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  • Writer's picturecasey

The Leftovers episodes 2.08 "International Assassin" & 3.05 "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World"

I discovered The Leftovers a couple months ago and I’m coming really close to calling it the perfect show. Since finishing it, I’ve read the book and backseat-watched my girlfriend watch it for the first time, and I fall more in love with it the more I think about it. It’s a tough balance in a story to keep you on your toes but not leave you so far in the dust that you lose interest in the race. As a viewer, I want to be asking questions like “why would he do that?”, while also knowing the characters well enough to, at other times, say “I knew he wouldn’t do that. That’s not the kind of guy he is”. The Leftovers is such a master class in knowing exactly the right amount of information a scene needs to pack the biggest punch, and it’s a result of the show’s laser-focus on character and theme.

I really embrace the surreal (and sometimes just plain confusing) elements of this show because, more than anything, it’s a story about the inexplicable and how the ordinary person would process the un-processable. If you’re just sticking with The Leftovers because you want to know what happened to the Departed, you’ll probably find most of it confusing and irrelevant. But The Leftovers is really a character study, an observational piece about faith and value systems and their necessity when we experience things that we just can’t compute. One of my favorite things about the show is that all the characters are so completely themselves. This global traumatic event has everyone clinging to whatever could possibly feel correct, and the circumstances have made those choices very telling (relatable in these pandemic times, no?).

I really wanted to spend some time on Kevin and Matt because they’re such great foils to each other. They couldn’t have more different worldviews, yet their situations are surprisingly similar. In a time when so many people have been lost, Matt and Kevin’s families are both still intact; that is, everyone is present and accounted for, but things have gone to completely to shit in other ways. The challenge they both face is different than grief- it’s simply trying to make sense of things that no longer make any at all.

I love Kevin a kind of crazy amount- his flaws as a human being are what make him so important (as Laurie points out: “he has a misspelled tattoo and shits four times a day, so I refuse to believe he’s the goddamn second coming of Christ”), yet I would go to bat for the fact that he doesn’t do a single thing wrong the entire show. In Kevin’s eyes, his family has a lot to be grateful for after the Departure: both parents and both kids are all still here. Yet for some reason he’s the only one among them who can cope. They’ve all run off in pursuit of different sources of peace of mind, none of which make much sense to Kevin, and left him all alone. Amazingly, though, he doesn’t hold any bitterness or ill will towards any of the forces making life so confusingly difficult. He doesn’t have a core belief system that was rocked by the Departure, he just wants peace and happiness for the people in his world, and he acts consistently with open-minded love.

Matt, on the other hand, was making enemies out of both other characters and the audience right out the gate. I’m in awe of him as a character because he’s such a perfect amalgamation of every problem I have with Christianity, but somewhere along the way I even grew into a begrudging respect for him and his insanely steadfast integrity. He has been nothing but a perfect disciple for his God, yet he was passed over for a bunch of sinners when the Rapture came. Then his wife emerged from her vegetative state for one magical night only, and even when it granted them the miracle of pregnancy, that too was overshadowed by the only logical assumption that he raped his unresponsive Mary (I never doubted him about that for a second, though- that’s not the kind of guy he is). So what’s the rub, God? Has Matt been playing by the wrong rulebook? Or is there in fact no God or rulebook at all? And, more importantly, which reality is harder for such a devout man to make peace with?

These two episodes are my favorite because these detours into the surreal, the nonsensical that turns on a dime into the deeply significant, reveal more about these men than any logical situation ever could. In “International Assassin” Kevin takes his first foray into the realm he enters when he dies (I honestly don’t know what else to call it) in order to finally stop seeing the late Patti Levin, while in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” Matt finds himself travelling to Australia with the cult of Frasier the Lion, a female-dominated group that loves sex and drugs but has a couple important rules. These situations are bizarre and one-of-a-kind, yet, like Kevin and Matt themselves, have a lot of similarities when you get down to it. Above all, they confront these men with these questions: Who are you? And what will you do about what’s right in front of you?

Let’s start with “International Assassin”. The first time Kevin slides out of that hotel bathtub with a gasp, neither of us have any idea what’s going on. As a viewer, this situation makes no sense; there’s no prerequisite for anything that’s happening. But Kevin feels the exact same way. It’s not about what is happening or why, it’s simply about what he will do now that it is. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the choices in front of Kevin, but they are simple and clear.

