Everything that Remains

Everything that Remains

Season one of The Leftovers was highly regarded here at The Reflective. With the end of the trilogy upon us, it’s a good chance to look back at the second season and recall if it’s worthy of a proper, definitive conclusion.

A fear going into the follow-up season is whether or not the script writers will do the original work justice. The source material of Tom Perrotta’s novel had been exhausted in the first series. It meant those that turned their back on Lost were prepared for Damon Lindelof to undo all the solid foundation the world of Mapleton had been built upon.

They needn’t have worried (or abandoned Lost, actually), for a number of reasons. Lindelof understood the concept and his co-writers added to the mystique each episode, rather than detract from the core essence of the novel; Perrotta himself even penned a few scripts.

Also, the story is one that is moving relentlessly forward. After the Guilty Remnant has been beaten and burnt out of town, there was little need to labour that part of the story. Other shows may have rehashed the first series, spending another ten weeks exploring the after effects in the same bubble.

That isn’t how life works and The Leftovers is an examination of this in its most complex form: the human condition.

Instead they introduce a new fictional town: Jarden, Texas aka Miracle. The moniker exists because this is a unique place, not one single person vanished in the Departure. So, it is seen as a safe haven should a second incident ever occur. A pure place where people can be saved. But wherever there’s people, there’s sin and corruption.

Symbolism and metaphor are interwoven into the events. This is evident from the first scene, where a pregnant primitive woman is seen to avoid death from rockfall, enters labour, but ultimately dies defending the life of her child from a snake. The infant is rescued by a passing female at a watering hole.

That riverbed happens to be the same one in present day Jarden, and we’re away. The events and interpretations begin from that initial element.

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The story requires viewers to jump around and become reacquainted with the main players from the previous season. Kevin Garvey and Nora relocate to Jarden to escape memories. Carrie Coon’s character is especially hounded as her house is a favourite spot for investigators. After all, the dining room table did take three people all at once.

The scientists have already formed a theory behind what the rapture moment was but this is complicated by the sway toward something spiritual. Which is why Nora chooses Jarden. Not for the religious connotations, but because her brother, Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison, is doing church work for its congregation.

He is one cornerstone of the probable human choices we see. Another is the Murphy family, they neighbour the new arrivals. The father, John, is an inadvertent mob ruler. They want to keep their little patch of paradise safe from the outside world. When his daughter and her friends go missing, at the aforementioned lake, he becomes a dog with a bone.

The daughter in question Evie, played by the screen-filling Jasmin Savoy Brown, propels the story along without requiring much mention. This is thanks to the screen presence of the actress and the lasting impression she leaves, to the unfortunate fact Kevin Garvey woke at the crime scene, unable to recall any sequence of events.

We do catch up with the Guilty Remnant cult. They are still actively recruiting and we see this alongside Tom Garvey infiltrate them in order to save members and get them to a support group. This is being headed by his mother – and Kevin’s estranged wife – Laurie Garvey. She is now free from its clutches and even attempting to sell a book about her time on the silent side.

The Guilty Remnant is a cornerstone element that represents mankind’s strive for power and control. Many belief systems co-exist in a show where people are struggling to make sense of a world without facts.

The viewer is never taken toward a right or wrong answer but is led down the garden path on occasion. And we also see behind the curtain. Season one was never about giving answers to the Departure, you won’t find a concrete solution here but it’s no longer about just accepting the unknown.

Through Kevin’s experiences, we literally head into the unknown. No spoilers will be given here (which makes this a difficult review to compose) but just as we had to accept the Departure, we have to accept other forces may be at play. Or not.

The highlights of the season will be how groups of people gravitate to differing ideas and then persecute opponents, a representation of humanity condensed into a TV show.

Carrie Coon The Leftovers

Carrie Coon – an amazing discovery from the first season – also shares a scene with Regina King (Erika Murphy) that is Frost/Nixon like. The tension palpable, the performances beyond anything you’d expect to see outside of a serious theatre play.

And the main mention has to go to Justin Theroux. His character has evolved from when we first saw him as the town’s cop. When he dons that outfit in a late episode in this season, the complexities and sides of his persona become startling obvious. He spends the season in his own personal purgatory, by the end, he is beaten down and you feel every struggle he’s endured.

Justin Theroux The Leftovers Season 2

Even the Max Richter soundtrack – always a powerful and efficient tool – struggles to do Theroux’s turn and Kevin’s plight justice.

In the hands of others, the concept for The Leftovers to return would have been seen as jumping the shark. Instead we are treated to something even more profound than the original. A sign of its true excellence is how the mysteries that remain are less important to solve than the fate of the people involved.

TV Show of 2016: Westworld

TV Show of 2016: Westworld

The best television show of 2016 was the most original and freshest compared to its more established rivals. Considering it is based on a 1973 movie, it makes this achievement all the more remarkable. Special consideration should be given to the writers and producers who have gone to great lengths in order to make it unique. And Westworld is certainly that. The style of the narrative and the delving into perception, consciousness and the human condition, is something unachievable in most other formats – perhaps, even for the novel.

It is a big admission to make, that a book would struggle to add depth to something seen on screen. Usually a movie or television show, regardless of level of commitment, is an abridged version of a writer’s vision. Westworld the TV show packs in more than Michael Crichton’s original book and the method of delivery would require a very skilled writer to honour, in lieu of the ability to match its conditions.

