exchange–he needs to talk to Evie, Faith’s children, and Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia in this world. Cue God in Kevin’s earpiece: Look into the shard of the mirror that Dean smashed.

Kevin does, and we cut to a clean-shaven Kevin, standing at a podium in a white suit, addressing a cheering crowd. With teleprompters feeding him a speech, Kevin realizes that he is the President, and that he speaks on behalf of The Guilty Remnant. And there, in the front row, are Faith’s children, dressed in white, ready to perform a skit they prepared on the futility and pointlessness of the family. None of them are wearing shoes.

So Kevin, ready to accomplish his first important mission, asks them why they aren’t wearing shoes. And one of the children, a boy, responds, “Why does it matter?” And because in this world, Faith’s kids are in the Guilty Remnant, nothing matters, especially a family member who wanted to know. Here is the first crack in Kevin’s belief that he is important–his first mission doesn’t have a reason. Or an answer.

Time for crack two.

“That was just a pickup line.”

Evie appears in the crowd, in a red shirt that says, “I remember.” She is singing Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” into a megaphone. As Kevin is whisked away by secret service, he ensures Evie gets in the car with him, so he can complete his second important mission. He tells Evie that her father wanted her to know that she was loved. But in this world, Evie’s entire family was blown up by the Guilty Remnant, not the other way around. She doesn’t know what the hell Kevin is talking about. There is no closure here, no meaning behind Kevin’s delivering of her message, no point to the Evie mission. On to crack three.

Kevin begins to throw up water, and is briefly pulled back into the world of the living, as the ranch is flooding. He lets John know that he delivered his message to Evie (but leaves out the part where it didn’t mean anything). He also tells Faith that her kids had no answer about their shoes (but leaves out the part where they don’t care about family at all). As Kevin is carried inside, John and Michael start to question whether they’re taking this too far. Kevin Sr. locks them all out of the bathroom, fills the tub, and drowns his son.

And it’s back to the world of the dead, with Kevin as President. The secret service takes Kevin to a secret bunker that only he can access. Unless, of course, he has “an identical twin brother, which would be ridiculous,” as his chief of staff quips. Haha. Kevin knows he’s the assassin that is coming to kill himself, the President.

In order to enter the bunker, Kevin has to have his face scanned, and his penis scanned (more on that later), and he has to answer three security questions, the final one being, “Who is your Secretary of Defense?” Kevin thinks. He chooses here. He names…”Patti Levin.”

The Leftovers, Patti Levin

Enter: Patti Levin. Dressed in her white Guilty Remnant garb, the politician that she was in “International Assassin.” She informs Kevin of the mission that he is to carry out: He needs to launch a nuclear missile at Russia, who will retaliate with a nuke of their own, and then that will be the end of the world. Patti says that this is the ultimate purpose of the Guilty Remnant: “We give the people what they’re too chicken-shit to do themselves, what they elected us for. We give them what they want. And they want to die.”

BUT before any of this Armageddon can go down, they will need to follow what is called, “The Fisher Protocol,” an ethical deterrent where the nuclear launch key was surgically embedded into the heart of a volunteer, so the President has to murder that volunteer himself in order to launch the nuke. We learn this because the Vice President arrives to tell us, and it is Liv Tyler’s Meg, the one who inherited the Guilty Remnant from Patti and who, I think we can all agree, was a total bitch. And whose heart is the key in? Someone who discovered a scar on his chest in a hut on the beach. And he’s 15 minutes away!

Kevin looks at his reflection in Patti’s glasses and we’re back to International Assassin Kevin, who passes the security measures with flying colors, being identical in every way to himself.

Turns out, Meg is on Kevin (and God’s) side; she’s here to help. She tells Kevin that she is in love with the most wonderful man, and that man is…God. Kevin then shoots Meg, killing her. God, on his earpiece, asked what the noise was. Kevin says that he should know, if he’s God. David Burton replies, “That was just a pick up line.” While it seemed pretty clear that David Burton wasn’t really God, it’s nice to have this overt confirmation that he is a fraud. Kevin then removes his earpiece and destroys it; no Meg and no “God”–now he’s on his own.

