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The Leftovers: Two Boats and a Helicopter

"If it was a test, then I think you may be failing it."

Like the titular parable, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" is a cautionary tale. In this case, it's not the story of a man who can't recognize divine intervention in its everyday forms. Instead, this is the story of a man whose every triumph and trial further convinces him of his personal connection to the almighty, and woe to the person who suggests otherwise. This is the story of a man who, upon learning that a little girl has woken from a coma, is more disappointed than relieved, because he could not take personal credit for her recovery.

As Josie mentioned in her original discussion of "Two Boats and a Helicopter", this episode deserves the praise it received. It's a tightly focused character study of someone who had previously only appeared on the periphery of the main storylines. Matt, as a priest single-handedly running a church with a decimated congregation, is a complicated character. The episode paints him as neither a hero nor a villain, but rather as someone who is so convinced of his own righteousness that it blinds him to any errors in his actions. In other words, it's about human nature.

The episode carefully balances the different aspects of Matt's personality. He is a man capable of generosity and tenderness, but also violence and cruelty. Here he is, donating clothing to members of the Guilty Remnant ("I'm sorry, I don't have anything in white"). There he is, breaking his sister's grieving heart all over again by outing her departed husband as an adulterer. Here he is, conducting a tender, pro-bono baptism for a new father, and there he is, pounding the head of a would-be thief into the pavement. It's all justified in his eyes, because, as Nora puts it, "you decided it was your calling, your purpose, like you were personally selected by god". This is religious narcissism at its most destructive.

"Does he decide that he was punished or that he was rewarded?" Matt asks early in the episode. He doesn't realize that it's a trick question, because it leaves out a third option: that he was neither punished nor rewarded, and both his childhood leukemia and his recovery were simply random occurrences in a chaotic world. (Sometimes, a pigeon is just a pigeon.)

The strength of the episode is that it doesn't condemn Matt's choices or beliefs. It shows how Matt's conviction was shaped by childhood suffering and loss, and how terrifying the implications of 10/14 must be to someone who sees himself as a modern-day Job, singled out by God to be both a sufferer and a savior. It takes a similarly even-handed approach to religion in general. The baptism scene is directed beautifully, without irony, the soft music and sunlit shots communicating the comfort and power that faith and ritual still hold. The Guilty Remnant may have won this battle, but the war isn't over.

Bits and Pieces:

— I forgot to mention this in my previous review, but I have not read the source novel by Tom Perrotta, so comparisons between the two will not be forthcoming.

— Matt's wife, Mary, can be seen in a wheelchair at the front of the church when he is delivering the sermon that opens the episode. Subtle and heartbreaking.

— I loved the echoes of the baptism in Matt's bathing of Mary and in the painting of Job on Matt and Mary's bedroom wall.

— The painting is Albrecht Durer's Job on the Dungheap. Matt is the only person in history to have fetishized this painting.

— Were Matt's three days asleep in the hospital a deliberate reference to the three days before Jesus' resurrection? This episode is so thoughtfully assembled that I'm going to assume it's deliberate.

— Once again, this episode features a curious time jump. Matt re-buries the can of cash while it's still nighttime, and in the next scene he's still on his way home, in bright daylight. Just how big is Mapleton?

— Show, you are quickly using up your allotted number of dream sequences per season.

— ...but I'll give you a freebie if you include more scenes between Carrie Coon and Christopher Eccleston. They play off each other so very well, and their "I love you but sometimes I don't like you" sibling chemistry feels completely natural. (Also, I keep coming back to the layers upon layers of betrayal in his dropping the adultery bombshell on her. He "has the receipts"? Just how many gross violations of her privacy did that investigation require? Much as I'd love more scenes between the two of them, Nora, I'd understand if you never want to speak to your brother again.)


Matt: "I'd say stop me if you've heard this one before, but you have, and I don't really want to be stopped."

Matt: "People need to hear the tru-"
Nora: "People need to punch you in the face!"

Advertisement: "With as little as a single photograph, Loved Ones can create a tangible likeness of your departed, a bereavement figure for burial or cremation, allowing you and your family to finally begin to feel hope again." (Of course someone would find a way to monetize 10/14.)

Matt: "If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering is meaningless."
Security Guard: "I think I know what happened to your face."

Overall Rating:

"Two Boats and a Helicopter" scores high marks across the board for acting, writing, and directing. It's the confident, high-quality result of a series blessed with solid source material, a talented cast, and experienced showrunners. It's the kind of story-within-a-story episode that Lindelof & co. perfected in Lost.

However, I can't quite give it four stars. One reason is the narrative misstep in having Matt (briefly) lose his casino winnings in such a frustratingly dumb way. More importantly, it's because four stars leaves no room for improvement, and I'm convinced that The Leftovers' best episodes are yet to come. The series is still in scene-setting mode, so it's not surprising that, despite its obvious craft, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" doesn't include any major emotional or narrative payoffs. I have no doubt that future episodes will.

Three and a half out of four bets on red,
Mothra isn't used to having this many tabs open to Bible verses.


  1. This was the episode I went from very intrigued to deeply invested in this show. It was like the 'Walkabout' episode of Lost, in that way.

    "The Guilty Remnant may have won this battle, but the war isn't over."

    I love that you frame it this way. Because my first thought when I saw the staredown between Matt and Patti at the end was, "It's war now."

    1. Yes! FWIW, my money's always gonna be on Patti.


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