Sometimes drama is hard. Part of the reason why people are throwing around phrases like The Golden Age of Television is because great drama often implies a certain longevity, a depth not only of feeling but of space and time as well. Rust Cohle’s True Detective arc spans more than a decade, and we’re allowed insight into that arc for eight hours rather than for the limited runtime of a film. Walter White’s (d)evolution is likewise more effective for the time it takes building itself. In the coldest sense television allows what comic book chronology allows, simply more, and thus more of a compounding effect in the later hours or later seasons. True Detective and Breaking Bad are intense in their final sequences mostly due to brilliant writing, brilliant directing, brilliant acting — nothing replaces storytelling (preach!) — but partially due to what came before.
And yes: sometimes drama is easy. Fabricated drama isn’t hard to find. Heck, take Best Picture winner Argo, which climaxes with a harrowing scene at the airport where the heroes are really just standing in a room sweating as to whether they’re about to be let out of the country or not. Quick cuts are made to the drama, vehicles holding the bad guys hurtling along the tarmac. It’s all spiced up, and usually when you have to spice up your scene with cuts to action that simply happen faster and faster as the music plays faster and faster — well, maybe there’s another way to extract drama, a less easy way, an infinitely more effective way. Argo is hardly the worst example. The cringeworthiest one that leaps to mind is all the extraneous shit going down at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, because Spidey battling his enemy isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies while a hospital full of people is in danger and a plane full of people is about to crash isn’t even enough, so throw Gwen Stacey in there. There we go: amazing.
The longevity of a television series doesn’t mean the given show is immune to this kind of fabricated drama, however interesting that possibility might be. A movie’s only two hours — so let’s cram everything in that we can. But nah, TV does that too. In fact, the opposite possibility exists: too much time. A season can go on forever — so let’s cram everything in that we can. Both mask a lack of storytelling or a too-loose grip on the story at hand, whether it’s the weakest example like the parade of “okay, now this happens!”-type B.S. in action crap like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; or a more disappointing example like Homeland, which just seems to lose focus as it continues; or even the best example of fabricating drama on television: Brian Williams (preach! preach!).
Then there’s the special brand of easy drama somewhat particular to our day and age, that of setting up the next installment of _______. One can feel free to hold up Iron Man 2 as an example, a film which literally sits down to foreshadow stuff in the middle of other more exciting stuff, so long as one puts it down again and stops suggesting we watch it, please. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes really wanted a sequel, so it sacrificed a 100% payoff in order to tease what was at a the time a nonexistent film. And in this, yeah, TV is especially guilty. The early seasons of Lost teased everything — the show was teasing, almost exclusively, and thus it spent a lot of time pushing the payoff away. This isn’t automatically a bad thing in the grand scheme of things, and indeed Avengers and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and the last season of Lost proved that the payoff, when it finally came, could still sometimes be a heck of a cool thing.
And so the final episode of the first season of The Leftovers capitalizes on the medium, uses its format to its advantage, but most of all it capitalizes on the storytelling opportunities that arise from doing drama the old-fashioned way, the hard way. So much of “The Prodigal Son Returns” is unspoken. Laurie stands silent in front of the Memorial Day statue, she stands silent as Tommy pulls up in his car behind her. Kevin and Jill stand silent as Nora stands on the porch. You ever watch TV when a show comes on that you love, or even a movie that you know really well, but the person on the couch next to you has never seen it before? That’s Kevin, you say, and that’s his daughter Jill. Laurie is the wife/mother. In the last episode they… and on you go trying to orient your co-viewer, and by the time you’ve done that the actual thing you’re watching is over. Anyone cold-watching “The Prodigal Son Returns” without ever having seen The Leftovers before would likely see only that: people named Laurie and Tommy and Kevin and Jill and Nora standing around looking at things/each other.
But we’ve seen the pilot of the show, so we know that the Memorial Day statue of a woman having her baby taken from her is a new fixture in their quaint little town. We’ve seen “The Garveys at Their Best“, so now we know Laurie had her unborn baby taken from her as well. We’ve seen Tommy separated from his family for the entire season and the affection shared between he and Laurie in “Garveys”. All of these things are well dramatized in the moment — the reveal of the statue, the doomed ultrasound, Tommy’s tribulations — but in this moment, as Laurie looks up at the statue and then encounters her long-lost son, the drama of all of those previous episodes compacts into far greater drama. Laurie can’t fathom what happened to her youngest child, and then she’s granted the reunion with her oldest.
For Nora, standing on the porch with Kevin and Jill standing on the lawn, it’s much the same catharsis. Out of all the characters on The Leftovers Nora’s pain seemed most fully-grown, and all the terrible things in her life led her to want to leave Mapleton. But then she sees the baby on the Garvey porch, just born into the world a few days ago, and all of the compounded drama from the years of her life (and the hours of ours) simply fades away. “Look what I found,” she says. That line wouldn’t mean much at the start of the show, but as the last line of the season it’s cathartic for us, too. Whatever kind of drama comprises the first season of The Leftovers, there’s no arguing that there’s a lot of it. Everyone in Mapleton has pain, and for nearly ten hours we’re subjected to their pain as well. But in that last minute Laurie and Tommy and Kevin and Jill and Nora get the slightest relief — they get to find something, each of them, after constantly losing the things that matter most to them —and we do too. And because of everything that came before and everything that could come next, it’s enough.
Enough for the time being, anyway: the second season of The Leftovers starts tonight.
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