“The Garveys at Their Best”
Directed by Daniel Sackheim | Written by Kath Lingenfelter & Damon Lindelof | 55 min
The flashback to end all flashbacks
By Colin Hart
9.6 / 10
“The Garveys at Their Best”—one of The Leftovers’ very best episodes—is immensely powerful. The ending floored me; a showstopper with the weight of a ton of bricks (or a ton of tears, take your pick).
But this is a most unique episode—invariably, it could have worked at any given point in The Leftovers’ run. “The Garveys at Their Best” is a flashback episode, showing us the events on and just before that infamous October 14th. It doesn’t contain any answers as to why the Sudden Departure happened, but it does tell us a lot about the characters.
Could it have worked as the pilot? Most certainly. The reveals at the end—which vividly detail the immediate pain and trauma of the Sudden Departure—would be just as powerful in reverse. Knowing the bleak reality at the center of this show right off the bat could have helped shine more empathy on slogs like “Penguin One, Us Zero” and “BJ and the AC.”
Hell, this episode could have been thrown somewhere in the middle of season three and still fit perfectly. But, perhaps, the penultimate slot in season one is the perfect spot for “The Garveys at Their Best.” We’ve been with these characters long enough to know that they are a rightfully depressed bunch, but to finally see why they are the way they are makes all the difference.
In hindsight, this episode can make the memory of past episodes even better. For example— “Guest” seems even more powerful now that we can understand what it was like for Nora Durst to lose her entire family.
The first thing you’ll notice is just how different the atmosphere is. These characters’ past selves are completely different from what we’ve grown accustomed to throughout season one.
Laurie is walking freely around the house, talking, joking, laughing. No Guilty Remnant in sight (about that…) She seems happy, stable job as a psychiatrist, but there are problems bubbling under the surface. She’s pregnant, for one, and has yet to tell Kevin, possibly considering an abortion. The family buying a new dog is a masterful metaphor to visualize Laurie’s internal struggle.
For someone who has not uttered a single word the entire season, Laurie Garvey walks out of this episode as one of my new favorites. I gained such an understanding of her character that I almost feel like “Penguin One, Us Zero,” “BJ and the AC” and “Gladys” all deserve a rewatch. Almost.
What Laurie goes through at the end of this episode—final scene, in fact—is so powerful that it completely justifies the existence of the Guilty Remnant. A compliment so bold that it is almost an oxymoron.
You’ll be amazed to find out Jill Garvey—y’know, depressed buzzkill with the black hair—was at one time a giggly-bubbly normal teen. Actress Margaret Qualley effectively pulls this off by wearing braces and erupting into giggles every sentence, but, hey, it works. Nihilist Jill is far more sympathetic now that we’ve seen what she once was.
Same goes for Tom. Before the Departure happened, his boyish charms didn’t get him into trouble with false prophets and woozy Asians. Back then, he was the people’s champ, the surrogate family’s pride and joy. His only hang-ups were his abandonment issues with his biological father.
In season one’s present, however, Tom has been quite disconnected, completely cut off from the main goings-on. It’s been hard to invest in him. As a result, his is the only arc in which “The Garveys at Their Best” does not significantly deepen. Tom—like most people, probably—was much happier before the Departure than after. We don’t see any signs here that suggest he will one day run off to the Midwest in search of prophets, power and punani.
The one character who doesn’t seem to change (as antiheroes are wont to do) is Kevin. He is the same handsome, moody prick we saw in the previous eight episodes—a mid-life “everything’s not enough” crisis in permanent stasis.
It is through Kevin’s all-too-familiar outlook that the shiny façade fazes out and an aura of impending doom seeps in. He is distant and inconsiderate to Laurie, distant and disconnected with Jill, compassionate yet hollow to Tom and suffering from daddy issues of his own with Chief Kevin Garvey Sr.
If your childhood memories consist of your father quoting the deadpan naturalism of Stephen Crane, then you were probably prepared for the Sudden Departure from the very start.
