We all suffer in life. We feel the stress of existential questions, the pain of how trapped we are, the suffering that comes from loss after loss after loss. A lot of this suffering is simply inherent in existence; a part of life is growing old and watching everybody around you die, just as a part of life is painfully searching for a purpose that will never be defined for you. But we tend to blame ourselves for a lot of the suffering we feel. In this world, we’re told that we have ultimate free will, that we don’t have to feel this pain if we learn to shield ourselves from it. But can we shield ourselves from it? Can we really stop ourselves from experiencing the loss and suffering inherent in life?
“Lens” is another contender for “Best Episode of the Season”, and continues the hot streak that the season is on. The Leftovers has had such a stellar second season that it feels unreal; each episode is operating at such a high level that it eclipses anything else seen on television today. Even though the ratings for this season are still rather low, it would be criminal not to renew such a prestige show for a third season. It’s a show that taps into what makes loss so heartbreaking and poignant, where even a two-minute scene can take a wound and open it so wide that it’s easy to get lost in it. Take, for example, the scene in “Lens” where Laurie calls Nora, wondering if Tom wandered down to Texas to be with her and Kevin. Armed with the knowledge that Laurie used Tom to convert her flock of ex-GR members, as well as the knowledge that Tom is so desperately searching for meaning, that short phone call becomes horribly tragic, another gaping loss that Laurie has to contend with.
Many television shows today focus on loss, but in a way that emphasizes the shock of the moment. A character dies and it’s sad and gruesome and awful. But the real tragedy comes from knowing what’s behind the loss, understanding the love and connection and beauty that is lost once that person is gone. Sure, death is inherently sad, but it’s sadder when we understand what kind of connection is broken. There’s a scene from “Two Boats and a Helicopter” that makes me cry every thing I see it, the one about halfway through the episode when Matt comes home to his catatonic wife, rubs his nose against hers, gives her a bath, kisses her good night, and sets up a cot next to her hospital bed. It’s sad because it allows us to understand not just that Matt’s wife is catatonic, but that his love for her is so strong and unflinching that we can feel his heart shatter when he starts to weep and ask god for help.
With that in mind, “Lens” focuses intently on both Nora and Erika, two women that are more alike than they would like to admit. They have both lost a family member, but more than that, they hold the weight of their families on their shoulders. Both of their husbands are unstable, they both feel disconnected from the children they do have, and they’re both constantly pestered by those looking to them for answers. They also both put up defenses to contend with the world around them, even though they can’t stop searching for answers to the questions that they can never answer. Nora tells herself that she’s over the loss of her children, but lashes out at Erika over the scientist that comes by to take a reading of her. She also becomes obsessed with the “lens theory”, one that sound promising at first, a way to explain why it is that Nora has people disappear all around her. But she finds out that it involves demons and religion and she breaks down once more. Every time she has hope that an explanation will be provided for her, that hope is taken away again.
Erika also searches for some sort of meaning behind Evie’s disappearance, something to explain why it is that she’s gone. She used to believe in all of the old rituals that Jardin lived by after the Departure, the routines that were set in place as a “guard” against people being departed. It turns out that the bizarre things we saw in the premiere, the goat being sacrificed, the wedding dress, it was all part of the routine set in place to make people feel safe. Erika and her dead birds worked in the same fashion. She buries the birds alive, hoping that if they remain alive, she will be able to make a wish for her daughter back. Of course, this is grasping at straws just as Nora is when she entertains the “lens theory”, but it makes Erika feel like she has some sort of hope to see her daughter again. Because, right now, she’s carrying the weight of the husband she wants to leave, and she feels herself breaking under the pressure. The scene at the fundraiser is her breaking point, where she sees the pointlessness in all of the singing and ridiculous slide shows, only to snap when she sees Jerry with the goat. She obviously doesn’t know if Evie has departed, but she does know that the rituals are fake, a useless way to protect against inevitable loss and pain.
But the most powerful moment of the episode occurs when Nora asks Erika the questions on the DSD questionnaire. Nora steals this questionnaire from another DSD (Department of Sudden Departures) employee and uses it to see if Erika’s daughter really did depart. What makes this scene so great is how Nora promises answers for Erika, but really is only trying to get answers for herself because she wants to absolve herself of guilt. She may know that the “lens theory” is clearly wrong, but she can’t help feeling as if she’s somehow responsible, as if some action she took resulted in more loss. Erika eventually catches onto this, but not before revealing some of the pain she’s been burying for so long. The camera moves closer and closer to their faces until it’s only their faces, the room a dark void, the two of them staring into a mirror. In a season of high points, this may be the absolute highest, as Regina King and Carrie Coon both perform beautifully, exposing how shattered they’ve both become and how that puts up a barrier between them. But it goes to show how Nora is so burdened by her guilt and suffering, to the point that she doesn’t mind manipulating Erika. She also doesn’t mind pushing away Erika’s theory about Evie’s disappearance when she was simply looking to have her feelings validated. But, more than that, she doesn’t notice how far Kevin has sunk into his psychosis. All of this focus on finding answers and absolving herself of guilt has led her to neglect the people closest to her.
“Lens” works beautifully to examine just why people beat themselves up over the pain they experience in their lives. They want to find some sort of explanation for the unexplainable, and in doing so, cling onto the tangible belief that they are somehow responsible for their pain. Because even if that belief hurts them even more, it’s a way to elude them from the pain that comes from the unknown. It’s the unknown that hurts the most, because acknowledging it means understanding that we don’t have ultimate authority or endless free will. We’re stuck in a world that makes a lot of decisions for us and piles loss after loss after loss on top of us.
And until we acknowledge that brutal reality and come to an understanding with it, we’ll continue to beat ourselves down, again and again until there’s not a whole lot left.
What did you think of “Lens”? Was it the best episode yet or do you have a personal favorite? Let me know in the comments!