Stylized violence is everywhere on television lately, but true to its form as the most dismal show on television, The Leftovers started last night with a hate crime so brutal, we had trouble watching it. And naturally, the aftermath is thoroughly bleak.
Poor Gladys. We've seen her silently smoking around Mapleton, almost malevolent in her refusal to react to anything that's said or done to her. But when she is caught by herself, a group of men seize her, duct tape her to a tree, and hurl rocks at her head. Most shows would have pulled away at this point, but The Leftovers leaves the camera on Gladys' face for the sickening impact of the stones. As stoic as Gladys has often seemed, even she opened her mouth to beg them to stop. I wanted to do the same.
The Leftovers has always been a take-it-or-leave-it show; if you can't stand the nihilism, get out of the post-Rapture world, but I think this will be the make-or-break episode for a lot of viewers. The show just told us, "Yes, we are going to show graphic footage of a woman being stoned to death and then zoom in on her bloody corpse. A lot." You have to really decide if you're going to stick with that kind of brutality or step away.
Responses to Gladys' death are mixed, but the two residents we focus on most are Kevin and Laurie—and, to a lesser extent, Megan and Reverend Matt. Megan is surprised by her own reaction to Gladys' murder. She expected to be frightened, but she's actually more confident in her choice to join the Guilty Remnant. But as Megan lights up a cigarette, Laurie finds herself having a very different reaction: a panic attack.
The Guilty Remnant is a very different animal from the cults we typically see on television. It stands in stark contrast to Wayne's compound, ruled by a cult of personality. The GR is free from ego; Patsy may be in charge of the Mapleton chapter, but that's just an administrative and emotionally supportive role. She less leader than den mother and her response to Laurie's panic attack is a surprisingly empathetic one. She doesn't shame Laurie or question her faith. Instead, she offers Laurie a day off from the GR, a day of greasy food and speech and clothes with a hint of color. She holds Laurie's hand and tells her that she understands the pull of the world they're trying to whitewash. That's what makes the GR so powerful; they're operating from a place of conviction and a sense that they're all in this together.
And it works. Reverend Matt, always trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, decides to hold a wake for Gladys outside the GR compound. When Laurie finds herself teary eyed during the service, she walks outside and Matt at first thinks it is to make a silent vigil for her fallen friend. Instead, she disrupts the service in a very GR way, but approaching him and blowing a whistle in his face—one of the whistles Kevin provided to the GR for their protection. It's so strange to root for Laurie in different ways throughout the show. Last week, I was happy to see her reaching for the lighter that Jill gave her for Christmas. This week, I'm glad to see her reaffirm her GR faith, even though it means tearing her family apart.
Meanwhile, Kevin is dealing with his mixed feelings regarding the Guilty Remnant. He hates the GR for taking his wife from them and feels protective of them, especially while Laurie is a member. We learn that the ATF is now the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Cult, and that a member of the police department called the Feds about Gladys' murder. While Kevin tries to call them off, his life and his ability to impose law and order are spiraling out of control. He can't get the town to impose a curfew. He never knows when the house alarm is going to be on and can't figure out how to turn it off—a sign that he can't be sure that even his house is protected. He can't get his white shirts—perhaps on his mind because of the white-clothed GR—from the cleaners.
But then the ATFEC agent calls him with an offer to "just eliminate the infestation." Kevin is stunned into silence by the offer—is he horrified? considering the agent's proposal?—but ultimately turns him down. Perhaps it's that realization that the only way to restore a sense of normalcy to the town would be to do something that terrible—and that in other downs, cults like the Guilty Remnant are being wiped out without a thought—that drives Kevin over the edge. He gets drunk and goes to the store to buy more beer. He harasses his dry cleaner into giving him white shirts. He drinks and drives.
And, while he gets an "I love you" from his daughter at the end of the night, Kevin breaks down weeping. He can't restore his marriage. He can't keep his town safe. He can't figure out how to move forward in this new world.
So Gladys finds herself anonymous and ready to be forgotten by the end of the episode, her body sent to a federal facility and cremated. All the evidence of the brutality that found her at the beginning of the episode is simply photographed and then turned to ash. It's a final reminder that there will be no justice for Gladys—and also that she's no longer around to care.