Apocalyptic fiction is everywhere. It suffuses popular enough to have become its own burgeoning subgenre of both science fiction and speculative fiction at large. The impulse to explore how a world ends and what arises in its place is not new, but the burgeoning and seemingly endless interest in dystopias has hijacked primetime and the box office. In a post-9/11 world, where terrorist attacks on our home soil jolted normalcy to its very core, it makes sense that people focus on fictional empts to comprehend responses to epoch ending catastrophe. Books like The Hunger Games and Station Eleven, and shows like The Walking Dead are all less concerned with the events that destroy their fictional settings than they are with what comes afterward. Rebellion, preserving culture and history, and finding stable human relationships amidst violent and unpredictable chaos thread their way through disturbing imagery that can only be described as torture porn.
Despite the massive success of franchises like The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead, I would like to submit to you that there is another, better, far more compelling depiction of our dystopian future being presented by The Leftovers, HBO’s Peabody award- winning show that shakes the meaning of normalcy to its very core and expertly examines human relationships within the unsettling mundanity of a world trying to find meaning in the wake of inexplicable disaster.
The Leftovers has a simple enough premise, one not unfamiliar to those who have heard of the Christian fiction Left Behind series. On October 14th of an unnamed year presumed contemporary to our own, 2% of the world’s population disappears without and trace, and with no explanation as to why and where they may have gone. This may seem like a small number, but it is high enough that no person, no family, a social unit at the core of the show’s mythos, is left untouched.
The first season is set in the fictional town of Mapletown, New York, a synecdoche for Everytown USA. The show follows the trials and tribulations of the Garvey clan. Kevin Garvey, made Chief of Police after his father has a psychotic break, stands in as patriarch for both the traumatized town and his shattered family. His wife has left him and his daughter to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose main purpose is to force everyone in the town to confront the disaster of what is termed the “Sudden Departure.” His son has disappeared, a member of a different cult dedicated to protecting the series’ literal magical Negro, a mysterious black man named Holy Wayne who claims he can hug the pain caused by the Departure away. One of two foils t to Laurie Garvey’s failed matriarch is Nora Durst, held up as divine symbol of motherhood and sacrifice as a result of the fact that both her husband and two children, her entire family, disappeared in the Departure. During the first season, Nora’s character arch revolves around her struggle to redefine herself in the face of this tragic loss.
The striking thing about The Leftovers is that something terrifying, inexplicable, and traumatic has happened, something that has touched everyone’s lives whether their loved ones have departed or not, but in the face of this the world goes on as it did before. Watching the show, the most fascinating and uncomfortable aspect is the struggle for normalcy all the characters must still endure years after the Departure. The Guilty Remnant works toward a radically new normalcy, continuously reminding the town of their ruptured families and the pain of the Departure; that things are not normal and the only way to exist in the wake of disaster is to embrace the nihilism that is at the show’s core.
The “never forget” rhetoric of the Guilty Remnant is a clear reminder of the way life went on after September 11th, when the government told us to go about our lives as if nothing had happened, that going shopping was the best way to strengthen the nation and prevent another attack. In a message at least as old as the 1950s, if not stretching back to the Victorian age, the American government and that of The Leftovers urges its citizens and the characters to find safety in family life, even when family bonds have been shattered and perhaps even proved illusory. But a duel narrative, represented by the Guilty Remnant, emerged, urging us all to be always afraid of what might be waiting around the corner. Terrorism works not because it comes armed with modern weapons and traditional armies but because it subtly co-opts our daily lives, because it targets the most scared parts of who we are and violently destroying them to communicate that no one is ever safe, especially in the places that we hold to be the most secure.
The Leftovers is about the struggle to reconcile that sense of violation, that unknown attack on perhaps our most vaunted institution, family, and the desire for normalcy. What makes The Leftovers such a terrifying show is not the Departure itself, but the way the Departure destroys human relationships and renders even our most holy places as unsafe. Like terrorists, the Departure is an enemy the characters of the show could not see until it was too late, and divining a meaning from a seemingly senseless act tests every individual’s sense of self, family, and community. Watching this struggle is deeply unsettling to the viewer because the show continually refuses to allow either the characters or the viewer any sense of relief. Brief moments of intimacy or reconciliation are always met with the reminder of the loss the town, and humanity as a whole, has suffered.
