At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
by Chris Bellamy
Accept the mystery
On 'The Leftovers' and our often-misguided quest for answers
There's a lot to be said for not knowing.
In both life and art (to whatever extent the two can be separated), it's in our nature to search for,
even demand, answers. In both cases, I'm not so sure it's in our best interest to actually find
them. The reductive way to put this is that answers, in and of themselves, are meaningless. Or, if
not meaningless, then certainly much more limited in their capacity to illuminate than we seem to
give them credit for.
For the sake of this argument, let's narrow the art down just to cinema and television, mediums
with a historically tricky relationship with the distinction between answers and meaning, and the
unnecessary conflation of the two. Here, we commonly think of answers in terms of plot
resolutions and character motivations. But direct answers like that are inherently inadequate. The
crime was solved, the item was found, this or that team won, the couple did or did not get
together. So what. Movies and TV shows (individual episodes and longer, serialized arcs alike),
by default, have a way of organizing their ideas in such a way that reduces them to a simple
answer to a question or a simple solution to a problem. There's something intrinsically false
about the tidy way they tend to wrap things up - which isn't necessarily a negative, just an
observation. In any case, the best ones use those answers in service of a greater, more interesting
end; for lesser ones, the direct answer is the point. And for many, that's enough. They followed a
story and found out what happened at the end of it. Fine.
But ultimately, that doesn't really get it done, does it? No solved case or resolved plot can get to
the bottom of anything. It's the search for answers - the thinking, the questioning, the
speculating, the philosophizing - that's ultimately meaningful. The journey rather than the
destination, to paraphrase the old cliche.
Few pieces of storytelling have understood - even embraced, in a sort of backwards way - this
dichotomy better or more profoundly than HBO's The Leftovers, which recently concluded its
second season and affirmed its status as probably the best drama on television. (Especially now
that Hannibal and The Knick may be over.) This is a show fundamentally built on a premise that
begs to be explained: Two percent of the world's population instantaneously disappears without
a trace. In most incarnations, that would be the starting point for a long-running mystery. The
show would revolve around it. Every character would be trying to answer it. We'd spend episode
after episode uncovering - and discarding - clues to it, and eventually working our way toward
an explanation that, let's face it, would satisfy very few.
The version of the show we got instead is the exact opposite. Not only has the show, through two
seasons (with one left to come), refused to explain what "caused" the Sudden Departure, but co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (upon whose novel the show is based) have made it
clear they have no intention of doing so. This runs so contrary to how many consume fiction -
especially serialized television - that the show's existence is practically a miracle. But its
greatness underscores the utter flimsiness that any other approach to this story would provide. If
Lindelof and Perrotta had decided to provide an answer for us - to reveal what exactly happened
that day - it would ultimately be little more than trivia.
To be clear, The Leftovers - which begins three years after the event took place - is not simply
trying to be mischievous or confrontationally withholding; it simply finds (correctly) much
greater truth in everything but the "answer" to this particular mystery. The Departure is, for all
intents and purposes, a MacGuffin. Instead of treating it like a puzzle and trying to solve it, the
show focuses on characters - some who lost loved ones in the Departure, some who didn't -
existing in a world in which the inexplicable has happened. Without the requirement for, or
expectation of, a definitive answer, the show becomes entirely about the search for meaning, or
order, or purpose; about the big questions we ask in the face of tragedy or loss, ambiguous or
otherwise; about the lengths and depths we will go in order to understand. Or, as the case may be,
control, or atone, or recover, or forget, or remember.
While the show itself has resisted the need for hard answers, it embraces the human need to
search for them anyway. Both seasons are filled with details and subplots about new religions
and philosophies and scientific theories that have sprung up as a result of the Departure, and
designed to find a reason for it all. In season two, for example, one team of researchers seems
convinced that it's a matter of geography, and that the supposed anomaly stands a good chance of
occurring once again.
Most prominent, though, is the cult-like Guilty Remnant, a group of silent, chain-smoking pests
dressed all in white, who present themselves as "living reminders" of the Sudden Departure.
Their presence and their behavior throughout the series has been chilling and vile, but they've
certainly made a sort of point - to us and to everyone they so smugly, placidly confront with their
Despite the aberrant actions the group takes, the show doesn't simply let them become one-dimensional villains - there's too much empathy for the very human reasons the group and its
methods sprouted in the first place. Even in season two, when we see former Remnant members
leaving the group, their "rehabilitation" doesn't really take unless, and until, it's replaced by
something else. Some other belief system. Something that fills that void, that provides the kind of
purpose and direction they sought in the aftermath of the Departure. (In this case, it's one
character falsely co-opting the supposed "miracle" of a faith-healer - Holy Wayne - who
appeared throughout season one.)
