A World Without Light: Finding Hope in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” Anton Chekhov’s short stories, and TV’s Dark Ages




FOUR YEARS after Anton Chekhov’s death in 1904, his friend Lev Shestov (née Schwarzmann) published a 58-page essay about him that began with a joke: “Chekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him.” The Russian critic and philosopher explained that to disentangle the secrets in the master’s oeuvre was to expose his “evil fire” to the world. He went on to call Chekhov the Murderer of Hope and the Poet of Hopelessness, and to say why he thought in the end those were important, even admirable, things for an artist to be.

More than 100 years later, TV’s Dark Ages continue Chekhov’s hope-murdering work. Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under began every episode with a death, sometimes a very upsetting one. Louis C.K. blends comedy and existential dread on FX’s Louie. Raphael Bob-Waksberg does the same on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, and both HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s Breaking Bad relentlessly refuse to turn away from the evil people inflict on one another. At the same time, this gathering darkness has brought viewers some strange outliers, such as the realistic-cartoonish True Detective and the angsty Mad Men and the bizarrely constructed Damages. It’s even touched on otherwise bucolic procedurals like Longmire and elevated them to high artistic statements in their own right.

Yet among so many pitch-black shows no one has murdered hope more thoroughly and vehemently than Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof in HBO’s The Leftovers. At the shows opening, two percent of the world’s population vanishes into nothingness, a kind of secular rapture. The Departure — as people on the show call it — is a manifestation of death itself. Three years later, as Police Chief Kevin Garvey struggles to heal his family, a cult known as the Guilty Remnant conspires to remind everyone of the Departure and its ultimate meaning: You are going to die, your loved ones are going to die, and we don’t know what, if anything, lies beyond this life. So wake up.

Of course, Lindelof and Perrotta, like Chekhov, are far from the first artists to make death the subject of their art. “But,” as Shestov would have it, “not the theme is important but the manner of its treatment.”

This refusal to turn away from death as it searches for hope — what Shestov called “Creation from the Void” in his essay of the same title — is what makes The Leftovers such an underappreciated masterwork. It’s also what makes it so hard to watch.

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An age-old unanswered question: In a world filled with never-ending horrors — many of them architected by us, nature’s most dangerous bipedal hominids, what Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Gottschall call “storytelling animals” — why do we also fill our entertainment with terror and sadness?

Shestov rephrases the problem:

Every one knows, or has heard, of hopelessness. On every side, before our very eyes, are happening terrible and intolerable tragedies, and if every doomed man were to raise [such an awful alarm about his natural and inevitable destruction], life would become an inferno[.]

Shestov suggests that this kind of pain should be hidden “with special care from human eyes” and adds, “Man forgave every crime — cruelty, violence, murder; but he never forgave the unmotived love of death and the seeking of its secret.” So what in God’s name was wrong with Chekhov?

Aristotle thought he knew, at least in part. Tragedy, he said in Poetics, “achieves, through pity and fear, the catharsis of these sorts of feelings.” Tragedy cleans the mind the same way the liver and kidneys filter blood or the vomit reflex purges a stomach virus. Let it out, and you feel better. Keep it inside and your spirit starts to rot.

It’s an imperfect answer. It hints at why people might watch television that makes them cry, shocks them, or makes them swear off the rest of the season (looking at you, Game of Thrones). But it doesn’t explain why anyone would create a show like that.

Scripting, directing, and producing a TV show (or writing a novel like The Leftovers is based on), takes years of grueling work. Do artists like Lindelof and Perrotta persevere simply because they want to make people feel better, to provide catharsis? Does it get them through script drafts and production meetings and read-throughs and budget negotiations? It seems unlikely. A TV drama constructed primarily to help its viewers transcend hopelessness seems more likely to end up consoling them — think Friday Night Lights or The O.C. or even House, M.D., despite its dark pretensions. One might argue that an incessant drum-banging about the inevitability of death has no place in TV shows, anyway, that such preoccupations are an obnoxious intrusion into the world of entertainment; this, of course, is an updated version of the earlier argument: that the world is a difficult enough place as it is. There are most certainly shows that wrap themselves in death as a pretentious affectation. Even if there was an artistic purpose to reminding people they will die, are scripted dramas really the best place? Wouldn’t you rather hear a message of resilience? Why do writers and directors make these dark, demented shows? If catharsis isn’t enough to drive them, then why do they spend all of their time in this way — why do they dedicate their lives to exploring the void?

Shestov had a theory. He thought most artists turn away from the absolute truth, sometimes at the very last minute. All claim to seek it; few have the stomach for it. For to find hope without delusion is one of the artist’s tasks, but, followed to its logical conclusion, it’s a dark path indeed.

The artistic search for hope is not a scheme. It’s not a trick or a marketing plan or a brand platform. It’s unlikely people like Chekhov or Lindelof even know what they’re seeking when they begin such a search. Indeed, Shestov writes, “As for Chekhov himself, if the question were put to him in such a deliberately definite form, he would probably be unable to answer, although he was continually engaged in the activity, or more properly, because he was continually so engaged.” The critic writes,

Creation out of the void! Is not this task beyond the limit of human powers, of human rights? […] Without fear of mistake, one may say that the people who answer the question without hesitation in either sense have never come near to it, or to any of the so-called ultimate questions of life.

But a dispassionate search for truth isn’t just one kind of artists’ quest — it’s also a habit one must cultivate. One must be practiced in resisting not only false hopes but also clichés about the meaning of existence: Everything happens for a reason. They’re better off now. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Everything is going to be all right. As Kevin Garvey tells the mayor in the first episode of The Leftovers: “Nobody’s ready to feel better. They’re ready to fucking explode.”

