The Leftovers, Season 2, Episode 1, “Axis Mundi”
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Jacqueline Hoyt, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Airs on Sundays at 9 pm (ET) on HBO
Three years after a global event in which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappeared, those left behind are still trying to push the catastrophic event out of sight and mind. And it seems no matter how hard they try, the sudden departure, is something they just can’t escape. The Leftovers examines the complexity of human emotions and how this event has affected everyone in different ways. It’s a masterclass in establishing mood and creating mystery and told in a series of interwoven tales of people searching for answers while others try to simply forget. Of the ten episodes in the first season, three of them (“Two Boats And A Helicopter,” “Guest,” and “The Garveys At Their Best”) were among the best hours of television produced in 2014. Season one set the bar high and thankfully the premiere of season two titled “Axis Mundi,” is just as beautiful, riveting and above all thought-provoking as its predecessor.
Few show creators like taking risks as much as Damon Lindelof, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he and co-creator Tom Perrotta have sort of rebooted their critically acclaimed series. The sophomore season shifts from small-town New York to small-town Texas and features a new cast and a new opening title sequence composed of a series of family photographs with certain figures erased. Those photographs really set the stage and one can only assume they were snapped at the exact moment of the departure. In the season’s stunning ten-minute opening sequence, set hundreds of thousands of years in the past, a heavily pregnant woman awakes in a cave and steps out to relieve herself. We catch a glimpse of the moon and a hawk flying above her head before an earthquake throws her to the ground and the cave behind her crumbles apart trapping her tribe inside. In distress, she desperately claws at the rocks in an attempt to save them, but the effort induces labor and what follows is a beautifully, albeit, somewhat horrific childbirth scene punctuated by a superb score courtesy of series composer, Max Richter. Her baby is born, and we then follow her attempts at survival over what seems like the course of several days until she falls victim to a deadly snake bite. Fortunately for her baby, a woman from a different tribe happens to discover the dead woman laying next to a lake and carries the baby away to safety. The scene then segues to a modern-day setting where a group of teenagers are swimming in the very same lake by which the ancient woman died. The lake is located in the small town of Jarden, now nicknamed Miracle National Park, since it the one place in the world where not one soul vanished during ‘The Departure’. We’re not even into the second scene of the season premiere and already the mysteries begin to unfold. Is there a connection between the cavewoman, the hawk, the moon, the earthquake, and the Departure? One thing is for sure, viewers shouldn’t expect any answers soon, if at all. The Leftovers is best understood as a bleak examination of loss, grief, and faith. In the HBO series, the only question that really matters is whether or not those affected will be able to successfully move on with their lives and put the tragedy behind them.
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The episode focuses on the Murphy family. We meet the father, a firefighter named John (Kevin Carroll) — John’s wife Erika (Regina King) a hearing impaired nurse — their smart and slightly rebellious teenage daughter, Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) — her charitable, devout twin brother Michael (Jovan Adepo) — and the shunned grandfather, who Michael secretly visits every day. The townsfolk of Jarden, Texas may not have experienced the pain and loss brought on by The Departure, but it quickly becomes clear that the Murphy’s have their own fair share of burdens to bear. John is the town’s fire department captain, and apparently the leader of some sort of vigilante group. He’s a highly paranoid man, possibly superstitious, and surfaces as a powerful and potentially dangerous character when we learn that he was in prison for 6 years on an attempted murder charge. His presence is intense and he is highly suspicious of charlatans, so much so that after receiving a warning from a mysterious man with psychic abilities, he and the fire department burns down the man’s home and sends him to E.R.. Erika, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of her husband. She is quiet, confident and kind, but Erika is also hiding something from John. On an early morning run, she visits her favorite place in the woods, where she stops under a tree and digs up a box (a scene reminiscent of Kevin who back in season one would take his morning runs and stop at a mailbox to grab his hidden pack of cigarettes). She opens the box and inside is a bird that somehow survived despite being buried alive. As she watches the bird fly away, it isn’t clear if the expression on her face is one of relief or one of disappointment; but what is clear is that Erika did expect something miraculous to happen. How did the bird survive? Did she bury the bird to protect her husband and family who were warned by Isaac of impending doom? Again, the mysteries begin to unfold.
