Category Archives: Mythology

Includes philosophy, science, religion, physics, metaphysics, and all kinds of speculative wankery.


– I can see all the way to the bottom.

Before I started watching the newest episode I had been writing a comment somewhere saying that, no, Westworld doesn’t deal with the theme and problems of AI. It deals with theory of consciousness and, by extension, the construction of reality at a fundamental level. It’s more about metaphysics than physics. Or at least those parts of physics that are metaphysical-like.

That’s the main reason I was unimpressed by how this new season of the show started. I commented the first episode here on the blog, not much to say about the second. The third was better, but not significantly so. The main reason is that the core that I saw in the show just wasn’t present in this new season. It’s not anymore about the foundations of reality, it’s not anymore about metaphysical perspectives and observing systems. It is instead about going through more classical motions, just adjusted to a sci-fi setting. An effective metaphor, well executed, but an old message.

This fourth episode is a whole different matter and goes straight back to that core that was missing. Qualitatively it makes a leap upwards, becoming immediately one of the highest points of the whole series and a masterpiece in its own right. What’s even more interesting is that it’s a relatively self-contained episode, telling a story whole, and that might even be watched and understood by someone who has never seen a single episode… to an extent. Comprehension still relies on certain assumptions that come with the setting, certain things that you are meant to grasp at a glance, but it’s all structured so perfectly that it’s admirable in its simplicity.

The title I used is “screenplay and ontology” for a reason. The episode starts with a long take that doesn’t simply foreshadows the meaning of the scene we’re watching, but that is implicated at different levels at the same time. At first you notice that the camera moves following a strange pattern, strange because it’s not just linear. Then at the end of that first sequence you realize the motion was circular, the camera was following the walls because this room was a circle. I didn’t realize the implications after that first scene, I had to see the beginning of the following one, at the middle of the episode, to finally get the whole thing. And that’s when I realized this thing was simply sublime. This is movie language that becomes ontology, and becoming ontology it means we’re projected BACK right where it MATTERS. I was disappointed that Westworld lost sight of the point. The point being the observer. The point being not AI, but consciousness. The point being the construction of reality.

What might have been missed about that scene is the implications. The circular room wasn’t just a room, it became reality. From inside it was the WHOLE world. From the outside it was a PRISON. Screenplay becomes ontology because the MOVEMENT of the camera here is the metaphysical structure of reality and nothing less. It moves because it represents a process, and that process is consciousness itself, its loop. All you see is all there is.

But it doesn’t stop here. This scene also offers something downright impossible: a confutation of Idealism. Idealism being also a theme I wanted to write about the newer Twin Peaks. In the past year I spent countless hours arguing with a student of philosophy about all the themes that move around the idea of consciousness, and in particular his own studies about idealism and phenomenology. One of my conclusions and argument I used as a weapon against his views was that idealism’s bigger strength is also its weakness: it cannot be refuted empirically. But because it cannot be refuted, it also cannot be proven.

The scene we see hands us instead what is otherwise impossible. A plain and simple, direct refutation of idealism at its most basic level. And what it is? A sheet of paper handed over. That was simply amazing, the dismaying simplicity of a “proof” that has eluded us for thousands of years and that has kept busy philosophers and scientists without ever reaching a conclusion: a sheet of paper and a few lines of text.

That is what it is. The proof that consciousness isn’t what you think it is. What it feels like. The whole phenomenological perspective comes crushing down. It’s the death of philosophy as an entity. The implications are staggering.

But of course it is not real (yet). That simple sheet of paper can only exist within Westworld. BUT. That simplicity that is embedded into this device that destroys knowledge hints directly at the fragility of what we believe in. We don’t have (yet) a breach into consciousness, but we can see here, through this show, a glimpse about the implications.

It is not just a circular room. From within, nothing outside exists, and from outside nothing that is within exists, because it can be reshaped at a whim. The construction of what there is, is TOTAL. It’s the power of a writer, or a director, who DECIDES what to show and what to erase. And here, the moral implications dislodge the rest of what Westworld is doing as naive simplicity.

If you can rewrite reality, you can rewrite morality.

