The Leftovers, Season 2, Episode 7, “A Most Powerful Adversary”
Written by Damon Linedlof and Patrick Somerville
Directed by Mimi Leder
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on HBO
For possibly the first time in The Leftovers‘ run, “A Most Powerful Adversary” does something you’d think it would do a whole lot more often: it conjures up the spirit of Lost. With its unusually hurried pacing, characters teetering on the edge of (in)sanity, massive reams of new backstory, faith vs. reason debates, and a spectacularly cruel cliffhanger, it’s almost as though we’re getting a glimpse of what a more conventionally “entertaining” version of The Leftovers might look like. That’s speaking purely on a formal level, though, because the devil’s in the details, and the details of “A Most Powerful Adversary” are as dumbfounding as we’ve come to expect by now.
Season two has put so much work into building a new setting and set of characters that this is only really the second episode (after “A Matter of Geography”) to really privilege the perspective of our ostensible protagonist, Kevin Garvey. The season’s delightfully skewed priorities and wackadoo pacing means that it can do things like having Jill complain to her boyfriend Michael Murphy about the sex they’re not having, thus revealing that they’ve been engaged in a relationship for some time that most of us reasonably assumed was still forthcoming. The Leftovers can sometimes feel like it’s engaging with viewers in a parent-child relationship, wherein we only find out about seemingly key details whenever it decides we’re ready to hear it.
“A Most Powerful Adversary,” accordingly, finally gets around to telling us a lot of things most of us have been wondering about for a while – and then it proceeds to tell us a whole lot more. For instance – the cinder block around Kevin’s leg? Yes, he was trying to kill himself, but only so he could be rid of Patti and get his life back. (A for effort, D for execution.) Oh, and he was convinced to do so by speaking with the estranged Murphy patriarch, Virgil (Steven Williams) – a minor detail Patti failed to inform him about. Oh, and Tom went AWOL after he and Laurie had a falling out. And hey, the guy in the pillar on Jarden’s main drag? His name’s Edward!
Despite all that, “A Most Powerful Adversary” actually provides more questions than answers. It erodes our certainty that Patti is “real” by having Laurie inform us that Kevin’s subconscious was likely already aware of Patti’s personal history (e.g. the stories about her ex-husband). It builds up Virgil’s bona fides as a kin to Kevin, before it informs us that he apparently sexually abused John when he was a boy, thus causing the Murphy family rift, and then…well, we’ll get back to that cliffhanger. Perhaps the most fascinating ambiguity of all, though, surrounds the question of whether or not Kevin Garvey really wants to kill himself.
It’s an odd question to ask of the protagonist of a TV series, but for a series as fascinated in post-traumatic life and clinical depression, it’s a crucial one, and not necessarily one with a “yes” or “no” answer. Sometimes, especially when people have faced long-term struggles, suicidal thoughts can actually serve as a coping strategy, a way to remind themselves that they have control over their own lives. The liberty granted by death has an allure, one stated explicitly by Patti when she describes the last moments of her life to Kevin. Of course, we don’t know if Patti is an apparition delivering truths from beyond the grave or just a walking delusion, a manifestation of Kevin’s guilt and suicidal ideation. For what it’s worth, I lean towards the notion that Patti is “real,” if only because the world of The Leftovers seems to be replete with inexplicable phenomena most easily attributed to the paranormal or the divine, but that doesn’t diminish the power of the Kevin dilemma.
The real innovation of The Leftovers is that problems like Kevin’s suicidal thoughts and behaviors don’t just go away overnight, just as Nora’s grief doesn’t go away (despite her interaction with Holy Wayne), just as the Murphys are bound to face their demons forever. Despite the presence of miracles, divine intervention, prophets, and spirits, the characters of The Leftovers are never pointed towards the path that will lead them to a better life, and that life may not exist. Characters are not granted a moment of revelation, after which they can reasonably expect their happy ending. For most of us in the real world, wellness is a constant process, a lifelong practice, and it turns out that the constant presence of the impossible doesn’t change that. No wonder suicide can be a difficult strategy to dispel entirely.
Which brings us to that cliffhanger. Courtesy of Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, I present to you Damon Lndelof’s expertly sassy answer to the question of whether or not Kevin Garvey is, indeed, dead:
“You will see Kevin, or parts of Kevin, possibly memories of Kevin, Kevin’s jogging pants, Maybe another character named Kevin, an adolescent game entitled ‘Seven Minutes in Kevin,’ and/or, but not necessarily literally, the ACTUAL Kevin, again. And soon. #GlennLives”
I will not venture to provide definitive answers, either, but I will note that while The Leftovers is no stranger to resurrections, it’s also very, very good at zagging when we’ve assured ourselves it’s about time for a zig.
- I admit that I am really tired of hearing “Where Is My Mind?” on my TV this year.
- Liv Tyler has been picking up some easy paychecks: She’s credited for all seven episodes, of which she’s only actually turned up in one so far.
- “You wanted to get a puppy. I was kind of a dick about it. I think about that a lot.” Not just a great use of series memory, but a very real-feeling moment in an episode that was mostly all about the uncanny.
- It was immediately obvious to me that Patti’s instructions to Kevin to head to Cairo (callback!) were going to be a sick joke, but that didn’t make them not hilarious.
- “I absolutely want you to do it.” But was that “real” ghost Patti giving him her separate opinion, or Kevin’s subconscious giving him the go-ahead so that he could then justify his actions by citing his father’s advice to do whatever the voices tell him to? In other news, my head hurts.
- Lastly, just for kicks, my actual opinion: Kevin’s dead, but Virgil will guide him back to life. The hint’s in his name. I can’t be sure this won’t take an entire season to happen, though.