Updated: Mar 30
During my youth in southeastern Indiana, I didn’t have many friends who went to the movies in order to critically examine the art of moviemaking. Sure, I have a few close childhood friends who appreciate film as I do, but the vast majority of my upbringing was spent with friends out at the movies because the general consensus was: there wasn’t anything else to do to pass the time, if you will. Another very popular rural Indiana pastime is attending Mass or a weekly church service. Growing up in a very Catholic household attending Mass wasn’t an option it was an obligation. Being groomed from a very early age to sit quietly, observe respectfully, and participate accordingly, bled through to my behavior in many venues, namely, the cinema. I would take my reverence everywhere, and this included the seats of a theater.
Over the past few years, this religious treatment of film has been reversed. In just recent history alone we’ve been blessed with films such as Lady Bird, The Little Hours, and Silence, and with television like The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, and The Real O’Neals. While these offerings are from different genres and evoke different responses, they’re proof that despite differing religious beliefs, audiences enjoy religious stories. I very much enjoy stories that are peppered with religion, because I can contextualize the struggle between good and evil, and I believe they help me gain a deeper understanding of my upbringing and myself. They challenge my values, none more so than my most recent binge of HBO’s The Leftovers. Just like a good gospel, I had read and heard wonderful things about the 2014 religious series and I finally found time in my schedule to worship at its alter. Now, I don’t like to rob anyone of their own religious experience, but while reflecting on The Leftovers, I’ve been bursting at the seams to dissect at least a fraction of the series for Story Screen. Not one aspect of The Leftovers is left unpolished; the acting, writing, direction, and production are all seamless. But upon reflection of which distinct aspect of the Mass always puts me in the adequate heavenly headspace, my mind always comes back to the music. The Leftovers’ three seasons of theme music (and overall score) is no exception.
For those uninitiated in the 2014 HBO series, (and Tom Perrotta’s original novel of the same name), the pilot takes place three years after the “Sudden Departure,” a mysterious event where 2% of the world’s population abruptly disappears. The remaining 98% has been left to wonder if the event was a rapture, and if so, what does that means for their own purposes. The initial pilot does not have an opening title theme, providing an entire episode to act as a cold open to the philosophical series. In episode two however, Max Richter’s sweeping, orchestral, “The Leftovers (Main Title Theme)” plays over a backdrop akin to The Sistine Chapel’s fresco ceiling, depicting multiple people losing their loved ones. Richter is also the composer for the musical interludes within the show, and all of his music draws haunting melodies that completely embody the sense of wonder and loss the characters and the audience feel. Listening to the music alone can bring one to tears.
Throughout the first season we see several characters in the town of Mapleton, NY struggling with the departure in different ways. None of the characters have their own distinct musical theme, which is a common trope in most television and film, but rather all characters share the same emotional weight and baggage from the Sudden Departure. When one character might recall a sorrowful memory of a lost loved one in, say, episode four, that same melodic ghost follows another character two episodes later while they experience their own sorrow. All of these characters are linked by blood or distinct events, which occur throughout the show, but it’s not a stretch at all to say these characters are completely alone and kept separate from one another by personal demons and hang-ups. Richter’s score is sometimes the only thing holding them together.
While all three seasons carry heavy religious symbolism and story structuring, season one leans the heaviest into the concept of personal religion, and the music reflects that. Teenagers try to find their own religion in destructive partying, a woman creates her own penance by hiring people to injure her, and a cult-like group called “The Guilty Remnant,” exists solely as a reminder for the lost 2%. Repetition is frequently used in film and television to denote boredom or the mundane, but I think that sentiment becomes the opposite when it comes to repetition in music. It’s common in most church services or Masses to repeat melodies and songs monthly, if not weekly. Music has the ability to remind and encourage us to look beyond what we see in front of us, and to take us into a deeper state of reflection and recollection. Season one reminds us constantly that even though these characters are isolating themselves, they’re silently feeling the same pains and struggles. One character even confides in another, “I don’t know how to talk to you yet.” The music in season one swells like an ocean’s tide beginning to bubble towards the surface, trying to break into a wave and communicate with the rest of the world.
