It's impossible to watch episode three of The Leftovers, an enthralling story focused on one character that includes flashbacks, religious overtones and cryptic dream sequences, and not get heavy whiffs of Damon Lindelof's last show, Lost. But for all that show's baggage, it's hard to watch "Two Boats and a Helicopter" (its name a reference to a well-known Christian parable about a devout man's inability to recognize the work of God) and not get excited.
After an opening pair of episodes that lurched all over our small-town setting and beyond, setting up the premise of the Grand Departure and establishing the splintered Garvey family, this week we suddenly dip off-course into the life of Pastor Matt (Christopher Eccleston), a measured fanatic who wants people to understand that the rapture has not occurred and that the departed souls were as flawed as the rest of us, not some godly bunch of heroes. Matt's crusade involves him getting punched in the face a lot by grieving folks who don't appreciate their disappeared relatives' dirty laundry being aired, but it also gives us a real sense of how unpopular organized religion has become in this new world.
Which makes sense, of course. The world of The Leftovers might be one in which God exists, 'cause where the hell did those people vanish to, but that sure doesn't make him seem like a merciful God, nor one associated with any particular creed given the randomness of the Departure. So Matt preaches to a tiny congregation and is fighting off efforts from an unknown group to buy his church from under him. Eccleston, who has played so many resolute but somewhat nutty characters in his career (Elizabeth, British TV's The Second Coming and Our Friends in the North) is perfectly cast here, even if his accent wobbles at times.
The Leftovers has so far been more about atmosphere and ambiguity than anything else and the first half of "Two Boats and a Helicopter" sticks to that track. We learn that Matt has a catatonic wife (played by Janel Maloney) at home who he can barely support, and that Nora is his sister (she, like Kevin in the pilot episode, seems to realize that he has a head on his shoulders despite his fruitless cause). He wants part of her settlement to help him retain the deed to the church, and (rather suddenly and crazily) dumps the information that her vanished husband was having an affair to convince her the Departure wasn't some holy calling.
"Do you know what it was?" a frustrated Nora (perhaps my favorite character on the show so far, played with a weary weight by Carrie Coon) asks her brother. "It was a test. Not for what came before but for what came after. It was a test for what comes now," Matt insists. There's so many ways to read into what he's thinking. My (limited) understanding of the Rapture is that it is, itself, some kind of test—that the "holy" people disappear, those left behind have to contend with the rise of evil, then the Messiah shows up, right? (Don't correct me if I'm wrong).
But Matt has an even more theoretical concept of what's happening. Of course there's something otherworldly going on—people vanished out of nowhere. But whether Matt is saying that God is simply testing our faith or some other power is at work, he knows it's to be explored and resisted. It's no easy answer, essentially. What's especially bizarre, then, is what follows.
I'll say this first—the latter half of this episode is incredibly arresting television, even as it lurches from crazy plot twist to crazier plot twist, and is well-anchored by Eccleston's performance. As he seeks to obtain some $135,000 to buy back the deed to the church, Matt retrieves a buried can of $20,000, left by Kevin's father, and turns it into $160,000 by betting on red three times at a local casino, a pair of deus ex machinae so brazen that it feels like the show is grabbing you by the wrist and dragging you along with it, lest you resist.
To Matt, of course, divine intervention is at work. While the backstory on the can of money is unclear (apparently Kevin's dad thought Matt was on the right track too), the roulette scene is too gripping not to enjoy. At that point, things get dialed up even more. Someone tries to rob Matt, and maybe he kills him; later, in trying to help two members of the Guilty Remnant being assaulted, he's struck with a rock and has an intense sequence of flashbacks and dreams, touching on established imagery (fire) and giving us another perspective on the show's opening scene, where he was involved in the car crash (that's how his wife went in that coma).
It's a Job-esque series of trials for a man convinced that faith will carry him through humanity's greatest test, and it ends with a brilliant Twilight Zone rug-pull, as he runs to the bank to deliver the money in time and is told he's been out cold for days, not hours. Who bought the church from under him? None other than the Guilty Remnant, who surely think organized religion serves no purpose in a post-Departure world.
The pointlessness of it all is there for Matt or anyone to grasp, or it can be batted away in favor of devout belief—the best thing about "Two Boats and a Helicopter" is that it manages to have both sides make sense. After an interesting but messy opening pair of episodes, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" promises a grander, if crazier show ahead—let's see if it can deliver on that promise, or if Damon Lindelof will fall into old pitfalls of leaning too much on ambiguity and muddy, vague spirituality.