Despair comes early in The Leftovers. A frazzled mother juggles doing laundry, buckling up her crying baby in the backseat, and talking on the phone. The crying subsides, providing a brief sense of relief, but then she realizes that her child is gone from the carseat, seemingly vanished into thin air. In the same parking lot, a young boy tries to find his missing father. A car that lost its driver smashes into another. All around, people are screaming, calling 911, and searching for loved ones who have suddenly disappeared — unaware that they’ll never see them again.
So begins the first episode of The Leftovers, a fantastic show about a Rapture-like event called the “Sudden Departure,” when 140 million people disappeared in the blink of an eye and never returned. We skip ahead three years, to a time when everyone is trying (and failing) to return to a routine while still faced with grief and questions. It gets darker. Within the first five minutes, a dog is shot dead by a crazed man. Chief Kevin Garvey (played by the foxy and brooding Justin Theroux) informs the dog’s owner, but she shrugs it off — the dog had run away when her husband was departed; neither was coming back. “Sorry for your loss,” Kevin offers. “Is that what it is?” she replies before disappearing back into her house.
The big event in the pilot — you know, besides the Sudden Departure — is the Heroes Day to honor those who were departed, even if they weren’t heroes (“My brother-in-law disappeared, and he was a dipshit,” one man helpfully chimes in). Kevin is against the celebration and explains to the mayor that they’re just inviting the Guilty Remnant to come and stage a riot. The G.R. are a cult who have taken a vow of silence but have no problem staging quiet protests around the town such as at a recent homecoming game. There’s a reason why Kevin is especially hateful of the G.R.: Laurie, his wife, has abandoned the family to join the cult.
The rest of Kevin’s family isn’t faring too well, either. Jill is a rage-filled high schooler, violently elbowing people during field hockey, running off to debauchery-filled teen parties, and lying to her father — and everyone else, including herself — about being fine. At one party that she attends with Aimee, her flirty best friend and a bad influence, the friends all play Spin the Bottle and she ends up in a room with Matt.
There is something so disturbingly eerie about the scene and the jaded way in which they glaze over the Sudden Departure, as Matt jerks off while Jill mechanically chokes him, both lying in a bed that used to belong to a young girl who was departed. Jill isn’t really into it — but it’s clear this is something of a routine now, an act of following the rules of the game. She stares up at the ceiling, silently crying. Jill is perhaps the most lost character of this series, distant from everyone else in her family (emotionally and physically). When she finds the dead dog in her dad’s car trunk, she buries it, with the help of the cute Frost twins, and even seems emotionally detached from that, too.
Jill’s older brother Tom is a volunteer for Wayne, a cultish leader who “heals” people by taking away the pain they’ve been dealing with since the Sudden Departure. Tom is completely devoted to Wayne but he’s also harboring a crush on Christine, one of Wayne’s too-young lovers.
On the day of the parade — which Kevin has forbidden Jill to go to but she doesn’t listen — the town is at rapt attention as Nora Durst, a survivor who lost her entire family in the departure, gives an emotional speech. “I’m not greedy,” she says as her voice cracks, “I’m not asking for that perfect day at the beach. Just give me that horrible Saturday, all four of us sick and miserable but alive and together.” It’s heartbreaking but before we get to fully feel the weight of her speech, the Guilty Remnant show up, clad in required white, holding up letters to spell out “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH.”
A riot breaks out between the town and the cult but it’s one-sided. The G.R. are pacifists, trained to ignore everything that comes their way whether it’s yelling, spitting, or punches. They stand there and take the blows, falling to the ground and refusing to strike back as they absorb the kicks from the angry mob. It’s tough to watch especially as Kevin throws himself in there to try to quell the violence. There’s so much anger within the town and they’ve all been trying to find a release; it was only a matter of time before it lands on the Guilty Remnant.
Later, after a drunk night at the bar, Kevin goes to the cul-de-sac where his estranged wife Laurie has taken up with the G.R. He begs her to come home but it doesn’t take. She just stares, clearly wanting to speak — to say anything to him — but can’t break the rules. She can’t go home, either. She’s found her place at the G.R., even though it means abandoning her entire family. She’ll find a new family, though, because as Kevin is driving away, new recruit Meg drives up to join the G.R. and is placed under Meg’s watch.
It’s a stunning first episode of what is sure to be a stunning (and depressing) series. “Nobody’s ready to feel better. They’re ready to fucking explode,” Kevin says early in the pilot. He’s right.