Symbolic Dissolution in HBO’s The Leftovers [Spoilers through Season 1 Episode 4]

Although we can simply describe The Leftovers as a show about an event that, by all accounts, looks like the rapture, I’d like to pare away the layers of fiction and metaphor for a moment and deal with the story as a narrative about mass trauma and its effects on a population. In spite of the supernatural occurrence upon which the show is predicated, individual scenes and happenings are delivered in decidedly ambiguous ways, leaving the viewer to determine for him or herself what is and is not otherworldly or God-sent. Additionally, and in spite of the religious undertones and the potentially religious explanation for “the event,” *The Leftovers* is telling a story about a potential future history with the plausibility of great science fiction and, as such, I base much of this post on Ursula K. Leguin’s famous maxim that, “SF isn’t prescriptive; it’s descriptive.” That is, it doesn’t suggest, necessarily, what *will be,* but rather what is, and allegorizes the conditions of the present through the lens of a speculative, extrapolated future setting.

Episode 4 opens with a How It’s Made style montage of a common child’s toy doll that is eventually purchased by one of the townspeople, stripped of its pre-packaged clothing, adorned in a gold cloth and set in a manger as the centerpiece of the Nativity scene in the town square. Soon after, the “Baby Jesus” is stolen from the display which precipitates a nearly comical chain of events that forces Chief Garvey to find what he, at first, considers nothing more than a missing doll. During a conversation at breakfast with his daughter, Jill, and her constant companion, Aimee, the chief dismissively suggests that it would be a waste of resources to look for such a common object and that they could just “buy a new one,” to which Jill replies, with an increasingly intuitive sense of truthful irony, “That would be cheating.”

It’s truthful, and it’s the center point of both the episode and much of the show. This commonplace doll—mass produced, symbolic of the white, American, blue-eyed baby, nothing more than cloth, plastic and rubber pulled from a factory mold—is not, in fact, the actual Baby Jesus. It’s not even a remotely accurate representation of what the actual Jesus might have looked like. It’s a representation of a baby, but that is where any accurate symbolism stops. It’s a symbol of the Baby Jesus borrowed from a mass-produced symbol of a baby that we recognize as looking “enough” like a baby to then represent the Baby Jesus in the object of a Nativity Scene. Replacing it should be, as the Chief suggests, as easy as going to the store and buying another one. He might have been agreeable to seeing his solution through to the end until the mayor, in another comically ironic twist, cannot get someone to go pick up another doll she describes as “a fucking white one,” and sends the Chief of police on an errand to the department store to get it himself. But while there, with the toy in his hand, he hesitates, perhaps the result of pride (he’d rather find the one that went missing—he is the chief of police, after all), but perhaps it was because of what his daughter, who actually stole the item, said to him at breakfast. It’s cheating to just go buy another. But why? Why does it matter at all which bundle of fabric, plastic, and rubber inhabits the manger?

The simple answer, and the one staring every character in the face, is that the doll holds symbolic meaning to the town. It is *their* baby Jesus, and this is important for every scene that follows. For any collective of human beings to adhere to a social order, they must all adhere to a set of commonly accepted symbols. The doll has no innate meaning, but the human agents that collectively understand and embrace the notion of celebrating Christmas (another human construct held together symbolically and passed on from one person to another over time) orbit their collective symbols. The name of that orbit changes according to the nature of the symbolic center points. A community recognizes and responds to its civic order—from titles of bureaucracy like “mayor” and “police chief,” to the more obvious physical references to order like road signs. A community also recognizes celebratory symbols like days of remembrance for major cultural traumas, like holidays, like Nativity Scenes. Without that symbolic order, there is no center point around which people can collectively orbit and unilaterally understand one another’s actions.

If the public symbols that make up the intellectual, spiritual, and collective identity of the community lose their meaning, what happens to the notion of community? The show provides an even closer look at the dissolution of the signifier at the level of family. If a community is a public agreement between unrelated people, reinforced by symbols unique to that place and population, then the family is a symbolic gesture toward a more localized center point. At one point, Laurie (whose wonderfully understated performance illustrates the struggle between resigning to the complete dissolution of the symbolic order and hanging on to what was once meaningful) shows up to the Chief’s house with her initiate, who reads her statement about what a wonderful husband and father Kevin was, and how he took another man’s wreckage and reconfigured it into a family, but finally asks for a divorce. Kevin refuses, he screams, he *hangs on* to their symbolic union, and demands that she break her vow of silence to tell him directly what she wants. His anger with her is over her abandonment of their family, their union, their life. What was meaningful to their relationship seems to no longer be meaningful to her (The ultimate death knell of any relationship is when the symbols of the union no longer hold meaning to one of the parties—they are merely “going through the motions.”) But, where the viewer’s distrust and agitation at the guilty remnant sides here with Kevin, the viewer has been shown a scene of the preacher fantasizing about sleeping with Laurie and Kevin sleeping with another woman at the time of the departure. The symbolic order of marriage, at the time of the departure, had already lost its power to hold their fidelity in orbit around itself. They circled their vows in body only; their spirits had already begun to look elsewhere. Like the community more largely, the center lost its hold, and people began to disperse.

So what, from the perspective of this symbolic slippage, is the Guilty Remnant? One gets the sense that they are some opportunistic cult that may or may not have taken the former family home of the Garvey’s (The Chief lives in his father’s house now) as their base of operations. To them, it’s just a structure composed of building materials. They observe as the symbolic order of the community loses its force, and as the people left over from the departure continue their now centerless orbit, they target those who recognize the meaninglessness of that dance. Father Jameson was able to investigate the personal lives of those departed, why shouldn’t Patti and her ilk be able to deduce who might be struggling with the loss of their own symbolic meanings. Meg was holding off on marriage, knowing that it was an empty gesture if she wasn’t in love with her fiancé. It’s a short step, in a world reeling from an inexplicable mass trauma, from losing the inertia of interpersonal love and all the secret symbology it offers, to realizing that perhaps the whole symbolic order is a farce without meaning.

