Beliefs carry power. They’re a part of our reality, and because of that, when they are challenged, we react by emphasizing them more forcefully, doing anything to keep our reality in place. People need stability, and beliefs help to give them that, making it so that they have a firm grasp on their definition of reality. But when people have beliefs like religion, beliefs that have no real basis in reality yet work to create our reality, then people constantly struggle to assert the validity of their reality. And that struggle, that desperation, can be very dangerous.
The Leftovers often discusses the way that depression contorts our vision of reality, how we can give life to our depression or use it to validate us. In the case of Matt Jamison, easily one of the most compelling characters on the show, he uses suffering as a way to validate his existence, a way to counterbalance the horrible things that happen to him, giving them meaning. It’s not a surprise that Matt’s favorite book in the Bible is Job, the one who suffers and loses everything, the one who has his suffering validated when God restores his wealth and his life as a result of his faith. But here, in reality, Matt’s suffering has no meaning. It’s just suffering, and it can go on and on without end and without validation. This isn’t to say that Matt’s faith is wrong, but that his actions are misguided, looking for something that simply isn’t there.
This focus made “Two Boats and a Helicopter” one of the best episodes of the series, and it does the same for “No Room at the Inn”, a brilliant meditation on the meaning (of lack of meaning) of suffering, as well as the fine line between being a devout believer and being insane. Matt sees his wife (maybe) wake up for a night, only to slip back into a catatonic state. So he recreates that day, over and over again, hoping that Mary will come back to him, that she’ll wake up for good this time. But no matter how much he tries, it doesn’t happen. His faith isn’t rewarded. He starts to become frustrated, to become angry at his wife for not waking up and validating his faith. And he beats himself up for his anger, for being frustrated that his faith isn’t being rewarded.
The rest of the episode, where Matt takes Mary to another clinic, only to be stuck outside the city of Jardin, is another brilliant way to “test” Matt, to see how far he will go in order to validate his faith. “Two Boats and a Helicopter” worked in a similar capacity, where Matt was tested and had to try to save his church, only to have the Guilty Remnant snatch it out from under him. Here, in “No Room at the Inn”, Matt breaks his phone, has his car disabled and his Jardin wristband stolen, is turned away from Jardin, and has to protect Mary in the shantytown outside the town, where he deals with drug addicts and other desperate people in order to get back inside. It’s a harrowing episode, and the further the narrative damages Matt’s chances, the more disturbing and uncomfortable it becomes. One particular scene where Matt has to beat a man with an oar approaches an extreme of discomfort, where Matt has to undergo disturbing trial after disturbing trial in order to feel like his suffering is worth something. But even when he gets back into Jardin, there is no peace or comfort. There is only the reality of his suffering.
What makes this episode so good is the ambiguity of Matt’s actions, how it’s entirely possible that Mary woke up, but also possible that Matt is crazy and raped his wife in a confused state of mind. Both of these possibilities are explored and entertained, and by the end of the episode, there still isn’t a clear answer to the ambiguity. The juxtaposition of these two extremes, where Matt could be either devout or crazy, works to entertain our own idea of belief. What do we think of Matt? Are we willing to believe that he would do something so insane? Or do we have to believe that he is good and decent in order to validate our own concept of reality? The ambiguity of Matt’s situation does a brilliant job reflecting our own view of the world, whether we see optimism or pessimism, decency or corruption and suffering.
But we also see how easy it is to become self-flagellating, how we can see the world one way and use that to further our worldview. When Matt sees the car wreck and the dead body of the man who stole his wristband, he takes his wristband back only to see the dead man’s now-orphaned kid, looking at him with a mixture of horror and sadness. Matt didn’t think of the kid first, but how could he? Matt wants to be a paragon of decency and faith, but nobody can become that. Nobody can be perfect. And so Matt drops Mary off with Kevin and Nora, walking back to the shantytown, freeing the man in the stocks, stripping down and openly taking his place. He needs to suffer in order to feel like his life has meaning, as his suffering is supposed to offset his imperfection. He believes that there’s a chance that his suffering will elevate him to the saintly state of perfection that he wants so badly. But that’ll never happen, and he’ll keep on suffering until he decides to change.
While “No Room at the Inn” isn’t quite as good as “Off Ramp”, it’s still another brilliant episode in a season that continues to impress. Matt lives his life in a vicious cycle of suffering, where his suffering doesn’t yield the results that he desires, so he continues suffering or enhances his suffering in order to obtain better results, even though he never achieves them. And isn’t that how many of us live our lives? We want things to change, but never change our methods to achieve that change. We live our lives, trying, hoping, punching the brick wall because we want something different.
But things don’t change. Not if we don’t change.
What did you think of the episode? Do you think Mary actually woke up? Let me know in the comments!