Sunday, May 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Leftovers' - Kevin Returns to an Old Job in 'The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)'

HBO's The Leftovers - Episode 3.07 "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)"

On a mission of mercy, Kevin assumes an alternate identity.

"International Assassin" is a classic episode of television. The second season of The Leftovers was already a strong season of the show. But that particular episode elevated it to one of the all time greats. It was just so audacious, surprising, startling and bold. The creativity was turned up a notch. The creative team had a lot of fun in completely imagining this entirely new world that Kevin travels to after he dies. He goes on this incredible adventure as an international assassin. It's a mission with a purpose. He is trying to get Patti out of his head. He believes something more supernatural is going on. And thus, this is the proper way to treat his psychosis. It worked and produced a stunning hour of television. It would seem like a recipe for disaster for The Leftovers to do a sequel episode to "International Assassin" where Kevin once again travels to that world. It worked so perfectly the first time because of the surprise and the shock. The visuals were as powerful as they were because they were so completely unexpected. And yet, this final season of the show has somehow been better. That seems impossible but it truly is what's happened this year. The show has justified a return trip to this world between life and death for Kevin Garvey. It does more than enough to have a completely new adventure and a new meaning for all of it as well. So, it leads to another hour that is as stunning as it is profound and meaningful.

A savior complex has been thrusted onto Kevin this season. It all started when Matt wrote that book about him that likened him to the protagonists of Scripture. His story was just too important for it to go unpublished. Matt had his own god complex going on as well. He believed all of this had to have some greater meaning in the grand scheme of things. Miracle, Texas was saved from the Sudden Departure for a reason. Kevin Garvey cannot die in that place and instead goes on these grand adventures as an international assassin. It was all very miraculous. And so the story spread. People believed it to be true because they needed to believe in something more. They needed meaning in a world that has none. The world following the Sudden Departure is empty and desolate. Things only started looking up once people heard of these incredible stories. They were glimmers of hope in a world that seemed to end on October 14 seven years ago. They believed that something big was going to happen on the anniversary because they needed something to focus their attention on. If something happened, it meant that something religious or spiritual really was behind the Sudden Departure. If not, it would only confirm the pointlessness of it all. So leading up to that event, these characters desperately needed to believe in all of this. Otherwise, they would just be crazy people who don't see the world for what it is.

And so, everyone is asking something of Kevin Garvey. Laurie wanted to know if he was scared to face death once again. John wants Evie to know that she was loved. Grace wants an answer to the one mystery she still has about her children's deaths. And Kevin Sr. wants the final portion of the song that will help him stop the great flood coming on the anniversary. For all of these people, Kevin is a beacon of hope. A way to communicate with the dead in a way that actually means something. He can provide answers and closure in a way that no one else can. It's important that he ultimately does do what they ask of him too. That's been a consistent detail of Kevin's life. He is a people pleaser. He is willing to tolerate something he doesn't like if it makes someone else happy. His personal happiness has always been a whole lot murkier. He's never really been happy with his life. But then, he's always been running away from it as well. So here, he does seek out answers. What he gets are the dead putting on a performance in this new world of politics. And yet, their reactions are still very telling for their individual stories. Evie's "Are you fucking kidding me?" is an appropriate response to John's need for her to know she was loved. If she felt that way, she probably wouldn't have done what she did. Grace's son Liam saying "Why does it matter?" to where his shoes are shows that she has chosen to fixate on the one small detail she can't understand. Meanwhile, Christopher Sunday gives Kevin the same thing he gave his father. There is no song to stop the rain. It's coming no matter what and we just have to accept that. Kevin did all of this for the people around him but he sugarcoats it when he returns to them as well. He doesn't speak as frankly to them as their loved ones did to him.

Kevin went into this world on a mission to gather all of this information for his friends at Grace's ranch. But that's not really the focus of this episode. Instead, it's all about why Kevin wants to return to this world. It means he has to risk dying once again. He does it all for a completely new adventure. He is still an international assassin. But he's not in the same hotel he was in before. He's in Australia. And this time he's playing two people and jumping back-and-forth between them. It's a pretty cool and interesting premise for this episode. The international assassin is tasked with killing the President of the United States before he can fire nuclear missiles and end the world. Meanwhile, the President is a member of the Guilty Remnant simply giving the people what they want in regards to something big happening on the anniversary of the Sudden Departure. It's fun and stunning to watch. It features one of the most outrageous and hilarious bits this show has ever produced in these two characters needing to submit to a penis scan in order to enter the secure bunker. That's just completely ridiculous but delightful to watch. The back-and-forth is also compelling. These two characters have conflicting agendas. Kevin is slowly just putting the pieces together from both perspectives. But they aren't actually antagonistic to each other. In fact, it's only once they sat down that they finally get the clarity they've been searching for from this whole experience.

