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Why The Leftovers’ “Axis Mundi” is a Chaotic Masterpiece

Broken hearts and shattered lives like wreckage on the ground

The memories of those poor souls who were lost but never found

They shook their fists and cursed the sky demanding explanation

No answers came, no soothing words just silence and frustration

But in Jarden Town the sun shone bright – a miracle

The light of love poured down, it’s a miracle

Our hearts are pure we knew for sure – a miracle

That god had spared our town

                                                   – The Miracle Anthem

 

Picture this: a new show premieres and you spend ten episodes and over three months getting to know the core cast of characters and following them through moments of intense trauma, grief, happiness and everything in between. You then wait patiently for the show to return. In this case you wait an entire year for the second season to begin. Settling into the couch with a drink and snacks in hand, you turn on the TV and hear that familiar HBO static as the anticipation for your favourite show to return hits its crescendo. Then, as the show begins, you become incredibly confused and worry that you got the airtime wrong.

What you are watching is wholly unfamiliar to you, characters you don’t recognize in a location you’ve never seen before. To make matters worse, the characters that you know and love, the ones who you’ve waited all of this time to see on your screen again, don’t show up until the episode is almost over and you don’t learn anything about what has happened to them since you last left them.

A move like this should be the kiss of death for any show, but for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, it somehow not only works but elevates the show to another level. For those who don’t know, The Leftovers focuses on the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, an incident where 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappear without a trace.

Rather than centering the mystery of where and why these people disappeared, The Leftovers is more interested in its characters, in questions of humanity and how we deal and cope with the things we can’t explain. In the first season, we follow the lives of a handful of people in Mapleton, New York who have been affected by the Sudden Departure in many different ways. Kevin Garvey, his family and their close acquaintances are our main characters of the first season and are left facing an uncertain future when we leave them in the Season 1 finale. 

Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and a deer in HBO's The Leftovers

“Axis Mundi” is the premiere episode of Season 2 and does everything that I mentioned above. It still takes place in the same world—a world ravaged by pain and mystery—but brings us to a brand new location and introduces us to a brand new cast of characters. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, co-creator and writer Damon Lindelof says that he and Perrotta made their intentions known to HBO execs early on, telling them that “Axis Mundi” “will start in [a] new place from the point of view of a family we’ve never met before. Oh, and just so you know, the Garveys are barely going to be in it.” Luckily, HBO put their trust in the showrunners that this risky decision would pay off and let them go ahead with it.

The inspiration for this drastic shift in perspective is in the name of the episode itself. Lindelof and Perrotta came up with the idea during conversations with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar who worked with them on the show. According to Aslan, in an interview with Vulture, the concept of axis mundi (Latin for “earth axis”) comes from “the idea [that] there are parts of the planet that served as a cosmic pole around which the entire universe circles.”

A number of different things can be considered an axis mundi, including plants, mountains, columns of smoke and even man-made architectural structures. In a mythological sense, these items represent the connection between heaven and earth and hinge on the psychological concept that humans perceive themselves, the spot in which they stand, to be the center of the world. 

This center, for the one that perceives it, is always fixed and settled; it cannot be extended and everything that lies outside of its boundaries is cast in chaos and darkness. The Leftovers takes this concept and weaves it into the fabric of its Season 2 premiere in obvious ways and in ways that take multiple viewings to notice. At the meta level, “Axis Mundi” is simultaneously about the center and the chaos.

It brings us to Jarden, Texas, renamed Miracle, the only town in the world, to our knowledge, where not a single soul departed. Jarden, at the narrative level, is an axis mundi itself. In his Vulture interview, Aslan describes Jarden as having an “inherent sanctity and magic” that is “an eternal thing. It’s not just something that happened at the Sudden Departure.” Jarden was always special, its mystique enveloping everything from the local water spring to those who swim within it. It is a place of safety and calm that has its magic enhanced by the Sudden Departure rather than being thrown into chaos like the rest of the world that surrounds it. 

At the same time, “Axis Mundi” is darkness, is the unknown. For the audience of The Leftovers, this Jarden of Eden is a microcosm of order and disorder. Jarden is, in this first episode of the season, a known and settled place that has been untouched by the Sudden Departure but is also, for fans of the show, completely unknown based on our knowledge from Season 1. For us, Mapleton and the Garveys have been our axis mundi, our center of this world, our bridge between heaven and earth, between fiction and reality.

