Point – Counterpoint : Ambiguity

by: Lewis H. Montaug

On the heels of the premiere of HBO’s The Leftovers, a heated debate over the requirements of storytelling erupts….

Everything about HBO’s new series The Leftovers feels bold. In just one episode we have experienced the loss of 2 percent of the world’s population, a sensationalized high school party rife with drugs, masturbation, and choking, and encountered a curious white-clad, chain-smoking cult known as the Guilty Remnant. But boldest of all is the proclamation by showrunner Damon Lindelof (co-creator and writer on Lost) that there will be no illuminating reason why millions of people vanish suddenly into thin air. Instead of answering this profound question about the event which sets the framework for the entire series, Lindelof urges the viewer to focus on the characters, and the ways in which they react and deal with the forever altered world.

To commence our second installment of Point-Counterpoint, we present arguments in favor of the worthiness of ambiguity in storytelling, in this case honestly exploring how mad the world will become in the face of such immense tragedy, when there are no real answers for those people left behind. And, in dire contrast, we delve into the arguments against this brand of vague storytelling, and its insistence on leaving the viewer out of the loop…

Point: I feel one’s patience with The Leftovers gargantuan story gap has to boil down to personal tastes. There have been numerous successful frameworks where the reader/viewer is thrust into a world with a massive unknown. I actually enjoy this type of storytelling as it allows me to speculate and expand the narrative into my own headspace.

Counterpoint: Hold the fucking phone here! So we are supposed to be comfortable diving head first into this show knowing full well that we will never find out what happens to the missing 140 million people, citizens from all walks of life that simply vanished into thin air in the show’s opening sequence? That doesn’t sit well with me at all! I’d like to think that as a storyteller, if I set up as the framework of my tale something as grandiose as the instant removal of 2 percent of the world’s population, I am going to be prepared to explain, or even subtly hint at, why and how that shit went down. It’s amazing how after one episode I already feel a measure of dissatisfaction, and it’s entirely because I am cognizant that my curiosity will never be satisfied.

Point: I guess my question really was: Does knowing why or where the people went really matter? Does it distract at all from the story being told?

Counterpoint: It absolutely matters – and furthermore it is incredibly distracting. I am not against this type of fiction at all. In fact, I welcome the story that allows one to use their imagination. I actually dig many an ambiguous ending. But in this case, I hate the idea of not knowing. What we’ve been presented with is a Rapture-esque story, but far from a traditional one, where people both good and bad vanish in a blink of an eye with no rhyme or reason for their disappearance. Let’s dig into that!!! What’s happening there? Maybe I am just being skeptical, wondering if the myriad of stories about loss and the world’s ability to deal with such a peculiar and far-reaching event will be enough? Maybe I’ve been left scarred, internally and unwittingly, by all the unanswered questions still lingering after the end of Lost? Maybe that’s it, that with Lindelof at the helm, I’ve become apprehensive, and scared of being let down again.

Point: A shining example of this enigmatic style of storytelling would be “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. As you may know, in this story we follow a son and his father as they cross a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of the world. Yes, we are party to what happened to the majority of the people in the intervening years (they died from starvation, violence, cannibalism or suicide), but we have no idea what was the “big event” that devastated the Earth in the first place. McCarthy’s story focuses, rather correctly, on the harrowing journey of the father and the son across the ruined, haunted landscapes, and the world cataclysm is but a backdrop to the tale. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and has been called by The Village Voice one of the “purest fables yet.” I wonder if we thought about The Leftovers in this manner (ie. the loss of 140 million people is but the backdrop to the actual story), we could be OK with never knowing where or why they left?

Counterpoint: It is interesting that you mention “The Road,” as I am the biggest Cormac McCarthy fan I know. But I fucking HATE “The Road” like Marty McFly hates being called chicken. And the reason why I dislike this book boils down to the simple fact that the story was hampered by a giant unknown that I just couldn’t get past. What the fuck happened?????

