“The Garveys at Their Best” is probably the most illuminating episode of the first season of The Leftovers, and had it been placed at the beginning where it belongs chronologically it might have heightened the impact of a lot of the symbolism that came in the first eight hours. Pure benefit of the doubt dictates that The Leftovers is playing the long game, see, and so this is still the beginning. Fair enough, and the rewatchability factor is not to be discounted either. But those who claim the series is often purposefully obscure or figurative for the sake of being figurative can probably point to “Garveys” as evidence of that, and despite the realizations that come about during the episode there are just as many new questions.
Set in the few days leading up to the Departure, “Garveys” is the first look at “normal” life in The Leftovers aside from the season-opening scene in the grocery store parking lot and a brief swath of “Two Boats and a Helicopter” depicting Matt Jamison’s horrific personal experience on October 14th. Having an entire episode follow the main characters of the show in their day-to-day lives provides a huge amount of context for the often-questionable ways in which the same characters conduct themselves in the Brave New post-Departue world, and it also betrays the fact that pre-Departure life was possibly not as “normal” as everyone might like to believe.
In terms of symbols, the deer or stag is one that The Leftovers continuously asserts as…well, as something. In the pilot Kevin hits a deer with his car (or at the very least has a sort of fever dream about doing so):
And later he sees a creepy deer statue in a neighbor’s yard:
As is the case with so many things in the series, the backyard deer statue is inexplicably disappeared by the time Kevin plods through the yard a second time. At the time the vanishing deer was maybe just taken as a symbol of the Departed humanity, along with Kevin’s bagel in “Penguin One, Us Zero“, the disappearing baby from “B.J. and the A.C.“, and Nora’s nametag/entire identity in “Guest“. But the deer seemed to be a more overarching symbol, somehow representative of the Departure itself or even key to answering the eternal question what happened?
In “Garveys at Their Best” Kevin spots a deer in the sunlight on his morning jog. He blinks in the beaming rays and the deer is gone. But then the deer starts causing a ruckus throughout Mapleton, breaking into buildings and trapping itself over and over again. The police are set on hunting and killing the animal, and only Kevin voices any kind of objection — “We don’t have to kill it.” As the earlier associations in the show all involved Kevin, we can safely assume identifying with the forest animal on one level or another. After all, Kevin clearly feels trapped in the post-Departure world in much the same way as the deer is constantly trapped. And another layer is added upon consideration of the deer being trapped in other people’s homes or in public places — Kevin, in his pre-Departure state, privately sneaks cigarettes and gets subtly chastised by his wife. Post-Departure is a different story, as Kevin is yanked into private lives, into people’s homes, into public places, and now his wife even smokes cigarettes in public.
Kevin’s also trapped in his guilt, as his subsequent run-in with the deer coincides dramatically with the very start of the pre-/post- divide. After being called to a house where the deer has broken in, Kevin emerges to find a woman in a rental car has hit the deer. Kevin, the only one who wanted to save the deer instead of getting rid of it outright, ends up shooting the deer in the head to put it out of its misery…and then he cheats on his wife with the woman in the rental car. The question is raised explicitly — too explicitly, in fact, and people don’t really talk this way ever — as to whether Kevin is good or bad. It’s categorical: one or the other, all or nothing. If his association with the deer and his crusade to save it represents the good, then the deer’s death heralds his submission to infidelity.
And then the Departure occurs immediately after that. The woman Kevin is in bed with vanishes from the face of the planet. We don’t see what Kevin does next, but even in the most compulsory symbolic interpretations of deer and elk and stags the sentiment is more clear than it ever was before. Celts dub the deer the emblem of the “faerie realm”, which in the context of The Leftovers could be “the place where the Departed have gone”; in China the deer is the symbol of happiness and good fortune, with the capacity for infinite generosity. It’s good, to put a more direct point on it. And what is humanity intent on doing throughout “Garveys at Their Best”? The destruction of the good. If the deer is harbinger of the Departed — saying “follow me, be careful, or else” — only one thing can happen when we hunt the thing that heralds doom, trap it, ram rental cars into it, shoot it dead. If that’s the case, then the Leftovers are to blame for what happened to the Departed and to themselves.
Or, it’s just a f*cking deer.