There is an alternate world where “The Garveys at Their Best” would be the pilot episode of The Leftovers. It’s the penultimate of the season but the way it sort of reintroduces the characters — putting them into a different context: pre-Sudden Departure, vaguely happier though not explicitly content — and the way it shows the events leading up to October 14th would work as the first episode. Instead it’s snuck in between last week’s bloody cliffhanger and next week’s season finale. It’s a better decision (and we all know Lindelof is skilled at these sneaky flashback episodes) and the episode as a whole is fantastic.
What makes “The Garveys at Their Best” work so well is the placement of the episode within the season. We’ve seen almost nonstop unhappiness for about two months now — save for a few cute scenes between Kevin and Nora, though even those have an underlying feeling of doom — and the opening to “The Garvey” feels like a shock to the system: a jaunty tune, Kevin Garvey jogging (always wonderful to see Justin Theroux), a huge house, Laurie finally talking after eight episodes of silence, and even braceface Jill is happy and smiling while singing along to her iPod, bouncing around like a typical teenager.
It’s clear that the Garveys aren’t perfectly happy. The parents are keeping secrets from the children and from each other, Jill suspects something is off, and Tom has been paying angry visits to his real father (which, admittedly, I had completely forgotten about) and needs Kevin to bail him out. But they’re still comparably happy. This is true of the Durst family, too. We get scenes with Nora and her family, happy in the morning and being tucked away in bed at night. Even though her marriage seems a bit rocky, her children are endlessly frustrating (as all children are), and Nora herself is searching for something better (in this case: campaign manager for the soon-to-be-mayor). With both families, none of these relatively small problems seem to matter when you know what’s coming.
In some ways, I can say “The Garveys at Their Best” is almost a bait-and-switch episode. It’s a bit happy at first glance (there is even a big party scene!) but, as the episode goes on and we know what’s coming next, it actually starts to feel even sadder than previous episodes; now we’re learning everything that these Mapleton citizens truly lost.
Because this is The Leftovers, this still isn’t a straightforward episode. There is some real mysterious shit happening throughout. At one point, while Kevin sneaks a cigarette during a jog, a strange car rolls by and asks “Are you ready?” before realizing he’s not the one they’re looking for. Immediately after, a new gasline explodes in the ground and shoots a manhole cover up in the air, falling back down and just narrowly missing Kevin. The animal motif is back; a deer runs amuck in a children’s classroom, then terrorizes a home, then eventually runs into the street and gets hit by a car. Kevin shoots the deer dead in front of the visibly shaken driver — a woman he later drives home.
The best (and perhaps most anticipated) part of the episode is the end when we learn where most of our main characters were when the Sudden Departure occurred. “The Garveys at Their Best” is exceptional at building up suspense throughout and the payoff is even better. Previously in the series, there have already gotten some hints about certain characters’ whereabouts: there was the a quick flash of Kevin having sex though we didn’t know who with; the episode with Reverend Matt and his wife in a car though we don’t know where they were coming from; the emphasis on the paper towels in Nora’s house though it was never explained why.
As it turns out, Kevin ended up cheating on Laurie (for the first time or …?) with the woman he drove home from the deer accident. She disappears as they’re in bed which is a severe mind-fuck. Jill is at a science fair with Tom who shows up to support her when neither of her parents do. A group of classmates hold hands in a circle and one of them disappears. Nora is angry after her daughter spills juice on her phone and grabs paper towels to dry it. She turns back and everyone is gone — the guilt she must feel over this being her last moments with the family says volumes about her character now. Matt and his wife are leaving the doctor after he gets a clean bill of health; Laurie is in the same doctor’s office learning that she’s pregnant. Presumably, based on the expression on her face as the Sudden Departure happens, the unborn child is one of the departed — and that’s certainly a severe mind-fuck, too.
There is a lot to unpack in this episode but more than anything, it’s the wait for the finale even more excruciating. What’s up with those creepy people in the car? Will Laurie ever reveal to anyone what happened to her on October 14? Is Jill going to save Laurie or will she get sucked into the cult, too?