Point: Asking “What happened?” in “The Road” is like asking “Why are we here?” We just are. Eventually, at some point, science and religion will run out of answers to our questions, and what we will be left with is acceptance. It’s the same with stories. Sometimes an acceptance of the facts, facts that the storyteller tightly controls, is part of the requirements for going on these fictional journeys. And the more willing you are to take that leap of faith, and to trust the storyteller, the more enjoyable the experience will be.

Counterpoint: Yeah, I get all that. Fair enough. BUT WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED??? For real, the whole of the Earth is in flames, people are eating each other, and the conditions are so bad that a mother would rather take her own life than see to the well-being of her child. Why are we at this point? It’s quite a thing to gloss over – the absolute destruction of civilization and nearly all life on Earth that is. As is the event that commences The Leftovers. I feel the pain of that kid in the swimming pool ((Tom Garvy, played by Chris Zylka)), just screaming his lungs out as the episode wanes. He, too, must have heard that the showrunners will never reveal the why! And, for the record, I am all for asking “Why we are we here?” – all day, every day. I will never understand someone who doesn’t yearn for answers to the bigger, more existential questions, whether we can attain those answers or not, the journey tends to be enlightening.

Point: In “The Road” we are witness to the ruinous effects and lingering horrors of some unknown cause. But we are also privy to the heartbreaking, emotional journey of a father and son and the lengths the father will go to to remind his child that they are still the good guys carrying the fire in a world gone dark. It is still too early to tell, but I can see similarities to this idea in The Leftovers. One get’s a sense that everyone’s a little bit on edge. That there is a pervasive feeling of guilt or unease in those who were not one of the “Hero’s” that disappeared on October 14th. And there are those that appear to have given up, lost all hope and purpose in their lives trying to exist under the spectre of such a calamitous phenomenon. But there also appears to be people who have not rolled over, who have not surrendered to the power of the unknown. There are prophecies and dreams and answers residing in a guru at a militaristic compound out West. There are the identical twins, Charlie and Max Carver, happy-go-lucky upbeat types who seem to be able to bring lightheartedness and brevity to any situation. And there is Dean, a man with a black truck and a gun, who understands that times have changed, and is ready to meet them head on.

Counterpoint: There is no question that there is a considerable amount of value in the father-son story in “The Road.” It’s heartbreaking, and absolutely uplifting to see the length a man will go to to care for his offspring – and undeniably the point of the story rather than explanation of how things came to be this way. Just wish we knew why they both were besieged by such a frightening situation in the first place. But, it is clear we both agree that it is way too early to judge The Leftovers at this point, a fledgling series that in many ways exhibits true promise. I will say this, I hope you are right. I hope this eclectic and embattled cast of characters, this case study of how people deal with loss and the unknown, supports the volume of intrigue necessary for us to overlook the fact that the preeminent happening in the show will never be explained. And, I guess that this idea parallels well with life, with our own existence, since we were never promised any answers, and thus expecting them in the stories we tell carries with it an air of nativity. So, with all that said, I guess the best way to handle this is to sit back, allow the story to unfold, and hope for the best….

2 replies on “Point – Counterpoint : Ambiguity”
  1. says: Corey

    Sure – one could always hope that the first episode may have grabbed viewership more effectively. But not everything can be Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men etc etc…

    I can’t wait for this Sunday’s episode. And here’s to hoping The Leftovers doesn’t go the way of “I don’t know Butchie instead.”

  2. says: revthomps

    Right….HBO has for a long time been regarded as the “channel that can do no wrong.” Where John from Cincinnati went so wrong was that we were being constantly force fed ideas about God through his annoying rep. Butchie.

    The Leftovers has so far avoided any of the cliched references to a higher power, choosing to focus on peoples reaction to this Rapture-like event rather than mysterious forces or demons or angels operating out of sight. The closest thing to something supernatural happening in the show (besides the disappearance of 140 million people…Shaq!) was the strange way the dogs and deer are acting and I’m not entirely convinced that has anything to do with God.

    Definitely looking forward to the second episode and learning more…

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