A sign for Jarden, Texas in Axis Mundi

And now suddenly we are thrust into a new place full of new faces and told that our perception of this world needs to change, and fast. The shift is a refreshing slap in the face that shows the full potential of an axis mundi as an idea that thrives on contradictions and complexities, that allows us to center our own perspectives but also asks us to open ourselves up to the possibilities that more than one place can have an important story to tell.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.

“Axis Mundi” is written by showrunner Damon Lindelof and producer Jacqueline Hoyt, and is directed by my favourite Leftovers director, Mimi Leder. Along with being set in a new location, the episode opens up in a way we haven’t seen before, with a cold open more reminiscent of a Terrence Malick movie than a television series. Lindelof pretty poetically describes the cold open of “Axis Mundi” as an overture for what’s to come:

[An overture] is what it sounds like when the orchestra is warming up and you’re getting a sense of all the things they’re going to play later but without entirely going for it…I love the idea of doing stuff that will make people say, ‘I hate this, those pretentious f*cks.’

Those who are fans of Lindelof’s work will know that the man rarely, if ever, does anything for the sake of pretense, even though it may appear that way on the surface. 

The episode opens in prehistoric times (when I said let’s start from the beginning, I wasn’t kidding) and is completely without dialogue. Only Leder’s painterly imagery and Max Richter’s soul-searing music guide the audience through this new terrain. We see a very pregnant cavewoman emerge from her cave in the middle of a clear night. A bird is silhouetted against the moon and lets out a cry into the vast landscape and, as this mystery woman begins to relieve herself, an earthquake rocks the land and causes boulders to fall onto the opening of the cave, trapping what we assume to be her family inside.

This is the first Sudden Departure, our first imagery of borders and boundaries this season, our first hint at some of the orchestral notes that will repeat throughout the season. Richter’s score kicks in here and, even though we’ve never met this woman before, we instantly feel deeply for her as she goes into labour and, panic-stricken and alone, gives birth to her child. Her teeth gnash at the umbilical cord, severing the fleshy connection between herself and her baby as she nurtures the child against her chest. 

Unnamed woman caring for her child in Axis Mundi

Time passes and the bird appears again, cawing and attracting the woman’s attention to a spiralling pillar of black smoke in the distance, our first axis mundi. The smoke represents life and the ability to connect with others again. But, as those of us who are fans of Lost can attest, black smoke can also be a harbinger of death. In this moment, we also notice the woman is wearing a bird’s feather around her neck, signalling a connection between human and nature, a sense that this bird may be purposefully helping our isolated mother out.

The woman sets off towards the smoke, towards this sign of life, and stops on the way to search for some food. She leaves her baby on the ground and climbs a tree towards a bird’s nest. In a moment that perfectly represents the juxtaposition between order and chaos, the woman eats an egg out of the bird’s nest, the first food she has likely had in a long time. Initially, it may seem like this is a reciprocal act, another example of the bird helping humanity. But it isn’t long before we realize that this egg is Eve’s apple.

Moments after taking the first bite, the woman hears hissing and looks down to find a snake slithering across her baby’s body. She rushes to save the child but is bitten on the arm before beating the snake dead. As the bite and her health get progressively worse, the woman pushes on towards the smoke but collapses after crossing a spring, the last breaths of life leaving her lungs as her child cries in her limp arms. As she takes her final breath, the last image she sees before dying is the bird flying above. After a moment passes, another woman appears and rescues the child, leaving its mother’s body alone on the rocks as Richter’s score swells in the background, bringing the audience to tears and ending our overture.

Unnamed woman dying in Axis Mundi

This cold open is a meaty one, full of meaningful and metaphorical imagery that contextualizes and deepens much of what happens in the rest of the episode, the rest of the season, and the rest of the show. One thing it solidifies without a shadow of a doubt, which was confirmed by Lindelof himself after the series finale, is that Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) is our lead protagonist. Although she may not have been central from the very beginning and barely features in “Axis Mundi” at all, The Leftovers is Nora’s story and the next two seasons very much play to that idea.

When we left Nora in the final moments of Season 1, she had just found a baby in a basket on the Garveys’ porch. This baby, who the audience knows was left on the porch by Tom Garvey for his father, is taken in by Nora, Kevin and Jill, and rounds out their newly-formed family. Nora, who lost her two children and husband in the Sudden Departure, is given the thing she wants the most, a new baby, as if out of thin air, and takes the child’s appearance as a chance to correct the mistakes she believed she made as a mother to her own departed son and daughter.

