The episodic nature of a show like The Leftovers could be its downfall. Take Tommy and Laurie Garvey, the only two familiar faces in “Off Ramp”, and consider that a) we’ve seen a lot of their respective stories, from backstories to experiences at the moment of the Sudden Departure to their lives in the aftermath, and then consider b) that the episodes featuring them almost always seem like weaker entries. Why? Lost-style episodes on single characters aren’t inherently weak, and in fact “Two Boats and a Helicopter” (about Matt Jamison) and “Guest” (about his sister Nora) were two of the best episodes of the first season of Leftovers.
But Lost still had its dreaded Sun episodes, or its Shannon/Boone episodes, or a f*cking Rose & Bernard episode right in the middle of a major action arc, and that last example gets to the heart of the problem: some great characters just slow the action down. Tommy and Laurie always kind of did that in the first season, involved with their little cults of various ilks and mindsets, and we always had to cut away to get to them. Cutting away, of course, implies that the stuff we actually care about will be waiting when we get back. It’s not that Tommy or Laurie walked on screen and sucked the life out of the show, but even in their best moments the structure was such that you’d still be waiting to cut back.
So an entire episode about them in the third hour of season two — and set back toward Mapleton, no less, instead of the second season’s newly-introduced town of Jarden — seems fairly unexciting, especially considering the boldness with which “Axis Mundi” plowed forward into the new characters, settings, and themes of the season. We just met the Murphy Family and both of the first two episodes ended on different perspectives of the same cliffhanger…and now we’re back with the boring people from season one. Fast-forward to the end of “Off Ramp” and, well, yeah: it’s a standalone episode with little apparent bearing on the “important” storyline.
And yet…still…there’s a brief little exchange in “A Matter of Geography“, the previous episode, where Jill meets Tommy quickly for an intel-swap of sorts. They do their cute little sibling greeting from Trading Places. (Aside: Trading Places? Really? Like, am I supposed to be reading into this?
So Jill is Eddie Murphy, yeah? She a karate woman, she bruises on the inside? Maybe the Sudden Departure took the wealthy class and turned them into deranged, would-be killers? And Tommy, of all people, knows it ain’t cool being no jive turkey. Especially so close to Thanksgiving. End Aside.)
“Off Ramp” ends with Tommy revealing that the pain-nourishing abilities of the man known as Holy Wayne are now under his control, that he can hug the pain out of people at will. Whether he’s lying or not, it’s kind of an interesting twist on his character. If he’s lying, then he’s doing so to try to help others cope with their troubles. If he’s not, then the fact still remains that his own troubles seem insurmountable. We never knew if Wayne was a snake oil salesman or the genuine article, and indeed Tommy’s legitimacy has no bearing on Wayne’s — the new kid on the block could be a phony shade of the original real deal. And it seems like that’s the case within the context of “Off Ramp”, with Tommy nearly succumbing to the Guilty Remnant and falling asleep while seemingly studying a YouTube video called “Holy Wayne in the Beginning!!!”
…but in “Geography” he puts forward the Trading Places code prompt and it’s reciprocated, and then Jill gets up to greet her estranged older brother as any estranged younger sister would: with a hug. Tommy, this Somehow New Tommy, declines. “I’m sick,” he says. The exchange is shrugged off for the moment. But therein lies the hidden brilliance of the episodic nature of The Leftovers, the justification for the Tommy storyline and the Laurie storyline and probably other character threads in future seasons being simply not so great, and that’s the fact that it’s all one storyline. Shreds of Tommy’s arc, even something as significant as the true-or-false reveal at the end of “Off Ramp”, has in a way already been divulged in full in a brief little throwaway exchange from the previous episode.
This happens constantly in The Leftovers. In “Off Ramp” Laurie spends a meaningful half-minute trying to get this little smudge out of her windshield. It’s a half-minute, less, and in “Off Ramp” it amounts to exactly nothing. In “Geography” Kevin stares forebodingly at the trees in the forest (but does he see the forest for the trees??) and eventually it’s explained…no, it’s not. Those are two explicit examples, but the Tommy-being-sick thing is on another level. You assume welp, I guess Tommy’s sick; you assume the writers meant him to appear disheveled and purposeless after the events of the first season and so, yeah, sure, make him sick. You move on immediately; but “Off Ramp” brings you back. It’s admittedly subtle, but the care taken in crafting the series around moments of subtlety such as this is impressive.
And besides, this is a show where a chunk of humans poof into thin air: the possibility exists that Tommy is not lying. Turning that possibility over and over could be one of the notable traits of Tommy’s impending arc, and pairing the introduction of that possibility with three distinct scenes from the latest hour (Meg’s reintroduction, Laurie’s meeting at the publishing house, and the doomed car ride of the former G.R. wife) actually make “Off Ramp” into a highly palatable episode. The sense is still there that we’re stalling, that next week’s episode will get going and we’ll feel back at home, but if every series could have a weak entry with the strength of “Off Ramp” then I’d probably never turn my television off.