As much as other Lost fans might chastise me for this, I have to admit something: I've always loved the infamous "Exposé," the fourteenth episode of the show's third season. It'll live in infamy as the hour in which Lost masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse dedicated nearly everything to Lost's two most-hated characters, the at times insufferable and seemingly useless lovers Nikki (Kiele Sanchez) and Paulo (Rodrigo Santoro).
And it still pisses off Lost's bitterest viewers. Once Nikki and Paulo are left for dead at its end, "Exposé" ultimately serves no purpose in the show's larger narrative, or narratives, and for a series as predicated on unanswered questions as Lost was, such time-wasters will inevitably infuriate people. For me, though, when "Exposé" ended, and I watched it as it aired live on March 28, 2007, I felt like applauding. With its mean-spirited themes and macabre plot-line, about two greed-fueled lovers getting their comeuppance through backstabbing, poisonous spiders, diamonds, and an early grave, the episode was an unexpected marriage of two of my favorite storytellers: It played like a twisty O. Henry story, but one informed by Rod Serling at his Night Gallery darkest. As an episode within Lost's history, it's a meaningless and somewhat frustrating diversion; as a self-contained hour of television, unattached to any larger entity, it's a nasty little parable about selfishness and wealth-chasing.
In regards to last night's superb episode of HBO's The Leftovers, one could imagine Damon Lindelof, now a co-creator and head writer on The Leftovers after battling through four years' worth of vitriol about Lost finale, saying to Leftovers co-defendant Tom Perrotta, "Here's one for all of the Nikki and Paolo haters." Granted, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" is superior to "Exposé" in every conceivable way, from its much better streamlined one-character narrative to how it ties into the rest of the show's post-Departure Mapleton, NY, universe. And although, Lindelof didn't write Lost's "Exposé" (it was written by eventual Once Upon a Time creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz), he's been vocal about how proud he and Carlton Cuse are of that episode, regardless of how fans perceive it to this day. Who knows, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" may end up being The Leftovers' lone bottle episode, turning Christopher Eccleston's Rev. Matt Jamison into the show's one-man version of Nikki and Paolo; thus, the brilliance with which Lindelof and episode co-writer Jacqueline Hoyt handled Matt Jamison's hour of reprisal could end up being the ultimate middle-finger-you towards "Exposé" naysayers. As in, Lindelof's way of firing back with, "See, character-specific episodes can be great."
Especially since "Two Boats and a Helicopter" shares much of the same thematic DNA as "Exposé." In The Leftovers' previous two episodes, Matt Jamison has been an outlier of sorts, briefly showing up in the pilot to hand out his anti-departed flyers to the crowd at the town's first commemorative parade and returning for a similarly quick appearance in last week's Penguin One, Us Zero," to hug Nora (Carrie Coon) as snooping teenagers Jill (Margaret Qualley) and Aimee (Emily Meade) followed her around town. It was only a matter of time, though, until Matt Jamison took centerstage—you're not going to cast an actor as respected and talented as Christopher Eccleston (so good in films like Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later) and relegate him to background dressing.
It's not a big shock, then, that Lindelof and Perrotta would save their best storytelling for Eccleston to navigate alone. That display of PDA between Matt and Nora in the second episode? As it turns out, they're siblings—their parents died in a tragic house fire when Nora was seven and left Our Savior Episcopal Church behind in their wake. Matt's determined to keep the church up and running despite the fact his Sunday masses now, with Mapleton's citizens predominantly against religion following the Sudden Departure, attracts signal-digit crowds. Adding insult to his mission's injury, Matt's contact at the local bank informs him that, since he's stopped making payments, a hedge-fund company is ready to buy the church property to build a bunch of apartments in its place.
To prevent that from happening, Matt needs to come up with $135,000 in less the 24 hours. He asks Nora to lend him the cash out of her "benefit money," the earnings she acquired after losing her husband and two children in the Departure, but she refuses, telling him that his church and plan to expose all of the bad people who suddenly vanished aren't working anymore. On top of all that, Matt's wife is a vegetable whom he must bathe, change, and carry around their house when the nurse whom he can't afford to pay anymore isn't around. She's been that way since the moment of the Departure, when, mere feet away from the mother whose baby disappeared in the pilot episode's opening scene, a car crashed into his and sent his wife's head smashing into the steering wheel.