Kevin is now hell-bent on finishing mission three (this one HAS to be important, right?): talking to Christopher Sunday, who is the Prime Minister of Australia here, remember. He video chats Sunday, who is aware that they are dead. International Assassin Kevin tells Christopher that he needs to learn the song. Christopher informs him that he already told Kevin’s father that his song brings the rain, it won’t stop a flood. Furthermore, he asks Kevin if he truly believes that his father can sing a song that will stop a flood coming to destroy the world. And you know what? Kevin actually doesn’t believe that. Crack three. Chicka-plao! (Just gotta throw in a Hamilton reference there, sorry not sorry.)

So, if Kevin isn’t here to tell Evie she was loved, or learn from Faith’s kids where their shoes are, and if he absolutely isn’t here to learn a song then, as Christopher Sunday asks Kevin: why is he here? At this point, Kevin is attacked by security. He looks at himself in the computer screen and now he’s back as Kevin the President, with Patti pressuring him to launch the nuclear missiles. But Kevin says all he wants to do is go home, to which Patti replies, “Do you? Because you keep coming back here.” And now here is the crux of the episode: Why is Kevin back here? What does he really want?

The bow of The Merciful

Enter International Assassin Kevin, brought in as a prisoner with a bag on his head. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, the two Kevin’s finally come face-to-face.

Both Kevin’s say they don’t want anything to do with the removal of the key. Patti pulls out Kevin’s untitled romance novel, a page of which was on the typewriter back at the hut on the beach. Both Kevin’s insist they didn’t write it, but Patti suggests that both of them wrote it. As Kevin reads aloud the last page, he begins to cry. The ending of his book has Kevin on a ship, alone, sailing and thinking of a woman he lost, who he drove away. It is filled with tragedy, and doubt, and fear. And it ends with the woman being alone, far away from Kevin, and because she is far from him, all is well. Kevin finishes reading and stands up and says, through tears, “Take the thing out of me… so we can’t ever come back here ever again.”

So President Kevin cuts himself, International Assassin Kevin, open, and digs around in his heart until he extracts the key. And the International Assassin bleeds out and dies, but not before telling Kevin, “We fucked up with Nora.” Kevin takes the key, launches the missiles, and stands hand-in-hand with Patti as they watch them fly across the sky.

The world ends.

The Leftovers, Kevin and Patti hold hands look at missiles in sky

Kevin wakes up back in the world of the living, covered in a sheet, outside on the church that was being built on Faith’s farm. He is calm. His agony seems to have dissipated. John and Michael are asleep and his father is on the roof of the house (which harkens back to the opening scene of the season, where we see a woman in a cult continue to stand on top of her house, awaiting God, and God continues to never show up). Kevin Sr. tells Kevin Jr. that he thought that he had lost him (it seems they had covered him in the sheet believing he wouldn’t be coming back to life this time around). And that now he doesn’t know what to do. “Now what?” he asks. And Kevin smiles, a face of hope.

“Now what?”

In this episode, we have here a group of characters who believe they are working towards a higher purpose, only for them to discover that they are not. A tale as old as time, when you consider the cult woman on the roof all those years ago. Kevin, especially, believes he is important on a grand scale. And can you blame him? He did die and come back to life, after all. David Burton told him that he was the most powerful man in the world; he told him that all of it was real even when Kevin doubted it.

At this point, there is no disputing that Kevin has died and come back to life. He’s done it four times. But the things Kevin encounters on the other side are simply versions of things Kevin has already experienced, in the world of the living. The people on the other side are people Kevin knows or has met–Patti, Meg, Dean, David Burton. They are just playing different roles than their living roles. This other side is a Kevin-specific other side. And Kevin chose his role. The first time Kevin dies, when he emerges naked from the tub in the hotel room in “International Assassin” and opens his closet to grab clothes, a note tells him,

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”

Leftovers_adorn

Kevin passed over his police uniform, which was also hanging in the closet, and donned a suit. He chose International Assassin. Which means Kevin sees himself as some harbinger of justice, revenge. He’s powerful, skilled. James Bond. And when he returns to the other side in “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” he is the International Assassin again, and the President of the United States. Double power and importance!

