Sometimes I wish I didn’t know now
The things I didn’t know then, yeah
And give me something to believe in, yeayeah
– Poison, “Something to Believe In” (1990)
The Garvey family is central to The Leftovers. Kevin Garvey begins season one as the chief of police in Mapleton, NY, but proceeds on a journey that takes him beyond the veil of this reality. Laurie Garvey first appears as a member of the Guilty Remnant, dressed in white and smoking, though we ultimately learn of her past as a therapist and get to know her in her future once she has left said group. However, this piece isn’t about either of them, but about their children: Jill and Tommy.
It would certainly be fair to say that, in addition to the impact of the Departure, the dissolution of their family unit affected the Garvey kids. Nonetheless, their lives are meaningfully affected by the events of October 14th in ways that go beyond this, and are more direct. They were together when it happened, holding hands with a group in a circle, until the circle was broken because someone disappeared. It was two more years before Laurie left to join the Guilty Remnant, and we never see what happened in those two years; we only know that Tommy left town, while Jill stayed. It is perhaps impossible to separate how they were impacted by family dynamics from how they were affected by the Departure, but the same could be said for anyone. What is clear is that both struggle with questions of meaning, or purpose, in the wake of the event.
Let’s start with Jill. She and her friend Aimee are pretty nihilistic, as is their group of friends. At a party, they play a version of spin the bottle with a phone, and the app demands far more extreme things than kissing in a closet: fucking, burning, choking, etc. And they go along. This isn’t wildly implausible in our world, of course—the world of The Leftovers is not so distant—but it is striking nonetheless in the context of a world that has experienced the Departure. How does one take anything seriously in light of such an event? Maybe the Tide pod challenge is an appropriate response.
Later, Jill steals the baby Jesus from a manger scene. The only reason she doesn’t set it on fire is because, at the last instant, she thinks about how her father has been pressured to find it by the powers that be in the town. Perhaps it is Aimee’s comment about this that gets to her, though Aimee herself was going to let the thing happen. And nothing stopped them from putting a joint in the baby Jesus’s mouth, or from Jill’s friend dipping his balls in it.
In another scene, they play a game to see how long they can stay in a refrigerator in the woods that was apparently occupied by a young man who departed. They are mocking the whole thing, like you do when you are young and nihilistic.
This is an embrace of the fact that the world makes no sense. There is no meaning. Why not fuck, burn, and choke each other? Clearly Jesus is a joke. Clearly everyone who imbues some grand meaning to the Departure is fucking stupid. It’s senseless.
Nihilism enters philosophy as a problem. Virtually no one endorses it. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, who is widely credited with having said that God is dead, didn’t put those words in his own mouth but in that of a madman. Further, his whole philosophy is better thought of as an attempt to overcome nihilism rather than to embrace it.
Few are those who stridently claim to believe in nothing. Rather, nihilism is the inability to believe that anything is truly meaningful. It is a crisis of meaning, not its abnegation. Nietzsche’s move was to suggest that if there is no transcendent meaning—no overarching grand narrative, such as God’s will—then everything is equally meaningful. But Jill and her friends have not made this move. They just want to watch the world burn.
Not that it is an easy move to make, and we must be careful not to dismiss the appeals of nihilism too quickly. There is a certain comfort to be found here. It’s not hedonism; it’s not about pleasure. It’s about what amounts to the opposite of a faith in God. There is a cold comfort in embracing the nothing.
Tommy, on other hand, takes up with a man known as Holy Wayne, who claims that he can hug people’s pain away. It is not entirely clear that this is false, but it does ultimately seem to be. We see Wayne hug Nora, for example, near the end of season one, and she clearly still has pain in seasons two and three.
What inspires Tommy’s devotion, though? He kills for it, after all. But when Wayne offers him a hug, he refuses. He’s the one motherfucker Wayne can’t figure out—“all suffering and no salvation.” Yet Tommy proceeds to take Christine as his charge, and to guard Holy Wayne’s unborn baby.
Tommy wants to believe in something—anything—and to take Wayne’s hug would be to risk falsifying his belief. What if his pain didn’t go away? He can’t risk that. His faith in his family was undermined at ten years old, when Kevin and Laurie told him about his biological father—a reprobate of a man who wanted nothing to do with him. The rational thing to do would be to not care about that, but it is all too understandable that Tommy obsessed about this father who didn’t love him. And then two percent of the world disappeared, and the family he had always known fell apart.
If Jill seems to be embracing nihilism (in season one, at least), Tommy is struggling to avoid it. Following Wayne gives him a sense of purpose. It is as though he has chosen to believe, not so that Wayne can hug his pain away, but for the sake of believing itself. When Wayne tells him to hide and protect Christine, Tommy does. The ATF (represented in the series by the ATFEC) had just brutally killed people at Wayne’s compound, after all. But that’s not the point. The point is that Tommy wants to be committed to something. It almost doesn’t matter what it is.