Nora and Lily in Axis Mundi

Every character and every moment in the overture of “Axis Mundi” represents a part of Nora and her story. When we meet her, she is the woman who is tragically and instantly severed from her entire family in a single moment, left to figure out this new, chaotic world on her own. Then she becomes the woman who selflessly takes in an abandoned child as her own, caring and providing for a baby when its mother could no longer do so.

At the same time, however, she is the woman who selfishly consumes the egg of another in the hopes that it will fill the growing hole inside her. She assumes that this child, left for someone else, was meant to be hers and that assumption ends up biting her in the end and leaving her to die alone. This story, and many of the themes in The Leftovers, is, like an axis mundi, all about perception, and asks the question: what, or who, (un)settles you?

After the overture, the episode transitions into present day. Leder’s camerawork, which pans from the deceased prehistoric mother to three young teens swimming in the same spring, lets us know two things: that we have stayed in the same location but have definitely jumped through time. We are now in present-day Jarden and are starting to be introduced to the new family who will be our focal point throughout this episode and who will intertwine with the characters we know and love from Season 1. The episode, like the overture, does a great job in letting the audience know who these characters are and what to expect of them in a short amount of time. It also uses the characters to let us get a glimpse into the world of Jarden in a way that feels natural.

Evie and her friends at the spring in Axis Mundi

First, we meet Evie Murphy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who is seemingly having a fun, relaxing afternoon with her two friends in the spring. Evie appears bubbly and outgoing, playfully interacting with a man taking test samples of the spring’s water as her friends beg her to leave him alone. As Evie and her friends towel off, we get a glimpse of two large signs erected near the spring. One sign tells us that the area is for residents only and that no visitors will be permitted, with a large “no fair” spray-painted over it. The second sign is harsher in tone, warning all who visit the spring that removal of the water is strictly prohibited and punishable as a criminal offence.

Before getting into the car to head home, Evie pulls out a water bottle and defiantly kneels down beneath the sign and fills the bottle with water, sealing the cap and placing it in her backpack. Evie and her friends then drive home in a silence thick with…something, appearing to be empty shells of the giggling girls we saw moments ago. In this scene, we learn that water is a seemingly sacred commodity in Jarden, prohibited to be removed by anyone except the unknown scientists who test it for who knows what. And we also learn that Evie isn’t buying into the bullshit and is willing to openly break the rules. 

Evie returns home from the spring and it is here we meet the rest of the Murphys: Michael (Jovan Adepo), John (Kevin Carroll) and Erica (Regina King). The audience quickly gets an answer to why Evie brought home the water as she hands it to her brother, Michael, who proceeds to pour the water into small glass vials. Erica, Evie’s mother, is cooking breakfast for the family and pestering Evie about whether or not she remembered to take her medication during her sleepover.

We then cut to the family in the bedroom, where John, the patriarch of the Murphy family, is in a deep sleep and holding the rest of the family up from enjoying their breakfast. An entertaining scene ensues, where the family begins balancing objects on John’s chest, stacking books higher and higher before they eventually fall and wake him up. Although lighthearted on the surface, this moment reveals much about John as a man who commits to one thing so deeply that he may miss the more important things right on top of him.

John is an obsessive man, a trait that is only further revealed through the presence of the cricket that continuously chirps but remains undiscoverable in the Murphy’s house. Throughout the episode, we watch John become enraptured with the cricket, vowing to stop at nothing to find it and shut it up. This yearning to be in control, to shape the narrative around him and his environment, is, like Evie’s open defiance, a trait that will become important in episodes to come. 

We then continue our tour of Jarden, now following Michael as he rides his bike through town. On his ride, he passes some odd sights, including a massive crack in the pavement covered in plexiglass and identified as “#7,” a woman wearing a wedding dress while watering her lawn, and a disheveled-looking man who lives at the top of a tower and who Michael delivers food to via a bucket and a rope. In the center of town, Jarden’s axis mundi, we are introduced to the true nature of the place, to what Jarden has become after the Sudden Departure. Michael enters a market and proceeds to a stall where he begins setting up his vials of Jarden Spring Water and pamphlets for the local church. After a small earthquake, reminiscent to the one in the opening, rumbles through the town, we see a line of buses enter and a massive wave of tourists descend on the town square.