The impending doom sets in and “The Garveys at Their Best” soon becomes an inevitable tragedy rolling downhill in slow motion. The moment of Sudden Departure draws near as the lives of the major players—Kevin, Nora and Laurie—are starting to spiral out of control anyway.
Kevin’s episode-long odyssey to the dark side leads him to a sleazy motel room where he is cheating on his wife. Nora, meanwhile, is in her kitchen, cursing out her children for misbehaving, while Laurie considers the state of her marriage with a new (possibly unwanted) child on the way. She finds herself in the hospital for a sonogram.
And then the climactic moment comes. A scream from down the hall.
Kevin’s mistress has disappeared in the throes of fucking. He looks under the sheets. Nora turns around to find her entire family gone, spilt orange juice still intact. And Laurie turns to look at the fetus on the monitor, only to see…
“The Garveys at Their Best” is an impeccably crafted episode of television, and a real turning point in The Leftovers’ run. It ties together the entire season through exquisite nuance—the anticipation of a “big,” meaningful episode like this finally paying off. In a way, it is the key to the entire series.
From this point onward, The Leftovers will operate at an extremely high level of efficiency comparable to peak-Breaking Bad or even peak-Wire. Even though “The Garveys at Their Best” could have worked as a pilot or a series finale, it kick-starts a flawless run of TV that earns The Leftovers a top spot in the Canon.
Hell, this episode could have been a standalone short film and still been a fine piece of art.
-The tie-ins to the series’ present-day are also interesting to note. In particular, Laurie treating Patti as a patient. Patti’s worrisome premonition—that something terrible is going to happen and “you (Laurie) can feel it too”—turns out to be on the money.
-In a future where the Guilty Remnant exists, all signs point to Laurie joining them. Patti as a patient and Gladys as a puppy-seller, for two. She also stumbles upon an interesting Remnant-esque quote: “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.” And, of course, Laurie suffers perhaps the hardest Departure of all—an unborn baby taken right from her uterus.
-Since ambiguity is a constant theme with The Leftovers, should we consider the fact that maybe Laurie’s baby didn’t depart? All signs point the other way (i.e. her reaction), but we never actually get to see the screen. Perhaps she chose to get an abortion shortly after the Sudden Departure, the immense guilt driving her to leave her family.
-Throughout the episode, Kevin sees a mysterious glowing stag. He has had a strange connection with similarly ambiguous animals throughout the season, including a deer in the “Pilot.” The stag is eventually hit by a car—Kevin needing a bullet to put it out of its misery—driven by the woman that Kevin will later sleep with.
-Any clues to the Sudden Departure? Not really, but there are some strange occurrences that could prove vital. The first, obviously, is the glowing stag. Was it some sort of sign from above, or was it just symbolism relating to Kevin’s morality?
-Secondly: is Patti’s chilling premonition a lucky guess by a manic depressive, or a foreboding sixth sense?
-Third, while Kevin is having a roadside smoke during his morning jog, a car pulls up to him. “Are you ready?” the lady asks. “Excuse me?” Kevin replies. She turns to the other middle-aged ladies in the car and says, “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else” before driving off. Magic? Conspiracy?
-The final “clue”: the man-hole cover randomly blowing off just yards away from Kevin. Tremors in the Earth? Is science to blame?
-Or maybe it was all just cruel cosmic justice? Extreme instant karma? Kevin cheats on his wife, Laurie considers an abortion and Nora wants to be free of her family for a little bit. Be careful what you wish for?
-Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage), while not well-known for his poetry, happens to be one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. His early miniatures— “A man said to the universe” and “In the desert,” among others—are thought-provoking masterpieces of free verse and metaphysical humor.
-Groovy party soundtrack: Steely Dan’s “Only a Fool Would Say That.”
– “As far as you’re concerned, the next four weeks I don’t have a family.”
– “A man said to the universe
‘Sir,’ I exist
‘However,’ the universe replied
‘The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation’”