The Leftovers: narrating the absence in Damon Lindelof’s masterpiece

If AMC marked the first decade of the 2000s with its products, the second saw the HBO network earn the podium from absolute protagonist. Captivating and always winning productions, from Game of Thrones a Westworld, passing through True Detective, they beat the competition to the sound of plays. An enormous amount of ideas and material, of stories and tales that have entered with arrogance in the collective imagination. In the great explosion of the television medium, especially in our country, however, the opposite phenomenon has occurred: overseas productions of great breadth, even considered futuristic, have ended up being overshadowed by more high-sounding or popular products.

The case analyzed today refers to a flagship project of HBO, which in the three-year period 2014-2017 has left an indelible mark in the recent history of television series. An original production inspired by a Tom Perrotta novel and shaped by the mind of Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost alongside JJ Abrams and recently acclaimed for the success of his Watchmen. The Leftovers, this is the name of the series, has succeeded in the delicate intent of shocking viewers as never before, bringing to light an original story about the meaning of loss and the mysteries of the unpredictable.

The show, which has a total of 28 episodes divided into 3 seasons, chronicles the aftermath of an unprecedented event that occurred on October 14, 2010 known as the Department: two percent of the world population vanishes into thin air in a completely inexplicable way, leaving anyone who has managed to “survive” astonished and lost. Faced with a phenomenon that escapes the boundaries of reality and tests any rational logic, how would the human being react?

The courage to dare

Strengthened by the experience and legacy left by Lost, Lindelof has focused his attention on investigating the disturbance of the human soul without giving in to any compromise towards the spectators. The Leftovers it is therefore the result of a complex analysis aimed at exploring the mysteries of the mind and the mechanisms for overcoming (or accepting) loss. The work it is not meant to be complete, but profound: To rise to the desired level, the show must shape ideas, not give answers. Just like life does. Faced with characters almost entirely devoid of sense, pseudo-religious cults and events at the limit of the possible, it is clear right away that the intent of the work is aim to believe – or rather, to decide to believe – what is observed. More specifically, to trust what the characters tell.

For anyone attempting to approach the analysis of this work, it would be difficult to mechanically deepen the succession of scenes and episodes without including a subjective component. Being universally exhaustive becomes impossible or ineffective in the face of the introspective force of the series. The starting point it must therefore be sought in the structure and refinement of the themes, not in the evaluation of their actual development.

Already in its premise, The Leftovers it stands out because it aims to dialogue with the viewer from the inside: the fairy tale of the sad desperate for an answer that does not condemn them to feel like leftovers plays all on the communicative power and on original methods that penetrate the psyche of the observer.

Facing the unimaginable

The events of October 14 mark not only the beginning of the series, but also the watershed between the ordinary world known to all and the dystopia that in The Leftovers it frames the events. Each individual, like it or not, is forced to find new mental schemes that allow them to face something so unthinkable. Faced with the ordinariness of life, man develops mechanisms dictated by pre-established laws, paths to be followed assiduously according to each situation.

But what happens when none of the routes seem viable? Everyone looks for their own answer, one’s way of facing the unimaginable before falling prey to pain and oblivion. Hence the first question addressed to the viewer: would it be possible to remain rational in a world without answers? Historically speaking, man has always tried to make sense of his own existence: in the face of experiences or the novelty of events, even the most futile or the most fallacious of answers would be enough to fill the void of uncertainty. Yet, precisely in the face of the unknown, the primordial fear that existence is only casual returns to terrorize him.

The human being becomes obsessed, tries to act or interpret the signs, to control his own fate or his world. Though he is convinced that it will never be possible to do it completely, he cannot do without it. And this is exactly the engine that pushes the characters of the series towards the most absurd and disparate ways: a sort of instinct of self-preservation that pushes them to cling to the first thing on which they feel secure. Faced with the observation that any rational choice fails to provide adequate answers, the only solution is seek refuge elsewhere. Where the possibility of pondering falters, the need for faith grows stronger.

