Our world today is a complicated place. Organic and regenerating beauty coexists with terrible evils and colossal powers that pull the strings of humanity. Contradictions, absurdities, anomalies of all sorts permeate our existence, to find us often composed, resigned, and accepting. Representations and narratives of cults in television and film are signs of our times. As we find ourselves increasingly perplexed by events and turns of life, depictions of cults and end-of-the-world sects seem both responsive to current social and political oddities, and plausible scenarios for future behaviours. These narratives often imply an invasion of the real by the fantastic and the spiritual, seldom in a utopian twist. They are rather tragic, difficult to follow, or downright suffocating, as they build a world identical to ours, but populated by the worst possible “what ifs.” Do we still have space for the fantastic and the spiritual in a world where we need to juggle multiple truths and alternative realities? Is the trope of the fantastic and transcendental in these visual products reinforcing a call to logic and reason?
The HBO drama The Leftovers is one such product that pulls its audience into an intricate world of wonders and mysteries, most often left unresolved. Now concluding its third and last season, the show tells a beautiful post-apocalyptic story, with a heavy focus on character psychology and development. The plot opens to the individual and collective reactions to a mysterious phenomenon with biblical meaning – the vanishing of two percent of the planet´s population. The “Sudden Departure,” an event clearly referring to the biblical rapture, leaves deep scars, prompting, among others, the formation of a cult – The Guilty Remnants. White-clad, chain-smoking, refusing to speak, the cult is dedicated to interrupting the routine people try to recover in the wake of the departure. It remains unclear whether the world is to come to its necessary end, or whether the departed were, in fact, righteous and the “leftovers” are to repent; there is no rise of the antichrist and no-one seems to be expecting it; the biblical is taken over by magical realism, with events that make no sense. The cult here is a natural reaction to the unexplainable – as the world loses its order, logical and reasonable reactions might be insufficient.
And yet, The Guilty Remnants are strangely logical: they harass people left behind, forcing them to deal with the tragedy that struck, in a “never forget!” sort of protest. If everyone tries to move on and heal, the cult forces a reckoning with the absurd, with the anomaly and strangeness of the departure. This resembles contemporary concerns over the embracing and normalising of abnormality – whether in social or political form.
The notion of faith plays an implicit and powerful role, which again calls for parallels with current political and social climate. The atmosphere of the show is that of unhomeliness, of the uncanny feeling of admitting defeat in the face of the absurd; this sense of walking on quicksand that defines the lives of the characters is replicated by the relationship the viewers might have with the show itself, thus instilling a meta-experience of viewing: consuming and not understanding, following without reaching a satisfactory destination, searching for logic in an inconsistent universe.
Existence split between faith and doubt is the central trope of the cult drama The Path. Following the community of Meyerists, a cult old enough to have the central character been born into the movement, The Path mixes politics and transcendence, emphasising the man-made features of the cult, rather than the unexplainable that prompts it. Personal and collective illumination and the problem of truth infuse the twists of this narrative, turning it, as journalist Nicki Bruun observes, into a visualisation of the Platonic myth of the cave. The show follows a character´s escape from the cave, the effort to break the chains and see the light, which translates into a universal contemporary experience of truth.
If The Path and The Leftovers maintain the socio-political context of the story relatively intact, The Handmaid´s Tale, the darling of post-apocalyptic television today, makes a point of imploding this very context; magical elements do not subtly infiltrate reality, but a nightmarish version of reality usurps life entirely, calling out the “what just happened?” type of reaction that we see so often today, declaring it to be too little and too late. The cult becomes a theocracy, suspending the rule of law and installing a new order of the world. Viewed by many critics as an alarmingly possible scenario for our near future, the show takes Margaret Atwood´s plot to new heights of dystopian terror, yet keeping resistance possible. Faith, doubt, and the simultaneously fear and desire of the unknown that define the universe of The Path and The Leftovers are not relevant here. There is no soft power that seeks to lure in members or convert the unfaithful, but a hard-hitting militarised action to control, limit, incarcerate reality within its own confines.
The choice of delivery of these products is telling: weekly-aired episodes offer carefully packed measures of the story, ritually drawing viewers into their universe, only to push them out again, throw them into the “real” world, to compare and contrast, react to and reflect upon their own absurd and strange narratives.
The title of this article is partly taken from “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
Words: Elena Stanciu