Lessons From “The Leftovers”

“What’s a person to us / but a contortion / of pressure ridges / palpable / long after she is gone?” — Rae Armantrout, ‘Missing Persons’

“Apparently even the most awful tragedies, and the people they’d ruined, got a little stale after a while.” — Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers

The Leftovers begins not at the moment of the Sudden Departure, when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappeared without a trace, but rather in its aftermath. Created by Damon Lindelof of Lost and Watchmen fame, The Leftovers ran from 2014 to 2017, a piece of information that was, frankly, surprising to learn when I first started watching the show in 2021. Released almost a decade before a global pandemic that would upend our lives, the show’s thematic grappling with grief, faith, and collective trauma eerily parallels our current moment.

Set almost three years later in the nondescript town of Mapleton, New York, the show follows the fractured Garvey family: Kevin Garvey is trying to keep it together as the local chief of police; his wife Laurie abandoned her husband and kids for a silent, white-robed, nihilistic chain-smoking cult known as the Guilty Remnant; their son Tommy ran away from their small town to follow Holy Wayne, an enigmatic guru known for his healing hugs; and their daughter Jill is navigating teenage life with her father in their broken home. Then there’s Nora Durst, another Mapleton resident, who is still reeling from the departure of husband and two young kids and has since channeled her grief into a job with the Department of Sudden Departures where interviews surviving family members and helps connect them to government benefits. Her brother Matt, the town reverend, is still holding fast to his faith as he tries to deprogram Guilty Remnant members while taking care of his Mary, who was paralyzed by a car accident caused by the Sudden Departure. Everyone is picking up the splintered pieces of their past lives, trying to make sense of this new chaotic present punctured by the voids of these inexplicable absences.

Landing somewhere between science fiction and magical realism, The Leftovers could best be described as a work of soft dystopia or mild apocalypse. So much has changed and, somehow, so much has not. In quite literally the blink of an eye, millions of people vanished off the face of the planet in a quasi-Biblical rapture. They left nothing behind, and there are no clues as to where they might have been taken. We never really learn where they ended up, or if the Departed are even alive at all. No, the end of the world doesn’t happen the way it does in the movies with cataclysmic hellfire, governmental collapse, or nuclear winter. Instead, something much stranger happens.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this ambiguity of loss, especially as we continue to live in this post-but-not-really-pandemic moment. Around the time I finished the show, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s memorial installation of over 700,000 white flags, titled In America: Remember was unveiled on 20 acres of grass across the National Mall. Since then, debates over how to represent the lives lost throughout COVID-19 pandemic have flickered in and out like a flame, persisting through continued calls to return to normal, expired protections, lifted mandates, and new variant surges. Websites like the now-defunct COVID Memorial and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s art piece A Crack In The Hourglass act as digital pandemic-specific obituaries. Outlets like The New York Times tried to articulate these losses through grim headlines and graphics. A diverse patchwork of long-term and temporary local memorial sites have also cropped across the United States, including one at Wall Township Farm in New Jersey (which is considered by many to be the first permanent COVID memorial), a public art memorial on the banks of Lake Roland Park in Baltimore, a dedicated tree in Delaware, and a proposed (although now paused) Essential Workers Park in New York City. However, none of these attempts to capture the sheer magnitude of this national loss of life have ever really felt like enough, especially as we pass one depressing case number milestone after another.

Earlier this year, as America reached 1 million COVID deaths, calls for a more substantive, permanent act of remembrance reignited. San Francisco-based nonprofit Marked By COVID ramped up their federal lobbying efforts to establish a COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day on the first day of March, along with their ongoing campaign to establish a network of memorials in cities across the country. This led to the introduction of a House resolution to “memorialize those lost to the COVID–19 virus” at the beginning of 2021, a time when the country was still at just under half a million deaths and coming up on a grim 1-year anniversary. The resolution has since stalled in Congress and ended up receiving only lukewarm support from the White House. Monuments to commemorate lives lost from disease are nothing new, but it does feel strange to begin planning a national memorial to mourn the tragedy of a pandemic that continues to impact our lives.

The Leftovers also wrestles with the trouble of remembrance, albeit with the added peculiarity of no bodies to mark this mass death. While some of the show’s characters are trying to move on and return back to some kind of normalcy, there are many more who don’t want to forget and others who hold out hope that the Departed will return. On the most extreme side of this spectrum of grief, the Guilty Remnant declare themselves to be “living reminders” of the Departed, re-traumatizing the mourning families of Mapleton through their ghostly militancy. The show never settles on a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve, choosing instead to explore the complexities of what it’s like to keep on living after others have gone.

I know some people who lost a friend or family member during the pandemic, others who lost no one at all. Like the characters in The Leftovers, many of us are still haunted by unanswerable questions: Why was my family taken from me? Why did I lose someone? Why was I spared? Was it something I did to deserve this fate? Throughout the season, we see how individual characters, from scientists to grieving relatives, try to find patterns in the Departure’s apparent randomness. It’s theorized that children who ate sugary cereals were at higher risk of disappearing. In her role at the Department of Sudden Departures, Nora asks questions like, “Did the missing person use an aluminum-based deodorant?” and “Did the missing person have visual impairment or wear corrective lenses?” Protesters outside of a Departure-related conference spout conspiracy theories like the World Health Organization is to blame or that this caused by a secret weapon. The town of Jarden, Texas, where the Garveys move to in the second season, lost no residents in the Sudden Departure. Renamed “Miracle,” it becomes a national park visited by tourists and pilgrims who are convinced the place could make them immune to another Departure. A collective survivor’s guilt permeates everyone’s thoughts and shapes their behaviors.

