Take a Breath: Dystopia and the American Family in HBO’s The Leftovers

Earlier this year I wrote an essay about HBO’s The Leftovers. I’ve decided not to take the original essay down, but to rewrite it completely and create a new blog post as a result. It’s not that my opinion of the show has changed outside a deepening appreciation for its superlative writing and riveting acting. What has changed is my opinion of the essay I wrote – in retrospect to me it is an inadequate literary and historical document, and in order to adequately analyze the show’s impact on me and its dialog with culture at large, I need to reassess my reaction and write my analysis anew.

From the days of paper and ink, we’re used the finality of published work, and I think there’s this idea that what we commit to writing and then publish is somehow permanent. While it is true that my essay is now permanently part of the internet memory database, and while I can’t erase the existence of what I wrote, new mediums of digital publishing raise questions about the nature of documents as living entities. Historians and other scholars can now edit their digital publications in real time. And while I don’t think that means scholars should try to remove previous writing from the record, I do think it means that now we can have more honest and immediate conversation about the ways in which our thought processes and ideas grow and change. Dialogs are living things – why can’t the source material be as well? As long as we are honest about the original intent of our work and the changes we are making, to me it stands to reason that the academic community can take advantage of the malleable and present nature of the digital medium to produce more fluid and adapted products without having to wait for the paper and ink publication of new books and scholarly articles.

Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst work to form a new family unit.

That said, let’s re-evaluate The Leftovers, which, for me, means starting at a beginning with a brief synopsis of the HBO drama, now in its third and final season. The Leftovers is a program that adds a new chapter to the dystopian subculture that has so captivated American culture for at least the last ten years. In what might be termed a secular twist on Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind books, a series about The Rapture, The Leftovers takes place in a world where, on October 14th in a year contemporary to our own, 2% of the Earth’s population vanished without a trace or explanation. The lack of definitive answer about the event throws humankind into a species-wide existential crisis in a world where neither science nor religion can offer even the most minor relief.

But, though the Departure, as it is called, was a global event, The Leftovers is a show about the loss of self and family in the Western world, most notably (as forcefully pointed out by my husband) the middle class, (initially) white, Western world. American suburbia to be most exact. And because of the way the Departure destabilizes social systems already threatened by changing global conditions, the show acts as an inverted mirror for those ideals in America we claim to hold most dear, most specifically the heteronormative middle-class, suburban family system. And while this demographic has been over-exploited by cultural producers for literally decades, if not centuries, The Leftovers is unique as a post-Cold War, post-September 11th examination of what it means to be an individual as part of the American family system.

To understand the loss experienced in The Leftovers, it is necessary to understand what, exactly, the characters believe they lost. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the audience needs to understand what it perceives the characters to have lost. That entity increasingly throughout the show becomes defined as the nuclear family, in this case the heteronormative white nuclear family (the show has no LGBT characters and so it is does not explore the effects of the Departure on what are initially non-traditional family structures or individuals).

The Leftovers finally added POC in Season 2.

For much, if not all, of its history, America has viewed itself as a country whose core values are vested in and upheld by the white, heteronormative, middle-class nuclear family (that is a long string of adjectives to repeat so frequently, but precision is required in our examination of the cultural artifact under examination, attack, and rebirth in the show). While I could discuss the construction of Victorian family values on which so-called “traditional” notions of American families are based, or could discuss the history of family formation in minority groups, most notably American slaves, who came to define the right to form and control their own families as fundamental, I am a historian of 20th century America, so my best understanding of “traditional” families comes from a viewpoint more contemporary to that of The Leftovers.

When I think of the formation of the white, middle-class, heteronormative American family I think of Elaine Tyler May’s 1988 classic Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. I have four copies of this book, which has now in its 3rd edition. Why the multiples? Because I’ve had to read the book so many times due to its extreme influence and importance on our understanding of the domestic ideal in the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s that each copy became increasingly worn and marked-up, necessitating a new edition up to and including when it was on my Comprehensive Oral Exams. Though perhaps dated in some ways, it still stands as one of the best explanations for where the idea of “traditional” American family in the 1950s and 60s came from.

