This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits “I Live Here Now,” one of the most profound and surprising episodes of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s series The Leftovers.
There’s a saying that’s common in religious circles: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s punishing, rewarding, and near-perfect existential drama The Leftovers imagines exactly the opposite. What if, it asks, a higher power gave all of us more than we could handle every single day and left us to live with it? What if we were all Frankenstein’s monsters, created for some purpose but quickly overwhelmed and isolated by the sheer force of the world’s tragedies? How would we go on living, and why?
If that sounds bleak, it’s because it is. The Leftovers breaks every rule of palatable storytelling across its three-part run, from the dog deaths of the pilot episode (RIP) to the dark extended standalone sequences that kick off the second and third seasons. These giant flashing narrative warning signs do an effective job scaring off anyone who isn’t ready to handle a show that’s this heavy, but the viewers who do stick around are rewarded with an audacious, awe-inspiring open-ended question of a story.
The Leftovers imbues the psychological dreaminess of The Sopranos with Lost’s dual cravings for spirituality and skepticism, ultimately evolving into a superb exploration of grief, depression, and all our other mortal discontents. The second season finale, “I Live Here Now,” boldly and vigorously explores all these schools of thought and more, and the result is a profound, explosive hour of television.
Miracle, Texas, is coming undone. The idyllic town of Jarden was refashioned into Miracle National Park after all 9,261 residents managed to avoid the seemingly randomized Rapture-like event called “the Sudden Departure” that caused two percent of the world’s population to vanish. It was a peaceful place, both a sanctuary and a tourist attraction until Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his family showed up. On his first night in town, Kevin went sleepwalking and threw himself into a lake with a cinder block in tow. At the same time, his neighbors’ teenage daughter, Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), vanished in a Departure-like event with two friends.
“I Live Here Now” opens with a genuinely shocking recap of the mysterious night that jump-started the season, this time from Evie’s perspective. Evie and her friends didn’t vanish. They weren’t kidnapped. They left by choice, to join the white-clad, cigarette-smoking silent cult called The Guilty Remnant. The season’s central miraculous event — their disappearance — is a sham, and it’s one that Kevin witnessed while half-asleep.
In a lesser series, this reveal would act to strip our faith in the show’s religious mystery away, but in classic Lindelof fashion, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Evie may have faked her Departure, but Matt’s (Christopher Eccleston) wife Mary (Janel Moloney) just miraculously woke up from a years-long coma, and, oh yeah, Kevin Garvey was also just resurrected from the dead. Kevin has just undergone a dangerous ritual to get rid of the persistent spirit of Patti (Ann Dowd), the GR’s also-very-dead former leader. He rejoins the land of the living just in time for Evie’s dad, John (Kevin Carroll) to find out that his fingerprints were on Evie’s car the night she vanished.
“I Live Here Now” is a master class in directing, editing, scoring, writing, and more, but one of its most emotional scenes is a result of unadorned, powerhouse acting from Carroll and Theroux. Their two characters, both protective fathers and husbands, have had an increasingly tense relationship throughout the season. Neither seems surprised when Kevin becomes the prime suspect in Evie’s disappearance. John leads Kevin to the town’s animal shelter, where the Garveys’ dog has been quarantined since they moved in. In between the cages, he confronts Kevin, who attempts to explain his recovered memory of Evie’s disappearance.
“I know you don’t think it can happen here, John, but it did,” Kevin says. He’s not talking about a Departure, but about everyday familial disconnect.
John’s barely holding on; lip trembling, eyes brimming with tears, he denies Kevin’s theory. Evie loved them, she says, so why would she do this?
“Maybe she didn’t,” Kevin says, his voice broken with resignation.
“What?” John asks.
“Love you,” Kevin replies plainly.
His next sentence is cut off by a gunshot. So much of The Leftovers is about the line between what a human mind can believe and what it can’t, and what it looks like to continue existing once you’ve thought beyond that breaking point. John can’t believe that Evie doesn’t love her family. This is his breaking point. He shoots Kevin in the gut and leaves him to die.
At that very moment, Evie herself is standing on the bridge that separates picture-perfect Miracle from the hippies and believers who camp outside its borders in hopes of catching a hint of the town’s magic. Her arrival is epic and ominous, with slow-motion close-ups of her and her friends’ white cult shoes announcing their intent to blow up the bridge. Liv Tyler’s Meg, the new de facto leader of the GR’s radical faction, tells park officers who ask her for a voucher: “I have 35 pounds of plastic explosive. Will that work?” A countdown clock starts, with an hour until the bomb goes off. Evie stands purposely in the line of fire, her family forsaken for some inscrutable purpose. She’s on a suicide mission.
