Alongside the sixth episode “Guest”, “Two Boats and a Helicopter” provides the most effective hour of character drama in the stellar first season of The Leftovers. The first episode to zoom in on a single character depicts the sad struggle of Reverend Matt Jamison, portrayed with suitable passion by Christopher Eccleston, in the wake of the mysterious Departure. The first and second hours showed glimpses of Matt, passing out flyers at a rally that damn the Departed rather than deify them. “It was not the Rapture!” maintains Matt. In “Two Boats and a Helicopter”, he reveals what he thinks the Departure actually was: a test.
And his sister Nora sums up one side of the episode with perfect succinctness: “if it was a test, I think you might be failing it.” Thus is his post-non-Rapture existence a continuous test of faith wherein Matt attempts to hold onto his beliefs in the face of that unthinkable and impossible event. Matt’s story keeps turning in on itself, offering hope in one instant and ripping it away just as quickly. It’s a cruel-seeming existence, one that forces Matt to eventually view the smallest of occurrences as a direct sign from God. After a certain point, the letdowns are more or less inevitable.
But at the outset he takes these signs with gusto. He encourages his congregation — now lessened to only a few people in the wake of the Departure, with fewer attendees every day — to pray for a young girl in a coma. Perhaps he does so to take the focus off of those dearly Departed, but it’s still a noble gesture that elevates Matt in our minds. Furthermore, as we’ll see in a moment, it elevates the concrete nature of his sometimes-malleable faith. But first Leftovers gives us a 180°, the first of many throughout “Boats”: a bereaved father of a Departed daughter enters the church mid-service and punches Matt in the face. Matt has spoken ill of the Departed, and a moment after he’s elevated his faith in God and in mankind a member of the latter camp puts a fist to his jaw.
Then we 180° again: Matt visits the hospital to find that the girl in the coma, having been asleep and in grim status for the better part of a week, has miraculously awakened. Matt bristles with pride, with hope, and with faith. “My congregation,” he tells the doctor, “this morning…we prayed for her!” The doctor smiles a small smiles and provides — you guessed it — another about-face for Matt’s faith: “Well, she woke up last night.”
Director Keith Gordon and writer Damon Lindelof structured “Boats” exquisitely, allowing these ebbs and flows of faith to subtly define Matt’s tragedy. The second major 180°-fest concerns a casino and Matt’s desire to keep his church despite a $135,000 offer from a heretofore-unseen party. Matt spots some pigeons on the roulette table and again on a traffic light that blinks red with meaningful purpose, so he takes $20,000 — all he has — and puts it all on red. He doubles and doubles his luck (like in that horrible scene from Focus) until he walks away with $160,000. Happy day! Faith restored! Until some kid in a leather jacket tries to steal the money. Matt actively fights the 180° this time and ends up bashing the kid’s head into the pavement to get his money back.
Were it not for the impending continuation of the cruel parade of yes-you-can/no-you-can’t switcheroos, the question of Matt’s drive to keep the faith would already be a bit discolored. If Matt keeps his church open, great — but it would be with money that he won gambling, and money that he bashed a kid’s head in to keep. Earlier in “Boats” Matt even types up a flyer damning a Departed father for his gambling addiction. That makes him more than just a hypocrite — it makes him a man whose very definition of faith has become corrupt, a man willing to put down his fellow man in order to maintain an illusion of his shaken belief.
This is drawn most beautifully in the episode’s overarching 180°, beginning when Matt spots two white-clad, cigarette-smoking members of the Guilty Remnant outside his church that first morning. They want him to join the GR, and so the ebbing and flowing of Matt’s luck might also serve to drive him closer to or further from this cult. At his most confident, Matt tells them off: “I’m not going to turn back now,” he says of his quest. The ultimate 180° is the ultimate irony: he offers to help an injured member of the GR only to become injured himself, causing him to miss the bank deadline even though he has the money to save his church. The heretofore-unseen buyers? The Guilty Remnant. They swarm his house of worship and paint it white, wiping all sense of exaltation from the exterior. The GR couldn’t take possession of Matt, but at the end of the day it cost them $135,000 to take possession of his faith.
Christopher Eccleston does more than keep up with the many shifts in his character’s arc throughout “Two Boats and a Helicopter”, and his performance makes the first character-driven episode an important one for the first season of The Leftovers. As the show progresses, Matt’s faith will no doubt be tested again and again. Maybe someday he’ll even find a way to pass that test.