Above all else, Kevin wants to return to this world. Earlier this season when he was wrapping the plastic bag around his head, he wanted to die. He didn't actually say that nor did he ever go through with it, but it was want he wanted. He wanted to return to the hotel because he was happy and in control there. In his real life, he's terrified. And thus, he is frequently running away from his problems and the happiness he has found. He was just as suicidal now as when Patti was in his head. Michael is the only person who sees this self-destructive quality in Kevin. The rest of the group is willing to place all of this burden on Kevin and risk killing him if it means they get what they want. Meanwhile, Michael sees that this is something that Kevin is actively seeking out. He wants to go on this adventure. He wants to be the man at the center of attention. He wants to be the President and the International Assassin. He is going to be the savior of the entire world. He is pulled from this world and immediately thinks of how he can go back in. He always finds a way out. That's incredibly lucky of him. He survives this entire ordeal. But this behavior is only getting more and more reckless and dangerous. He's going to die and it will all be for nothing.

Kevin doesn't care about any of that. It's Patti of all people who gets him to see things differently. It's never abundantly clear if the dead characters in this world are truly aware of what's actually going on with Kevin. It seems like they are just playing their roles and have no knowledge of the world that Kevin is from. They don't know that he's jumping from person to person. The voice of God has knowledge of Kevin's former experiences in this world. Again, it gives power to all of this being connected through some kind of spiritual rationalization. But Kevin is willing to completely go against God as well. God is the leader of the mission to kill the President. He's doing so in order to ensure this world survives for Kevin to return to for even more adventures in the future. The end of the world doesn't seem like the sensible option at first. It seems like Patti once more trying to be as destructive as possible because the world already ended all those years ago. But she gets the two Kevins to see the massive mistake they made in life. He would rather be in this world than in the real one fighting for Nora. This hour opens with the two of them as a happy couple discussing the serious topic of death. It's something they could joke about during the early days of their relationship. Now, Nora is seemingly gone for good. Kevin doesn't even know that Laurie left her on the hill wanting to go into the machine from the physicists. He has no knowledge of that. He's too terrified of Nora and her pain to even try to understand what's going on. He comes to that realization in the end. It's very profound and moving. He's willing to kill himself just in order to get back to that happiness he had with Nora. It may ultimately be too late. The world doesn't end on the anniversary. But the question of what comes next for these characters is a mystery that will reverberate just as much now as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Sudden Departure.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)" was written by Nick Cuse & Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel.
  • The music that plays over the opening credits this week is actually the orchestration that accompanied the credits from the first season. Those credits really didn't do a great job at defining what type of show it actually was. The new version was much more effective. But using the old music definitely sets the tone that this hour is going to be very grandiose and life-changing. 
  • The story of a president trying to start a war because of a false story created for nefarious reasons is much more topical today than the creative team probably thought when they first crafted it in the first place.
  • Only dead people appear in this world that Kevin travels to. As such, I wondered if we would see characters there whose fates were left in limbo. Would Laurie appear? That would confirm that she did commit suicide last week. Would Nora appear? That would confirm that the machine isn't sending people to their loved ones who departed. And yet, neither of them showed up. It was still only about people the audience knows are actually dead.
  • It's still disappointing that Liv Tyler's Meg was taken out of the main story early in the season. It made sense that the government would launch that drone strike. It just took out a great performance. So, it was nice to see her show up here - even though Kevin ultimately kills her because of her connection to God.
  • It's also fun to watch as Kevin wonders if the God in his ear truly is God if he doesn't know what he just did to Meg. An all-seeing and all-powerful God would know what happened long before it did. But this version just seems too self-serving and mysterious. That's a ton of fun too.
  • Kevin did all of this because his father believed he needed to save the world from the impending flood. It was a story he told himself that he believed with more and more conviction the closer to the anniversary it became. And yet, it's significant that Kevin admits that he doesn't believe his father can actually do this. They share a good bonding scene before Kevin drowns and after he wakes up again. But on this journey, it's all about Kevin and not doing what's best for his father.
  • The question now seemingly becomes: Will Kevin be able to get back to Nora? The way that they left things in "G'Day Melbourne" made that seem impossible. They both said things that they could never take back. And yet, Kevin is now going to be chasing after her. Meanwhile, the audience knows that Nora survives. That sequence of her as an older woman in Australia from the premiere has to have meaning eventually.