The GR dress in white, smoke with meaning, and remain forever silent. In a world where meaning is constructed by language (verbal, image, or other shared expression), they choose to no longer engage in conversation. They will not contribute to an empire of signs that, by simply speaking, they reinforce (from their perspective an utterly futile reinforcement). They wear clothes that offer no expression, that in fact remain symbolically neutral. And they smoke. What better symbol of the world that is dissolving than a product that creates the problem it solves as it destroys its user. Maybe this is a condemnation of consumer culture, predicated on free enterprise and the free exchange of goods and services but transforming into a culture that creates problems to sell its solutions. The GR would ironically inhale nothing but the smoke from that dying empire of empty meanings than breath fresh air. There is a logic in their actions that is undeniable. My personal irritation with the GR is not that they are being honest and probably accurate in sneaking into people’s houses at Christmas like so many Santa Clauses (another empty symbol that has barely any meaning outside of a department store) to replace the agreed-upon symbols of the family—photos on the mantle and the walls—with black paper. It’s that, unlike Kevin Garvey, they have simply given up and resigned themselves to the fate of the Apocalypse. They have given into the notion of a meaningless empire of signs that continues to dissolve, and replaced it with nothingness. As much as this is a story of the time just before the Biblical Apocalypse (a myth that accompanies nearly every religion), I admit that I simply *like* the idea of Ragnorak, and showing up ready to fight, knowing full-well that you are going to lose.

And Kevin does, in spite of the fact that he knows he had already failed his marriage. He continues to “go through the motions” of his symbolic orbit even as that orbit wobbles from its perfect path and his mind becomes seemingly less trustworthy. As an agent of the ancient symbolic order of The Law, he begins to make personal decisions in his official capacity like arresting the GR after his entrapment didn’t work and they remained 15 feet from school property. The moment he stands in front of Tommy’s pegboard and notices the image of father and son, a symbol of fatherhood is telling. Behind that symbol is an image of Laurie, which he gazes at longingly, only to unfold that image to find the untarnished image of Tommy’s biological father. One layer, Kevin’s noble duty as a father, the next, the symbol of why he did and continues to do it, and the last, another symbol suggesting that the first two, in spite of his efforts with Tommy, were always in vain. This foreshadows a potentially great redemption for everyone, or another gut-wrenching slide toward total societal annihilation.

Should Tommy who, during the post departure has found himself in the orbit of a cult of personality, and who revealingly articulates to another agent of the law in the elevator the truthful “because my father abandoned me” (a wonderful play on words—an excuse, a truth about his dad, and perhaps a characteristic of the religion he poses under, i.e. “God the father has abandoned me”) call on Kevin as the true father figure in his life, will he respond? If he does, then Kevin acts in the show as the answer to this existential crisis—that we are what we consciously and freely decide to do and respond to in accordance with our best personal attributes. If he does not, then temporary personal slights, human frailty, and wounded pride win the day and the symbolic order continues to crumble unfettered and without redemption.

The question remains, however, why does any of this resonate with us at all? The show, much like the Camus novel it references early on, is incredibly cerebral, and its characters are difficult to empathize with. It’s philosophical yet visceral, but we gain empathy for these characters slowly. Yet, the show persists to draw attention and wound us in strange ways. I think that the most challenging aspect of the show is what Le Guin suggested of great SF. I think that we recognize the failures and challenges of these characters, not because we can imagine a future in a post rapture society, but because, to a large degree, we can see a truth about our own world through the lens of the show. In this episode, we recognize the futile struggle to maintain even the idea of Christmas—a holiday whose references only barely link back to the person after whom it was named. It is a time to fuel the economy through purchasing power. In this way, the youth in the show, who seem to be the most disconnected from the history of which they are part, offer the solution: make your symbols count. Don’t use grandpa’s Christmas tree decorations because they are available. Use the ones that matter to you and your family. Make the gifts you give count symbolically as well. Where the GR see the dissolution of the symbolic order as something to which they should resign and about which they should withdraw, the regeneration of society is in the peculiar earnestness of its youth.

America has some noble attributes, and our standard of living is above third world countries, but its greatest strength has always been in the story it told itself about who it was. Its symbolic order, via Hollywood and the media more largely, as well as its consumer base and the access its citizens have to all kinds of useful but mostly useless goods is a construct that has been running amok for decades. It is an exportable culture that we use to decimate and replace other cultures, and one that we continually sell ourselves as “real.” But, I contend that since 9-11 in particular, followed by the Iraq War, countless corporate scandals (Enron, Gulf Oil Spill, etc.), shady politics, the revelations of the NSA, the deregulation of the banking industry and the subsequent housing market catastrophe, the destruction of the Middle Class, and the unlimited rebuttals to the notion of the “American Dream,” the symbolic order designed to maintain our cultural and national identity has lost much of its pull. We live in a deeply fractured society wherein these global events occur and nobody on “Main Street” has any access to the answers as to “why,” or even a satisfying “what happened.” Like Camus’ *The Stranger* was an allegory of the meaninglessness of the symbolic order of his times, *The Leftovers* provides a pitch-black cultural critique of an empire in decline and its people left stranded by society wide trauma they can scarcely comprehend and over which nobody is in control. The viewer can only determine that every choice has significance, that the order must be made based on common dreams, love, and new symbols for individuality, family, and community, reason, and the future. Anything short of this, and we might as well get ready to see how the apocalypse begins.

For more, please visit HBO’s website,, where I posted some thoughts after episode 5. You can find it here:


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