[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the Season 2 premiere of The Leftovers. Read at your own risk.]
If you thought you'd tuned in to the wrong channel during the opening 10 minutes of Sunday's Season 2 premiere of The Leftovers, you probably weren't alone.
The HBO drama opened with a bold prologue that seemed to be set in a pre-civilization past. To quickly recap: A pregnant woman wakes up in the middle of the night and steps over a group of sleeping cave-dwelllers to go outside to use the bathroom. As she's relieving herself, the ground is shaken by an earthquake that traps all of the woman's friends inside the cave, leaving her alone. Although she tries to dig her friends out, she has to stop when her water breaks and she goes into labor.
After delivering the baby (and biting off the umbilical cord) she goes in search of food, walking toward the smoke of, presumably, another campfire. While eating some eggs from a bird's nest, she notices that a snake is crawling over the baby. She comes to the baby's rescue, beating the snake to death, but not before sustaining a bite. Although she continues to walk toward help, she eventually succumbs to the poison and dies, leaving her baby as potential prey of a vulture that has been circling for days. But just as it seems the baby is also doomed to a short life, another woman appears and takes the baby back wherever she came from.
Although the beautifully shot sequence contains plenty of symbolism, it has no real connection to the plot of the episode, save for the idea that the location of the pregnant woman's brave-but-doomed journey many years later becomes Jarden, Texas, the new setting of Season 2. After all, later in the episode, another earthquake precedes another extraordinary event that may or may not be similar to the Sudden Departure.
So, if you were left wondering what that opening short story means, then the show's producers are thrilled. "The show is about characters searching for meaning, searching for guidance, searching for answers," executive producer Damon Lindelof tells TVGuide.com. "The Sudden Departure happened, and I think that the No. 1 question coming out of that is, 'Where did these people go, and why them?' If the characters in this show are never going to get that answer, then they're only left with one other question, which is, 'But what did it mean? What's the purpose behind it all?' The first 10 minutes of this season are really purposefully designed for the viewer to be asking the same question that the characters on the show are: What does this mean. Why is this here? What am I supposed to derive from this?"
Naturally, Lindelof isn't going to tell anyone exactly what it means, but he acknowledges the sequence does have a specific intent . (The episode's title, "Axis Mundi," could be a clue. The phrase references a philosophical idea that there is a center of the world, which serves as a connection between heaven and Earth.) In the meantime, Lindelof invites debate. "I think some people are going to really be into it," he says. "I think some people are going to hate it and think its pretentious bullsh--. But in between those, hopefully the place where everyone agrees, or can actively debate, is, 'Why is it there? What does it mean?' Whether you love it or hate it, I think that's the more interesting conversation to be having."
Lindelof also hints that the prologue may be recontextualized as the season goes along, but he again suggests that no one should expect exact answers. "Hopefully by the end of this season, that debate will be a little more informed than it is after just the first 10 minutes of the show. But I am out of the dangling mystery business. [I'm] into the embracing a little bit more of what I love about these kinds of stories, which is that there is ambiguity and mystery in our daily lives. We don't know what religion is right. We don't know what happens when we die. We don't know the meaning of life. It is a faith-based exercise, and I want the show to reflect all those things."
Even after that sequence ended, the episode continued to be jarring, as it spent a solid half hour introducing John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), his wife Erika (Regina King) and their twin kids Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) before we ever see Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and his girlfriend Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) move in next door.
"We wanted to make a storytelling decision to introduce the audience to the town before the Garveys arrived there, and the only way to do that was through the eyes of people who had already been living there for some time," Lindelof says. "[It's] a little bit of A Tale of Two Cities, which set up this idea that Patti [Ann Dowd ]articulates [to Kevin] in the second episode, which is, 'I'm not sure if the Murphys are a part of your story or you're a part of theirs.'"
In some ways, Lindelof views the choice as an extension of the Season 1 episodes that pressed pause on the overarching story of the season to drill down on such specific characters as Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) and Nora, both of whom became much more mixed up in Kevin's journey as the season went on. "We wanted to feel like the Murphys have a story and the Garveys are going to become a part of that story, versus the Garveys have a story and the Murphys are now just supporting characters," Lindelof says. "The only way to tell the first one is to basically get in bed with the Murphys, and it also forced us as writers to make these characters interesting enough to want to watch for 40 minutes before the Garveys even showed up."
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO. What did you think of that opening scene and the premiere as a whole?