By the episode’s end, Evie’s mother Erika (Regina King), her father John, and Kevin’s partner, Nora (Carrie Coon) will have each made their way across the bridge in moments that are touching, overwhelming, and harrowing in turn. Each of these scenes on the bridge is astounding. Like so much of The Leftovers, their meaning is less important than the feeling they evoke. Episode director Mimi Leder uses the same silence that the Guilty Remnant has weaponized to focus our emotions during the moments when John and Erika first see Evie. We see John’s face, all love when he recognizes her and mouths “my daughter.” We also see his face fall as he realizes the dangerous circumstances surrounding her return. The sound rushes back and his voice breaks through as he screams her name. “What happened?” he asks, uselessly.
This chapter of The Leftovers asks one question after another, many of them unanswerable and unfathomable. “Why are you doing this?” Erika asks when she sees Evie and runs to her at breakneck speed, passing the police barricade with no thought of her own safety. She hugs her, but Evie is stiff and unresponsive, avoiding her eyes. What happened to the world to make a young girl want to die just to remind others of their own sorrow? The term “a mother’s love” is almost meaningless at this point, calling to mind the saccharine and sentimental, but it’s undeniable in Regina King’s gut-wrenching performance. We see it in the way Erika continues to hug and speak to her daughter, even after it’s become clear that she won’t get an answer, even as the seconds on the bomb timer tick down. We also see it when, moments later, in one of the most anxiety-inducing scenes I’ve ever watched live, Nora uses her full body to shield her adopted baby from a stampede of campers who rush the bridge. The bomb never goes off, but we’re left gutted nonetheless.
There are a half-dozen different plots converging in this episode, each one a minor apocalypse of its own. It doesn’t really matter if the world is actually ending, Lindelof seems to be saying, so long as it feels like your world is ending. The mysteries of life and death are bigger than any one person, except when they happen to you: then they’re exactly the size of one person. Case in point: while the bomb scare and stampede are underway, Kevin is dying again. He wakes up in the hotel afterlife that he went through in the previous episode, “International Assassin.” Last time, he had to push a child-sized version of Patti into a well in order to escape this spiritual wormhole and make it back to earth. This time, in a testament to the small, earnest moments that make up the incomprehensibly huge thing we call life, he just has to sing.
There are a half-dozen moments in “I Live Here Now” that bring me to tears, many of them thanks to Max Richter’s string-heavy, emotionally raw score. Yet it’s a testament to the show’s strange, rueful genius that the biggest tear-jerking moment of the season involves Kevin, in his old Mapleton Police getup, singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” off-key in a potentially imaginary hotel restaurant.
Before he hits the stage, he talks to a mystery man and makes his case for not staying dead. “Why should you go back?” the man asks.
Kevin starts to make excuses, but soon answers, “Because I deserve to.”
He may as well be saying that it’s because he wants to. After two seasons spent wading through grief and fear and shame and rage, he has people to live for. He puts all of his will to live into this shaky, tearful rendition of “Homeward Bound.” Flashes of his life go by in tandem with the lyrics. Kevin is faced with the chance to see what happens when we leave the earth, to understand the mystery that has sat like a weight on his family’s shoulders for years, but now he finally cares more about how he wants to live.
The final scene of The Leftovers’ second season perfectly exemplifies everything the show is. It’s a vast chasm, universal, but it’s also acutely personal. Kevin wakes up again. John, having found Evie and determined Kevin’s innocence, helps stitch his blood-soaked neighbor up at the town’s clinic. He cries as he does it.
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” John says.
“Me neither,” Kevin replies. Their earlier face-off was all frayed anxiety and machismo, but now there’s a palpable sense of catharsis.
The two reach their respective houses and get ready to part ways. A piano cover of The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” already familiar from the first season, resonates through the scene. The “Welcome to Miracle” sign is burning on the ground, the town overrun by outsiders. John looks nervously at his own front door.
“What if there’s nobody home?” John asks, in a moment of shattering vulnerability.
“Then you come over to my house,” Kevin answers without hesitation. They share a weary wave goodnight.
When Kevin opens the door, his whole family is inside. It’s the ecstatic opposite of the profound loneliness that has driven each character up until this point. The camera pans across every broken, beautiful person in Kevin’s life.
How do we go on living? With each other, of course.