Bleakest show on television The Leftovers quietly and expertly pushes the limits of portraying human desperation and misery, but Sunday night’s episode hit a new high (low?) for harrowing storylines. While doing so, it cleared away its characteristic ambiguities to make a clear narrative about consent.
In “No Room at the Inn,” ex-reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is convinced that moving to Miracle, Texas—the tiny town in which zero citizens departed—has temporarily healed his wife Mary, who was paralyzed in a car accident the day of the Departure, and has been comatose ever since. Jamison insists, though, that their first night living in Miracle, Mary woke up for three hours, during which they caught up, talked, and had sex—after which she reverted back to her comatose state. Retelling his story to his sister Nora Durst, it all seems true, for he has the vehemence and happy serenity of a true believer—reflecting his Christian faith.
Yet he’s desperately lonely without her, even as he dutifully bathes her, brushes her teeth, and lotions her hands every day, telling her he loves her every night before bed, her stare as unregistering as ever. In an act of hope, he takes her to a specialist outside of town for a brain scan to see if there’s any new activity. During the procedure, he discovers that she’s pregnant.
Upon learning this, various characters in the episode are appalled—the clinic administrator, for one, who tells Matt that the MRI technician did not administer a pregnancy test beforehand “because your wife is not capable of giving consent. And if she is not capable of giving her consent for a test, she cannot give her consent for anything.” Matt, overcome with crazed joy at the news, says, “She was awake. She was awake. I would never do that,” a dumb, oblivious grin on his face. The administrator: “Of course you wouldn’t. Just like you wouldn’t want to have to say that under oath if you didn’t have to.”
Because The Leftovers is essentially an existentialist sci fi show, through this episode it’s been feasible that Miracle’s supposed protective properties made Mary wake up. It’s not just a show in which two percent of the world’s population simultaneously vanished without a trace; it’s one where charlatans can heal pain with a hug, visionaries can tell your future in a palm print, and the main character, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), has spent the entire season dodging the apparition/ghost? of Patti, the vengeful cult leader who committed suicide in front of him in Season 1.
Yet we never saw Mary wake up, and Matt is historically a character of dubious trustworthiness. Every time another Miracle resident brings up Mary’s ability to give consent—or lack thereof—it casts further aspersions on the story he believes so fervently. When she wakes up briefly during the episode, only Matt sees her, and only then after suffering a head wound. As the story unfolds, we’re asked to both empathize with Matt desperation, determination, and love for Mary (and now, the baby) at the same time as feeling appalled by the encroaching notion that maybe she didn’t wake up for three hours after landing in Miracle. Maybe Matt really did rape his wife, a woman living a “persistent vegetative state” since the Departure.
The ending seems to point towards an answer, though of course it’s one mired in ambiguity. Stuck outside Miracle in the dystopian camps of hopeful future residents (most of whom seem to be junkies, sadists, and various stripes of maniac), he sends Mary to live with Nora and Kevin and gives himself up as an offering. Atop a taco truck, he’s strapped into a stockade carved with the word “REPENT” while Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With” plays jovially in the background. (“God can be funny,” she sings in a spritely voice, underscoring the episode’s questions of blind faith.)
It’s a horribly depressing episode, but it’s excellent in that it initially frames Matt as the protagonist—loving husband dedicating his whole life to caring for his wife in a coma—and then challenges us to adjust that framing. It challenges us to believe the woman—who cannot speak out herself, but who is defended by proxy—over the man. And to believe the woman even over what we’ve been told is divine intervention. To believe the woman over “God.”
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Image via HBO PR.