The Leftovers, Season 2, Episode 6: “Lens”
Written by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Directed by Craig Zobel
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET
In the opening moments of “Lens,” we meet a scientist. Actually, we only think we meet a scientist, but we’ll get there. He packs up his research and heads straight for Jarden. Unlike virtually everyone else, he’s able to get into town without too much difficulty – clearly, he’s there for some important work. Jim James’ plaintive-but-odd “State of the Art” bleats on in the background, helping the sequence tick along with a sense of purpose even though we have no clue who this fellow is. Finally, he stops by the Murphy home to confirm that it’s the site of the supposed Departures – then he leaves abruptly, to stop by the Durst/Garvey household; and just like that, the Departure of Nora’s entire family has been dragged back to her doorstep.
Grief as a tangible, physical force or presence is one of the key motifs of The Leftovers. One of the most potent moments of the first-season finale was Nora’s discovery of the replicas of her family, placed there by the Guilty Remnant, a reminder so powerful that she nearly left town (or worse). But, as she so forcefully states late in “Lens,” she evolved – she took a chance on a new life and a new family, with a little help from a holy stranger. Season two extends this notion of living grief by entering an even scarier new phase: pondering culpability. There is a theory circulating around the post-Departure world that certain people act as “lenses,” magnifying the likelihood of Departure. In that case, it wouldn’t be “a matter of geography,” but something much more difficult to quantify.
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If last week’s “No Room at the Inn” served as a kind of reprise of first-season showstopper “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” then “Lens” is roughly analogous to “Guest,” the episode that gave us our first extended look at the life and trials of one Nora Durst. I say “roughly” because “Lens” offers more or less equal time to Regina King’s Erika Murphy, who has suddenly found herself where Nora once was, as the mother of a newly Departure’d daughter. Craig Zobel (Compliance, Z for Zachariah) makes his Leftovers directing debut this week, and his equal comfort with extreme closeups and dispassionate wider canvases (e.g. the beautifully still shot of Nora throwing a rock through the Murphy home’s front window) is a perfect fit for an episode ruled by very similar characters who, perhaps for that reason, find themselves in conflict with each other.
That conflict comes to a head in one of the series’ greatest, most emotionally charged sequences yet: Nora’s unofficial DSD interview or Erika. While Leftovers fans already know what Coon can do, viewers unfamiliar with King might not know she’s every bit as capable (for a primer, catch some of TNT’s superb cop drama Southland). The sequence is primarily a power struggle – at first, Nora, as the dispassionate interviewer (her rote repetition of “If so, what for?” is particularly telling), has the upper hand. Eventually, though, she can’t help but be drawn into an argument when Erika opens up about her thoughts of leaving John, as well as the story of the resurrected sparrow she associates with Evie’s apparent Departure. Nora can’t help but pounce, attacking her faulty “logic,” forgetting or ignoring that their universe has shown an open disdain for such concepts, over and over. Is she trying to help Erika by letting her “off the hook” for her daughter’s disappearance, or mock her for her superstitions? Or both? Erika eventually gains the upper hand by extending the same disbelief and lack of compassion she felt from Nora and reflecting it back at her, once again dredging up the spectres of her Departed family. Nora may have gotten what she wanted, in the sense that she got to try out the new questionnaire and investigate independently, but the cost may prove to extend well beyond two broken windows.
So much happens in “Lens” that the episode doesn’t have time to settle down and focus on a pet theme or two in the same way most of the rest of the season has, but it makes up for it with a whole lot of fascinating scenes. The scene in which Nora finds out, after all that pestering, that the “scientists” who have been pestering her are actually religious nuts who believe she may be the reincarnation of a demon named Azrael is somehow both devastating and strangely hilarious, the kind of black-hearted joke only The Leftovers would or could possibly attempt. “Lens” is also a major episode in terms of our understanding of Jarden and its residents. In another killer sequence, Erika rages against her ostensible supporters, explaining the history of Jerry the goat-killer and the woman in the bridal gown as she goes. It’s significant that these details are being explicitly addressed rather than just being allowed to remain as eccentric non-sequiturs, even as her rage only underlines the character’s hypocrisy.
Indeed, Nora and Erika are most similar in the way they both resist and welcome superstition; in the same way that religious denominations pick and choose the dogma they feel they can accept, Nora and Erika cherrypick the phenomena they believe in but can’t reasonably explain. For Erika, it’s the bird in the box; for Nora, it’s the hope she associates with Jarden as the town where no one Departed. (And, of course, there’s the small matter of Holy Wayne.) Watching these two doggedly rational, fiercely self-determined women clash amidst deeply irrational circumstances beyond their control brings out the best in The Leftovers, a series designed to exploit the power of cognitive dissonance.
Kevin informs Nora that he’s “been seeing” Patti using that particularly awkward phrasing. Not actually having Ann Dowd present for that scene was exceptionally unsettling. (Also a bit odd, since Zobel directed her in Compliance, a breakout role for her.)
Props to Lindelof and co. on their restraint for not busting out that gorgeous guitar-and-pedal-steel, countrified version of the main theme the second the Garveys made it to Texas.
Laurie makes a brief appearance this week, looking for Tom, who’s gone AWOL. I shudder to think at how he and the Guilty Remnant may feature in the last part of the season, though it occurs to me now that a place like Jarden would be a perfet target for one of their cruel schemes.
In cuter news, Michael and Jill went to the shindig together! That’s totally bound somewhere adorable and not at all tragic or heartbreaking.
The series’ idiosyncratic use of pop music continues with the deployment of Rihanna’s “Stay” in the slideshow montage of the Departed girls’ friendship. Must have bee tempting to use the Low version.
Great use of sound design in the sequence where Erika chases down the poor pie-deliverer.