Watching characters try to rationalize this tragedy by seeking out correlations and symbolic meaning in certain places and actions where there isn’t any, I can’t help but think about how the burden of mitigating the spread of the virus has shifted from our governments and public health systems to individual responsibility over the past year. Despite policy failure after policy failure keeping us in this pandemic for longer than anyone could imagine, we are now being told that it’s our fault for getting sick even as we watched mask mandates and vaccination requirements get rolled back, testing sites close, contact tracing programs end, and we felt the pressure to return to in-person activities. Now, it’s up to us to assess and assume our personal risk of exposure even when the safest choice isn’t even possible anymore for those most vulnerable.

The mental gymnastics many of the characters in The Leftovers do to explain these absences and justify why they stayed behind remind me of this idea of “deaths pulled from the future.” First proposed by the hosts of the disability justice podcast Death Panel, this phrase articulates a narrative strategy that sought to minimize the United States’ abysmal public health response and downplay the severity of the national death count by “framing [the] deaths from Covid-19 as somehow preordained.” To put it bluntly, this rhetoric of inevitable mortality implies that it wasn’t really the virus that killed all of these millions of people. Their preexisting conditions, their comorbidities, their disabilities, their age, their ‘unhealthy’ lives (whatever that might mean physically or socially) were really to blame. Never mind that many deaths could have been prevented were it not for systemic inaction, that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted poor communities of color who endured unsafe working conditions and poor access to quality healthcare since the beginning of the pandemic, or that we’re still seeing labor shortages resulting from this massive number of deaths, cycles of reinfection, and the disabling impacts of long COVID. Much like who did or didn’t disappear in the Sudden Departure, the probability of whether you’ll catch COVID or not in each new variant wave has become increasingly random and mostly up to chance in this time of lifted mandates, reduced testing, and breakthrough infections no matter how many precautions we take.

When 2% of the world is wiped off the face of the planet with no explanation, it’s no surprise that many turn to faith to cope with the fallout of the Sudden Departure. Cults of varying degrees of spiritual extremism led by a theatrical medley of prophets, saviors, and miracle-workers crop up across the country. These cults bring such a threat of further upheaval that many are hunted by the newly-renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults. Lindelof doesn’t depict the people who join these cults and post-Departure religions as immoral or foolish — in fact, some of the smartest, sharpest characters of the show end up in destructive groups like the Guilty Remnant. Instead, we see the lengths people are willing to go to reclaim some form of control over their own irreversibly-altered lives, to find meaning in their loss and explanations for what happened when the institutions of the past and their teachings failed to meet the unprecedented moment of the Sudden Departure. Painfully prophetic of QAnon’s explosive popularity and the dangerous rise of anti-vax conspiracy theories, we see that those who join these cults are vulnerable people seeking answers and a community in a society that doesn’t have any.

And what about the past? The past, with all of its mythos and romantic memories of a better time? What I appreciate about The Leftovers is that, in the flashbacks, we see how the characters’ lives pre-Sudden Departure weren’t so great: Kevin was cheating on his wife and distancing himself from his family; Nora’s marriage had been strained by her husband’s infidelity and his refusal to share parenting responsibilities when Nora tried to return to work; Laurie learned she was pregnant and had been contemplating whether or not to keep the baby given her unhappy marriage before the unborn fetus disappears in the Sudden Departure; Meg Abbott, who later becomes the Guilty Remnant’s fiercest leader, loses her mother the day before the Departure and her death becomes lost in the fray. There’s a kind of fallibility of memory that happens in the wake of this tragedy, that even what was considered ‘normal life’ before the Departure wasn’t all that good as everyone wants to remember. This is all to say that many of the problems that are dominating the national conversation now — stagnant and low wages, the high cost of healthcare and inequities in our medical systems, the housing crisis, issues surrounding childcare and parental leave, worker burnout — existed long before the pandemic exacerbated them.

Many of us are mourning the lives we had before, the dreams and plans that got canceled or delayed, the relationships that strained and ended with the spread of this disease, the missing time that we will never recover. At one point in the show, Laurie, who has left the Guilty Remnant and begun all that she’s lost, says: “I think I’m supposed to stay broken, maybe we all are.” This sentiment may sound cynical, but hearing that line in the summer of 2021 after spending days inside listening to ambulance sirens, tamping down my anxiety of getting sick to commute because I was required to return to in-person work long before my WFH peers, panic-cleaning groceries and packages, vigilantly monitoring myself for symptoms after an exposure, waiting on long lines to get my nose swabbed (I still find stray CityMD pens in my bags to this day), it felt like a relief to hear someone acknowledge that yes, this collectively traumatic event fucked all of us up and it’s okay to not want to pretend that we’re on our way back to the before times when all of us are still not okay.

So, what then? How do we try to heal the parts of our lives that have been scarred by loss? The Leftovers doesn’t search for logical explanations or a cure-all to bring back those who disappeared in the Sudden Departure, preferring to send us into deeply existential meditations on death and the afterlife. Yet no matter how strange the show gets or how much time passes for these characters since the Sudden Departure, The Leftovers’s continual return to the Departed and the people they left behind reminds us that grief is a continual process, not something with a fixed start or end, and that the only way we can face the scope of this horrific tragedy is by making peace with a past that is never coming back.

From time to time, I find myself using the phrase “post-pandemic” to try to describe some period of time from the past couple of years. The awkwardness, nonsensical nature of this wording always catches in my mouth as my brain processes what I said. It’s a failed adjective, a silly way to try to mark a moment that never really ended. I have no idea if we will ever build a national pandemic memorial, or if that holiday dedicated to the victims and survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic will ever succeed in Congress. What I do know is that these calls to return back to a now-nonexistent normalcy will only lead to greater dissonance from the dead, and perpetuate a continued refusal to address this national trauma. The only way out is to move forward, never forgetting those we have lost as we fight for something better.

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