One by one, Kevin’s belief in his importance and his higher purpose is systematically torn down. As Faith’s son says to him, “Why does it matter?” It doesn’t. Kevin is not as important as he thinks he is. The whole thing where he has to pull out his penis and have it scanned to get into the bunker? What a display of ego! Every part of this world puts Kevin at the center of his own greatness, his superior skills, his savior-complex.

But maybe there is nothing important about Kevin. When David Burton told Matt that he was God, he also said that nothing mattered, and he didn’t even care about Matt, who spent his life trying to get God’s attention. Why is Meg the Vice President in Kevin’s dead world? Why does it matter? Why is Evie’s whole family dead from a bomb? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. Even Kevin doesn’t believe that a song his father sings will stop a flood. Why is it that Kevin can die and come back to life? It doesn’t matter! He’s not the only one able to do so–David Burton has done it several times as well, and Evie’s grandfather. Who knows why. But he’s not special.

Kevin’s death trips to the other side have served one purpose and one purpose only: For Kevin to rid himself of something. He died and released himself from Patti’s hold on his life. And then as President, he brings her back to help him release the part of himself that feels guilt and fear, that pushes other people away, that can’t be satisfied, that sails off on The Merciful in the end of his romance novel, without Nora. He tears that man’s heart out, he takes the key, and he blows up the whole goddamn world to make sure that part of him is gone forever.

The Leftovers, Kevin and young Patti at well

And now, Kevin seems to finally be at peace. He destroyed the world that allowed him to die and come back to life; he doesn’t need it anymore. But Kevin Sr. isn’t ready to let go yet, he’s not ready to come down from the roof yet, to accept that he has no grand purpose. Kevin Sr. asks, “Now what?”

Next week, we’ll find out. Or not, it’s Damon Lindelof so who knows. But I think what we should all prepare for, just in case, is the show’s Departure, of sorts: How do you cope with an event that no one will ever be able to understand? How do you live with just never knowing why? Because that might be what The Leftovers leaves us with–questions with absolutely no answers. Adorn yourself accordingly.

Another Year, Another Controversial Rape Scene on ‘Game of Thrones’

Sansa and Ramsay

Some things come around every year. Birthdays. Holidays. Paying your taxes. Uncomfortable rape scenes on Game of Thrones. This most recent rape scene (yes, these are sentences we write now when talking about Game of Thrones) occurred in the 6th episode of season 5, entitled, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”

The victim was the unfortunate and forever-tormented Sansa Stark, whose storyline throughout the show takes her from bad situations to worse ones. The rapist is her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, whose onscreen time has been used to demonstrate how sick, twisted, sadistic, sociopathic, and cruel his character is. The additional uncomfortable element added to this scene is that Theon Greyjoy (also named “Reek,” the man who Ramsay tortured, imprisoned, and psychologically broke) was forced to stand and watch it happen.

I have to say, I was really surprised that this particular rape scene elicited any sort of controversy. What did viewers think was going to happen? That Ramsay—who cut off Theon’s penis, who literally hunts the women in his life down and kills them because they’re boring—would marry Sansa and suddenly be a loving and gentle husband?

Game of Thrones has always been pretty liberal with their rape scenes. The show has been criticized heavily in the past for its gratuitous depictions of sex and women’s bodies, and for its numerous (numerous!) depictions of rape. And in the past I’ve been on board that ship, at the helm, with my arms flung out wide like, “Jack, I’m flying!” with my opinions on the problems with these particular scenes. However, the rape of Sansa Stark made sense narratively; it wasn’t gratuitous, and it had a purpose to the character’s arc and this season’s overall storyline. Did I want to see Sansa raped? No. But it certainly made sense to the narrative. And besides, was there any doubt that’s what would happen upon seeing Ramsay’s “I do” face?

Ramsay

Of course, though, I do have teensy problem. As Sansa is getting brutally raped, the camera zooms in on Theon, who was forced to stand there and watch. We, as the audience, can’t see Sansa’s rape, we can only hear it and interpret it in the horror, anguish, and turmoil on Theon’s face.