Untangling the show’s cultural messages beyond its focus on despair, if there is one, can be difficult, as every character’s point of reference is that despair. The Garvey family lost no one to the Departure, but Laurie’s abandonment of her family rejection of her daughter, son, and husband; her family role altogether, and defiance of her husband’s role as patriarch demonstrates the fragility of the family system. Kevin struggles to atone for his wife’s abandonment by embracing his role as Chief of Police and working tirelessly to protect the town from the Guilty Remnant’s attempts to remind town folk that life is meaningless and family not only stands powerless to stop terror but is in and of itself an imagined institution that must be abandoned in the light of the Departure. Patti Levin, the group’s leader, is the second matriarchal foil to Kevin’s machismo and aggressive rage, championing physical non-violence but still devising her own acts of terror to traumatize the town and prey on those still attempting to find meaning in the Departure. Her terrorism serves as a prod to keep the Departure ever present. She is woman who defies the institution of family instead of working to sustain it.
The show constantly attacks and reevaluates the meaning of the traditional family. Kevin cannot reconcile with Laurie and Tommy, and his teenage daughter Jill constantly acts out against his authority. But the end of the first seasons finds Kevin finally rebuilding what he has lost, along with Nora Durst, when they form a new domestic partnership around Holy Wayne’s child, of African American and Asian parentage, left at Kevin’s doorstep anonymously by Tommy. A new age calls for a new kind of family, just as feminist, gay and lesbian, and minority groups create new family structures attempting integrate themselves into our own world and reap associated benefits. Of course, reconciliation requires acceptance too.
But if 9/11 provided a chance to reevaluate ourselves and our relationship to the world, how far might we have come if different decisions were made? In the world of The Leftovers, the answer is not very far at all. Shopping failed to bind our wounds but we keep doing it in hopes that eventually it will. We turn a blind eye to our government’s violent actions overseas. Some choose to fight the formation of new family systems that question the foundation of heteronormativity on which traditional marriage is based. In The Leftovers, reconceptualizing the meaning of family and letting go of old ideas about proper gender roles tangles with the search for normalcy always promised by the family, an idea that goes back to Elaine Tyler May’s domestic containment of the Cold War born in the 1950s.
In Homeward Bound, historian Elaine Tyler May describes domestic containment as America’s reaction to the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse brought on by the dawning of the Cold War. According to this ideology, the family served as the bastion of safety by domesticating the twin threats of nuclear war and communist subversion. If each family member followed their prescribed gender roles (father as breadwinner, mother as happy homemaker) then American society could repel any physical or ideological attack made upon its citizens the Soviet Union. In fact, the ideology of civil defense rested firmly upon each family member strictly adhering to their gender rolls in the face of nuclear attack. Before the attack the father was to build the bomb shelter that the mother would then not only stock with survival goods, but would decorate so as to make it so comforting that it might be used as an extension of the home during peace time. In the event of a nuclear attack, strengthening the family unit by continue to adhere to gender roles would prevent the apocalypse from overcoming the country and would allow America to rebuild in its own domestic image. Unlike in The Leftovers, the family would emerge the founding institution upon which a renewed America could be based. In The Leftovers, by contrast, the Departure strikes at the very heart of the institution of family, blatantly questioning the American ideal that family can survive and even thrive in the face of catastrophe.
Of all the dystopian fiction that has emerged over the past decade and a half, I submit that The Leftovers is perhaps the most “realistic” depiction of a future dystopia yet, or at least the most realistic response to a calamity like the Departure. We have experienced our own jolt to reality on 9/11, and though it seemed the world would never be the same again, yet somehow it both is and isn’t. The Leftovers characters attempt to build a new normal, one that both accommodates loss and celebrates the devising of new social systems meant to address the pain and fear engendered by that loss. It is about the meaning of human relationships in the face of something that destroys them. At its heart, dystopia is about our fear of surviving loss. The Leftovers is a depiction of a world shaken by collective and individual loss, but it is also a story about not forgetting that loss, but accommodating it. And always at its heart, as with most modern dystopia, it is about the fragility of human relationships, and how only by adopting new ideas about how relationships and social systems work can we move on from something that shakes us to our core. In this way, the Leftovers is both mundane and awesome, and constantly it asks us, “What happens if the world doesn’t change after it ends?” Perhaps normal is the most disturbing dystopia of all.