May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 16, 2014
In 70s and early 80s, a small subculture of American kids shared a very odd and traumatic experience.
This was the era of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, which helped popularize the idea that a literal reading of Old and New Testament prophecy matched current events – all signs pointing to the imminent return of Jesus as described in Revelation and related New Testament passages. Hal Lindsey did not invent the idea, as this kind of cultural analysis had been present in Dispensational theology for generations. But the popular nature of his writing allowed people to begin thinking of the political foment of the 70s in eschatological terms.
Larry Norman’s 1969 tune, “Wish We’d All Been Ready” described the horror of discovering “you have been left behind” by the rapture of Christ. It quickly became an anthem of the era (revived for the Left Behind market in 1995 by a DC Talk cover). It is hard to describe the abiding influence of the song, as it is an identity marker of any Christian kid that has grown up in the post-Lindsey era. But it is pretty much the “Thriller” of a few generations of American Christianity.
I share this background information because it makes sense of the odd and traumatic experience mentioned earlier. It went something like this:
You wake up from a nap or something and go downstairs. Everyone is gone. Your parents are not there. Your siblings are not there. They are not in the backyard. They are simply not there… Where are they?! Oh no. You start looking for little piles of clothes. They have been raptured! And you… you have been left behind.
Many of us experienced this rapture false-alarm. It was a scary moment, because it meant that everyone you knew was gone (Mom!) but you were left behind because you just weren’t Christian enough. I even had some rudimentary disaster planning in place, should the Rapture leave me orphaned. It involved adults I knew that were probably not Christians but still really nice people. And, in a flash of sub-Christian glee, I considered the upside of being left behind was free reign of the house for as long as I could take care of myself. Any kid from the same stratum of evangelicalism as I has had this experience. Seriously, ask one and they will know exactly what you are talking about.
The final two episodes of The Leftovers are a well-directed version of this experience. I have been hard on the show in prior posts. Season 1 has often become mired rabbit trails and pseudo-philosophical rhetoric. Several entire episodes could be excised from the season without any loss in plot or character development. These flaws make it difficult to appreciate the brilliance of the episodes focusing on Rev. Jameson and Nora (3 and 6, respectively). But these last two episodes are nearly as strong, in that they capture the complex emotional nuances of this Rapture narrative effectively.
Episode 9 tracks through the “left behind” moment experienced by all the The Leftovers characters. We watch classmates vanish in thin air or babies evaporate from sonogram monitors. Children and parents migrate to oblivion in different configurations. In Chief Garvey’s case, the woman he is committing adultery with disappears from beneath him. For a disorienting moment, no one can understand exactly what is happening. Planes fall from the air.
Larry Norman captures the emotion of this theological tragedy in his song, begging us to be prepared. I can feel a bit of that post-Rapture sorrow I was schooled in as a child in this episode. And theologically speaking, the show is accurate in presenting confusion about who has been raptured – as someone very well could be Christian enough to be raptured even if caught in flagrante delicto. Hence the once common “Look Busy, Jesus is Coming” bumper sticker.
There is a lot of additional melodrama tossed into these last two episodes for good measure, just in case we can’t feel the tension on our own (check out The Returned or Broadchurch for two recent TV series that trust their audience better). Trapped deer come to represent Chief Garvey’s existential crisis. The entire subplot about his son and that other cult basically turns out to have been nothing but Rube Goldberg device deposting a baby on his doorstep for Nora to cuddle. Laurie vanishes into a Season 2 plotline. Rev. Jamison is sadly consigned to a bit part.
But meanwhile the citizens of Maplewood wake up one morning to find life-sized replications of their lost family members at the breakfast table. The trauma of the moment is stunning in its perversity. Dispensational theology teaches that 3 ½ years into the seven year period following the Rapture, an Anti-Christ (an opposite of Jesus) will appear. In The Leftovers, that figure is secularized through the appearance of anti-people. The Guilty Remnant has snuck in and presented doll-like representations of the real people that have been lost.
The town revolts. It rises up, dragging these anti-people through the streets to be burned in heaps. They turn the Mapleton nightscape into a mini-apocalypse. Members of the Guilty Remnant are beaten and burned to death. Chief Garvey wades through their fallen forms to rescue his daughter. The fragile peace of those left behind has been broken. I would be happier if the show just ended here, at the cusp of a doomed and forgotten humanity now staring into their own end of time. But Season 2 is in the works.
That moment I described earlier, the false-alarm rapture I experienced as a child, is a momentary experience not just of the absence of family, but of the absence of God. The Leftovers sure has its flaws as a show, but I cannot recall a series so specifically about that haunting idea. The last moment of The Leftovers presents to us a possible family: Garvey, his daughter, Nora, and an inexplicable infant. They look at each other in various shades of incredulity, wondering what is left for them after the ashes of the mini-apocalypse has settled. There is an odd joy in Nora’s eyes as she cradles the infant, warm and full in her arms compared to the dummy versions of her kids she had just spent the night with. What joys are possible for Nora? To whom could Chief Garvey turn, now fully aware of his own total failure? Where did Rev. Jamison or Laurie go? These are the kinds of ambiguity that Lindelof just needs to be brave enough to accept. Just let those absences abide for a while…