On April 23 of last year, I tweeted: “I wish you could get a yearly exorcism where all your like worst insecurities and petty jealousies got pulled out of you.” I was imagining some supernatural way to treat fear, some mystical way to conveniently get rid of all those self-destructive insecurities that keep you from being the best person you can be.
Then, over winter break, I started watching “The Leftovers,” and I found it.
In the eighth episode of the second season, Kevin Garvey takes a trip through the afterlife, represented in the series as a hotel. He is told that in this realm, he is an international assassin, tasked with killing a presidential candidate. The candidate is Patti Levin, the same woman whose ghost has haunted Kevin throughout the season, forcing him to confront his complicity in her death and in the dissolution of his own family. Perhaps if Kevin can track down and kill Patti in this purgatory, he will find some sense of closure, some acceptance of how his life has been derailed.
The question, then, is how much of this is real. Is this realm he inhabits really the afterlife? Does everybody experience purgatory as a hotel? Is the Patti we see — in all three forms, whether as a presidential candidate, an innocent little girl or the cult leader we know — really Patti, or has she solely been a hallucination representing Kevin’s deepest fears throughout the season?
One of the biggest strengths of “The Leftovers” (or one of its biggest weaknesses, depending on who you ask) is how much these answers are left ambiguous. The answer is sometimes both; yes, by drowning Patti in the afterlife, Kevin may be setting her actual spirit free, but it means just as much for his personal character development that he is willing to cross that line and kill her.
What if we all had these glimpses of the afterlife? What if you could poison yourself like Kevin did, take a journey through a hotel of your demons and come back alive rejuvenated and convicted? What if you could reduce each of your insecurities to a physical being, and by drowning them, exorcise them?
To be clear, “The Leftovers” doesn’t represent this option as a simple cure-all. The third and final season, which airs in April, will surely present many more obstacles standing in the way of Kevin’s happy ending. The specter of Patti was just one of many personal struggles he has experienced over the course of the series. But there’s still something about the idea that seems beautiful and simple.
Maybe it’s my relative stage in life that makes this fantasy so appealing. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m graduating soon, being thrown out into a world where friends aren’t a built-in guarantee, where my day lacks the structure that classes and a part-time library job provide. In this final semester, instead of finding myself liberated by the abundance of free time, I sometimes find myself weirdly constrained by it. I have the sense that I’m at a standstill, waiting for something exciting to happen. I should be enjoying the lack of obligations, but new stressors are quick to replace the old, providing an ample supply of residual teenage angst in the final months before I enter the “real world.” Sometimes, all I want is to enter a terrifying place, deal with everything that haunts me and then resume life.
Imagine it: You wake up in a hotel room you don’t recognize, with a vaguely familiar guy standing over you, smirking and saying things like, “Your writing will never be good enough” and “How do you expect to make it in the real world when you still have to Google simple household chores?” You push him out the window with a satisfying explosion of glass, watch him tumble to his death and feel yourself stop worrying about those things.
You hear a knock at the door and open it to find a parade of people marching in. After you wake up from this dream, you won’t be able to remember anything about their appearances except that they looked like amalgamations of everyone who ever hurt you, anyone who contributed to your deepest insecurities. There was the girl who looked like seemingly every girl you’d ever had romantic feelings for, telling you she didn’t feel the same way. There was the guy who looked like some ridiculous, stereotypical masculine ideal, all muscles and crooked smiles, with a saunter that seemed so effortless and attractive.
And all of these imaginary figures you vanquished, with the gallant swing of a sword or the flick of a lighter. You watched their imaginary visages crumble like rock or melt like paper. It didn’t feel violent or cruel, because they weren’t real. They were the worst parts of you, the parts you wanted to move past.
And then the world around you dissolved before your eyes, disappearing into blackness. Your eyes opened, expecting the cold white interior of the hotel room, but instead there was the warm glow of your bedside lamp and the Christmas lights strung across your ceiling. The heaped clothes on the chair, the leaning towers of books, the hum of the old mini-fridge — it was home.
You stood up, went upstairs, took a shower. As the warm water ran over your shoulders, you thought about what you would do that day. You stepped out of the shower, wiped the condensation from the mirror and looked at yourself, bony chest and bags under your eyes and hair too long or too short or too flat. And you didn’t see anything wrong this time.