The Leftovers, Season 2, Episode 8: “International Assassin”
Written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse
Directed by Craig Zobel
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO
After some considerable wrestling on the issue afforded to me by a night’s sleep, the shortest version I can come up with is this: “International Assassin” is a very good episode of a series that is considerably worse than the rest of The Leftovers‘ otherwise remarkable second season. Is that confusing enough?
Most series stumble when they reach too liberally for the unattainable; this week, The Leftovers makes an error in judgment and zags in a direction it never has before, not by giving in to its infectious sense of mania and pitch-black heartache, but by acquiescing to something much less daunting: a relatively conventional depiction of the afterlife. In a way, I admire the hidden conceit of “International Assassin,” in which the Other Place has rules, conventions, a roadmap, and clear objectives, even if the value of those objectives is up for debate. In other words, there is more order and reason after death than before it.
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There’s some poetry in that idea, but “International Assassin” rarely pauses long enough for us to absorb it. It’s the most breathless episode of season, and perhaps the entire series, with the spectre of Kevin H/Garvey, international man of actually-not-that-much- mystery, moving swiftly from one bloody objective to another in quick succession until his mission comes to its preordained end. As many of us predicted ahead of time, Virgil reappears as his guide of sorts, advising him on the best way to take down his “adversary,” complete with an overt nod to The Godfather. The episode hums along with a mostly legible internal logic that runs counter to The Leftovers‘ greatest strength: its ability to guide its stories by emotion and intuition rather than some byzantine-but-familiar set of rules. It’s also the first episode of the series to invite an unflattering comparison to a previous series, though it’s not Lost, as others have alleged, despite the presence of a Cuse in the teleplay credits. No, the comparison that really damns “International Assassin” is to (oblique Sopranos spoiler alert!) the Kevin Finnerty arc that opened The Sopranos‘ masterful final season. In those episodes, David Chase and his crew elevated the extended dream/potential-afterlife conceit to an art form, artfully blending a potent sense of series memory, surreal logic, and just the right blend of absurdity and tragedy as it presented a version of Tony that both recalled and nullified the Tony we knew so well. By contrast, the genre-movie antics of “International Assassin” feel both overdetermined and half-baked.
And yet – once again, there’s a kernel of a strong idea here. Kevin Garvey has always been, for better or worse (usually worse) a man driven to action, in the hopes that he might escape the shadow of his and his father’s demons and balance the ledger in his favor. In that light, it makes perfect sense that Kevin would conjure an afterlife in which he is the undeniable tragic hero who must make impossibly ghoulish decisions in order to satisfy the destiny foisted upon him. This might have been an extraordinarily powerful idea, if only the design of the episode didn’t feel weighted so heavily to both take away his sense of freedom in the matter, and to render so many memorable peripheral figures as merely instruments in support of his redemption and eventual resurrection.
While there are a few instances of tragically deceased figures popping up merely to help Kevin Garvey reach his Very Important Fate (Gladys, Holy Wayne, and of course Virgil), the most effective – and frustrating! – is, of course, Patti. To her credit, Ann Dowd gets her best showcase to date here, acting the hell out of a half-dozen or so showstopping scenes, which is doubly unsurprising since the episode marks her proper reunion with Compliance director Craig Zobel. Yet despite the many, many attempts to make us feel the weight of the tragedies of Patti’s life, from the appearance of her asshole ex-husband, to her childhood self manifesting to lead Kevin by the hand to the site of her own end, to her final tearful Jeopardy-themed soliloquy, nothing can conceal the fact that all of this pathos is all in service of Kevin’s objective. Where much of the season has excelled by expanding to contain the weight of the pain and loss of so many individual voices, “International Assassin” contracts to make it simply Kevin Garvey’s show again. Had Kevin failed in his efforts, had one of his decisions gone inscrutably awry somewhere along the way, and he found himself unable to come back to those he loves, despite following the advice of the episode’s many sages – well, as bloody-minded as that would have been, that would have been in keeping with the series The Leftovers has become, one whose apocryphal storytelling logic has allowed for rewards few series can dream of.
Instead, Kevin rises from the dirt, rejoining the chaos, hopefully bringing the series back with him.
Apologies for the tardiness; yesterday was inter-city moving day.
Mary Jamison would seem to be on her way to the Other Place.
Though his appearances haven’t added up to much, I’m glad Season Two has found a bit of room for Paterson Joseph’s Holy Wayne. He’s almost as reliable an unnerving spiritual presence as Patti is/was.
Presidential Candidate Patti’s platform: destroying families!
An incomplete list of plot points the last two episodes will probably touch on: Tom Garvey, whatever the hell Liv Tyler is up to, John Murphy’s investigation of his daughter’s disappearance, the disappearances themselves, the cricket, the gift, Matt and Mary and her unborn child, Nora’s possible unraveling, and, most pressing of all: will Jill Garvey ever get laid?