The Leftovers: In Defense of the Guilty Remnant

I hear the Shadowy Horses, their long manes a-shake,
Their hoofs heavy with tumult, their eyes glimmering white;
The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night,
The East her hidden joy before the morning break,
The West weeps in pale dew and sighs passing away,
The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire:
O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay:
Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet. 

– William Butler Yeats, “Michael Robartes bids his Beloved be at Peace” (1899)

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The world has ended. Nothing about you matters. There is no family. Stop talking. Smoke cigarettes. Dress in all white. Paint the windows. Remember, and don’t let them forget. The world has ended. We are but a remnant. The catastrophe has happened; the eschaton, if you want to get religious about it. That doesn’t matter, either. We remain, but that’s certainly nothing to feel good about.

Is the Guilty Remnant a cult? It fits the bill in some senses, but not in others. A cult tends to have a charismatic leader, whose death it rarely survives, for example. One might even be tempted to make this a matter of definition: survive the death of the charismatic leader and the cult becomes a religion. How else might we mark the distinction?

Well, there is also the level of devotion cults call for, which cuts against all other forms of attachment: to family, societal norms, and so on. Here the GR seems to fit the bill. But cults further tend to offer some kind of salvation, or utopian vision. The GR does not do this. They recruit, but only by reminding people of the Departure.

They stand outside of your house silently smoking to force you to remember. They buy the Loved Ones™ dummies and place them in your homes to force you to remember. Never forget.

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That is a phrase that gets bandied about whenever a big event, such as 9/11, occurs: “Never Forget.” You can get it on a poster with the Twin Towers in the background and hang it on your wall. But, of course, we do forget. We have to. It’s a survival mechanism. Sure, those of us who were alive when it happened remember, but we don’t think about it every day. If we did so, we might not be able to continue going about our lives.

That’s what the Guilty Remnant wants, in light of this event even bigger than a heinous act of terrorism. Think about the Departure every day, all day. Do not continue going about your life. That’s over. The world is over.

Dress in white to mark the blankness, and your refusal of colorful distractions. Paint the windows. Hand out pamphlets that read “Everything that matters about you is inside” on the cover, and the inside is blank.

Stop talking, because breath is spirit. It is not communication that the GR eschews—they are happy enough to write words down—but the expression of the self through breath, insofar as this would indicate an esprit. The letter (writing) is not the spirit (talking). They smoke for the same reason: to quell the breath/spirit. They offer a purpose—a reason to exist, as Patti puts it—but not a notion that life is meaningful; on the contrary, meaningfulness is over. The point isn’t why the Departure happened; it is accepting that it did. Accept that the world—defined as the totality of meaningful events in space and time—has ended. And, yet, we remain. What else is worth thinking about?

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Is this an extreme reaction to the unexplained departure of two percent of the world’s population? What is interesting about the GR’s position is that it isn’t laden with religious dogma. It offers no explanation. On the contrary, it insists on tarrying with the lack of explanation. They are gone, and we remain, left over. Perhaps the only ethical reaction is to live constantly in the space of survivor’s guilt. Because this isn’t quite nihilism, either. The GR may hold that nothing matters, but they also hold that it deeply matters that nothing matters. I suppose one might think of it almost as nihilism as religion, but that framing risks missing the point. A comparison to Albert Camus’ The Stranger gets closer, but instead of Meursault enjoying wine and a swim with a pretty girl we have silence and harassing people to make them remember that life is absurd (smoking and murder are held in common).

There is a town in Texas from which no one departed, and so they started calling it Miracle. They think they are special. They aren’t. And they need to be reminded of this. So Evie Murphy and her friends fake their own departure. How exactly they were recruited by the GR is never made clear, and some may wonder why three young women from a town that lost no one on October 14th found the movement to be appealing. However, this is not difficult to fathom. One must simply recall what it is like to be a rebellious youth.

A song has been written about Jarden, which we see Evie and her friends (being forced to) sing with their school choir. Watch that scene again, and pay attention to Evie’s facial expressions. She clearly thinks the song is saccharine bullshit. Jarden isn’t special, but just got lucky. They made it a park called Miracle, and people wait and struggle to get in. They think the water may have magical properties, and so on. It’s stupid. Whether she and her friends are right about that is something the show will leave ambiguous, but it is not hard to understand her position, or the plan.

Fake a Departure in Jarden to undermine people’s faith in the status of the town as Miracle. Make everyone remember what happened on October 14th, even in this place where it did not occur. Meg arrives and makes the authorities believe she intends to blow up the bridge, before the three missing girls exit the trailer. All of this is merely a distraction, though, as the real plan is for the GR to storm the bridge at the appointed time, sure to be followed by all of the others in the camp outside of town. It is to break down the barrier between Jarden and the rest of the world. In this sense it is the opposite of blowing up the bridge. If the world ended, then Jarden is surely not exempt.