Faithful adrift

It is therefore not surprising that the unfortunates of this sad reality seek shelter in faith – as, moreover, has always happened and has always happened in the real world. Whether you look towards God, whether you rely on your own identity or your own utopia, the search for balance and your idea of ​​normality represent the lifeblood that moves the soul of men – and which often leads them to drift . Lindelof fully understands the link that exists between perception and faith, and for this he inserts between the various episodes entire narrative arcs that refer to Christian, Jewish and Nordic mythology.

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The greatest stories tell of the contrast between faith and fear, between courage and uncertainty. It is about the eternal search for purification, the need for absolute forgiveness that frees us from sin. The showrunner bases his story on the idea that, for the characters, i departed have found a place in an unattainable paradise, purgatory is an immense hotel in which to seek redemption and hell is destined for earthly life.

Whether you fantasize about the idea of ​​a Messiah returning from the dead, about a Virgil guiding the chosen one through the dark maze of damned souls or about the existence of another world in which to seek new paths, The Leftovers leads the viewer to synthesize the daring sequence of events such as a metaphor for change and acceptance of one’s condition.

As any believer knows, there may be no end or absolute freedom, just as there may be a way to persist despite everything. The absolute truth of the HBO show is about what each person tells himself: a sense of communion and faith even more essential and founding than the human being, which nevertheless leaves room for something ineffable. In a certain sense, the profound sentiment of Lindelof’s story can be experienced as a religious sentiment, with the choice valued as a real act of faith.

Fragments of existence compared

Almost all the characters of The Leftovers they seem to lose pieces or try to put them back together, constantly confronting each other with no hope of exclusion. Perhaps no one is really healthy in the world of the series, but the events experienced by the characters leave no room for doubt: each individual desperately tries to piece together the fragments of his own existence through introspection.

With the passing of the episodes there is the clear feeling that the physical presence is a relative factor and that each character experiences the fragments of his own being transcending the concepts of space and time. Some of them are present, but they are not seen; others are never present, yet their absence becomes more cumbersome than anything else.

The show found a way to perfectly represent and synthesize the concept of existential relativism, showing how distant and fragmented personalities can appear despite physical proximity, and vice versa. The Leftovers thus tells two sensations that each spectator may have experienced at least once in their life. On the one hand there is the expectation of something greater, the hope of an epochal event not directly related to one’s own will but capable of bringing lasting peace; on the other, the feeling of loss in overcoming absence.

Waiting never seems to meet a happy ending: no matter how hard you try, the aspiration seems to be destined to remain so. Overcoming absence, in the same way, sees loss erect a wall that blocks the passage to salvation. There Department it is therefore destined to become an essential constant, a symbol that represents the failures of the man who lives halfway between the perception of destiny and the desire for control, the tangible and omnipresent proof of all the dilemmas linked to existence.

The synthesis of being

If there is something that pays The Leftovers a work out of the ordinary, leaving out at least in part the themes dealt with, is the shocking ease with which it manages to involve the viewer: it is an active involvement, which forces us to really think and feel while observing the events. Lindelof’s merits are numerous, but they start from the courage with which the author allowed his creature to play with the sensitivity of the viewer, stimulating him to seek his own truths in a world made up of different and subjective interpretations of reality.

But that’s not all: in the face of a world that is constantly changing, where everything is the opposite of everything, Lindelof has shown that nihilism is not the final answer.

The perfect existence, the ideal act of living, coincides with the acceptance of the lack of answers: the answer does not concern the message, but the way in which man relates to its meaning.

There can be hope in the world of The Leftovers? Just like ours. The reality is that it is not possible to be sure. Faced with any question, any dilemma, it is the series itself that responds with a clear and evident message: the only real condition of the human soul lies in the awareness of being, and therefore of living. Telling the absence, with its dynamics and interpretations, it therefore represents the best way to understand how fundamental it is to give value to what is present.

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