With the final season of The Leftovers available all at once on-demand, we’ll be bringing you our thoughts on each episode one at a time. Warning: This contains spoilers.
“That’s the man I was telling you about,” says Matt (Christopher Eccleston), as The Leftovers’ third season begins its second half. He’s referring, of course, to God – but where that once would have been declared with loud ecstasy, he says it here with a flat deadpan.
Damon Lindelof’s series has always made time for Reverend Jamison, taking an episode out of each season to hang with the man of the cloth – and those hour-long character studies have often been the best parts of the whole show, from Season 1’s meditation on gambling, grief and luck to Season 2’s masterful montage of his devoted care for his wife, Mary. It’s been easy to sympathise with him all these years. That’s partly thanks to Eccleston’s superb performance, pitched somewhere between fanatic and fervently well-intentioned. But it’s also because of how much we’ve seen him suffer: in Season 1, he lost his church to the Guilty Remnants and his congregation with it; in Season 2, when a real miracle did happen and his wife briefly recovered from her coma, her pregnancy only led others to accuse him of sexual assault. So in Season 3, when he hears that Kevin, his would-be Messiah, has headed Down Under just days before the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure, you can understand why he’s so determined to go and bring him back. You can also understand why Laurie, perhaps the only sane character in the series, insists that she goes with him.
And so “three wise men” (John, Michael and Matt) and a woman charter a private plane, piloted by John, and fly across the globe. But, inevitably, things aren’t that simple, and Matt, being Matt, faces an unforeseen obstacle. And The Leftovers being The Leftovers, that obstacle involves a boat, a lion and an orgy.
“Frasier, the Sensuous Lion”, to be exact – a legendary animal with a lineage as long as his infamous… you get the idea. The way is followers honour him? By having lots of sex on a cruise, one complete with pride masks, colourful costumes and a rule that says no man can speak Frasier’s name – lest they want to become him and take on his role in some kind of ritual. (A ritual that no doubt involves sex. And lions.)
It’s exactly the kind of weird cult that we’re now used to seeing in the wake of the Sudden Departure – and it’s typical of The Leftovers’ third season that it should continue to mine the depraved need of people to believe in anything with a sense of humour. That dark comic streak has elevated HBO’s series to new heights of profundity, confidently offering an insight into humanity’s bleak, grief-stricken tendency towards delusion… with a smile. The show’s secret lies in its ability to embrace as well as undermine such pop-up religious institutions, so it’s telling that this copulating cult is greeted with smirks, condescension and scepticism by Matt: he can believe in one thing against all the odds, but believing in something different to him? That’s obviously just silly.
When asked whether he can stomach being on board with such debauched sinners, he swiftly insists its fine – a sign of just how resolved he is on reuniting with Christ 2.0. The only condition for his passage? That he tell the Lioness with the list of names on the door a dirty joke. “What’s the difference between a pimple and a priest?” asks Matt. No points for guessing the punchline.
Ever since The Leftovers made the decision to up sticks in Season 2, its made excellent use of its locations to echo its themes and characters. The fact that this episode sees Matt literally all at sea, drifting in the middle of nowhere, can’t be overstated – just as you can’t over-exaggerate how bonkers the episode’s gripping, surprising prologue is, as a French member of a submarine crew decides to athletically dance their way towards launching a nuclear warhead. (It’s that nuclear threat that causes all flights to be grounded, forcing Matt’s crew to take the boat after being grounded in Tasmania.)
But Episode 5 is keeping its best for last, as the real obstacle emerges in the shadows of the sex fest: a man, name David Burton, who is going around calling himself God. He’s reclusive. He doesn’t say anything. He wears a red baseball cap. And he only communicates in written missives handed out on playing cards. He’s surely lying – but then again, in an post-Departure age where anything is believable, who’s to say he isn’t?
