If the pilot for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” established the landscape of the show — one where semi-supernatural phenomenon bump up against personal drama — the second episode, “Penguins One, Us Zero,” makes a smart play and narrows the focus. Unlike “Lost” which forever expanded the question marks around the central mystery, Lindelof pivots much more wisely here to the repercussions on his characters. For now, “The Leftovers” is less concerned with what happened and why, and instead on how it has altered the people still dealing with the loss and grief three years later.
Identity is the theme that courses through this week’s episode, both in how characters are perceived from the outside, and how they perceive themselves. And Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) finds himself battling the preconceived notions of those around him, along with his own disquieting awareness that he might be going crazy. He’s haunted by vivid dreams, while at work, mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) and his police force colleagues, are concerned about Kevin’s state of mind. He’s the only witness to the Mystery Man (Michael Gaston) and the shooting of the wild pack of dogs, an incident which has landed him in workplace designated therapy. Meanwhile, the continued search for the Mystery Man’s truck has resulted in an unusual conclusion that doesn’t help the theory Kevin is losing his grip on reality — it has been found in his own driveway with the keys on the dashboard. Later, the Mystery Man shows up on Kevin’s doorstep — now seen by both his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) and her friend Aimee (Emily Meade), at least confirming he's real — with an offer to go out and shoot more dogs the next night, and do the “Lord’s work.” He also gifts Kevin his pickup truck.
Not helping the perception of Kevin both from the outside and from within is the fact that his father (Scott Glenn) — who was the former chief of police — is now institutionalized after suffering under a similar set of circumstances as his son. And a visit to Kevin Sr. by his son late in the episode yields both reassurance and doubt for Kevin Jr. His father maintains that everything he experienced was real, and yet, partway through the conversation, he begins speaking with someone who isn’t there. Kevin has no idea what to think, or what to believe. He even begins to doubt whether or not a bagel — that got stuck and lost in a rotator belt style toaster in the break room at work — was stolen by Lucy, or if he even put it in the machine at all. It leads him to head to the police department late at night and take it apart, discovering the burned pieces of bread in the back of the machine, confirming at least for the moment he isn’t losing his marbles. At least not yet. And while everyone around Kevin wants him to just tell the therapist what he wants to hear — he was under stress when he shot the dogs, he’s sorry, it’ll never happen again — he can’t admit to being wrong about something he believes was right, telling Lucy, “They’re not our dogs anymore.”
But if Kevin is still grappling with who he’s becoming, Nora (Carrie Coon) is settling into the part of playing the rolemodel victim. She’s the face of Mapleton’s collective tragedy, giving the speech at Heroes Day about losing her husband and children, but privately there’s more going on than just a woman grieving. Happening upon Nora in a coffee shop, Jill notices that she’s carrying a gun in her pursue. It’s odd but not unusual perhaps, but things take a different turn when Nora casually but intentionally pushes her coffee cup off the table, allowing it to smash on the floor. It’s a small gesture, but one that turns all eyes in the restaurant on her, with the coffee shop clerk going from irritation to sympathy once he realizes who “accidentally” dropped their mug. It’s weird enough to spur Jill and Emily on a bit of cornball Teen Detective mission with the two super dorks who always seem to be around in their Prius.