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The Leftovers: “A Most Powerful Adversary”

Season 2, Episode 7
Written by Damon Lindelof & Patrick Somerville
Directed by Mimi Leder

“The whole fucking world looked like all the green went out of it.”

After this week, The Leftovers’ new theme song, “Let the Mystery Be,” reads more like a threat than a suggestion. Everyone in Jarden is careening sinking ships toward answers, revelations that they believe will settle their minds and ease their pain. From the makeshift investigation that ensnares Kevin with his handprint to the simple yearning of a mother looking for her son, all those on The Leftovers are no longer willing to sit idly and wait for confirmation. They search, and for at least one resident of Miracle, Texas those queries end with resounding finality.

Kevin is at the forefront this week, which initially worried me. His hours are rarely the show’s best, often infused with many of the clichés of the “wounded white man” which has grown plentiful on television during the last two decades. His affair, abuse of power and muddled concern for his children felt very familiar, often the weakest aspect of the incredibly mixed first season. This year has found better ways to pocket the character into ongoing conversations, even if his episodes haven’t been quite as revelatory as those belonging to, say, Matt Jamison or Nora Durst. And none of this is a knock on Justin Theroux’s performance; he’s quite good, even excellent at times when distilling a heartbreaking mix of insanity and loneliness.

For much of “A Most Powerful Adversary”’s first half, I was concerned that we were headed for the first middling hour of what has been a rather extraordinary season of television. So many scenes place Kevin on a singular path, delivering elegant yet strained speeches about mystical powers that play to the show’s worst impulses. Everything seemed to be digging into the amorphous blob the first season could often be, mistaking obfuscation for artistic ambiguity. Then there’s the episode’s nadir, wherein Jill reverts to her self from last year, yelling “fuck” in a church because Michael tells her not to. It reeks of the simplistic rebellion her character often suffered from in the past, and my sensors are immediately raised by the tired “moody teenager” trope when it fails to find any new beats.

Kevin, meanwhile, is desperately searching for Nora and battling Patty’s constant chatter in his mind. The former has departed because of the latter, taking shelter in a place we can’t quite make out with Mary and Lily in tow. Patty is leaning more heavily on childish taunts than haunting prophecy, and that lack of purpose is driving Kevin even further into his own head. An early scene turns out to be the key to the episode, though it isn’t clear at the time. When Kevin demands a reason for Patty’s presence, she offers a mission that involves Egyptian pyramids and chalices full of semen. Then she laughs it off; she was fucking with him and has no idea why any of this is going on. At the moment it happens, this speaks to the inherent pointlessness of everything, a nihilistic strain The Leftovers has always been fond of.

Then, as “A Most Powerful Adversary” continues, the scene winds up relating more directly to Kevin’s experience with Patty herself, and the danger of easy answers. This begins with the arrival of Laurie, stumbling into town looking for Tom. At first, Kevin turns her away, but then seeks refuge in her in one of the best scenes the show has ever deployed. Amy Brenneman has been magnificent in her limited screen-time this season, using her newfound speaking ability to further shape a character she had already perfected in silence. She makes the wounds of her past obvious, but never over bearing. You see the person she was before October 14th in a way you weren’t able to before. That becomes clear when she pulls out her therapist card with Kevin, talking him through the disastrous day he’s been having. She’s willing to listen, and help, because some part of her still cares. What makes this scene so profound is what it says about exes relative to current couples. Between Kevin and Nora, the secret of Patty is a bomb because it can affect her as much as him. They’re a team, and if he’s losing the game she’s getting dragged down alongside him. Laurie doesn’t have this problem. The affection still lingers, but because they no longer depend on one another, she can go further out on a limb for him and risk less. There’s reason to think this relationship will have been short lived, but it’s incredibly moving in the moment.

Her reunion with Jill goes less smoothly, though we spend little time there before Kevin’s truck peels away and heads back for Virgil’s. The earlier scene between the two read as too esoteric in content at first, these claims of the supernatural fitting uncomfortably next to something like the questionnaire scene from last week’s “Lens”. The Leftovers is full of this kind of talk, but rarely so directly and in a way that involves lead characters and their plights. Look at the way Nora laughed off talk of demons in “Lens”. Despite initial concerns, the conversation was played beautifully, Steven Williams’ watering eyes were a striking focal point as he confessed the sins of his past. It turns out that he was the man John attempted to murder, or succeeded in killing if Virgil tells the truth.

Then, their later discussion, that closes out the episode spells out exactly what the hour has been building up to subverting. Kevin takes the poison, despite Patty’s worried cries. Virgil throws away the antidote, and shoots himself in the head. In a devastatingly moving shot we see these two bodies, seemingly vital members of the show’s core cast, splayed in lifeless resignation. Michael comes in, appearing as if he knew this is how it would all go down, and drags Kevin from the room.

Kevin went looking for a solution, thinking that he could break a code that Laurie insisted was simply mental illness. It became easier for him to believe in a greater force, something that could be literally fought and defeated, than accept that his fragile mind had simply snapped in two. So many mysteries pervade the very air these characters breathe, and so often they beg for some semblance of understanding. For Kevin, that impulse became his undoing. “A Most Powerful Adversary” was something of a trick, at first devoting itself to groaning metaphysical gobbledygook. Then it pulled the rug out, pointing the finger at those who dedicate their days to escaping the obvious truths that surround their very existence. Everyone wants a way to escape the horrors of life, a way out of the pitch-black maze of unease that comes with being alive and caring about another human soul. Kevin found that path. Where it led only god and the devil know.

Grade: A-

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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