Upon watching the first episode of The Leftovers in season two, audiences might be prone to pausing, rewinding, and pausing again to make sure they’re watching the correct show. Opening up with different characters in a different setting, season two quickly sets the stage to explore the same themes through a different lens. What season one does for religion, season two does for mysticism, (and yes, those are two different ideologies). The biggest difference between the first two seasons is the tone of the opening theme song. Sang by Iris DeMent, folk song “Let the Mystery Be,” is at first extremely jarring as the season two opener. Accompanying a montage of folksy photographs where some of the subjects remain, while others fade into silhouettes of stars and various other forms of nature, the lyrics are as follows:
“Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from/ Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go/ When the whole thing's done/ But no one knows for certain/ And so it's all the same to me/ I think I'll just let the mystery be/ Some say once you're gone you're gone forever/ And some say you're gonna come back/ Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour/ If in sinful ways you lack/ Some say that they're comin' back in a garden/ Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas/ I think I'll just let the mystery be/ Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from/ Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go/ When the whole thing's done/ But no one knows for certain/ And so it's all the same to me/ I think I'll just let the mystery be/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”
Gone are Richter’s sweeping violins; they’ve been replaced by fiddles and guitars. Set in Jarden, Texas, season two’s opening theme is a cautionary warning to the characters who are flailing to make meaning of the Sudden Departure. No one knows for certain, so let the mystery be.
A show like The Leftovers, however, could not exist if the characters within that world would just let the mystery be. In season two we meet new families who may, or may not, be exploiting the doubt nestled deep within all those who visit Jarden “Miracle” Texas. Jarden is the only town where nobody was “raptured” during the Sudden Departure, making it a destination for those trying to safeguard themselves against the possibility of a second departure. The local residents feed off of tourists from all reaches of the globe, selling them water from local quarries and creeks, along with other souvenirs which act as talismans to keep them safe. Other local citizens believe that there is a seer in their midst who can look into futures to assuage their unease. So when characters from season one, who are none too reliable to begin with, also start to experience otherworldly circumstances in this town called “Miracle,” the show implores the audience to consider what they believe. Or, does it? No one knows for certain.
The last season of The Leftovers, again jumps ship, and mostly takes place in another setting: Australia. While the first two seasons run for ten episodes each, season three is a tight eight episodes. The absurd situations that season two presents are only heightened in season three as our main cast strives to reconcile their own personal journeys of self worth. The first episode has no opening theme, but at the beginning of the second episode, we see the same visuals from season two’s opening with the peppy theme music of ABC’s 1986 Perfect Strangers, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” by David Pomeranz. Once the episode begins, the use of that theme song makes sense, but The Leftovers’ brilliant choice to keep viewers on their aural toes peaks awareness that the final season will be anything other than what you’d expect, or even perhaps what you’d think you’d want. Episodes three through six feature Richard Cheese’s cover of “Personal Jesus,” Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs’ “This Love is Over,” Benzion Miller’s “Ashrei,” and Gravediggaz’s “1-800 Suicide.” All songs applicably fit the themes of the episodes they accompany, and the use of different songs helps add to the overwhelming momentum The Leftovers creates while careening towards the series finale.
It is only fitting that the final two episodes feature the original, “The Leftovers (Main Title Theme),” and “Let the Mystery Be,” during the penultimate episode and series finale, respectively. There is a lot going on in these final two episodes that hang on the crux of your own personal belief in the story. All of the characters have been on such fantastic journeys leading up to this point, both emotionally and physically, and their souls have been rattled and tested. At its heart, The Leftovers is a love story attempting to teach its audience to give into uncertainty and live in the now. The deliberate use of music helps hit home the dual sentiment of: everything happens, as it should; do not take oneself too seriously. Richter’s score paired with other needle drops throughout the series help maintain the balance between despair and absurdity. I’m not surprised to have enjoyed Richter’s score as much as I do. His body of work contains Waltz with Bashir, The Congress, and FX's Taboo, while portions of his work can also be heard in Arrival, Prometheus, and the Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive.” Richter’s understanding of his subject matter is inspiring, and in my few short days of research he has come to the forefront of composers for which I’ll be keeping an ear to the ground.
I have watched a decent amount of television in my day, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel quite the same as I did watching the series finale of The Leftovers. It is one of the finest hours of television I have ever had the pleasure to watch. I focused on the music for this particular analysis, but there’s so much more that you should check out for yourself. The description of the series finale reads: “Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.” Isn’t that just the truth of our lives? Coming into my own understanding and appreciation for my faith over the years has strengthened my belief that faith is personal and in flux. For how can one claim to completely know and understand this world or the greater context of existence? “Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from. Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done. But no one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me. I think I'll just let the mystery be. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” You sing it, Iris. See you same time next week.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.