The Leftovers is as naked a testament to the human experience as anything I've seen on
television, and it's largely because of the way it reflects - through, and in response to, a genre
conceit - realities about the way we make meaning of our lives, particularly in the face of what
we cannot ever truly understand or process. The characters on the show suffer sudden, instant
and unexplained loss - but all of us similarly experience loss, and even though we typically have
more explicit knowledge about what happened - and when, and how - that does not make it any
easier to understand or reconcile. There is no ultimate answer or reason that we can ever
unequivocally know; sooner or later that's the conclusion that confronts us. And if we don't get
any kind of conclusive answer in life, why should any fictional character?
It was not long after the finale to The Leftovers' spectacular second season aired that I lost
someone of transcendent importance to my life, and even up to this very moment I have no
mechanism to process this, or find any conclusive meaning to it. I suspect I never will. It
certainly wasn't as mysterious as anyone's Departure, but I'm no more at ease or comfort, nor
have any greater sense of understanding, than any of those characters whose lives were so
puzzlingly turned upside down.
Part of the problem is that so many of the questions that spring to mind, cosmic or otherwise, are
intrinsically irrational. For me, the questions were despairing, bordering on angry. I found myself
wondering what right I had to keep on, for instance, watching football, or going to the movies, or
going to work, or doing anything that might be considered normal in a life that now seemed
anything but. I wondered why there was still laughter. I wondered why anything that was should
In looking back on the show, I realized that for the first time I understood - even empathized
with - the Guilty Remnant in an unexpected way. Not in terms of methods or any kind of belief
system; rather I found myself, in the days and weeks after this life-changing event, upset at the
thought of the continuation of normalcy, and all of a sudden the thought of a constant, "living
reminder" began to make a strange sort of sense. I wanted to remind everyone, too. I wanted to
One of the most notable things about The Leftovers, particularly its nebulous approach to the
central mystery, is that its showrunner, Lindelof, is the same man behind Lost, the often-brilliant
series that ended in such maddening fashion six years ago. The failures of that show's finale
seemed - and still seem - like a weirdly miscalculated response to the conventional need for
closure and explanation, two issues he's so gracefully avoided on The Leftovers. Lost's endgame
was staggeringly banal - too clean, too tidy, too obvious. Too simplistic an idea. And yet I
understand that the show would have risked an even more antagonistic reaction had it gone in a
completely wild and/or cagier, more abstract direction. Maybe with those stakes, it was a
At any rate, The Leftovers seems like the antidote. And still, there will be those who desperately
want an explanation when all is said and done. For many, the show was frustrating enough as it
was, and the continued lack of closure to the show's core, narrative catalyst - the basis for the
entire world it inhabits - will only add to that. But, by avoiding that (at least through two years),
this show is meaningful in a way that Lost's finale prevents it from being.
In discussions of this nature, it's only natural for minds to wander to perhaps the most divisive
ending of all, The Sopranos. As a long-time passionate defender of the way David Chase ended
the series, I've never understood - expected, yes; understood, no - the apparent need, for some,
of a definitive conclusion. (Especially because the show was never especially plot-driven
anyway.) If Tony had simply gotten killed, or gone to jail, or joined witness protection ... OK, but
ultimately, who cares? What possible purpose would such a clean resolution, on its own terms,
provide? Even if the implication is, or might be, that he died in that diner (as various references
during that season, and visual cues in the final scene, may suggest), the cut to black is so much
more interesting and dramatically rewarding because it's not about simply what did or did not
happen. It asks us to consider so many implications and possibilities; there's so much more to
chew on with the focus directed away from his ultimate fate. A scene in which someone shoots
Tony in the head tells us nothing. The scene in that diner tells us everything.
Many films in recent years have employed the sudden, ambiguous cut-to-black as well (the Coen
Brothers' No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man* come to mind, as well as Martha Marcy
May Marlene, Jindabyne and Inception, among others). It speaks, perhaps, to a small but
growing tendency to handle traditionally cut-and-dried narratives in more oblique terms.
