The Leftovers is woefully underwatched. On the one hand, that's not too surprising, given the fact that it's a relentlessly depressing show that began its first episode this season with an extended vignette that had nothing directly to do with its plot, featuring a prehistoric woman who watches as her family as crushed by a cave-in, gives birth to a baby on her own, and then dies of a snakebite while protecting her newborn child.
In what comes, there will be spoilers. Be warned!
If you are not familiar with The Leftovers, here is a recap of its basic premise: The whole show takes place in the aftermath of an "rapture-like" event, in which a substantial proportion of the world's population suddenly disappeared. In the context of the show, it's make clear that this isn't the "Rapture" per se, but an event with some similarities to the idea. All sorts of people have disappeared, and nobody is able to come up with a good reason as to why.
The first season of the series tracked Tom Perrotta's novel pretty closely. It included such things as a man named Holy Wayne who claimed to be able to overcome peoples' grief through the power of his hugs, an Episcopal priest who spent his days trying to prove that the "departed" (those who disappeared) where actually morally horrible people in order to show that whatever had happened it wasn't the Rapture, and a white-clad cult of mute smokers called "The Guilty Remnant" who believed that the world ended the day everyone disappeared, and who recruited their members by silently stalking them and conspicuously smoking in their presence. It was -- undeniably and inescapably -- weird and depressing. Yet it was also engrossing, offering a picture of a world very much like ours, but attempting to recover from an undeniable trauma.
The second season has necessarily departed from its source material. The main action has taken place in the town of Jardin, Texas, where nobody disappeared on the fateful day, and which viewed itself as blessed because of that. Kevin Garvey, the protagonist (as much as there is one) from the first season, has moved there with his girlfriend Nora, his daughter, and the daughter of Holy Wayne, who came to them through a convoluted set of circumstances involving Kevin's step-s0n. There they meet the Murphy family, their new next door neighbors, who have twin children who were actually born months apart. Meanwhile, Kevin's ex-wife, a former Guilty Remnant member, and his half-brother, have dedicated themselves to destroying the cult. Nora's brother Matt has also relocated to Jardin, with his comatose wife, who he insists woke from her coma on their first night in the town, and is now pregnant.
If this sounds like an enormous amount of plot, rest assured, it is. Yet the show has so skillfully developed these characters and their situations, that it makes for compelling television.
During season 1, Kevin witnessed the suicide of the leader of the Guilty Remnant, Patty, after he had kidnapped her and then attempted to let her go. In season 2, he has been haunted by what, to all appearances has been her verbose and incredibly obnoxious ghost. Over the course of the season, he becomes increasingly distracted and distraught, and after confessing his situation to Nora, she leaves him. Desperate to fix his life, he pursues a radical solution, going to Virgil, who is related to the Murphy's, and taking a poison that Virgil insists will allow him to cross over and confront Patty in the nether realm, and defeat her there.
There is an enormous amount of symbolism embedded in these actions, not least of which is that Virgil, who becomes Kevin's guide in his journey to the nether realm, has the same name as Dante's guide to the afterlife in The Divine Comedy.
What I found most striking about the Christ-imagery in "International Assassin" though was the way in which it was a departure to the usual "sacrificial atonement" motif in most of popular culture. In fact, The Leftovers itself has played with that idea -- that someone takes a punishment intended for someone else -- just this season, when Nora's brother Matt leaves the purportedly "safe" enclave of Jardin to live among the denizens of a camp outside of town, constituted mostly by strange and unseemly characters trying to gain entrance to Jardin. At one point, Matt comes across a naked man imprisoned in a stocks. "Do you want to free him?" asks a woman nearby. "Yes," answers Matt. "Then take his place," she responds. He walks away, but later returns and does exactly that, and in the process, gains the trust of the camp-dwellers, as he puts it, by "refusing to let anyone take my place." Matt the minister has found new flock to pastor through his sacrificial act.
This, however, is not the Christ-imagery of "International Assassin." Far from taking a punishment on someone else's behalf, Kevin's road to resurrection involves him confronting the ghost of Patty and defeating her. In the context of the strange dream-logic of the nether world, this means that he has to kill her. This proves far more difficult than he had realized however, as Patty has disguised herself as a little girl, and Kevin has to throw her down a well to finally rid himself of her. Even then, he eventually has to descend into the well along with her, and drown her with his bare hands. Only then does he find himself resurrected, as he emerges from the ground (after, I assume, three days), and in some mysterious way "changed."
It's unsavory to associate this story with the Christ narrative, but actually it echoes one of the oldest explanations of how Christ's sacrificial death is salvlific, the so-called Christus Victor model. This model of the atonement was popularized in the 20th century by Gustav Aulen, whose book of that name give modern form to the idea, but it goes back to the earliest of the Church Fathers.
Here, for example, is how Origen expresses it at one point:
"He [Christ] disarmed the principalities and powers
and made a public example of them,
triumping over them in it [the cross]."
It's expressed differently depending on who you read, and the precise nature of triumph differs from writer to writer, as is the question of who is defeated, but the basic idea remains the same: Christ atones for human sin by a victory over death. What we see in "International Assassin" is a literalizing of the conflict, by pitting Kevin as the Christ-figure against Patty the Satan-figure, and his killing of her as the victory through which he triumphs over death itself.
What's striking about this presentation is the way in which the show is willing to depart from the usual, and quite overused, conception of sacrificial atonement in order to embrace a different, and arguably controversial, atonement theory -- that death is an enemy that is to be defeated, and that salvation comes through a confrontation with evil through which death is overcome. Fond as I am (at times) of the sacrificial atonement model (though I would reframe it more in the vein of solidarity and incarnation), the use of this alternative offers a different shade of meaning to the nature of atonement, and reveals that The Leftovers has got a lot more going on theologically than it might otherwise appear. From the beginning, the show has necessarily embraced an exploration of religious themes, and it is particularly remarkable for portraying a conflicted yet sympathetic minister in the character of Matt. The Leftovers is not an easy show, but it is rewarding, and well worth the time spent exploring its themes.