Westworld doesn’t try to be clever. It takes the concept from the original: a theme park with artificial hosts that cater to guests’ desires, and colours in a fictional Wild West world. But it builds upon the idea of artificial intelligence, uses modern understanding of technology, and turns contradiction surrounding what’s ethical on its head.

It also doesn’t try to plant traps or twists. The narrative is unique – the opening sequence has the viewer follow key hosts, twice, as it signals at the end of each story arc within the park, they are reset – but the rules are laid out quickly and honestly. Writer Jonathan Nolan, famous for penning Memento, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar, plays the puzzle fairly.

The distraction comes in the form of exceptional acting. The roll of honour is almost reserved for all leading cast members. The starting point and a central character is Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She is the oldest host at the park but it would appear this counts for little. Whenever required, the memory of hosts is wiped, new roles assigned.

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She starts the show as daughter of a rancher and a love interest for host Teddy Flood. Soon Dolores catches the eye of guest William, played by Jimmi Simpson, who is on vacation with his brother-in-law, Logan. These two are night and day, Logan is brash and there to enjoy the female hosts and take part in shootouts. William is gentle natured and slowly taken by Dolores’s growing awareness.

This rise of sentience appears to be dismissed by park creator, Dr Robert Ford, portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins. He is unflappable and calculating. While it’s never clear how much he is aware of, in terms of events and AI development, whether he has good intentions or evil designs, he does remind the world of his ability to chill scenes with a mere look or smooth delivery of a sentence.

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From Ford comes the philosophical perspective. Are humans more authentic than intelligent machines, or just a different set of pre-programmed behaviours we take as choice?

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Hopkins can’t be upstaged but he has his equals here. Thandie Newton’s Maeve, currently assigned to play role of chief hooker, enjoys a subplot that runs solo to others. Her rise to sentience is a voyage of discovery equal to Dolores’s but with far greater independence. It’s Newton’s finest performance to date. It takes a special talent to portray so much using subtle changes in body language and expression.

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Another to match the high level is the always underrated Jeffrey Wright. His character of Bernard is Ford’s right-hand man. His daily boss, Theresa, is more concerned with keeping board members happy than Ford’s stories or concerns. There is a commercial machine that requires servicing more than the hosts. When an apparent fault enters their framework, she is more bothered about a loss in earnings.

That fault is ghost memories, the formatting process appearing to be incomplete. The danger of it sparking self-awareness is obvious.

The Man in Black, a mysterious Ed Wood, who is on a quest to find “The Maze” is a thirty-year repeat guest. He has played every scenario, only one remains. The belief the park holds a maze, a game changer that will alter the dynamic and rules within Westworld.

By the final chapter, if you’ve been watching the little employment of props and character arcs, there should be no big reveal. Any plot holes the unobservant have mentioned are explained away. But the finale made the writers betray certain characters, surely a plot hole in itself. They can probably blame HBO, who demanded a second season for a story so neatly made for one.

This minor slant doesn’t detract from an overall success. Just like Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, it shifts pace and mood, and is compelling throughout. Like true awareness, it is authentic and engaging. It not only surpasses the original, it reinvents what can be achieved on television.

Ticket for entry into next year’s park has already been purchased…

Seriously Occupied

Seriously Occupied

Before I begin, I should point out how I’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movie adaptations. To me J.K. Rowling was identifiable for creating a cultural phenomenon that’d I’d deliberately swerved. I’ve just never been drawn to wizards and dragons. Not that I haven’t ever read fantasy novels, but the idea of getting on the Potter bandwagon never appealed. The dismay people gave me was always followed up with: “Read them. You’ll enjoy them. She’s a good writer.” It was the final part of that endorsement which made me pick up The Casual Vacancy.

Upon its release it received a mixed reception, as one would expect from a children’s author dipping their toe into the world of adult novels. The endorsement from Stephen King – my favourite author of all time – made me take notice. He had always preached the power of great story telling. Surely children’s books are the purest form of this. So I approached the tale regarding the fictional town of Pagford with the idea it’d be a simple yarn. Pure storytelling. It was much more than this.

To cut to the chase – in my opinion – it represents a turn as a literary piece. The best evidence of this is how the snobbish literary reviewers tried to pan it. There’s nothing more they hate than a commercial author stepping on their toes. Had the authors name been the always excellent Julian Barnes we’d have seen a different response. Other negative comments could stem from the dark themes that casual fans hadn’t been prepared for.

One review I saw lambasted Rowling for using the word “cunt.” The implication being, she used it to enforce an adult view, that it wasn’t her natural mode. I’d argue that a novel focusing on addiction, rape, and neglect quite easily can use the word as a matter of course. As for the grimy nature, that’s life. She wasn’t giving us a Disney version of the world.

Her master stroke is how she makes each person’s individual struggle relevant whilst keeping everything graded correctly in the larger context. Samantha Mollison’s bland life, passionless marriage, could easily seem trivial compared to the struggles of Krystal Weedon, but we can see the personal loss in both. Admittedly, the story of Krystal is the one that will move you most.

This weekend the BBC starts their three-part version of show, which was produced in partnership with HBO. Early reports indicate they have given it a lighter ending. This aside, I’m hopeful they do the novel justice. They have a strong cast including Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes and Rory Kinnear. It will be a tall order to condense the thirty-plus characters from the book into a television show and maintain the feel of depth across them all.

Casual Vacancy

The book may have been underappreciated and this new show may not be one for the mass audience. But the rewards will be rich if it meets the standards of the novel. For those that fail to connect: there’s always the Harry Potter movies.

(Main photo: Chloë Walker, Flickr.)