After months of build-up, HBO’s The Leftovers finally kicked off tonight with a sprawling, enigmatic pilot episode that worked diligently to introduce many of the show’s characters and hint at some of the many mysteries showrunner Damon Lindelof will now have to tease out answers to – over the course of many seasons, naturally. If you were anticipating the pilot as feverishly as I was, you may have been a little disappointed to get exactly what you were expecting – brooding characters, a thoroughly gloomy tone and many puzzling plot threads – but it’s far too early to really exalt or damn The Leftovers. After all, above everything else in the pilot, the sense that the characters are just nearing the end of the calm before some apocalyptic storm comes through most clearly.
Before we delve into what that storm might be, however, let’s look at how the pilot unfolded. We open with a scene of a woman at a laundromat with her baby. As she talks with her husband on the phone and gets into her car, the usually vocal baby stops screaming. She looks back – he’s gone. Panicked, she looks around the car but doesn’t see him. “Daddy!” she hears from the other side of the parking lot, looking up to see a young boy staring frantically at a still-rolling shopping cart with no one behind it. Then an unmanned car smashes into a parked one. Her terror increases, and as people flock to the car to help her search for the child, she can only scream, “Sam!” As the scene fades to black, we hear dozens of people clamoring to communicate news of missing loved ones.
It’s indicative of The Leftovers as a whole that Lindelof chooses to begin his series about the aftermath of an event that may be the Rapture not with widespread chaos but with one scene of a mother suddenly confronted with the disappearance of her infant son. It’s a chilling, devastating, depressing way to open a series that many will probably describe with those same three adjectives.
The series’ setting, a New York suburb called Mapleton, is clearly intended to serve as a microcosm for human society as a whole. We cut to three years later, with a blue ribbon sagging against a telephone pole. A newswoman reads the statistics for what has become known as the Sudden Departure, but what it amounts to is 140 million people worldwide, all gone in the blink of an eye. We first meet Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) as he’s out running. The day seems cold and bleak, though it’s clearly summer. He spots a dog in the middle of the street and stops to greet it. “Come here, it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you,” he reassures the dog – but mid-sentence, the dog is blasted away in front of him by a bald man (Michael Gaston) with a sniper rifle down the street. Before Kevin can react, the man gets in his pickup truck and drives away.
On that note, new day has dawned for Mapleton. We next meet Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who is sleeping in a room with a group of other people. Awakened by her bedmate’s snoring, she lights a cigarette, her eyes lifeless. Meanwhile, Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley) is facing another day in school. The PA system comes on, and the Pledge of Allegiance is read. There’s nary a reaction from the class. But then, the principal continues, “And now for those who want to, let us pray for mercy and forgiveness and the return of those who left us.” Hurriedly, several students kneel to the floor and close their eyes in prayer. Jill isn’t one of them – when the boy in front of her, Nick (Jake Robinson), mimes shooting himself in the head in exasperation, she smiles and responds by vividly pretending to hang herself, lolling tongue and all. It’s too much, and he quickly turns around, weirded out. Jill’s friend Aimee (Emily Meade) sarcastically gives Jill a thumbs up.