Right down to the title of the show, The Leftovers isn’t necessarily one for subtlety. Any time something isn’t where it’s supposed to be, a parallel is drawn to the mysterious Departure that inexplicably claimed 2% of the world’s population. This is Drama, capital D, and these people have Problems, capital P, and sitting down to an hour of cap-D plus cap-P — especially “B.J. and the A.C.” — can end up being too much CAPS LOCK to handle if you’re not ready for it. But on one level The Leftovers sacrifices subtlety intentionally, I think, allowing for clarity instead. Supreme clarity, in fact, and one that should make nearly every other show on television envious.
Take the opening Breaking Bad-esque montage of “B.J. and the A.C.”:
Very Vince Gilligan, no? The end of that clip is slightly cut off, but the slow zoom reveals the holiest of bassinets to be empty, the Son of God seemingly evaporated into thin air along with the rest of the Departed (it also brings to mind Alex Cox’s brilliant zoom out/cut/zoom in barhopping sequence from Sid and Nancy). This becomes the primary focus of the episode — with everything else that’s going on, the hunt for the stolen baby Jesus becomes a sort of quest that certain Mapletonians take seriously.
Or, in Kevin Garvey’s case, not so seriously. Again, the subtlety in “B.J. and the A.C.” is never the focus, so let’s state it plainly: the metaphor is simply that this plastic baby doll is like a person, as easily taken from the face of the earth (though “vanished” is a word Kevin shrugs off), as important or as unimportant as a person can be. Is the baby important? Of course — after all, this is the sacred infant savior we’re talking about here. But is the baby unimportant? Of course — it’s a doll, and we just saw how easy it is to make a million of the things.
But is the baby unimportant? Kevin shrugs again (he’s always shrugging) when his daughter Jill asks what the police are going to do to find the thing. “We’re just gonna replace it,” he says. “You can’t just get a new one,” Jill says. “It’s sacred.” Jill voices one side of this argument in positing that the doll is irreplaceable. This jives nicely with that age-old idea of every person being an individual, a unique and beautiful snowflake, and it also jives nicely with the Memorial Day initiative by the Guilty Remnant later in the season that would see the sect replacing Departed family members with life-size dolls. The Leftovers of course flips this stance over before “B.J. and the A.C.” is out: Jill is the one who took the doll. As in the previous episode “Two Boats and a Helicopter“, 180° pivots abound in Jill’s feelings about the doll. She steals it, claims it’s “sacred”, douses it in lighter fluid and prepares to light it up before changing her mind again.
Which isn’t to say the other side of the coin — that which maintains the thing is just a doll and nothing more — isn’t represented in full. The aforementioned G.R. is all about this mentality, and even expresses this in a scene with Tommy that seemingly has nothing to do with the doll. Two white-clad cigarette smokers hand him a brochure that says Everything that matters about you is inside. When Tommy opens the brochure, the inside is simply blank. Nothing. To the G.R., Tommy and Jill and Kevin and everyone else is a doll on a conveyor belt, as straightforward as the one before and behind it. Mapleton’s Mayor shares the mentality, at least as far as it might advance her political career in the light of the public. She sends Kevin to replace the doll (“it’s a f*cking doll“), a move with which Kevin will ultimately grapple as he stands in the store facing the columned hall of boxed babies. The brand name “Aforda” even suggests a churn-’em-out assembly-line quality.
But Kevin doesn’t buy it — doesn’t buy the doll, sure, but also doesn’t buy into the idea that the doll can simply be replaced with a fresh one. If he does, he’s conceding the point on that greater level. We go from a doll’s head on a conveyor belt to a matter of life and death, of life after death, because if Kevin simply moves away from the people in his life that have disappeared then he’s admitting that every single one of them is easily replaced. And that’s not just the people in his life who vanished into thin air on October 14 — that’s his wife, his father, his kids, and the other people who are still in existence somewhere but have vanished from his life nonetheless. Whether he finds the real doll or not, the important thing is that he’s searching.
So the central metaphor of “B.J. and the A.C.” is a highly satisfying one. Is it at all subtle? No, not really. But since when does a metaphor have to be subtle? The opposite of subtle isn’t ham-fisted or harsh in this context — here it’s clear, open, for all to see. The correlation is highly visible to both the viewers and the characters of The Leftovers, which makes it all the more wondrous watching the latter camp fight to maintain ignorance. Or the former, for that matter.