First things first: clothes. The wardrobe offers him clerical robes, the all-white Guilty Remnant staple, a suit, and his own Mapleton Police uniform. The symbolism and implication of each choice is obvious, and Kevin knows more than anyone the impact that coding himself in relation to any of these groups can have. He thinks he’s making a neutral choice with the suit (if there’s any word to describe Kevin, it’s neutral) but he doesn’t know that he’s catalyzing a zany, action-packed series of events with himself playing the central role of International Assassin.

Justin Theroux in "International Assassin". Image courtesy of IMDb.

A knock on the door quickly descends into a fight sequence that Kevin has no choice but to engage in- and win. The lobby brings about more questions than answers. Virgil is manning the front desk and subtly orders Kevin to meet him in the parking garage in five minutes. Kevin’s attention is sharply turned to a little girl floating face down in the pool. He doesn’t hesitate to dive in and save her, but confusion abounds when the girl’s father harshly chastises her and pulls her away, ignoring Kevin completely.

In the parking garage, Virgil fills Kevin in on his International Assassin status, and that his target is presidential candidate Patti Levin. He also cryptically warns Kevin not to drink any water, thought he doesn’t tell him why (it’s not about why- it’s about whether Kevin will do it despite the absence of a good reason). Among a host of other things (these episodes are so incredibly loaded, I’m skipping over a lot of thematically significant symbols to focus on the events that inform Kevin’s individual character), Kevin finds himself able to communicate with his tripped-out father via the TV in his hotel room. The connection isn’t great, so all Kevin’s really able to glean is that he needs to take Patti to the well (whatever that means).

Kevin follows his secret agent-like instructions to gain an audience with Patti under the guise of a generous campaign donor and retrieves the gun he was informed would be waiting for him in the bathroom. Kevin’s ethics here are interesting- he knows this is all a test and the events not real, but that doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing, when possible, in saving the drowning girl. Yet, it also empowers him to swiftly shoot Patti and her entire entourage dead. He’s playing the game, but he’s playing it with integrity. His instructions have run out, though. He thought this was the necessary act to clear his mind of Patti and return him to the land of the living, but here he remains. He returns to the lobby to ask Virgil what there could be left for him to do, but Virgil is not himself. Kevin puts it together- Virgil drank the water, the water Kevin himself refused in a place where everyone seems to be so thirsty.

Justin Theroux and Ann Dowd in "International Assassin". Image Courtesy of IMDb.

Time, in addition to reason, is warped in this ethereal plane, which Kevin pieces together when he realizes that the little girl he saved in the pool is also Patti Levin. In an even bigger mind-fuck the man who pulled her away from the pool is not her father, but her abusive ex-husband. It wasn’t any disdain that Kevin had for Patti that led to her death in this hotel, just as it wasn’t in life, but rather a deeply troubling necessary evil in Kevin’s journey of understanding himself and the world. So, when Kevin realizes the disdain he does have for this man who so casually hurts others, he kills him. He’s playing the game, but he’s playing it as a good man.

The young Patti now goes willingly with Kevin, calmly and intelligently understanding her role in this simulation, yet is somehow no less innocent for it. The pair head for the nearest well, Kevin Sr.’s advice now making a bit more sense, and are crossing a bridge when they encounter a man who presents Kevin with the option to hang himself rather than throw an innocent girl down a well. He doesn’t take the noose, as he’s dodged every other attempt to pull him away from his mission, and they reach the well hand in hand. Young Patti nonchalantly sits atop it, waiting for Kevin’s push. She won’t fight him, but Kevin has to be the one to do it. While he’s killed in this episode without such ethical and emotional turmoil, the feeling of pushing an innocent girl to her death is real, even if the event is not. He hesitates, then, through tears, looks away as he swiftly knocks the little girl down the hole.

Justin Theroux and Darby Camp in "International Assassin". Image courtesy of IMDb.

Kevin’s emotional floodgates are already open when an adult Patti yells for help from the bottom of the well. Kevin joins the grown Patti at the bottom of the well where they share a moment of true understanding of one another. Then, Kevin drowns Patti in the small amount of water at the bottom of the well. Finally having fully confronted the life, death, and philosophy of this woman, all of which he had been steadfastly ignoring before this episode, he is ready to return to the land of the living.