Consider the prevalence of apocalyptic cinema, and how so many recent examples have
transformed apocalyptic events into abstractions - Take Shelter, Children of Men, Time of the
Wolf, Perfect Sense, Melancholia, Blindness, Vanishing on 7th Street, The Happening, Southland
Tales, Kairo, The Road. None of those examples provide all (and in some cases, provide very
few if any) of the kinds of explanations and hard answers we would normally expect, and not
coincidentally several of those films count among the most noteworthy of the last decade or so.
With an apocalypse of its own - the existential kind - The Leftovers follows suit.
* The Coens have masterfully demonstrated my point for years. They, and their characters, have
constantly probed for meaning in an absurd world in which that meaning is, and remains,
elusive. And in doing so they've back-doored their way into a more profound understanding of
life than most, if not all, of their contemporaries.
Still, I realize the impulse to demand cold, hard answers will continue to persist. And while I
would never criticize more straightforward narratives as a whole (after all, most movies qualify
in that regard), I'll never quite be able to fathom the need many people have for every story to be
Citizen Kane famously ends with the dramatic reveal of the meaning of its title character's final
words, "Rosebud." That it's a sled representing his lost childhood is pop-culture lore, but as is so
often the case, that "answer" obscures the real power of the film's ending. Psychologically, the
lost-childhood idea on its own is rather elementary; but more importantly, it does not explain
Charles Foster Kane as a character. A detail like that does not, and cannot, explain away an entire
person or an entire psychology. The reporter in the film has spent the whole movie probing
Kane's life, operating on the premise that discovering the meaning of "Rosebud" will truly get to
the bottom of the man. That he never discovers what the audience does is an ironic joke, of
course - but big-picture, it wouldn't have served his purpose anyway. People are mysteries.
They, like the stories they inhabit, cannot be explained with simple answers. And yet we have a
hard time accepting that mystery.
Consider all the speculation over the last decade about Bill Murray's final, whispered words to
Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Even there, in a situation where the artist (Sofia
Coppola) is making it abundantly clear that we are not meant to know what is being said
(otherwise, y'know, she would have let us hear it), countless people, online and otherwise, insist
they've "solved" it. As if anything needed to be solved. As if finding out what he said has any
These tendencies extend beyond just movies, of course. Just
look at the way we deal with real-life events. My mind goes back to situations like Columbine
and Virginia Tech - mass tragedies that couldn't possibly be fully comprehended or explained
(especially not right away), a fact that didn't stop people from doing exactly that. With
Columbine, people settled on the narrative that it was two boys who were bullied and who then
took out their aggression accordingly. Once that narrative stuck, people moved on and stopped
thinking about Columbine - never mind that the bullying angle turned out not to be the case at
all. With Va Tech, it was somehow decided that the killer's violent fiction (plays and short
stories he submitted in classes) were a smoking gun of some sort. In both cases (and countless
more), the most simplistic explanations stood in for incalculably complicated truths and
circumstances. And then everyone felt better about it, because we'd "gotten to the bottom of it."
Now we know why they did it.
Except we didn't.
Gus Van Sant's great accomplishment with 2003's Elephant - loosely based on the Columbine
massacre - was in the way he took apart exactly that type of nonsense. He introduced, and then
disregarded, every made-up reason that we heard about "why" they did it. Surely there are things
that can be understood about that event and others like it. But the events themselves are surreal,
inexplicable and random. They cannot be resolved with manufactured narratives. A lesser film
would have gone out of its way to (falsely) explain everything that cannot be appropriately
We're conditioned to think of things this way - the justice system itself relies on a singular
motive and a very linear path for every crime. But in reality, that's not necessarily how human
behavior and decision-making operate. Attempts to construct "meaning" or reasoning are
generally applied externally, and we try to make them stick - or find something that will. This
makes it easier to digest the narratives we consume, but it's inherently dishonest, isn't it?
To be clear, when I talk about the inadequacy of answers, I'm not talking about scientific answers
or demonstrable facts of any kind - those are the keys to understanding, but in a completely
different category than what I'm talking about here. It's our storytelling that gets cheapened by an
emphasis only on manufactured motives and conclusions. Focusing on the what is so inherently
limiting; as for the why ... well, whether we're considering true crime or a sci-fi television show,
we tend to gravitate toward that tidy answer. Doing so gives us the impression that the world is
rational and easy to digest. I get that; I do. We want to make sense of life, even when - especially
when - it doesn't seem to make any. It's good that we keep searching for answers, even to
unanswerables. Maybe we shouldn't expect to find them, though; ultimately, maybe the search is
The Goy's Teeth (scene from A Serious Man) from Diegech on Vimeo.