Everything Television: Examining HBO's The Leftovers

Stone's Throw

Chain smoking, silent protest, stealing family pictures from their frames; in the post-Departure society of Mapleton, NY, these actions are justification for murder. Maybe. After watching Sunday night's episode of The Leftovers, I hopped into the "Gladys" discussion thread on reddit to get a general idea of everyone's thoughts on the episode. I was surprised to find a subset of the conversation centered around whether or not Gladys, the Guilty Remnant member who had been brutally stoned to death in the episode's cold open, deserved it. Surprised because the question had never even occurred to me.

A surface reading of the episode presents the scenario that a group of Mapletonians, most likely those whose houses were broken into last episode, were responsible for kidnapping Gladys, bounding her with duct tape, and ending her life, but are the relatively benign actions of the Guilty Remnant enough to drive them to such an extreme? I don't see it. There are valid arguments to the contrary: the aggression the community shows to the Remnant whenever they're around, or the smaller-scale drive-by stoning we saw in episode 3. But even in that example Matt's inclusion in the attack lends itself more to nihilistic teenagers on a joyride, their post-departure version of mailbox smashing, than blood-thirsty neighbors seeking retribution. And yet, when reading through the episode's discussion thread on reddit you'll find countless comments sympathizing not with the woman who was stoned to death, but with the people doing the stoning. From comments as benign as "I don't want this happening to them, but I'm not surprised either" to as malignant as "I can't be the only one cheering. Brutal or not, they pushed people around. What did they expect? " (Are the Guilty Remnant pushing people around? Because it seems like they're doing the exact opposite.)

I can't sympathize with the Guilty Remnant or empathize with their cause, probably because I don't fully know what it is, and that ambiguity has also led me to largely not care about them. Their actions could be summarily categorized as "Things a Moody Teenager Does," see: Jill Garvey, who refuses to interact with her dad on any real substantial basis, steals things for attention, and smokes. I find the most intriguing aspect of the Remnant to be their ambiguity; intriguing because I want to know more, not because I'm infuriated. Which is why I was so surprised with the bloodthirst by proxy found online. (I'm not downplaying the hurt that could be caused by having someone steal a picture of a departed loved one, but unless you've experienced that, or something similar, I think it's pretty difficult to know what you would do or how you would feel, and the leap from being understandably angry at that person to forming a snatch and grab mob to kidnap and stone someone to death is enormous).

So what is causing the citizens of Mapleton, and in turn some portion of the viewing community, to get so worked up about the Guilty Remnant? Are they just a plot device to create tension supported by a community that is really invested in the show? Is Mapleton's attitude toward the Remnant a legitimate reaction in a post-departure world to what seems like a minor nuisance in a no-departure world? It's difficult to say having not experienced one half of the equation, and it's easy to use that inexperience to justify what would normally seem like indefensible behavior. The closest analogy we have in our current society is the Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe religious group that regularly protests outside of events with way more offensive signs than, "Stop Wasting Your Breath." Even though we aren't outright ignoring the Westboro Baptist Church, we certainly aren't stoning them either.

The Guilty Remnant are designed to provoke, both as an organization and as a device for the show, and by throwing rocks, or slushies, or spewing curse words at them, the citizens of Mapleton are justifying the Remnant's existence. Imagine what would happen to the Guilty Remnant's message if everyone did ignore them. If they showed up at The Day of Remembrance, held up the "Stop Wasting Your Breath" signs, and everyone in the crowd proceeded to turn around and continue with the celebration undeterred. How better to answer the decree of "Stop Wasting Your Breath" then by showing the decrier that they are the ones wasting their breath. If we keep in mind that someone can only mentally torment you as much as you allow them to, then the worst crimes in the show so far, throwing one rock at a random Remnant and another that put Matt into a 3 day coma, or stoning a woman to death, have been committed by the citizens of Mapleton, not the Guilty Remnant. So, what is it about the Guilty Remnant that is so provocative?