Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The first season of HBO’s The Leftovers proved one of the most divisive in recent memory. Throughout ten maddening, mesmerizing episodes, the series came into its own as a haunting exploration of grief, depression and earthly purpose, all the while dancing around its central mystery – why did two percent of the world’s population vanish into thin air? – without concrete plans to ever answer it. Instead, the show dove headfirst into the lives of characters forced to adapt to something inexplicable, dwelling on the misery and mystery of survival under such strange circumstances. The results were alternately soul-crushingly brutal, heart-wrenchingly beautiful and straight-up baffling; and on more than one occasion, they were all three.
But above all else, season 1 of The Leftovers felt deliberate. Especially given the showrunners (Damon Lindelof, whose Lost mythology stands among the richest and most complex ever constructed; and Tom Perrotta, who covered the same narrative ground in his original novel), it wasn’t hard to imagine the show’s myriad riddles as small parts of a much larger picture that would only come into focus later on. Fittingly, The Leftovers probed questions of faith while challenging viewers to maintain theirs.
In its sophomore run, kicking off tonight, The Leftovers remains one of the most thought-provoking dramas on television, but it’s also a far cry from the show that oppressed and obfuscated viewers last year. Visually, tonally and narratively, the series has undergone a considerable transformation – whereas the first season dwelled, often exhaustingly, on the agony of loss, this new Leftovers has turned its focus to the process of healing.
In the spirit of transformation, the season 2 premiere keeps almost everything familiar off-screen. After an extremely Lindelofian prologue, seemingly set thousands of years ago and filled with enough symbolic poetry to recall The Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey, the series introduces audiences to a new family: the Murphys of Jarden, Texas (a small town renamed Miracle after it was discovered that no one within its borders vanished during the Sudden Departure). There’s Erika (Regina King), a doctor and loving mother; John (Kevin Carroll), a firefighter with a criminal past and sinister mood swings who’s also a sturdy patriarch and pillar of the community; free-spirited, fun-loving teenager Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown); and her bookish brother Michael (Jovan Adepo).
It’s a tribute to how good all four actors are, and how strong the writing is, that these newcomers hold the screen as forcefully as they do. Though they were untouched by the Departure, the Murphys are all straining and suffering in different ways, bearing invisible wounds and harboring weighty secrets – and by the end of the premiere, it’s clear that Lindelof and Perrotta have enough passion for them to make an entire season about their lives work well.
As involving and intriguing as the first episode is, though, the second is perhaps a ballsier and even better hour of television, striking in how it essentially covers a lot of the same story, but from the perspective of the Murphys’ new neighbors – the Garveys, comprised of struggling ex-cop Kevin (Justin Theroux), new love Nora (Carrie Coon), daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and an adopted baby left on their doorstep by aloof son Tom (Chris Zylka) – who have fled the funereal atmosphere of Mapleton in hopes of starting over in the so-called Jarden of Eden. Conflict between the families seems inevitable, especially with Kevin still falling apart over guilt about his role in Patti’s (Ann Dowd) death last season and John showcasing steely intolerance to anyone who threatens Jarden’s status quo, but for now it’s fascinating to compare the disparate clans.
The best episodes in the first season of The Leftovers turned the show’s spiritual magnifying glass on single characters, from Nora, mourning the departure of her entire family, to her reverent brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), and season 2 is well-served by filtering out the more extraneous characters in order to continue exploring the fractured psyches of those two and a mere handful of the many players from Mapleton. The third episode back picks up with Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and Tom, working to save people from the clutches of the Guilty Remnant while clinging on to their own sanity, and it’s there that the narrative begins to return to some of the same tensions that bubbled over in the season 1 finale, about the addictive dangers of blind faith.
Even with its new setting and characters, and its less brutally miserable tone, The Leftovers remains centered around the deafening silence of the unknown. Its meditations on religion, family and the nature of grief set it apart when it premiered last year, and Lindelof and Perrotta seem revitalized by the opportunity to deepen those observations anew. How does one come to terms with the unthinkable? In the absence of answers, is it truly possible to move on from huge trauma, or will our innate desire to understand always leave us haunted? Will the burden of grief ever truly leave us? The Leftovers is still about depression and loss, to be sure, but the new season is also more openly about salvation, and the ways in which those are lost can actually begin to find themselves again.
What’s really refreshing about the new batch of episodes is a sense of balance, an equilibrium between melancholia and hard-worn hope the first season sometimes lacked. This new Leftovers is thrillingly confident in its storytelling, and even as it again peers into dark places, the show has improved in one clear way – it’s no longer afraid to also embrace the light.
The Leftovers' second season is just as meditative and mesmerizing as the first, but it's lighter and lither this time around, having shed the overwhelming sense of despair that alienated so many viewers last year.