Welcome to our recap of the third episode of the final season of The Leftovers, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking.” This was a Kevin Sr. POV (point of view) episode that finally takes us to Australia, where the rest of the season will take place. In this episode Kevin Sr. is convinced that he is the Messiah (not his son!), searches for an Aboriginal elder who has the last song of the songline that he thinks he needs to perform in order to stop the upcoming flood that will end the world in the 7th anniversary of the Sudden Departure, he also goes on an accidental walkabout, encounters a man who sets himself on fire, and tells the story of how he ended up in Australia (clue: involves a chicken call Toni). So let’s break it down with our usual focus on religious and philosophical themes throughout the episode.
The song that opens this episode is Richard Cheese’s version of Depeche Mode’s Your Own Personal Jesus. The first two episodes have hinted at the possibility that Kevin is either the Messiah, a Messiah, or the notion that some people around him consider him to be one. This episode explores that concept from the perspective of Kevin Sr. who actually considers himself to be the chosen one to save humanity from the end of the world. The reality is that, thoroughout the show we have seen a number of people claiming to be some sort of messiah. In the first season we had Holy Wayne, we had the people of the Guilty Remnant, and now we have Kevin Sr. and Kevin Jr. So how are people to make sense of the many religious claims made by all of these people? In his book, Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and consulting producer of The Leftovers, describes the enormous amount of prophets, and messiahs that populated Palestine during the times of Jesus proclaiming themselves as saviors. There was “‘the Egyptian, […] ‘the Samaritan’, Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba—all of whom declared messianic ambitions […] Add to this list the Essene sect, ,[…] the first-century Jewish revolutionary party known as the Zealots, […], the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii (the Daggermen), and the picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an era awash in messianic energy.” In sum, Aslan argues:
“The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment.”
Reza Aslan. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The third season of the show reflects a similar apocalyptic world at the time of the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure, with the whole world filled with political tension, dread, but also expectation (some people are looking forward the end of the world!), and with numerous prophets, and messianic figures proclaiming to have THE message from God that will avert the end of times. One obvious questions is: how do we know who is the real Messiah? Is it Kevin Sr. or Kevin Jr.? Both of them seem to have an ability to contact other planes of existence, they hear voices, and see dead people. The reality though, is that the belief on a prophet, or messiah, or any religious figure is more a social construct than an ontological reality. Is not so much if they are who they say they are, but if enough people believe who they claim to be. From an academic perspective, I don’t necessarily have to examine the truth claims of, say, Joseph Smith, but it is the fact that enough people believed Joseph Smith to be a prophet that merits our study of him.
Singing in the Rain: Aboriginal Culture, Songlines, and Preventing the Apocalypse
The episode begins with Kevin spying on an aboriginal tribe singing a ritual song belonging to a Songline. In Aboriginal culture there is the belief that there was a time before time, the Dreamtime, in which spirits and ancestors populated the land and, during their travels, they created all of the features of the landscape. Songlines are songs that recall the journey of a specific ancestral spirit as it travelled across a particular territory creating all the local geographical features. Songlines also function as maps and it preserves the knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation of all of the important features of the landscape, the trees, the plants, the waterholes, the animals, that create the ecosystem that makes the survival of a particular tribe possible in what it can be a very unforgiving terrain.
The idea of Kevin Sr. traveling around Australia, spying on aboriginal tribes trying to learn their Songlines recalls the famous travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin, who did a similar thing in the 80s, and wrote a book about it, The Songlines. In his book, he described songlines as:
… the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as “Dreaming-tracks” or “Songlines”; to the Aboriginals as the “Footprints of the Ancestors” or the “Way of the Lore”. Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and so singing the world into existence.
This famous work has undergone some revisioning, after some critics pointed out the ethical problems presented by the way he collected and disseminated information that was not supposed to be made public. The episode does indeed deal with the issue of cultural appropriation by white people, and Kevin Sr. is actually wanted by the local police for illegally collecting those songs. The question is: is cultural appropriation valid if it helps you save the world? As comedically shown in the episode, the local aboriginal community and the policy, and Kevin Sr. have very different opinions on the matter. After having spied on a local community performing their ancestral song, Kevin Sr. tries to reproduce it and gets finally caught. This leads to a funny exchange between him and the cops:
Cop: “What are you doing?”
Kevin Sr.: “Preventing the Apocalypse? What are you doing?”
The cops take him to the police station to process him, since what Kevin Sr. is doing is illegal. Those songs belong to the Aboriginal people, who consider them secret, and therefore recording them without permission is the equivalent of stealing them. He is set free after leaving behind the recording of the song but is able to keep a tape with a recording of a trip that Kevin Sr. and Kevin took to Niagara Falls when Kevin was little.
I am not in Your F%^$%^ Book!
