Apart from having an awesome title, “Penguin One, Us Zero” serves to better establish what The Leftovers looks like as a week-by-week television series. The pilot episode did a great job of setting up the new post-Departure America while not hitting us over the head with that world-building aspect, but the second episode really begins to delve deeper into the hearts and minds of those still remaining.
Chief among these (get it?) is Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey. Later episodes of The Leftovers will take pages from the Lost playbook and focus entirely on single characters, and “Penguin One, Us Zero” isn’t exactly one of these. But Kevin is front and center, as he should be, and some key elements of his character come to the surface in this second hour. His relationship with his father (played by Scott Glenn) is also introduced, and that’s an important relationship going forward into the thick of the first season. Most importantly, though: there is a bagel. Yes. On second thought, screw everything else. Let’s talk about that bagel.
First, it’s noteworthy for The Bagel Talk (sounds kinda foreboding; Robert Ludlum: The Bagel Manifesto) to outline the male side of the Garvey family tree. Kevin’s at the center, in a sense, with his asylum-committed father on one side and Kevin’s son Tom on the other. He visits his father at the nuthouse partially because he himself might be losing it, and Kevin Sr. – “crazy” or not – picks up on this in a heartbeat. “The prodigal son returns!”, he exclaims. That phrase serves as the episode title for a Tommy-centric hour later in the season, and that’s just where the comparisons begin. The patriarchal relationship between the three Garveys is a big part of “Penguin One, Us Zero”, a big part of season one and, hopefully, a big part of The Leftovers on the whole.
Tommy Garvey, at this point, is seemingly disconnected from the events in Mapleton, New York. He’s floating around as a recruit of sorts for this guy Wayne, who says he can “hug” the pain out of people since the Departure. He offers to do so for Tom here in this episode, offers to take all of the kid’s pain and suffering and hug it away into nothing. “I can’t,” says Tommy, and Wayne smiles. “You’re the one motherfucker I can’t figure out,” he says. In this moment Tommy begins to show his status as a Garvey is still valid, despite his absence from Mapleton, because all of the Garveys seem unable to just unload their suffering onto someone else. Kevin holds his in part by remaining at a sustained distance from his daughter, while Kevin Sr. holds his own pain by essentially refusing to admit that he’s gone insane.
So when Kevin sticks a freshly-cut bagel into the toaster at the precinct, the natural assumption of a sane man would be that it would come out the other end (albeit toastier). When it doesn’t – well, who knows? All bets are off at this point. Is Kevin insane? Is the bagel an analogue for the Departed, or is that too easy? If it is, what’s Kevin supposed to learn from this? Does the attention he gives (or, in this case, does not give) to the bagel dictate whether it’s allowed continued existence? Kevin’s wife, while not actually Departed in the sense The Leftovers provides, is gone from his life regardless. He didn’t ignore her outright, but he maybe he didn’t treat her as well as he should have. Should he pay more attention to his bagels in the future? Are his bagels deserving of his attention?
Maybe it’s not so much to do with his involvement or his relation to those that have left the Earth, but more a depiction of the fragility of such stuff in this version of that Earth. If people can disappear, why can’t a bagel? Kevin walks around like he has control over his life, but how can he? He can’t even keep his bagel in one spot, much less his scattered family. Maybe learning to give up that pain – not to force it wholly upon someone else like Wayne, but to share it properly and take on someone else’s – is part of the equation. Kevin meets Liv Tyler’s Megan in this episode, and after he offers her his help he goes back to the precinct and attacks the toaster with a screwdriver.
There, nestled in the bowels of the metal breakfast-cooker, is his charred bagel. He’s not crazy – at least not in the way that we (or he) thought he was. But it’s more of a symbolic find than anything else, and this is one of those moments where The Leftovers soars and shows what it could truly become someday. The concern isn’t with where was the bagel? or is Kevin crazy? – he found the bagel, and that’s what matters. Never before in the history of television has so much hope and unabashedly optimistic belief been ascribed to the locating of a piece of bread, and in the comparatively hopeless landscape of The Leftovers it’s one bagel that shouldn’t be forgotten.