Does it make sense to think that the world has ended because of October 14th? Not to everyone, and this may seem to be the weak point in the GR’s philosophy. But the thought is illustrated nicely when we see what finally pushed Laurie Garvey to join them. Sam’s mother tells her story about struggling to get pregnant, and then returning to the spot of baby Sam’s departure every day in case he comes back. She wants to know whether that is rational, but Laurie can’t tell her.

The world didn’t end in the sense that there are no human beings left; it ended in terms of its rationality. If this can occur, and we can’t figure out why, nothing makes sense. Could Sam reappear in that parking lot tomorrow? Who knows? Death is final; it’s closed. The Departure is dreadfully open.

What should one do? The GR at least offers an answer. Stop talking. Remember.

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Of course, the GR does a number of heinous things, the worst of which may be arranging the stoning of Gladys. Patti tells Kevin that she was willing, but we got to see it happen, and it was brutal—brutal enough that she broke her silence and begged for mercy. And why did they do this? In an attempt to make her impossible to forget. The Guilty Remnant strives to be a living reminder of the Departure. Gladys represents an experiment with being a dead one.

Patti’s suicide can be read along similar lines. She doesn’t kill herself because she wants to die (though she may well view her life as meaningless) but in order to keep Kevin from getting out of the situation he created. He kidnapped her, after all, even if he doesn’t remember doing it, and she’s not about to let him take that back. She kills herself to make her death his fault, and while one could quibble over whether that makes sense rationally, it certainly does spiritually. She wants him to understand, and aims to make herself a dead reminder of that understanding.

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Thus, she haunts him. This could be read in the metaphysically thick way that Virgil suggests (Patti’s soul is stuck to Kevin’s), or in a thinner way that treats the issue psychologically, as someone like Laurie would suggest. The show may tend in the direction of the former interpretation, but is all the stronger for never fully resolving such ambiguities. To ask whether it is really Patti talking to Kevin from beyond the grave is largely to miss the point, which is a thematic one. He understands the Guilty Remnant, and she continues to remind him even though she is dead. He is responsible for her death, even though she did it to herself. Of course it haunts him.

Whether this was cruelty on Patti’s part may well depend on how one thinks of the Guilty Remnant overall. The same goes for their placing of Loved Ones™ dummies of the departed in the places from which they left, including the houses of their families. It certainly seems cruel, from a certain point of view, to confront people so tangibly with those they have lost. Just imagine doing this with regard to someone who died. It is understandable that the town gets angry enough to burn GR houses down because of this. But then there is Nora Durst, who sits down with the mannequins in her kitchen, holds their silicone hands, and has herself a good think.

As much as we want to label the Guilty Remnant a cult, and as much as they act in ways we may find reprehensible, the fact is that we do understand them. Perhaps there has not been a Sudden Departure, but we face analogous senselessness all of the time. The world is full of inexplicable death and violence. We try not to think about it, simply to be able to go on. A horrendous event occurs, and we say that we will “Never Forget” but we do, and we must, in order to live. In this regard, the only difference when it comes to the Departure is one of scale; it is the enormity of the event that makes the Guilty Remnant plausible, whereas the same movement occurring in the world we inhabit would seem to be an overreaction to the vagaries of existence.

From another point of view, though, there may seem to be a category difference at play. After all, the Departure is not simply a matter of great numbers of people dying. It cuts against science and everything we thought we knew about what can be known. It violates our notions of the laws of Nature, and our presumptions about their consistency.

But those are, precisely, presumptions. We presume that things will keep going along in the same way, and that they always have. Maybe the ancients didn’t have the concept of gravity that we do, but that doesn’t mean they could fly like Superman. There is a difference between knowledge and being, and while we may struggle to know, we presume that being is knowable; that our means for knowing the world are suited to do so.

What if that’s wrong? Rene Descartes worried about it, and appealed to a God that does not deceive. David Hume worried about it, and could do no better than appeal to Human Nature. Friedrich Nietzsche worried about it, and rejected the idea that our means for knowing the world are well-suited to the task. Take whatever position you will; the presumption of a harmony between thought and being seems fairly groundless, rationally speaking. Perhaps we cannot help but believe that the laws of nature don’t change, but what kind of evidence is that?

As such, the Departure does not present a category difference so much as it thematizes an absurdity we don’t want to grapple with. We might think we understand death because we can identify causes and bury corpses, but we do not. We don’t know what it is any more than we can grasp the meaning of the Departure. All we know is that it will happen to each of us, but we don’t like to think about that. Yet, as Patti Levin says, what else is worth thinking about?

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