He waits for Wayne’s call. When he is about to give up, he gets a different call on the phone that Wayne gave him. It’s a robocall from the Loved Ones service that offers to make replicas of the departed, so their loves ones have something to bury. The service is, of course, absurd. Why does it matter if they have a corpse to bury? Perhaps because it gives them closure, but that’s weird. No one seriously believes that the replica is the person being mourned. If you believe in a soul, it has clearly gone elsewhere by that point. If you don’t, well, it’s just matter. And yet, seemingly all human beings throughout history have cared about what happens to the corpse. We have these values about respecting the dead. Why? It is as though we cannot help but believe the body is still the person, even though a moment’s reflection will tell us it is not.
Regardless, this is enough to make Tommy return to Christine (“That’s a real fucking good one” Wayne.) He seems to keep believing, even after he discovers another man, who is also charged with caring for a woman carrying Wayne’s child. Though it seems to shake him when this woman tries to shoot him, Tommy perseveres.
Until Christine leaves the baby in the bathroom; then he is out. With Kevin as witness, Wayne dies in a different public bathroom worrying that he may have been a fraud. (What did Kevin wish for?) Tommy leaves the baby on his father’s porch. Nora finds it—and that’s important—but Tommy didn’t leave it for her; he didn’t even know she existed.
Tommy teams up with his mom, who has by then left the Guilty Remnant, and they try to help others who want to get away from it. He successfully infiltrates several “hives” and peels away some members before he gets caught. Meg rapes him for no apparent reason, and then leaves him half-naked in the middle of the road.
After a woman they helped named Susan drives her family into traffic, Laurie and Tommy decide to offer the members of their group more. Tommy takes on the role of Holy Wayne, with his healing hugs, but just can’t keep it up. It’s a lie, after all. Perhaps Wayne was a fraud, but Tommy didn’t know that. He refused Wayne’s hug precisely so that he would not know one way or the other. But to deceive people on purpose, even with the goal of helping them, is not something Tommy can sustain. That he goes along with this plan at all is a testament to his recognition of the power of faith—his desire to believe—but he can’t believe his own bullshit when he knows it’s bullshit.
As he tells Laurie, the Guilty Remnant is offering people something. And though they can peel people away from it, they weren’t offering anything to fill that void. So they might just veer into traffic and kill themselves, taking their families along with them. This is where the idea of Tommy taking up Wayne’s mantle comes from, but when Tommy can’t sustain that, he turns to the group he has spent so much time infiltrating: the Guilty Remnant. Because they are offering something.
Perhaps it is also because he wants to know why Meg raped him, though he does not get much of an answer on that front. She says she was trying to get him pregnant, which is a joke and may be telling in relation to the attitude of the GR, but could not have been terribly satisfying to Tommy as an answer.
It’s not clear to what extent Tommy flirts with the idea of joining the Guilty Remnant. When he decides to travel to Jarden with Meg, his motives are ambiguous. After all, what initiates this is his comment that he would go there if he wanted a family—indicating that this is not what he wants, as much as it may be where he lands. I would suggest that Tommy’s motives here are not just ambiguous to us as viewers; they are ambiguous to Tommy himself. He does not know why he goes with Meg.
After the events on the bridge and the storming of the town by those who had been camped outside its border, Tommy seems to have decided on family as the best option. He is there when Kevin returns home, holding Lily. Ultimately, sometime between seasons two and three, he becomes a cop. Is this a case of a rebellious youth settling down, or something else? Perhaps it appears to be the former, but what has he repressed?
He kills Dean in a scene that recalls his earlier killing of an ATFEC agent. In both instances, Tommy acts as though he is OK. But is he? How could he be? And the same goes with Jill. She seems to be better adjusted in seasons two and three—caring for Lily, and calling out her dad for “fucking it up” with Nora—but can we really believe she is OK?
The last time we hear them is when Laurie gets a call from Jill about a video she loved as a kid—Today’s Special—and Tommy laughs in the background. Can we believe that they are happy? Perhaps they have each resolved the issue of nihilism, but it seems more likely that they have simply decided to ignore the worry. If nothing matters, what does it matter that nothing matters?
Nietzsche tries to cash this out in terms of a “great affirmation”: to affirm everything in life except that which says “No” to it; to deny any appeal to a transcendent value that would justify existence, but even more so to deny the appeal to a lack of a such a value. It is not that God does not exist; God is dead. The concept is dead, and if we could overcome our mourning and melancholia, then we could become what we are and live in a way that truly affirms life on its own terms.
Jill and Tommy do not seem to have achieved this. They simply go on, because it is better than the other available options. We learn that each eventually gets married, to mixed results. It would seem that they are like the rest of us, going about their lives, and trying not to let the existential dread set in.