How HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ Became A Feminist TV Show In The Unlikeliest Yet Fascinating Way

Summer is finally here which means we all have a few months to binge-watch or re-watch our fave shows of last season, before the new Fall TV shows premiere. If you haven’t yet watched HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’, starring Amy Brenneman, Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler and Christopher Eccleston (among many other stellar names), since the third and final season recently ended, you can now binge watch all three and get familiar with this show.

A fascinating mix of religious and cult experiences intertwined within the human stories of families and couples trying to survive after a major event disrupts the entire planet one fateful day (think the biblical story of the rapture in the book of Revelations), it wouldn’t exactly be the first type of show you’d attach the word “feminist” to when describing it.

When you think of most major world religions or cults, you think of male leaders or figures who dominate the landscape. Not so in ‘The Leftovers’, which co-creator Damon Lindelof points out in a recent interview with Paste Magazine. Over 3 seasons, we get acquainted with a handful of pivotal female characters who not only drive important story lines, but become a glimpse at what TV would look like if stereotypes and tropes did not exist.

As writer Shannon M. Houston explains, this show goes above and beyond the conventions we hold dear to when it comes to familiar themes and traditional gender roles in most TV shows. In the first season we get acquainted with a cult called The Guilty Remnant, who are led by a team of women – Patty Levin (Ann Dowd) and Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler). Already we are in unfamiliar territory with this, and when we start to learn more about the Garvey family, it is even more unnerving to see Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) join the Remnant and leave Kevin to slowly become the emotionally and mentally unraveled character.

In season 2, after learning more about Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman who Kevin bonded with over their shared grief of lost family members (Nora’s from “departing”) we also get familiar with the Murphy family, and especially Evie, the daughter who becomes the center of fear and anxiety after she too goes “missing”, only to be found in the climactic season finale.

Season 3 takes place in Australia, and wrapped up each of the main characters’ stories in a way that may leave some with more questions than answers, but also a sense of strong female dominance at every turn. This was entirely by design, as the show’s executive team explained in Paste Mag. Writer Shannon lays out exactly why ‘The Leftovers’ is not your typical drama series.

“Not only did it give us some incredibly funny and powerful scenes, it highlighted the show’s distinctive ability to present female characters as creatures who are as complex, intense and compulsively watchable as their male counterparts,” she said.

This is where creator Damon starts talking about the feminist undertones of the show, often making the surface stories a marker for what really lies beneath.

“We went out of our way in episode six to try to pass the Bechdel test with them. And then in their one conversation in the finale, we were like, ‘It’s gonna fail the Bechdel test in almost every single line of dialogue,’ because all they’re talking about is Kevin. But let’s make Kevin a construct, and use him as a proxy for them to talk about all these other things,” he explained.

As Shannon Houston goes on to explain, the dominance of women as the “villains” was also a major step forward in opening up complex and often dark roles for women, subverting the standard narratives we normally associate female characters with.

Feminist TV doesn’t have to be about bonding and healing. The Guilty Remnant, in fact, may represent feminist TV at its finest (and, perhaps, most terrifying). They are the “villains,” they haunt, they steal, they make people remember (and one of them is even a rapist). And I’m not ashamed to say that it meant the world to me when Evie joined them in Season Two—so rarely do I get to see a black girl play one of the bad guys. Lindelof knows that such a great balance wouldn’t have been possible, if there weren’t women running the show, behind the camera,” she writes.

The scene in Season 2 where Liv Tyler’s Meg sexually assaults Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) is not only jarring, but also shocking, as we aren’t accustomed to seeing men being raped by women on-screen. Like most narratives around rape, this was also a power-play, as Meg wanted to send a message to Tom’s mother Laurie. Yet unlike other TV shows which feature regular and often unnecessary and gratuitous rape (think ‘Game of Thrones’, for example), ‘The Leftovers’ handled this extremely sensitive subject quite well. This could be down to the fact that women were also a dominant presence behind the camera, most notably via Executive Producer and Director Mimi Leder.

“We basically designed a matriarchal system for how the show is made and produced. Mimi Leder, and half of our writers room, all three years, we’ve had a good 50/50 gender balance. The Guilty Remnant is a matriarchal society. In Season One, it’s run by Patti Levin [Ann Dowd], Laurie is her number two and steps into the vacuum when Patti dies, and then Meg [Liv Tyler] is this sort of rising force of chaotic terrorism who basically wants to spin out her own movement,” says Damon Lindelof.

He was very deliberate about making the villains women, as audiences are so used to seeing “the bad guys” in movies like James Bond, or terrorist organizations in almost any piece of entertainment lead by men.

“It always made sense to me that the GR was led by women, because it would be scarier for women to say, ‘There is no family,’ than for men to say it. At least as it’s depicted in literature, and stage and screen, men already have one foot out the door anyway. So many people said about Tom [Perotta]’s book, ‘I don’t understand how Laurie could leave her family.’ And nobody would have been saying that if she was a man. That was an idea that I really wanted to unpack and explore—and to have women and men come into complex conversations about the Departure,” he said.

In a time where Hollywood is being pressured from a number of people and entities to start opening the gates to more complex portrayals of women and minorities, it’s exciting to see this being done by creators and filmmakers who are willing to go beyond the stereotypes. So if you are looking for a feminist TV show to binge watch this summer that is an unpredictable, complex and challenging look into what it means to write interesting female characters for the screen, be sure to check out ‘The Leftovers’ on HBO.

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