The day after he is released from jail, Kevin Sr. goes to the post office where he has received a copy of The Book of Kevin from Matt. He tells the postman that the package contains “the goddam sequel” to the Bible. After reading it, though, he gets very agitated since he is not mentioned in the book at all. He even calls Matt to let him know how upset he is (“I am not in your f$#&*# book!”), to which Matt responds that the book is about Kevin Sr.’s son, and not him.
The point of the scene is to show how Kevin Sr. is the one who thinks himself as the savior, and should be him the one Matt should be writing about (The Book of Kevin Sr.?). So who is the Messiah? Kevin Sr. or Kevin Jr.? They both have established themselves as shaman of sorts, with an ability to listen and connect with spirits and other worlds. I think it is pretty clear that the show posits Kevin as the Messiah (or a Messiah of sorts), but what is interesting here is how his father is hearing similar voices that are telling him differently. Are they hearing different messages or are they interpreting them differently. Another interesting difference is that Kevin Sr. embraces those voices in his head which make him believe he is the Messiah. Kevin Jr. is at all costs trying to ignore those voices, and only reluctantly he ends up accepting his possible central role in this cosmic drama.
After throwing the Book of Kevin in the trash, Kevin Sr. visits a local woman in charge of Aboriginal affairs for the direction of Christopher Sunday, and aboriginal elder who knows the last song he needs to complete the songline that he believes will be able to stop the Flood that will end the world. The woman realizes that Kevin Sr is, in fact, wanted by the local police for stealing Aboriginal culture, but not before Kevin Sr. is able to learn the address of Christopher Sunday.
I Started Doing What the Voices Told Me
Kevin Sr. finally meets Christopher Sunday with the hopes that he will teach him the last song he is missing from the songline he is trying to learn in order to stop the apocalypse. He tells him the story about how he found him. A very Lindelof, random, story that involves an acid trip, a chicken named Toni, and the tape with a recording of Kevin Sr. and Kevin Jr. during a trip to Niagara Falls that he has been listening throughout the episode, in which Kevin Sr. sings a song (itsy bitsy spider!) that makes a heavy rain stop. The main point of the story is to show how, for Kevin Sr., nothing is random, everything has meaning, everything is connected, and therefore he is convinced that he will be able to stop the flood.
The idea of Christopher Sunday as the last elder to know an important song of a songline also reminds me a recent episode of OWN’s channel series Belief, in which an aboriginal elder who is the only one who knows the songline of his tribe teaches it to his nephew:
Terry Gandadila, an Aboriginal elder in Australia who is nearing death, passes on the wisdom and knowledge of his tribe to his grandson.
An Accidental Walkabout, or is it?
Christopher Sunday agrees to teach him his song but, first , he needs to fix his air conditioning. While Kevin Sr. is on the roof trying to repair it, the woman from the aboriginal council shows up at Christopher Sunday’s home to confront Kevin Sr. about what he is doing. Kevin Sr. falls from the roof and falls… you guessed right, on top of Christopher Sunday.
While an ambulance is taking both of them to the hospital, Kevin Sr. gets agitated and insults the paramedic, who kicks him out of the ambulance in what it looks like the middle of nowhere, beginning his very own, accidental walkabout.
To any Lost fans, the walkabout should ring some bells, since it echoes an episode of the same name of Lost (one of its best episodes!), in which John Locke is attempting to do a walkabout in a wheelchair. In this episode of The Leftovers, Kevin Sr. walks with the help of crutches, since he has injured one of his legs while falling from the roof of the house, through the Australian bush with what it looks like no particular direction.
A Walkabout is a rite of passage that in traditional Aboriginal culture, a male undergoes by walking through the Australian bush for a period of time (sometimes months). The rite proves the ability of the individual to survive alone in the unforgiving Australian environement, but it is also a religious experience in which the individual is connects with the ancestors and spirits who inhabit the land.
Kevin Sr.’s walkabout includes his encounter with a person who commits suicide by self-immolating himself, an encounter with a snake that bites him and, finally, meeting a cross in what it looks like the final moments of his life, since he is starving, dehydrated, sunburn, poisoned by a snake, with a broken leg, and ultimately lost and alone. Finally, when he feels that he is going to die, he lies down at the feet of the cross waiting to die.The symbolism of Kevin Sr. dying on the cross as a sacrifice for the rest of humanity is not really subtle, and it reinforces the point that he sees himself as Jesus, as the Messiah that needs to die in order to save humanity. This episode should have been call, in fact, The Book of Kevin Sr.
“It’s Just a Stupid Story:” Is That What Religion Is?
Before he almost dies, though, he is rescued by a mysterious woman riding a horse who, as we will find out soon, is one of the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse that appeared in the second episode. Kevin Sr. wakes up a few days later, and finds himself in a house, where he has been taken care of and given medical attention. When he comes out of the house, he sees a small group of people building an ark next to a dismantled church. The image of building and ark is a clear hint to the story of Noah and the flood, and the dismantled church, I am pretty sure is the same one that we saw at the end of the first episode where old Nora brings those pigeons. I guess we’ll need to see how all of this is connected in future episodes.
