To my mind, two things played a major role in spawning a resurgence in post-apocalyptic storytelling in the past decade. The first is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a bombshell of a novel from 2006 that depicted an ashen, desolate earth struggling to grasp the faintest glimmers of hope. It became a decent John Hillcoat film a few years later, but the craze spun off into more than just that: The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, last year’s brilliant Snowpiercer, last year’s crappy Young Ones, that crappy now-cancelled NBC show Revolution, etc. etc. They’re not all directly borne of The Road, of course, but the genre itself certainly received a huge boost from McCarthy’s novel. That’s why the time was right to revisit Mad Max with Fury Road, and why the likes of Blade Runner is getting a new treatment as well. Heck, just this week there’s talk of Christopher Nolan being involved with the long-awaited Akira adaptation.
The second influential piece of post-apocalyptic storytelling is The Walking Dead, the massively popular AMC show that launched a thousand other zombie-related things and an official spinoff of its own (Fear the Walking Dead, which is pretty good if almost exactly what you’d expect). The thing that pushed TWD ahead of the pack was the format of a television series: movies and books are comparatively finite, but the long-term storytelling at hand in a TV series (or a comic book series, like the one TWD is based on) serves the genre in the perfect way. In both cases — Road and TWD — the aim was to create a new world out of the old one, to watch characters deal with the differences, to play witness to what fantastic and terrible things might arise after something alters life as we know it.
The Leftovers? This is a show that operates on many levels, but one of the best things about it is the way the series is pitched: in the wake of the inexplicable Departure, the single most threatening event in the history of mankind, the world is very definitely post-apocalypse…and yet such a small percentage of humanity was actually taken that the world is very definitely the same. The number of Departed is significant enough to have touched everyone and insignificant enough to have no effect on the way people live. Or, no visible effect, anyway. People still go to the grocery store and stop at stoplights and go for jogs and have house parties. They still get married and get divorced and go to school and drive environmentally-friendly cars. In this sense, “they” are still themselves.
And yet the world is different, regardless of whatever you choose to tack on to the end of post-, and “Gladys” went a long way to investigate just how extreme some of the differences are. The title character, a member of the Guilty Remnant, is brutally stoned to death for her association with the G.R. in the first scene of the episode. The G.R. has been a conundrum since the pilot episode, both to us and to Chief Kevin Garvey, but one of their inscrutable motivations may be founded in that belief (or realization) that people are not themselves anymore. “We want them to remember something they want to forget, right?” says Liv Tyler’s G.R.-newbie Meg. Whether non-G.R. members care to admit it or not, and whether it’s by force or by choice, the majority of people do live their lives in a different way since that fateful October 14th.
But every episode is focused on that, to a certain extent — it’s the framework of The Leftovers on the whole. “Gladys” delved a little more into the G.R., but it also hinted at the larger nationwide and likely global changes that have been effected outside of Mapleton, NY. Kevin calls an Agent at the ATFEC Bureau — Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults — and that last charge is thrown in so casually and so quickly that you’d be forgiven for missing it the first time around. Cults, apparently, have become easily classed with those other four items in the post-Departure world, as if to acknowledge that those things all exist and can be weaponized or fall into unsafe hands or generally exceed moderation and cause destruction. We saw in “Two Boats and a Helicopter” that the Departure can have a profound effect on faith, and so in one sense it’s a given that new cults would spring up en masse in this new society.
On another level, though, “cult” is a simple pejorative: it puts down any group with different beliefs or different practices. And that’s characteristic of this post-Departure world, too, that any changes that resulted from the Departure might be viewed with disdain by those who yearn only for the return of the old world. No matter how long the Departed remain gone, some will always view it as a temporary displacement. Why wouldn’t they? It would be no less challenging than the actual disappearance. If this world is the same world, if the apocalypse has an expiration date, then maybe those left behind aren’t in Hell but simply Purgatory. If that’s the case then a cult is indeed a dangerous prospect. In this line of thinking one might seek out an ending to The Leftovers after only this fifth episode: what if these new ways of thinking become “normal”, become accepted faiths, only for the Departed to suddenly return?
“Gladys” raises more questions than it answers. It’s also the darkest episode so far, beginning with the stoning and continuing on to depict a bleak life for those inside the Guilty Remnant. Though this group is still tough to figure out, it’ll become clear before the end of the season that the G.R. is one of the most dangerous cults out there. Beside the Fruit of the Month Club from Everybody Loves Raymond.