Now let’s talk about Matt! In “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”, he is hellbent on getting Kevin out of Australia and back to Jarden, the only place he believes Kevin will be able to harness his god-like abilities and stop the presumed incoming apocalypse on the seventh anniversary of the Departure. All flights into Melbourne have been grounded due to an unrelated global event, so Matt, John, Michael, and Laurie are forced to re-route to Tasmania and from there, reach Australia via an overnight ferry that has already been fully booked by a cult that worships Frasier the Lion. Like Kevin’s hotel, Matt’s finding himself on this trippy, chaotic boat doesn’t make much sense and is completely out of his comfort zone.

Matt is himself, but sometimes he’s full of surprises; he’s able to talk their way into sharing passage with this cult by telling ‘the filthiest joke he knows’: “What’s the difference between a pimple and a priest? A pimple waits until you’re 12 to come on your face”. It’s filthy enough to allow them onboard, but Matt is still struggling to embrace this group and clearly doesn’t take seriously their one rule: no man can utter the name of Frasier the Lion.

Christopher Eccleston, Amy Brenneman, Kevin Carol, and Jovan Adepo in "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World". Image courtesy of IMDb.

On the boat, Matt is informed of a man who claims via business cards to be God. Matt is incredibly perturbed by this, though he seems to be the only one, and he heads to the upper deck to confront this man who he is sure is an imposter. The man turns out to be none other than the man from the bridge in “International Assassin” who offered Kevin the noose. Even more surprisingly, Matt witnesses this “God” (his name is David Burton) throw a man overboard. The cult of Frasier the Lion is too busy partying to notice, so Matt alone doesn’t hesitate to dive in after him.

Like Kevin’s rescue of the little girl, Matt receives little thanks for his efforts. However, unlike Kevin, Matt’s efforts are unsuccessful. Even more different, we don’t spend any time at all on the identity of the man that fell overboard, and who this man was, the fact that he was an individual, doesn’t seem to trouble Matt so much as the overarching ethical reality that he did the right thing and no one else did. Matt isn’t bothered by the loss of life so much as the lack of appreciation of anyone towards him for trying to save it. Throughout the episode he isn’t concerned with learning anything about the man, rather he is insistent on others realizing his ethical purity and their lack thereof.

True to form, Matt isn’t making any friends on this boat as he continuously denies all invitations to party with the other passengers, instead focusing on condemning their values and disproving the spiritual identity that David Burton is claiming. Getting good and worked up, Matt finally yells, “all you care about is fucking each other and Frasier!”, breaking the cult’s cardinal rule. We won’t hear from this cult again after this episode and we won’t get much logical insight into their philosophy. Like the water in Kevin’s hotel, it’s not about why men aren’t supposed to say his name- it’s that they weren’t, and he did. The rule didn’t mean anything to Matt, therefore he concluded that it must not mean anything at all.

Christopher Eccleston in "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World". Image courtesy of IMDb.

In consequence, the cult surrounds him, intending to extract a forced ejaculation from him, but he breaks free and soon finds himself holding a private audience with David Burton. Matt insists that Burton admit to both pushing the man overboard and impersonating God. Burton does neither, offering only cryptic answers. Matt eventually relents, not necessarily believing him, but defeatedly indulging him in the headier questions of faith that have been plaguing him. Burton, playing God, lays into him, telling Matt that living his entire life in pursuit of His approval is the very thing that kept him from earning it. Is a good person still good if their actions are a result of their desire for the ultimate reward, rather than genuine care and empathy on a personal level? Burton is suggesting no and, his identity aside, Matt is struck by it.

In the light of day, land approaches and reason returns. Officials inform Matt that a body was found in the water and they plan to arrest Burton upon docking the ship. However, before that can happen, a cult member releases the lion onboard (a descendant of Frasier), and it mauls Burton to death. All of this confirms Matt’s skepticism of Burton’s being God (as does the persistence of Matt’s cancer, which Burton appeared to cure with a snap of his fingers), yet Matt’s epiphany remains. He’s not haughty and satisfied as he would have been a few hours ago, and his impending mission in Australia is now forever changed.

The similarities in the situations facing Matt and Kevin in these episodes are striking, yet the differences in the lessons they needed to learn equally so. Matt’s deep change after this episode is probably the thing I most respect him for, but these events also show that if he were to be Chosen, as Kevin was and as he so intensely desired, he would have failed the test. He would have drank the water and died like any other man.

There is simply just so much more to say about The Leftovers and plenty that I still don’t understand, so please hit me with anything I missed or got wrong! And let me know if you think I should open the can of worms that is Nora Durst…

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