For May, the twin forces of communism and fear of nuclear annihilation drove the creation of the American domestic ideal in the 1950s and 60s. The use of the word “ideal” as a descriptor is particularly important because this vision of domestic bliss never really came true but instead was something to strive for or pretend you had achieved. To spell it out, perhaps repetitively, the domestic ideal involved a heteronormative marriage between a (white) middle-class man and woman with the addition of two to three (white) children who, as a unit, lived together in suburban American and acted as the foundation of American patriotism and played their part as American citizens by enacting their roles as dutiful consumers in order to fuel the bonanza of prosperity for this social and economic group in the post-WWII economy.

Destablizing and terrifying forces threatened the American family in this time period in the form of communism and possible nuclear annihilation. While many books have been to written to analyze how Americans responded to these fears, May’s contribution is to explain that Americans sought safety in the home, believing that if they achieved the domestic ideal they would defeat the untraditional social system of communism and would escape destruction by nuclear weapons through turning their homes into literal fortresses by the use of civil defense. The government encouraged these beliefs, particularly through use of the civil defense program, which never gained much traction as an actuated movement but did embed itself so deep in the American psyche that it is still seen as one of the key totems of the Cold War.

What, then, do we take away from May’s book? To me one of the most important messages is that when Americans feel threatened, one of their favorite tactics is to (using another American trope) circle the wagons around the family and find faith in this structure that they can survive the crisis. The family is seen by many as the most important building block of American society, which is why such phenomena as gay marriage seem so threatening to a large segment of the American population – to them altering the American family can send the whole house of cards tumbling down. And that fear is precisely what The Leftovers plays upon – what happens to Americans as individuals, and society as a whole, when the family system is suddenly, inexplicably, and seemingly irrevocably dismantled?

The Leftovers’ title sequence visualizes absence.

It is easy to say that The Leftovers is one of the most disturbing shows on television, precisely because it rubs up against what we see to be one of the key organizational units of our society and of our lives. For families who have lost members to the Departure, there are no explanations, no reassurances that the vanished are fine, no way to confirm meaning in the loss, and the terrible, physical void that cannot be filled. For the Garvey family, who lost no one to the Departure, the crisis aggravates existing tensions that causes a rift in the family anyway. For the characters of the show, finding new meaning in a life after the Departure means finding new families and new family systems, and the show painfully details how each character confronts this reality and does or does not choose to accept it. Even for those who do form new family units, the mundanity of life, which tortuously does not just go away because 2% of the world’s popular disappeared, insists on interfering and damaging or straining new social connections.

After September 11th, it could be argued that Americans responded to the trauma of the terrorist attacks by ramping up an already burgeoning security state and lashing out at supposed perpetrators aboard. But the Departure is a phenomenon that lends itself to no identifiable enemy; it is the very definition of senselessness. Further, in the case of the Departure, the turmoil and destablization comes from within the family, making it incredibly hard to find safety in existing family structures. In a world after the Departure, the characters react mostly by lashing out at individual and personal levels, though the resultant cult the Guilty Remnant works tirelessly to remind people of the fragility of family structures, positing that all personal connections are meaningless and should be destroyed on the path to embracing a deep nihilism that The Leftovers almost casually drifts into time and time again in a way that no other popular show has been quite as comfortable doing. When you’re fighting against an enemy you don’t understand, do you give up, do you attempt compassion, do you ignore the problem, or do you lash out and destroy?

Kevin Garvey as Mapleton’s Chief of Police

Though The Leftovers operates at a local level, its characters stand in as archetypes for American family members, often time with characters playing the same archetypical role reflecting different character traits to present the conflicting way families actually operate as opposed to the idealized way the domestic ideal would have us believe they should. Kevin Garvey, the show’s main character, begins the show as the middle-aged Chief of Police in fictional Mapleton, NY, which could also be called Everytown, USA. Kevin is the show’s patriarch, a replacement for his own father who had a psychotic break of unexplained origins following the Departure. Kevin’s job is to shepherd the town as well as his own traumatized family through the time after. Just as Kevin can’t control the town, he cannot control his own family. His wife has joined the Guilty Remnant for reasons that do not become apparent until the penultimate episode of the first season, and therefore she is a member of the main antagonizing force seeking to interrupt the grieving process of the town and its families.

