A version of this story on “The Leftovers” first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Comedy/Drama/Actors Emmy Issue.
The year’s television landscape featured numerous progressive portraits of female characters, but perhaps none more satisfying than the brilliant women of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” The females of this dystopian series, a collaboration between author Tom Perrotta and showrunner Damon Lindelof, has easily one of the darkest premises on TV: 140 million people, 2 percent of the world’s population, have vanished, and the remaining answerless bunch simply have to deal with it.
It’s not just that the ensemble’s individual performances resonate — though Carrie Coon, Regina King, Amy Brenneman, Ann Dowd, Liv Tyler, Janel Moloney, Margaret Qualley and Jasmin Savoy Brown certainly do. It’s that the show projects what feels like an unapologetic and unprecedented portrait of female rage.
“When Tom’s book came out, people looked at it as a 9/11 metaphor,” said Lindelof. “It creates this existential problem: What kind of coping mechanisms come from that sort of event? I will say that the women are much more active in their coping mechanisms. They’re not just sitting around doing nothing — they’re trying to do something.”
Season 2 sees the women of “The Leftovers” transported from the polar vortex of New Jersey to the sweat-drenched streets of Jarden, Texas. Internal temperatures skyrocket as the group continues to face what may well have been the Rapture.
Coon won a Critics’ Choice Award for her portrayal of Nora Durst, a woman who lost her two children and husband in “the departure,” as the event is sensitively called. She’s taken up with “Leftovers” leading man Justin Theroux, a broken former sheriff whom the writers seem hell-bent on torturing from episode to episode.
Coon vibrates with a danger specific to those who have nothing to lose, though her character seems intent on getting some sort of nuclear family back, with Theroux’s daughter (Qualley) and an infant who mysteriously appears on their doorstep. “What’s appealing is how incredibly tough Nora is,” Coon told TheWrap. “That’s really fun to do. Her anger and emotions aren’t about a man — they’re grounded in something else in the world, which actresses rarely get to do.
“It’s so thrilling to be invited to do it. She’s not consistent, she’s very inconsistent. I think she’s very dangerous, even still.”
This year, Nora had to grapple with complicated new neighbors, the Murphys: Erica, played by King, and Kevin Carroll as her husband, John. Erica’s daughter, Evie (Savoy Brown), goes missing, seemingly into thin air, which stokes the small town’s anxieties about a possible second round of mass disappearance. When Nora and Erica finally confront each other, their quiet conversation has the impact of a natural disaster. “It’s a scene that can only happen between two women,” said Coon. “There’s a female rage that hasn’t been able to come out physically. Female rage gets sublimated.”
Former “Private Practice” star Brenneman, who plays Theroux’s ex-wife, agreed. “I think female rage is not traditionally societally acceptable,” said Brenneman, who plays a woman so grief-stricken that she spent the first season in the show’s doomsday cult, the Guilty Remnant, which demands silence, chain smoking and creepy recruitment.
“But this is a ‘post-departure’ world where societal norms don’t exist anymore — what does it matter?” said Brenneman. “These women are roiling with grief and rage.”
Tyler’s character, Meg Abbott, is the most physical embodiment of this rage — a former wallflower in the cult, she emerged in Season 2 as its most disobedient devotee. “As a person, I don’t have a very big temper,” said Tyler. “It takes a lot to piss me off. And I think Damon saw something that I didn’t see in myself, an internal rage. Honestly, I wasn’t even in touch with it. It changed me, in a way.”
Rounding out the cast is a stunning turn from Dowd, who in Season 2 appears exclusively as an apparition seen by Theroux’s character. She’s Patti, the former leader of the cult, who committed suicide in front of him, and the audience can never be sure if she’s a psychotic hallucination or a menacing supernatural presence.
“I find Damon and Tom amazing for writing these complex, powerful women,” Dowd said. “Those are not the roles I was ever called to play. In the theater, it’s a bit different, but not on film and TV. I’ve played a lot of mothers–but for Patti not to be a mother? Not to be in a relationship? To be figuring out her own life in the trenches? It’s rare.”
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