Of the five family members, it is Evie who we first meet, and the quick-witted teen is by far the most interesting character we are introduced to. A very peculiar scene in which Evie and her two friends are seen running naked through a forest with their arms raised to the sky foreshadows that something supernatural is going to happen to her and her friends. Shot with a dreamlike quality, the sequence seems to imply that she and her friends are not running away from anything, so much as running towards it. Evie seems to be the only person in the small town who isn’t worried about the events of The Departure. She’s just a simple teenager, living a simple life and enjoying every bit of it. She also suffers from epilepsy and her seizures parallel the seismic activity has been rampant in this supposed peaceful place for centuries. “Axis Mundi” opens with the earthquake that kills the pregnant woman’s tribe in the epilogue and ends with the revelation that Evie, her two friends, and all of the water in the swimming hole have vanished.
It takes roughly 38 minutes before we finally see a few familiar faces from season one. The newly formed Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) make their way to Jarden in hopes of starting a new life together. As John opens his front door to find a pie at his doorstep, with no note attached, Kevin and Nora along with Jill, Christine and the adopted baby Holy have all moved into the house next door. New neighbors could mean new problems and John who’s suspicious of the new residents invites them over for a barbecue in hopes of getting to know them better. The miracle town is quickly drawing settlers in search of safety, fearful of the event can occur again and Kevin and Nora aren’t the only new locals. Turns out, Matt and Mary Jamison, Nora’s older brother, and sister-in-law, have also moved to Jarden. But nothing is what is seems leading me to wonder if the Garveys made the right choice in moving or not? Are they any safer than they were in Mapleton considering they now live next door to a convicted felon who attempted murder and is burning down homes? On their first night in town, two girls have gone missing along with the water supply and this is only the start to what we can assume will lead to more supernatural events.
In the final minutes, John and Michael arrive at the lake and discover Erika’s friend’s car running, and no one inside. Michael looks to the lake and notices the dying fish desperately gasping for air. Has a second Departure occurred or is this another entirely different event?
In an interview with The Verge, Damon Lindelof teased that they would not reveal why the people of Jarden weren’t affected by The Departure. “Not only does season 2 maintain the dark tone and emotional resonance of its predecessor, but its new mystery infuses the narrative with a galvanizing sense of urgency”, Lindelof said. It seems answers won’t come easy yet again this season and fans will just have to wait for the mystery to slowly unfold.
“Axis Mundi” is a riveting episode, laying the groundwork for what’s to come, and moving the plot pieces around in order to set up what is promising to be another outstanding season of television. Everything from the acting, cinematography, score, editing, striking attention to detail and visual motifs continue to impress. The various storylines are elegantly structured and layered over one another and more importantly, everything feels natural to the story. The Leftovers is determined to keep its secrets to itself for has long as it can. Yet with repeated viewings you can discover nuances and uncover cryptic secrets that you hadn’t seen before — all of which makes repeat viewings well worth your time. I can’t wait to revisit this episode again.
I love the aerial view tracking down the street that shows the giant crack in the road.
In the episode’s only funny scene, we learn that Perfect Strangers star Mark Lynn Baker actually faked his departure after we were told last season that the entire cast of that show had vanished. It leaves me to wonder if anyone of significance could have also faked their disappearance.
Epilepsy is revered in some cultures but persecuted by most others. Epilepsy patients have, throughout history, been linked with the divine, demonic, and supernatural.
Who’s the guy in the tower?
How did Kevin hurt his head?
What’s the deal with that pie? Did John actually believe someone was trying to poison him?
Apparently in this town, it is common practice to kill a goat in a diner.
The books on John’s nightstand are biographies of Mandela and Lenin.
And what about the cricket?
I love the closing song “Let Tomorrow Be” by Fern Jones.