Most people are practiced in hiding their fear. But the defamiliarization of death in The Leftovers makes it impossible for the characters (and for the viewers who empathize with them) to hide. You must feel. But it’s not polite — it’s a terrible thing. We know it’s rude to scream “Fate has sentenced me to die!” as the old professor almost does in Chekhov’s “A Boring Story.” After all, the world is filled with small tragedies. Why make a fuss about your own? People shouldn’t cry their “sufferings aloud over the world, but be careful to trouble people as little as possible,” as Shestov puts it. Still, whether we admit it or not, we’re afraid to die. The Leftovers makes us look at that fear until we’re ready to explode, too.

The Leftovers, more than any other show on TV, relentlessly crushes trite coffee-mug pronouncements about death. It mocks platitudes. It embraces the darkness. Not for no reason, not to be cruel. Lindelof and Perrotta seem to be searching for hope but not its pretenders. Where lying to yourself ends, they seem to think, the search for hope begins.

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At the outset of The Leftovers, season two, a brand-new up-tempo theme song filled with weird, mournful twang gives way to a prehistory sequence about a cavewoman who survives a cave-in, gives birth, and dies from a rattlesnake bite. It makes little sense even in context; it seems to exist only to show how people have always interpreted omens and signs, even if those things mean, in the end, nothing. Then, when the story returns to present-day, none of the characters from the original series appear until around three-quarters of the way through the episode. It’s a bold choice, and it almost doesn’t work. Instead, the new cast members introduce us to Miracle, Texas, a slightly sinister National Parks-protected city where no one disappeared on October 14. This has made it a haven for tourists. These visitors drink the local spring water, get palm readings from hucksters, and continue to try to make sense of the events that have shaped their world.

Although Lindelof has repeatedly said it’s not, everything about the second season feels like a reboot. There might be two good reasons for this. First, the previous season had already exhausted the novel, its source material. In order to sustain itself, the show had to strike out for new territories. Second, even though critics have repeatedly asked viewers not to give up on The Leftovers, people have also widely criticized it for being unforgivingly bleak. They will watch someone murder a child on Breaking Bad, in other words, and they will watch someone rape Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones. They will watch Dr. Lecter filet and cook and eat people on Hannibal. They will watch a teenager ripped and torn and disarticulated beyond recognition on The Walking Dead. But they can’t handle watching ordinary people face their fear of death itself. They sense an “evil fire” in the show, as Shestov named it, and they turn away in disgust. They cannot enter the void. It may comfort Lindelof and Perrotta to know Chekhov had this same problem.

According to Shestov, Chekhov tried to make concessions. He tried, and often failed, to be a little more upbeat. He even considered himself an optimist. In short, Chekhov felt guilty about it. Not only for his exploration of death as a theme, but also because he couldn’t submit to other people’s ideas. He couldn’t live by their belief systems. These are in part the platitudes spoken of earlier, but they are also the very heuristic models by which men and women live their lives: their most basic ideas. The critics write,

Chekhov plagues, tortures and worries himself in every possible way, but he can alter nothing; nay worse, conceptions and ideas, towards which a great many people behave quite carelessly — after all, these innocent things do not merit any other attitude — in Chekhov become the objects of bitter, inexorable, and merciless hatred. He cannot free himself at one single stroke from the power of ideas: therefore he begins a long, slow and stubborn war, I would call it a guerilla war, against the tyrant who had enslaved him.

In its original form, The Leftovers was not about sadness, but about hope. It also wasn’t about some abstract Truth. It is about courage and about living on beyond the point where your life has ended. It’s about a planet-sized grief. It’s about refusing to give in to despair. As the characters live on, their minds sometimes break, but they don’t give in. In the first season, for example, Kevin Garvey stubbornly refuses to admit he’s going crazy. Over and over again he challenges the world to prove he’s insane. Again and again he’s proven right (although he’s clearly hallucinating at times, many of the surreal incidences of his life are actually happening). Along with other characters like the Reverend Matt Jamison, he refuses to despair and he refuses to die. Many if not all of the characters on The Leftovers are like this. Just like in an Chekov short story, “Before them always lies hopelessness, helplessness, the utter impossibility of any action whatsoever. And yet they live on, they do not die.”

The only other TV show that approaches this kind of Creation from the Void is The Walking Dead, but for different reasons and with a very different aesthetic. In the universe of that show’s characters, the void is actually their empty world, and the defamiliarization of death isn’t their loved ones’ vanishing but their loved ones’ reanimation. Like the characters in The Leftovers, the survivors on The Walking Dead refuse to surrender to the darkness they explore. As such, their minds sometimes break. It’s almost like they’re in a Thomas Ligotti story coping mentally with the Weird and the Unreal. Those characters (much like Kevin Garvey and Meg Abbott and Nora Durst) may seem to surrender at times but always lurking within their hearts is a cold and uncompromising hatred for death and for the universe that visits it upon them. Theirs is a more active helplessness. Their death is rooted in the popular culture of zombies and their resistance against death is fun (if gory) to watch. Yet they also live on, they do not die.

Chekhov’s prose is no less resonant more than 100 years later; the stories are no less moving. If HBO allows Lindelof and Perrotta to continue their project, and they unquestioningly should, perhaps the showrunners can find an example of how to make their art without driving viewers away in the prose of this exceptional doctor-turned-writer. After all, Chekhov’s preoccupations haven’t hurt his career; on the contrary, they’ve elevated him to the status of a legend. But how did he manage it? How did he succeed, when, as Shestov had it, “Chekhov offended very many literary men”?

“If his punishment was comparatively slight,” Shestov writes of his old friend, “that was because he was very cautious, and waged war with the air of bringing tribute to the enemy, and secondly, because to talent much is forgiven.”

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Ben Pfeiffer’s writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Paris Review Daily, the Kansas City Star, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.



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