Laurie dressed in the white of the Guilty Remnant

Kevin struggles between protecting the rights of the cult, whom he still sees as individuals, and attempting to stop them from sowing discord and unhappiness against the town’s other inhabitants. Simultaneously, Kevin is challenged with accepting that his wife has left the collective of his family to join the collective of the Guilty Remnant. Somewhere Kevin still has hope for humanity, whereas his wife, Laurie, and the group’s leader, Patti Levin, have interpreted the Departure as a rude awakening meant to trumpet to humankind that family is meaningless. If there is no safety in your family, there is no safety anywhere.

Interestingly, most of the villains (or deviants) of The Leftovers are women who take on a matriarchal role, and even Nora Durst, a protagonist who lost her whole family to the Departure, is defined by her failure as a mother, as assumed by her inability to protect her children from seeming disaster. While Kevin steadfastly fights for his community’s right to grieve and reform families, Nora drifts between wishing to end her life to finding meaning in the reformation of a new family. But when this new family is destabilized she reverts to her traumatized state, desperately trying to solve the mystery of the Departure and reunite with her children and becoming emotionally unstable when she is denied this reconciliation. As a result, she, perhaps unwittingly, destroys the other new family connections she has made, leaving her alone in what Kevin calls her victimhood, and what might also be called her martyrdom.

Kevin Garvey and Patti Levin have different views of family.

Contrary to Nora’s vacillation between sinner and saint, Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant in Mapleton, is bent on actively destroying the family. Her cult lives in constant silence and smoke cigarettes without cessation as a declaration that life is not worth valuing enough to practice self-care or to expend energy on. “Stop wasting your breath,” their sign declares as they crash the celebration of the third anniversary of the Departure on the town green, an action that leads to a violent confrontation that finds Kevin in his role as Chief of Police protecting a cult that has stolen his wife from him and caused pain to every citizen of his town. As if he is a dutiful father trying to separate and discipline two young siblings, Kevin must struggle to confront and subdue the real troublemakers, Patti Levin and the Guilty Remnant.

The Guilty Remnant is the most blatant manifestation of the show’s nihilism.

Why are women failures in this show? It’s not as if men aren’t either. But women are the ones railing against family, abandoning their children, and refusing to grow up. Though characters like Laurie change over time, and even Patti is given a more sympathetic examination, it is hard to ignore this show’s ambivalence about the saintliness of motherhood. The male characters are deeply flawed as well, but one wonders what leads the show to present such complicated and sometimes negative portraits of mothers and mother figures. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough family history to trace a line in the sand from past to present, but it seems to me that The Leftovers values most a world in which mothers are assiduously dedicated to upholding the home and the family, and when women step outside that role they are punished at best and become active antagonists doomed for elimination by Kevin the White Knight at worst.

Easily one of the best scenes in the show takes place at the end of Season 2.

The Leftovers is a show so complex that it is hard to know both where to start and when to stop talking about it. It’s most crucial service is that it painstakingly picks apart our ideas of what family is and what it should be. It experiments with the formation of new families in the face of the loss of old ones, and again and again reminds us that no family or relationship is ever static or idyllic but must constantly be cultivated. Like another brilliantly written show, Mad Men, it takes the much nostalgized domestic ideal of the 1950s and rips it apart to demonstrate all its inherent flaws and fragility. But in another way The Leftovers is deeply conservative, because despite all the shit that the show throws at the characters, and it can be a real shit show, they all keep trying to form families, demonstrating the deep tenacity of this social structure in American social and cultural consciousness. The show allows us moments to cherish these new families, but only does so briefly because snatching them away and upending order again. Perhaps this what makes it most appealing and most lifelike: in whatever era, families are groups based on trust and negotiation. They are living entities, and members come and go, sometimes again and again. Treating families as if they are static will knock you on your ass when the dynamic changes. So cherish what stable moments you can, and accept change and the need to do so when it comes. It is this idea that most challenges the rigidity of the domestic ideal without devaluing the family system. There are a lot of social formations left unexplored in The Leftovers, but when examining the core of one of our most cherished institutions, it encourages us to indulge our fear of loss and destabilization and embrace the ability to adapt and form new systems without giving up or wasting our breath.

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