Season 2 is a pivotal moment in any show’s lifespan, especially a good one. The showrunners have several advantages: a set stage, momentum, and hindsight. But with a second outing, comes an obvious drawback: expectations. The audience now has a static metric by which they will judge all future endeavors. And heaven help you should you happen to fall short (you know what you done, “True Detective“). So how does the second season of “The Leftovers” try to top itself? It doesn’t. Instead’ it takes your expectations and punches you square in the face with them – again and again and again. [Read: “The Leftovers” season 1 review: Let’s get sad together!]
The first haymaker comes in the title sequence. Gone are the days of Max Richter’s haunting orchestral dirge overtop sour-faced murals. In its place is a folksy ditty, compliments of Iris DeMent, accompanied by a color-saturated slideshow of beautiful life moments – except one person is conspicuously replaced by a silhouette in each photo. It’s eerie, it’s whimsical, it’s pitch-perfect. Right out of the gate, my tonal issues with season 1 were put to rest.
The pummeling doesn’t stop there, as we’re introduced to an entirely new setting and cast of characters in the first episode. While jarring at first, the shift proves to be a stroke of pure genius. The town of Miracle, Texas – so named after surviving the great departure without a single casualty – is almost a character in and of itself. Whereas the previous setting, Mapleton, felt like it could be any standard small town, Miracle is wholly unique and perfectly suited for the story the writers are trying to tell.
Don’t worry about a complete overhaul, though. Much of the old cast is back and better than ever. And I mean that literally, as some of the characters, such as Meg (Liv Tyler) or Tommy (Chris Zylka), are finally given exciting plot threads. Both came around at the end of the previous season, but I was never particularly invested in their fates until now. The effects of their respective revamps are felt, making every scene, regardless of who we’ve following, feel important and interesting.
As for the new characters, the Murphy family is simply fascinating, top-to-bottom. There’s John (Kevin Carroll), the father and hardened skeptic; Michael (Jovan Adepo), the religious son; Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), the enigmatic daughter that drives much of the season’s plot; Virgil (Steven Williams), the estranged grandfather; and Erika (Regina King), the mother trying to keep it all together. Each coalesces beautifully into the portrait of a real family struggling to adapt to a brave new world. What’s more, they serve as a perfect foil to the Garvey family, providing thoughtful insight into the characters we already know.
Once again, the ensemble cast is marvelous, but Kevin Carroll steals the show this time around. His performance is as charming or cold as the situation requires, oftentimes striking that tricky balance within the same scene. Paired with Justin Theroux’s equally captivating Kevin Garvey, the two light up the screen together, fashioning a complex clash of frenemies that keeps the audience guessing.
And guess is all you can do, because this season abandons any semblance of normalcy entirely. It’s weird. And I mean Stephen-King-meets-“Lost” weird. But the brilliance of this season is its willingness to embrace the bizarre, the supernatural, the bona fide “WTF?” moments its predecessor was occasionally too skittish to explore. And with a much improved tone to match, the strangeness has never felt more at home. While potentially off-putting to some viewers, these are the moments where this show shines, and it does so on its own terms.
There’s a scene where one bewildered character turns to another and whispers, “I don’t understand what’s happening.” The other simply responds, “Me neither. It’s Ok.” That one exchange perfectly encapsulates why this season works so well. It is Ok – we don’t have to understand what’s happening. The first season explored the limits of human understanding and how we react to the subsequent loss of agency. But this season focuses on how we cope with that revelation and make peace with ourselves (or don’t). For those willing to swallow the need for hard answers, season 2 of “The Leftovers” is one of the most richly rewarding experiences on television, bar none. So take a cue from the opening theme: just let the mystery be.