The man in the Jarden tower in Axis Mundi

All different types of people from every age, sex, race and religion come to experience the miracle of Miracle, Texas as they get off the bus and act blessed to even be able to breathe in the town’s air. A couple of international tourists approach Michael’s stall and ask him how much for the water. Michael insists that he will take whatever the couple deems acceptable and seems more interested in promoting the church. The male tourist, angered by this response, asks whether the water will protect him, to which Michael responds, “it’s just a souvenir.” As the exasperated couple walk away, the audience knows that Michael could’ve lied, could’ve told the couple that it would save them and charge an exorbitant price for the vial. But he chooses not to, showing us that the miracle of Jarden is perceived differently for those who are forced to live within it.

Lastly, we follow John as he visits a house adorned with a long line of tourists down its porch. Inside is Isaac, a man offering psychical services and a chance for people to get a glimpse into their futures during such an uncertain time. John, clearly a skeptic of these practices, asks for his own reading and is told that something bad is going to happen to him. Like his children, John turns his nose up at the bullshit of Miracle and asks his “magical” friend to admit to his ruse.

When he refuses to admit to his ruse, insisting that what he does is for real, John, who we learn is the Jarden Fire Chief, returns in the night with his squad and burns the house down, throwing his childhood friend through the front window when he chooses to burn with the house instead of giving John what he wants to hear. In a town full of believers and non-believers alike, it is John’s fervent belief in non-believing that comes through the strongest and manifests itself in dangerous and violent ways.

John and his firefighter squad in Axis Mundi

John’s dangerous side becomes even more relevant when, at the 38-minute mark in the episode, we get our first glimpse of a character who we’ve met before. Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), who is covering for the local Jarden reverend while he is out on medical leave, speaks to the congregation about the mystical, special feeling he and his wife Mary have experienced since moving to Jarden. Matt is cutoff mid-proclamation but not before John notices him, with the audience led to believe that Matt may be John’s next target.

As we near the tail end of the episode, a U-Haul pulls up beside the Murphy’s house on John’s birthday, a U-Haul pulled by the Garveys truck. The Garveys, we now find out, have chosen to move to Jarden and have coincidentally moved in right next door to the Murphys. John, wanting to get the scoop on his new neighbours, and why they have decided to move to his town, invites the Garveys over to his birthday barbecue. The Garveys oblige and the two families mingle for the first time, learning about each other as the audience watches intently.

We learn that John did prison time for attempted murder and that the Garveys decided on Jarden thanks to Matt’s glowing recommendation. The conversations are breezy and light between our old friendly faces and the ones we just met over the course of the last hour. But the lightness is sharply cut as Evie, while carrying out John’s birthday cake, seems to freeze in place, dropping the cake and disappearing momentarily into another place. She comes back and is scolded by her mother again for not taking her epilepsy meds, the incident signalling the end of this meeting of two worlds. 

The Murphys and the Garveys in Axis Mundi

The episode draws to a close as another earthquake rocks Jarden, this time much harder than the last. The Murphys awake to find Evie missing, seemingly never having returned from a night drive with her friends. John and Michael take off to the spring, a favourite spot of Evie’s and the place where we first met her. Once they arrive, they find her friend’s car still running, music blaring, with Evie’s phone lighting up in the front seat. The girls are nowhere to be seen. Even more unsettlingly, the spring that was once filled with Jarden’s restricted and sought-after water is now bone dry, with flopping fish and a large crack through its center being all that remains. 

And so we are given our main mystery of the season: what happened to Evie Murphy? Did the Sudden Departure return to collect its dues from Jarden or is it something more sinister? Ending where we began, so many centuries ago, “Axis Mundi” runs audiences through the gamut of emotions and tests the limits of what it means to be in a sacred place. For those who call a place like Jarden home, it is just another place overrun with desperate tourists who will do anything, and spend anything, to capture a piece of its magic. And for those who see Jarden as Miracle, it is a pulsing axis mundi, a place that was rewarded with protection from the Sudden Departure as if it was a gift from God itself.

There is something about this place, that’s for sure. Jarden is a rich, captivating new location for the show, layered with mystery and intriguing characters. But it also, after an hour of us being told about its protective powers, is a place that swallows its own, whether that be into the complex mythologies that envelop the town or into the literal depths of its earth. Through its daring narrative choices and its compelling cast of new characters, “Axis Mundi” slaps a visitor band onto your wrist and doesn’t let you go, enticing you into the mysteries of Miracle and having you eager to stay and find out what is going to happen next.

Stephanie Edwards

Written by Stephanie Edwards

Stephanie Edwards is a PhD student in English and Cultural Studies. She is obsessed with The X-Files, coffee, and horror films, and wishes to be a cinematographer in the next life. You can find her on Twitter @stephanieadele_

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