What 'The Leftovers' could learn from 'Battlestar Galactica' about grief

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It’s always a challenge when a television show kills off a sizable portion of humanity in its first episodes. I don’t mean to be flip about that proposition—it’s just there’s a certain series format, seen most recently in The Leftovers, in which the action begins after a near-apocalyptic event has run its course and then the substance of the show deals with whatever follows.

Some do it better than others. In HBO’s case, that calamity comes through a rapture of sorts: Two percent of the world’s population disappears into thin air. What follows is grief—the sudden evaporation of bodies leaves everyone in the town of Mapleton, New York, gasping for spiritual air.  The Leftovers hits hard, but so far it has struggled to weave its intersecting set of individual traumas into cohesive web of collective grief. Perhaps the feeling of empty randomness, even in the plot, is part of the point, but it also misses one if the great advantages of serialized television: the ability to build memorials, and to return to manifestations of loss. There’s one series that’s made use of this better than most others: Battlestar Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica was a lot like The Leftovers (but in a scenario in which the numbers of departed and left over are flipped, evil robots exist, and everyone is in space). The plot begins with a sneak attack from the Cylon forces, robots that have now taken human form and are out for revenge. The human population of the universe drops from several billion to just 50,000 in a matter of hours, and the rest of the series follows the band of survivors as they look for a home. Like any sci-fi show, Battlestar brought its requisite share of space-fighter battles, great cheekbones (hi, Captain Apollo), and technobabble mythology, but all its stakes lay in the fragility induced by body count—in the number of survivors listed at the beginning of every episode and the wall, mid-ship, where characters tacked photos of the fallen.

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The memorial hallway, as it’s called on Battlestar‘s soundtrackappears first in in “33,” the episode that follows the miniseries, as the place where characters leave photos of the friends and family their first lost in the Cylon attack. But it worked well for Battlestar, in part because it created this sustained, physical manifestation of grief that last through several seasons. As the show continued, pilots and civilians who died on the journey were added to the wall.

Battlestar Galactica‘s memorial exists in direct reference to the memorials constructed following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, where, without hope of finding bodies, mourners pinned the likenesses of the lost to long stretches of wall nearby Ground Zero. Of course, the instinct to create a memorial in absence of a body has lasted longer than that—from tributes to those lost in war, such as the Vietnam memorial, another wall, through to all the burning flames of unknown soldiers.

By no means do I want to assign death on television anywhere near the importance of death in real life, but it’s valuable to consider the way in which we try to recover from irrevocable absences—and the way that television captures how often that response is physical. We may have lost you, it goes, but at least we have this. What The Leftovers is missing, so far, is Battlestar‘s impulse for this-ness, the desire to at least create a thing to replace the beings that have been lost.

Television, it’s also worth noting, is uniquely suited to this kind of in-universe memorial. A feature-film version of Battlestar, for example, might tear down the memorial wall after shooting ended. A novel would never need to create the physical object in the first place. A stage set would, but the performance on it would simply repeat, incurring no change over the course of real time. But on TV, the Battlestar set that had to be created, or recreated, several times over in the service of the show’s needs. The wall was a real-life tribute to the pain of imaginary characters, and season after season, it grew in proportion to that pain.

Many of the responses on The Leftovers are only increased negations: The Guilty Remnant do not speak, Laurie Garvey left her family, even the bagels continue to disappear. While these choices capture a sense of personal grief, they don’t quite sum up collective pain. The only monument we’ve seen so far in The Leftovers (in the trailer below) lacks the physical weight of Battlestar‘s memorial wall. As seen in the pilot, it’s a rather small bronze statue of a woman reaching for her baby as it flows into the ether before her. It’s striking, but anonymous—the names of the fallen aren’t listed anywhere, but merely read by a group of elementary school girls. The show has let the feeling of absence accumulate, but it hasn’t let the response to that absence build into very much. After three years, you might expect to see something more.

Which is to say that someone, somewhere in Mapleton should be doing more, should be making more. The Leftovers‘ refusal to provide a hold for its grief leaves it spinning out of control. Perhaps that’s an artistic choice, an attempt to suspend the possibility recompense for as long as possible, to really, truly see what grief and absence are. But as Battlestar proved, those emotions don’t only exist in negative. And sometimes the most powerful expressions of loss come not from airlessness—the repeated mantra of the Guilty Remnant is “you’re wasting your breath,” which HBO decided to tagline—but from solidity, from structures that proclaim absence by their existence. Television lets you build things. It seems a pity for the series not to construct them.


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