You'd almost be forgiven for watching the first scene of last night's Leftovers and deciding to throw in the towel. The biggest hit on this show so far is how it's such a bummer, and who settles in on a Sunday night expecting to watch Kathy Geiss (Marceline Hugot, playing the titular Gladys) get stoned to death against a tree? The dramatic opening is building to a powerful twist: she finally breaks her Guilty Remnant vow of silence to plead for mercy. But, no use, she's dead, and the opening credits begin. I'd bet a hundred bucks that half the Leftovers audience watched those first few minutes, exhaled, and changed the channel.
But "Gladys" was a welcome return to strength after last week's meandering hour. It helps that the most fascinating thing The Leftovers has going for it thus far is the Guilty Remnant, and this is the most time we've spent with them yet. This week, Patti (Ann Dowd) takes a day off from GR activities, dressing in normal clothes, talking, and taking Laurie (Amy Brenneman) out to breakfast to try and gauge how much Gladys' death, and the whole GR lifestyle, is getting to her. Dowd has done so much with her character without talking at all, and at first I feared that the show was breaking its rules too quickly, but by keeping Laurie silent through its day off, it felt like it was staying true to the spirit of the law, if not the letter.
Gladys' death is horrifying, but the pushback against the GR feels like it's been a long time coming. They are so cruel in their commitment to silent disruption and non-participation (that opening scene where Gladys steps around someone who's fallen down), that even their presence in sleepy Mapleton has been loaded with tension. With Patti talking, we get a little bit of backstory on the GR's origins, and Gladys' own struggles abandoning her family, but mostly we just get the vaguely chilling shock that Patti is a real person too.
Dowd is so perfectly cast in the role. She's been making that same disdainful face at everyone for four episodes now that it was hard to see her as a person; much easier to take her on as the personification of an idea. Laurie and Meg were the ones struggling with the trappings of the Guilty Remnant, but Patti represented the unshakable bulwark they aspired to, someone so stripped of humanity it was hard to imagine that she'd even had a past. Watching her chirpily talk about all-day breakfast at the diner was unsettling.
I spent most of the episode wondering if Laurie would crack but kinda knowing that she wouldn’t. Yes, she's been wrestling with the abandonment of her husband and particularly her daughter, but just as we're told Gladys never spoke, neither does Laurie, and when Reverend Matt leads a group to pray outside GR headquarters near the end of the episode, she sounds the whistle of alarm that Kevin handed out to the group, a powerful display of emotion that's much more effective than anything she could have said out loud. Matt is possessed of just as much unshakable conviction as the GR, but even he seems to realize that he's crossing a line with his behavior (even though it's just as passive-aggressive as everything the GR does).
Brenneman and Dowd are the real stories of The Leftovers so far for me. Kevin's storyline needs to get somewhere new, because I'm now fully aware that he's a little bit nuts (his scene where he threatens the dry cleaner was tense, but lacking new information) and that his family is still traumatized. Okay, fine, but I'd rather we used Kevin to explore the post-Departure world a little more. The fight over what to do with Gladys' body was kind of intriguing, but left so ambiguous that I don't even know if the show will come back to it. The government disposes of it in an incinerator, but why? Do they just not have the time and patience to figure out who killed her, or is there some deeper conspiracy at work? Because this is a Damon Lindelof show, I want to think it's the second, but he's been trying so hard to avoid that biz, maybe this is just a grander point about futility. I can accept that, but I still need the non-Guilty Remnant portions of the show to head somewhere more involving.