In its first two episode, “The Leftovers” struggled because it wanted to have its cigarette and smoke it too.
Creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have made clear that we’ll never know what happened to the vanished two percent, which is a brave creative idea because it puts the audience in the same position as its cast and denies them what would be the most obvious payoff from the start.
To make up for this lack of mystery, however, “The Leftovers” has kept the motivations of character like the GR and Wayne Gilchrest from the audience entirely, making us wonder why these people do any of the things that we see them do. It’s a great way to add an air of mystery to a show, but it’s just as alienating for the audience, since we don’t get to know much about anyone or why we should care at all about the mysterious things they do.
Episode three fixes that problem in many ways by laying bare Christopher Eccleston’s character, the town pastor Matt Jamison, who we’ve seen only briefly in the previous two episodes. The hour, entitled “Two Boats and a Helicopter” features short appearances by Justin Theroux and Amy Brenneman, foregoing every other storyline in favor of focusing squarely on Matt and his life post-disappearance.
Where the previous two episodes purposefully obscured the main characters for the sake of the show’s need for mystery, “Two Boats and a Helicopter” succeeds because of how unflinchingly it dives into Eccleston’s character and his lot now that a hell of a lot of people are missing. The lows we see Matt fall to and the decisions he is forced to make are the finest examples of “The Leftovers” living up to the promise of its premise.
Post-disappearance, Matt has a tough argument to make: that the people everyone misses aren’t the raptured souls they’re made out to be. Because how else could he explain himself, a man of God, being left behind? Instead, he tells Nora Durst, his sister, that the anomaly that took her entire family away was a test, one that she informs him that he’s failing.
The story of Matt’s financial troubles and his struggle to keep his church sets up several character-defining moments and is exactly what the premise should do if it isn’t to serve as the central mystery of the show. The extraordinary circumstances, ideally, present characters extraordinary choices, ones that people on other shows will never find themselves presented with, simply because of how drastically set-up of “The Leftovers” changed the entire world.
When “The Leftovers” works, the statement of any given story should be “Here, this is how the disappearance has changed the world and the characters in it,” and until tonight, we’ve only seen glimpses of that. By focusing on a character, whose entire life has been uprooted by the non-rapture, the latest episode fulfilled the promise of the show in a way that was entertaining, thoughtful and engaging. That’s good TV.