The Leftovers (2014) is a show obsessed with religion, without being religious. Few characters seem to believe in God, but everyone wants to believe in something. The first season, and its source novel of the same name, are often seen as 9/11 allegories, examining the repercussions of a communal tragedy and the struggles of the people remaining when their loved ones unexpectedly disappear. Author Tom Perrotta has called the novel more of a “midlife book,” about reaching the point in your life where a number of people you’ve known have died, and you’re still around.
More than anything,The Leftovers is a character study of people existing after the disappearance of those they care about. 2% of the world’s population have vanished, in the same second, without a trace. It’s worse than typical death; it’s a cataclysmic rapture which, to many, signifies the beginning of the end. There are no bodies to bury, no closure. It’s a word filled with hurt and mourning that can’t stop.
During an interview with the New York Times, Perrotta and writer Gregory Cowles explain that The Rapture in The Leftovers isn’t meant to be the Christian Rapture at all — certainly not in the tradition of the hugely popular Left Behind novels, which struck Mr. Perrotta as lacking nuance and grief. “It’s all very purposeful and clear, and that’s, to me, the function of apocalyptic theology,” he says. “But my book is like the agnostic’s apocalypse. Even though I like using the word ‘Rapture’ because it makes it clear what happened, I also want to disconnect it from its religious context. I was interested in borrowing this scenario to think about collective trauma and grief and the speed of history.”
Still, the way many people grieve is through religion. The Leftovers couples that tendency with people’s natural desire to believe in something in the wake of inexplicable tragedy, observing also how that faith can transform into fanaticism. The show presents two major entities with religious charge in its first season: Holy Wayne and the Guilty Remnant.
Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) is a fellow who established a following by claiming to have the ability to “take away” people’s pain. He has prophetic visions of the past, and people can pay him to be embraced with a hug, the result of which subsequently strips them of all the suffering they’ve endured since the departure. They walk away with a feeling of closure and relief that they were never able to find before.
Wayne tasks Tom Garvey (Chris Zylka) with watching over Christine (Annie Q.), saying she was “the one.” Pregnant with Wayne’s child, Christine’s baby was supposed to be something special. Tom was to ensure nothing bad came of her, regardless of Wayne’s own fate.
It’s clear that Wayne genuinely believes he’s holy, just as people who pay for his embrace believe they feel better afterward. It’s likely just the placebo effect of a smooth, hypnotic talker who helps people leave behind what they’ve been unable to cope with, but somehow Wayne's offering got people following.
After Wayne's death, Tom eventually finds out that Christine is only one of many girls whom Wayne impregnated and referred to as “the one,” slashing his faith in Wayne and their collective. People followed Wayne under the guise of peace and forgiveness but ultimately only received a fraudulent hole in which to bury their sorrows.
Meanwhile, the Guilty Remnant is one of the more prominent faces of The Leftovers and a group around which much of the central story is focused. This is largely due to central character Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)'s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) being a member. The Guilty Remnant is one of many cults that were created in the wake of the sudden departure. They dress in white, chain smoke, and don’t speak, hoping to serve as “constant reminders” of the people who disappeared. They don’t believe it’s something people should be allowed to deal with, instead feeling the day served as the end of civilization. They smoke as a means of identifying the pointlessness of still surviving and think of themselves as emblems of God’s power. They don’t expect to be around long and claim to be ready to face whatever God brings them.
Their wardrobe and behavior are typical cult stuff -- a means of reinforcing control over the group. When the series opens, the GR are billing their organization as one of peaceful protest. They show up with signs and stand around in people’s lawns looking like ghosts, but they don’t actually interfere with anyone.
Kevin serves as a natural friend and foe to the organization. He hates them because they recruited his wife away from him, but he somewhat sympathizes with their plight, as he, too, feels like a lost and pointless soul. The GR leader, Patti (Ann Dowd), serves as one of his main antagonists.
About the GR and Kevin, Dowd told TV Guide, “Patty recognizes that Kevin is ready to make the shift. This chaos that's unraveling him internally to Patty is a good thing. That's the beginning. He's trying to do the right thing. He's trying to keep the peace, and, therefore, he is the enemy of the Guilty Remnant because he is allowing the people who are living in denial to continue that way of life. And he's also protecting the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant does not want or need his protection, and that's why they're at odds. He believes in supporting life as we knew it, that's the way to move forward. But that's not what Patti wants.”
Asked if Patti is trying to break down Kevin, Dowd answers, “They're natural enemies and therefore they're natural lovers. In the depths of that fight, [there is] intimacy, and when there is intimacy, there's a chance for the truth between two people. That's what happens. I think she's saying to him exactly what she believes: 'Let go. Commit to what you already know is inevitable.' And of course he hates that.”
As Patti’s relationship with Kevin moves forward, and as the public’s response to the GR’s presence increases in hostility, their cult responds with violence and psychological torment. They break into people’s houses at night to steal their family photos, believing those left behind shouldn’t be able to find peace in the faces of those who vanished. They then recruit a company to produce lifelike replicas of the departed population and slip them into homes, allowing families to find their lost family members back where they were in the moment of disappearance. Thus, faith transforms into fanaticism.
The Leftovers portrays both Wayne and the Guilty Remnant as villains in the end but doesn’t show contempt for the credulity of the people following them. There’s an understanding that people need an idol, need a community, need a structure. Some turn to those around them. Many turn to religion. Both groups represent new religions established in a world where all the old laws have been broken and where chaos is the norm. They’re the extreme edges of faith made commonplace, which is an accessible concept in the world of The Leftovers.