Matt, that’s who. Incensed by the blasphemy of someone pretending to be the Almighty, he makes it a personal quest to take down David Burton – a man who, we learn, used to be a decathlete and a sports commentator, until he died in a climbing accident… and then came back to life. Is that any less valid a claim to Christendom than Kevin’s hotel limbo?
While Matt frantically scribbles his Book of Kevin, Burton spends his days silently handing out FAQs on paper, absolving Himself of responsibility for most things, including Jesus (“The virgin conception? It’s her word against mine”), but, interestingly, taking credit for the Departure – the opposite, in many ways, of Matt’s own God, whom the priest appears to blame for most things, but still can’t fathom what the Departure was. Because underneath it all, that lingering question remains: surely the righteous would have been taken?
It’s safe to say that David ultimately confirms that he’s not who he says, but Matt’s own fanaticism is undeniably real: he ends up kidnapping Burton to get answers to his questions, a disturbingly extreme act that’s echoed by the ominous presence of a real lion on set. (Kudos to director Nicole Kassell, who proved with The Woodsman and her previous Matt Jamison episode that she a knack for getting under the skin of troubled men, but also proves that she can handle shooting on a boat going round and round in circles with a lion on board.)
Matt practically spits at David with venom, as he challenges him on everything – including the apparent resurgence of his Leukaemia. David says that if Matt will free him, he’ll heal him there and then. Of course, Matt acquiesces, but David can’t and doesn’t – because just like everything, Matt’s life is beset not by holy interference but meaningless bad luck. As the title suggests, this is a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World. And it sucks.
The sight of Matt jumping off the boat to try and save a stranger in the water, after he sees Burton push them overboard, is more than enough to keep us on his side: it’s an act of kindness that nobody else on the boat is willing to take. Hell, they don’t even care that a man calling himself God is going about killing people. When the ship does arrive in Melbourne, a corpse is found in the ocean, and Matt is told that Burton will be arrested – all validations of what he’s been professing to everyone all journey.
But before Burton can depart, he delivers one cruel nugget of fact that has its own divine weight: “Everything you’ve done because you thought I was watching, but I wasn’t,” mocks David. “I’m not. You didn’t do it for me. You did it for yourself.”
It’s a line that hits Matt hard, because it gets right to the heart of his fascinating contradictions. There’s always been a brewing sense of anger at God from him, but he’s buried it beneath loyal worship. He isn’t immune from the plague of doubt and fear that racks everyone else, but he hides underneath a sense of purpose, prophesying Messiahs and major happenings with a seemingly confident grin. Is he doing it for God, or just to give himself a sense of purpose? In Season 1, someone described Matt as “just another asshole who thinks he’s God”; his reaction to meeting another asshole who also thinks he’s God is extremely revealing. There can be only one holy man post-Departure who really has the answers – and Matt’s already holding the pen. It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World. Jumping overboard to save a man? If he’s already dying anyway, why not do it to prove how selfless he is?
Eccleston manages to convey all of this conflicted feelings and possibilities through his expressions and gestures alone – Carrie Coon deserved an Emmy nomination for her performance in The Leftovers, but Eccleston’s work too is the stuff that awards are made of. It’s no wonder that The Leftovers has gone back to him, time and time again, to delve deeper into his psychological state. Season 3, more than ever, has placed Matt under pressure: his miraculous wife with the Biblical name has now left him, because of his obsession with God and Kevin, the last straw in a long pile of short straws. Before now, he’s told himself it’s fine, because they’re the ones losing out, not him, but there’s a sense that his confrontation with Burton, and those constant spurting nosebleeds, have shaken his faith more than ever. As the sun rises on the dawn of a new day, Matt prepares to set foot on Australian soil, taking him one step closer to Kevin. In the background, Burton tries to escape the police, only to be hilariously mauled to death by a lion. “That’s the man I was telling you about,” remarks Matt, with no hint of his usual smile. Whether he’s just experienced the death of god or God, though, is still yet to be seen.
The Leftovers Season 1 to 3 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 14-day free trial.