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Television

‘The Leftovers’ recap: Don’t drink the water

‘The Leftovers’

Justin Theroux, left, portrays Kevin Garvey and Darby Camp portrays a young Patti on HBO’s “The Leftovers.”

(Van Redin / HBO)

In one of the most moving passages in Virgil’s “Aenid,” protagonist Aeneas finds his father in the underworld and asks him why so many souls were gathered around a distant river. His father details for him the process that souls must undergo upon reaching the underworld, how the act of living gets ingrained in their skin and time must be spent cleansing themselves of their former lives.

After enough time is spent, like buffalo bones bleached in the sun, the souls move forward in their journey, toward the river of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, where they drink the water and forget, truly forget the people they were before, and are finally ready to ascend to the land of the living and begin again.

And so a poem written well over 2,000 years ago serves as the key to unlocking the tragedy that is “The Leftovers.”

Throughout “International Assassin,” we follow Kevin Garvey through an ephemeral underworld, where his sole (and perhaps soul) mission is to kill Patti Levin. The task, however, is far from straightforward.

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It’s difficult to write about an episode like “International Assassin” because it adheres so closely to its own dreamlike state. The logic is circular and subconscious, and it adheres brilliantly to the suggestion that what it portrays may likely be a creation wholly from the mind of its protagonist.

To begin, it must be said that the episode lives and dies on the characterization of Justin Theroux, whose look of bewildered desperation is heart-rending and among the finest performances on television. Theroux is a force.

As far as journeys to purgatory go, the episode owes an almost obscene amount to the second episode of “The Sopranos’ ” sixth season, “Join the Club,” in which Tony Soprano is trapped in a California hotel as a man named Kevin Finnerty and must find his way home. In reality, where Tony isn’t, he is comatose in a hospital room, also trying to find his way home.

The similarities beyond just the premise are numerous. Both Garvey and Soprano receive messages through their televisions, both are haunted by a persistent, ominous flashing light, both are forced to assume versions of themselves to make their way through the hotel.

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But what “The Leftovers” contains that “The Sopranos” glosses over is an intense sense of tragedy. Garvey’s time in purgatory has no lack of familiar faces, and often they bring a sense of comfort, but too often they only complicate the situation at hand.

Virgil appears in the hotel as a concierge who at first helps guide Kevin in his mission but soon loses his way, forsaking his namesake in hopes of quenching his thirst. Patti appears first as a presidential candidate whom Kevin wants to assassinate, complete with Holy Wayne and season one stoning victim Gladys as campaign volunteers, before appearing later as a little girl. We even meet Patti’s ex-husband Neil, an abusive, hateful man who’s well aware of his fate.

Time and again we witness the people around Kevin drinking water, the water he’s specifically been warned away from. After Virgil partakes, he forgets who Kevin is, forgets the mission, forgets that he wants the songbird flitting about the hotel lobby, a symbol of hope for a better future, alive, before crushing it with a book.

The water, it seems, is the enemy. It will doom Kevin to life in the underworld and steal from him his ability to return to the world at large. But like so much else in the episode, that seems like an idea that comes solely from Kevin’s subconscious.

In the “Aenid” it’s only by drinking the water that we can be free of that which weighed us down in life, can cleanse us from the filth that comes with the act of living. But Kevin holds himself separate from that idea, instead using the water to his own ends.

When we first see Patti, before we recognize it as her, she is a child floating facedown in a pool, similar to how Kevin lands when he falls down the well. The water beckons him at every turn, because it’s the only thing that can free him, but Kevin cannot accept that route.

Instead, he commits to his plan. He takes child Patti on a car trip toward Jarden, to a well built by indigenous people to serve as a conduit between the living and the dead. It’s where the cavewoman in the season premiere gave birth. It’s where Kevin believes he can finally cut the cord between himself and the other side.

He carries young Patti to the well, and she comforts him as he works up the nerve to do what he’s determined he must. She sits on the wall and offers to close her eyes to make it easier on him before Kevin unceremoniously shoves her into the well. Not killed by the fall, elder Patti calls out to Kevin, and in an attempt to help her, he falls in after her, face first.

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The talk and Patti tells him about her stint on “Jeopardy,” about winning enough money to leave Neil but not following through, about how she learned about the power of silence. And then Kevin drowns her.

Kevin awakens in a shallow grave in the woods, but he is not free.

The Well of Souls is the holiest place in all of Judaism. It’s the place where Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him before his hand was stayed by the Lord. But Kevin’s hand was not stayed. He didn’t drink the water. Kevin went to hell but could not let go of the life that sent him there.

It’s a tricky thing, the idea that death is preferable to a life poorly lived. But Kevin, as admitted in “International Assassin,” smokes to remember what happened in the world. What he has yet to realize is that some things are better off forgetting.

Follow me on Twitter at @midwestspitfire.

libby.hill@latimes.com


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