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“Penguin One, Us Zero” is a great follow up to The Leftovers’ pilot episode. If the first installment was about introducing the bleak nature of this world and establishing tone and atmosphere, then this second chapter is all about providing some answers and clarity on some of the many ambiguities shown in the first episode. It is a potentially dicey venture to demystify some of the vague, unknown aspects of the intriguing pilot (most of which added to the captivating quality of the story), but it certainly works. Regardless of however many answers and explanations we could get, there will always remain an air of mystery due to the inscrutable event that spurred these strange happenings.
That being said the first scene is a total exposition bomb, a little too straightforward, but necessary as Wayne (and his entire compound) was such a vague figure in the pilot. The consequent sequence with the swat team was appropriately intense and helped align us with Tom, whom we are supposed to root for. It is unclear if that swat team belonged to an official law enforcement agency (CIA, FBI, what have you) their methods were a bit too brutal and bullish (freely firing their guns, injuring those which we thought they were there to protect). Perhaps this is another organization risen from the aftermath of the great event with some undefined ulterior motives. Who knows? Despite the intense beginning to this particular storyline, it was the weakest in an episode full of engaging plotlines. Sure, there is enough weirdness and vagueness that keeps one interested in the shady ways of Wayne the hugger, but the characters in this part of the story are just not as compelling as the rest of the ensemble and the thriller/suspense aspects of it are not as compelling as the show wants them to be. The performances are solid and there is definitely potential there, but it hasn’t been fully realized yet.
I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the teenagers’ escapade throughout the hour. Often in television dramas the teenage characters become irritating nuisances that form exhaustive narratives which ultimately distract from more compelling material, but the writers (and I’m guessing Perrota’s novel) did a great job incorporating their experience and making it fit into the themes and atmosphere of the series seamlessly. The chemistry between the four actors was fantastic, and in a show that is so relentlessly grim as The Leftovers can be, these characters offer a welcome respite from the general dreariness. It makes sense that the younger generation would have a markedly different reaction to the big disappearance, which manifests in an almost nihilistic behavior. (A great example of that is the crazy spin the bottle app game they play in the pilot.) There is a sense of recklessness to their conduct that goes beyond the average phase of teenage rebellion. It drives them to pursue Nora Durst because, why not? They don’t really have anything better to do, certainly not school. The gun in her purse (“not some bullshit lady-gun”) is a much more pressing matter.
It was fun to witness the giddiness and overall rapport between Jill and Aimee (a character that is quickly becoming a favorite to watch. “You’re a man?” Great line delivery) and get a greater understanding of their personalities and friendship. And in the midst of all this unruliness, Nora’s mini arc was incredibly compelling and touching. Her scene with the older couple was heartbreaking and effective and showed yet another side of the great consequences the disappearance has had on society. Also, it was interesting to see her have some self-awareness and exploit her position in the community. She deliberately knocks over the coffee cup because she knows she can get away with almost anything, everybody just pities her so. Why she does it is unclear (like so many things in this series). Is she testing how far she can go? Could she hear what Jill and Aimee were saying about her? Is she daring someone to lash out against her? We don’t know, but it sure is intriguing to watch. We may never really know why she carries a gun, or why she greets the priest (?) so warmly (he seems to believe that those who disappeared abandoned the ones who remain) or why she pushes the cup off the table, and that is fine. As stated before the show is more interested in the behavior of people more than the reasons why.
And no one behaves more oddly than the people at the GR compound. Once again the white clad, chain-smokers provide some of the most fascinating material in the episode. Amy Brenneman is impressively good as the silent Laurie, and her dynamic with Meg is an engaging one. Liv Tyler’s performance is also noteworthy, though most of it she is playing ‘deer in the headlights’; there are aspects of it that stand out. Her demure, childlike voice informs so much and works so well in juxtaposition to the harsh surroundings she finds herself in. Their exchange towards the end is one of the most successful scenes in the hour, and the look Laurie gives after writing “I remember” on her notepad was perfection. Plus it is truly compelling to see the process through which these people are indoctrinated and accepted into the group.
Also compelling was Kevin’s arc, in which he begins to question his sanity. It must be absolutely terrifying to believe you are going insane and Justin Theroux does an apt job in conveying Kevin’s paranoia and anxiety, albeit he is a touch bland. But the writers had fun in communicating his doubt and making us feel it as well. His visit to his father was another great moment, not only because it was truly surprising to see that the mayor is (was?) in a romantic relationship with him (which explains so much about her and Kevin’s relationship) but also because the conversation they had was really engaging and it was interesting to see the father/son dynamic. It also explores the idea of sanity, which Kevin has been battling through the hour, and hints that his father may not be as ‘crazy’ as he thinks. The show hints of supernatural/mystical forces at work in a very subtle way; it is a mere suggestion that perhaps there is a greater power at play, but the story remains quite grounded.
“Penguin One, Us Zero” is a compelling hour of The Leftovers, expanding on its peculiar world and delving deeper into the many characters that inhabit it. What did you think?