I’m down with this scene portrayed as it is but I do take issue with rape being used as the catalyst for a man’s storyline and personal character growth. Because watching that scene, we are to assume that the show is leading Theon toward some kind of redemption story, one in which he takes revenge on Ramsay, or at least tries SOMEWHAT to help Sansa. Either way, the focus of that scene was not on Sansa’s pain, but on Theon’s.

And this is always how it seems to go down when it comes to rape on Game of Thrones. Rape or almost-rape are used on this show in one of two ways: It happens but we all just pretend it didn’t, or it is a catalyst for a male character’s story development. And that really grinds my gears. As if I’m not sick enough of male narratives, they also get to have a better storyline than a woman because she was raped? Games of Thrones has often been criticized for using women’s bodies as props and set dressings, and to use violence against women as a backdrop to a man’s storyline is…ugh, just ugh.

Let’s look at the evidence. In season 1 of Games of Thrones, Daenerys is consistently raped by her husband, Khal Drogo. How does this plot progress? It finds Dany having a pretty girl-on-girl moment with her handmaiden in which she is instructed on the ways to please a man. During the next rape session with Khal Drogo, Dany tells him, “No,” while getting on top of him and taking control of the situation. Drogo then falls in love with her and then it was like, “Hey, she was never raped, Drogo was just doing sex all wrong lol!” Ah, love.

In season 2, Sansa is almost raped during a riot in King’s Landing, but in swoops the Hound to save her. The Hound is mean, and terrifying, and just so complicated, and his rough exterior seems to soften only for the beautiful and innocent Sansa Stark. What will happen with the Hound next? I mean, he saved a girl from getting raped! He has depth!

In season 3, Jamie lies to his captors that Brienne is very wealthy and will fetch a handsome ransom price, so no one should rape her. Brienne is the strongest woman in Westerns, hands down, but she is never given the chance to take control of a situation in which she is victimized, because Jamie is always there to save her. He ensures she does not get raped while they are being held captive, and he also risks his life by jumping in to a bear pit to save her life (though she was probably capable of saving it herself, but I guess we’ll never know). Am I saying I want female characters to be raped? No. Am I saying I don’t want male characters to stop a rape if they can? No. I’m just saying I’d like female characters to be able to command their own storylines for once. Jamie going out of his way to help Brienne is a huge part of his redemption storyline. It’s where we finally see that he is a good person inside, even though he’s done terrible things. Seemingly, in the books, Brienne exists just to propel  Jamie’s story forward. (Mercifully, the show is giving her her own independent storyline this season.)

And there was season 4’s rape of Cersei Lannister. This one was the worst rape scene because the showrunners insisted that it wasn’t even rape, c’mon. The problem that I had—well, the BIGGEST problem that I had—with this rape scene was that it was purposeless. It didn’t happen like that in the book. And while the scene we saw on television was exactly the same scene from the book, the exception was that in the show Cersei was raped and in the book it was consensual. To change just this one factor was very jarring and it challenged the integrity of the character of Jamie as a whole, and destroyed all of the character building that we had to have Brienne almost get raped like 12 times to get! And for what? That scene made no sense, and then it was never brought up again.

And just this past week, we had yet ANOTHER attempted rape. Sweet Wildling Gilly was almost raped at the hands of two brothers of the Night’s Watch. But poor, sweet, weak Sam stepped in and saved her (but not before getting the crap beat out of him). As Gilly nurses Sam back to health, she admonishes him for trying to save her and makes him promise that he will just be sure to take care of her baby should anything happen to her (anything being, we can assume, rape followed by death). And then, as a reward for Sam’s bravery and character development, she climbs on top of him and has slow, awkward, fully clothed sex with him. The story here wasn’t about Gilly at all. The story was about Sam showing his strength and courage and how that should be rewarded.

And see, it’s just a damn shame. The females of Game of Thrones have great stories in them. But the show seems determined to have them resigned to the reality that they might get raped, and to exist mostly to drive a man’s story forward.

As I said before, I support the narrative choices the showrunners have made in having Sansa be raped by Ramsay Bolton. I’m just crossing my fingers real hard that the story be Sansa’s to tell, and not Theon’s or anybody else’s.

Check back for next week’s essay: Even More Objectification on Game of Thrones or, Why Did That Sand Snake Take Off Her Clothes? C’mon.