"Man said to the universe: 'Sir, I exist.' 'However,' the universe replied, 'the fact does not create in me a sense of obligation.'" —"A Man Said to the Universe" by Stephen Crane, as read by Kevin Garvey Jr.
With only two episodes remaining in its first season, The Leftovers decides to keep viewers hanging after last week’s cliffhanger of sorts found Jill showing up at the GR house to see (stay with?) her mother. No, this week we get a flashback to the time immediately before everyone disappeared—and some explanations.
It’s an episode that occasionally goes overboard setting up the tragedy to come: Jill is a bubbly teenager who loves her mom, goofy Internet videos, and listening to music. Kevin Garvey Sr. is a pillar of the community whose generosity and kindness make him beloved by everyone.
But “The Garveys at Their Best” is all about misdirects: It strings viewers along into thinking Laurie is gravely ill only to reveal she’s pregnant—then predictably takes that away at the very end. It presents Nora and Kevin’s respective home lives as generally happy, only to make it clear they are far from it.
Which we knew already, but we didn’t know exactly why. We knew Kevin cheated on Laurie, but didn’t know whether it was an affair or one-time indiscretion. We knew the elder Garvey was an important figure in the lives of his family, co-workers, and fellow townspeople, but not to this extent. We knew Nora’s husband was having an affair, but not if their marriage had other problems, too.
“The Garveys at Their Best” also makes some intriguing connections we wouldn’t have otherwise known: Laurie is a shrink who was treating Patti for severe anxiety (and maybe some PTSD following an abusive relationship); Gladys was a dog breeder who had been talking to Laurie about a potential adoption; Lucy Warburton was running a moribund mayoral campaign that Nora was interviewing to run; Kevin had met the woman with whom he cheated on Laurie the day everyone disappeared (or maybe she was one of many women—it’s unclear).
Then there are the coincidental encounters: Kevin interacting with the teacher sleeping with Nora’s husband after a deer trashes her school’s band room; a deer also trashing the home of the family whose adult son with Down Syndrome went missing on 10/14; Laurie pulling up at a stop light next to the flustered woman whose baby disappeared at the beginning of the premiere. It’s not clear how big Mapleton is, so it’s hard to gauge how often these people would have crossed paths, but it’s… well "fun" isn’t the right word, this being The Leftovers, but entertaining (?) to see these separate stories intersect.
As the episode title suggests, the Garveys are the focus, and for a while, the "at their best" seems accurate. The episode opens uncharacteristically peppily, with Kevin on a run soundtracked by an uptempo oldie (Jody Reynolds’ 1963 deep cut "The Girl from King Marie"), sneaking a cigarette on the way, because who doesn’t like a smoke break in the middle of cardio? We see him in a spacious modern house with Laurie and Jill, as they gear up for a big surprise party to celebrate his father winning Mapleton Man of the Year.
It couldn’t go better, even though the old man knows about it beforehand. After Kevin makes an ostensibly heartfelt speech, we see a slow-motion montage of people at the party enjoying themselves to underline the point "Look how happy everybody is! Sure hope some horrible disaster doesn’t ruin everything!" But the look on Kevin’s face as he watches the people around him marks the turning point of "The Garveys at Their Best" and reveals the turmoil lurking underneath the revelry.
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