In the final scene of the episode we find Grace, the mysterious woman leader of what it looked like the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse from episode 2. We come to discover that she was a missionary of sorts who, with her husband adopted 5 different children over the years, and built a church in the middle of the Australian bush. Her faith was strong, and when the Sudden Departure happened, she was convinced it was the Rapture, it had to be. The day of the Departure, she was in town running some errands, and when she got back home, the rest of her family had disappeared. She was happy for them since she thought that God had taken them, that they had been chosen (even if it had not chosen her). Two years later though, she found out that only her husband had departed, and that the remains of her five children were found a few miles from her house when the kids had run to get some help after the disappearance of their father. The scene is heartbreaking, since it shows again how what some people see as faith, it can also be seen as delusion, and the line between the two is so thin, if there is a line at all. Grace reflects on this fragility by saying that “its just a stupid story” that we tell ourselves to feel better, to find meaning, to feel something (love, connectedness, purpose) instead of nothing. But The Leftovers it is a show in which meaning may not be clear, but the signs are real, we just don’t know how to read them. This is the blessing and the curse of The Leftovers universe, there is something out there, we just don’t know what it is, or what it’s trying to tell us.
The conversation ends with Grace telling Kevin Sr. that in the last moments before she found him, he had in his hand a page of a scripture she had never seen before (from The Book of Kevin) that spoke of a Kevin, a chief of police who could go to the land of the dead, and speak to them, and take away their pain, and then resurrect. She mentions that very close to where they are, there is a chief of police named Kevin and she took that as a message from God. That’s why she killed him, she wanted him to talk to her children and then bring him back. She thought Kevin Sr. was an angel and the page of scripture in his hand a message for her. She wanted to believe it since she cannot live in a world in which a life devoted to God, to spreading God’s message could lead to the tragic death of her adopted children. In the previous scene there is also a quick visual reference to Isaiah 41, which has as its main goal instill confidence in God to those exiled Jews in Babylon who were loosing faith. Grace is in the same situation, she has been devoted to God, and now she is waiting for a signal, a message that will make sense of the tragedy of her life. This is when Kevin Sr. reassures her that, in fact, the story she read is true, and that he is an angel of sorts, she just (tragically, we may say!) got the wrong Kevin.
Aboriginal Religion in the Mythology of The Leftovers
Let me elaborate a bit more on the role that Australia and aboriginal religion seems to play in the larger mythology of The Leftovers. Reza Aslan, has spoken about this in a Vulture interview about season 2:
Australia is almost universally understood as the seat of ancient spiritual power, particularly the sort of inland parts, because it’s such a unique landmass with a unique ecosystem. Some of the oldest tribal shamanistic traditions in the world still exist there in vibrant form among indigenous peoples. You see in pop culture and in books the concept of the walkabout, which has this mystic sense to it. People who don’t even know what a walkabout represents use the term when they’re talking about a spiritual journey.
The show has relied so far very heavily on Judeo-Christian symbols and ideas: the Sudden Departure echoes the Christian notion of the Rapture, Jarden in season 2 stood for a Garden of Eden of sorts (Jarden=Eden, get it?), and Kevin’s ability to come back from the dead (twice!) mirrors Jesus’ resurrection. But at a deeper level the show has also offered hints that read the same scenario in a different way, with Jarden being an axis mundi, a religious power place, and Kevin not so much a Messiah but a shaman, a common figure in many religious traditions, many of them much older than Christianity, who is able to communicate with the other world, that of the dead, and of spirits. Reza Aslan acknowledge that much in the same interview:
I like to think of him in the second way, that [he’s] either a prophet or a shaman. If I were to pick, I’d say he’s a shamanistic character. Prophets usually get messages from the beyond: They hear a voice telling them something, and then repeat that message to the masses. Shamans don’t really have a message. They’re kind of medicine men — that’s how they’re often referred to in tribal society. They have this ability to go to sleep and either physically or mentally travel great distances to other planes of existence, and then return. This is a very common trope in ancient religious traditions going back tens of thousands of years. Often they have an animal guide. In fact, for many shamans, the first part of the initiation is to find a spirit guide, an animal to communicate with and help them see the other world.
Although the show relies heavily on Christian symbols an ideas in order to explore the role and importance of religion as the vehicle to create ultimate meaning, the introduction of Australia to the worldview of the series, seems to acknowledge that the religious impulse is much older that Christianity, and that newer religions are only updating myths and ideas that are as old as humanity itself. Ideas of the end of the world are found in many cultures, as are stories of a flood that will destroy the world. Messiahs and prophets may be new historical iterations of the shaman, and the list goes on and on. The constant seems to be our need to make sense of it all, to believe that “stupid story” that we tell ourselves and that we call religion.
Next in the Leftovers
This is the official description of episode 4 “G’Day Melbourne”:
Kevin and Nora travel to Australia, where she continues to track down the masterminds of an elaborate con, while he catches a glimpse of an unexpected face from the past, forcing him to confront the traumatic events of three years earlier.