So, yeah, Matt Jamison's going through some intense shit, and how Lindelof and Hoyt present him with potential salvation results in some of the best television of 2014 so far. Though some might scoff at the episode's use of pigeons as somewhat fantastical guideposts for the reverend, the birds in "Two Boats and a Helicopter" accentuate The Leftovers pervading sense of magical realism, a tonal tightrope that's been subtly subverting Mapleton's small-town mundanity with edge. The pigeons come from the same potentially supernatural outpost as those maybe-crazed dogs police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) has been seeing around town, the difference being that while the canines are pushing Kevin closer to losing his mind just like his father has, the pigeons act as signs of hope for Matt. By inexplicably flying into a casino and landing on a certain Roulette table, they give him a chance to pay off his debts. By perching above a traffic light that's glowing red, the birds inspire Matt to put all of the $20,000 he's dug up—courtesy of the emergency stash Kevin Garvey, Sr.'s (Scott Glenn) left for him behind the Garveys' house—on red. If "Two Boats and a Helicopter" is Damon Lindelof's answer to a The Twilight Zone episode, those pigeons are his version of the fortune-telling machine in the classic William Shatner-led Zone ep "Nick of Time."
And, make no mistake about it, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" is a modern-day Twilight Zone homage, but one that adheres to The Leftovers' bleakness. The episode's closing moments have the kind of cynical impact that Lindelof and Cuse thought they were delivering with the ending Lost's "Exposé," with Nikki, paralyzed by the spider's bite, opens her eyes just as Sawyer and company dump dirt into her and Paulo's hole, burying them alive. In that case, the final twist works on an E.C. Comics level, where, in titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, bad people inevitably got theirs in cruel yet ironically satisfying manners.
The gut-punch administered to Matt Jamison, however, cuts much deeper. Throughout "Two Boats and a Helicopter," you care strongly for the guy, a testament to Eccleston's magnificent acting but also Lindelof and Hoyt's writing and episode director Keith Gordon repeated close-ups on Eccleston's pain-riddled face. When Matt crushes that bastard's face into the casino parking lot's concrete, a retaliation for the guy's trying to steal Matt's $160,000 in winnings, it's as cathartic for the viewer as it is for Matt himself—you want him to get the church back and emerge from "Two Boats and a Helicopter" with some semblance of happiness. Hence the episode's perfectly timed cut to Captain and Tennille's buoyant cover of Neil Sedaka's "Love Will Keep Us Together." Even if everything that's come before it on The Leftovers suggests that Matt's love won't keep jack together for long, you hope it does for at least the rest of the hour.
But then that rock flies at Matt's head, knocks him out cold, and triggers one of those surrealistic dream sequences David Chase did so well for HBO on The Sopranos, followed by the realization that Matt's been in the hospital for three days—meaning that, yes, that cash-stuffed envelope he's brought to the bank is too late. Walking to his church as shell-shocked as the viewers are, Matt sees who bought Our Savior away from him: the Guilty Remnant, who are painting the exterior walls white and dumping the Bibles into a large garbage bag. All Matt can do is stand there, watch helplessly, and make icy, war-waging eye contact with Remnant leader Patti (Ann Dowd), all while the soundtrack kicks into piercing strings that'd be at home in a Blumhouse production.
If you took a look around my bedroom, you'd easily see why I'm calling "Two Boats and a Helicopter" my favorite TV episode this year to date—indeed, above True Detective's The Secret Fate of All Life and Fargo's masterful "A Fox, A Rabbit, and a Cabbage." You'd see the complete Twilight Zone DVD box set alongside similar all-encompassing DVD editions for Night Gallery andTales from the Crypt. But "Two Boats and a Helicopter," in my case, preaches to the choir. I've been on-board with The Leftovers all along, whereas its overall ratings haven't been strong enough for HBO to green-light a second season yet and Twitter reactions seems to be gradually cooling off. In other words, the show's first two episodes haven't exactly sustained HBO's True Detective/Game of Thrones Sunday night drama programming momentum.
Which, in a way, further separates "Two Boats and a Helicopter" from Lost's "Exposé." After that controversial Nikki-and-Paulo-centric episode aired in March 2007, many already perturbed Lost viewers were ready to write the show off and bid Lindelof's brainchild adieu; hopefully, though, "Two Boats and a Helicopter" influences previously teetering The Leftovers watchers to hang tight. If last night's episode demonstrates what The Leftovers is truly capable of, it'd be a shame to depart from it now.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer and, clearly, an eternal Nikki/Paolo apologist. He tweets here.