And that’s why outside this construction there’s another scene that chainlocks with the main one: the Man in Black. The MiB is on his quest to rediscover humanity in a world where the concept has literally just ceased to exist. And it is only through human experience that he can navigate this new territory, like a compass. But this is just an inner loop, slave to the other.

The main scene that is represented by the circular room is made into metaphorical hell. This is relatively straightforward, transforming “man” not into god, but into the devil. It becomes Heart of Darkness, when Elsie and Bernard enter the room to find Kurtz. But this is about consciousness. What’s important is the place they reached, not who they found. This is a place like real hell, where reality falls apart, where everything is rewritten. They set the place on fire, but the implication is that what they saw is reality itself, the bigger set they inhabit.

You stare into the world, the world stares right back at you.

P.S.
And despite this episode is an outstanding achievement, it’s hard to say if the season as a whole will be worthwhile. This episode was so self-contained that it also won’t impact the following episodes. It was so masterfully conceived and executed, but it doesn’t push the season itself on another level. We already saw it all coming, we just didn’t expect the story to go there yet.

I’m reading this was a directorial debut for series’ creator Lisa Joy. If this is the result it might be a good idea to let her deal with the whole thing by herself. She significantly outperformed everyone who came before.

There are going to be spoilers here that while vague and abstract might give a good hint about how the first season of the show develops.

Before I write what’s left in my memory about the new Twin Peaks I thought I’d write down about the “mythology” behind Dark, a recent miniseries on Netflix that I watched when it aired (so this too has been a while). I’m only writing on the mechanics of time travel.

The aspect I want to focus on is that Dark is built on the same conceptual mistake that can be found in “Arrival”. Both of these try to reach up for some sophisticate science/mythology that awes the average spectator, but that breaks completely down with careful analysis. When I saw Arrival I ended up writing SEVERAL walls of text to analyze it from every angle possible. This time, thanks to that heavy lifting I did back then, I’ll go straight to the point without being too pedantic.

Both Arrival and Dark (or Dark limited to its first season) are built on a fundamental principle of “time travel” that set itself apart from the tradition of time travel mechanics in fiction and movies like “Back to the Future”. In that case a modification of the past creates a new timeline, so the output of that method is a branching reality like a multiverse of possibilities. Every small change creates a brand new universe. And this way of seeing time travel is so widespread in popular fiction that all of us are able to conceptualize and understand it without any problem. It’s part of us now.

But Arrival and Dark use instead a new concept: time is a solid. That means that even if time travel happens, it only “causes” events to happen in that precise determined way. Change is always “apparent” because things are (pre)determined to go only in a certain specific way. Time as a solid means that time is fixed and unchangeable. In Arrival information can travel through time, from the future to the past, but only to make so that events happen exactly as they are “meant” to happen. Time as a solid means there’s only one timeline and it all happens “at once”. There effectively are no “loops”, and no branches and alternative timelines.

What happens in Arrival is that a woman starts experiencing events in the future the same way we would normally have memories of our past events. As if her memory stored past and future events both. Eventually even letting her reaching for information only available in her future to use this knowledge in her “present” time, effectively making that information travel through time. This of course possible because the concept at the foundation, as already explained, is that time is fixed. It can be “known” (hypothetically) because it’s already determined and so, in a certain way, always available.

This leads to a kind of paradox or counter-intuitive scenario where this woman would have in her “present” time a memory of a future event, and then when the times comes she would have to live again that event as if she was an actress tying to mimic exactly that scene the same way she remembers it.

Since thinking about this stuff can be very confusing and mind-bending, I’ve shaped an example that’s extremely simple and intuitive, and still retains all the features we’re examining here.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

– Let’s reproduce the same scenario. The hypothesis that time is fixed, and there’s a woman who can see the future because that future is already determined.

A room, two chairs, me (just a normal being who can’t see the future) and this woman (who can indeed see and know the future). I simply ask the woman to decide and then say aloud between two options: A and B. Letting her know that if she says A, then I’ll say B. And if instead she says B, I’ll say A. (and that’s exactly what I want to do as soon she speaks)

Here’s the trick: before the woman makes this choice I ask this:
“This experiment is meant to prove to us that you can indeed see the future, and that the future cannot be changed. So I simply ask you, what is the next thing I’ll say, A or B?”


This is the experiment. It goes without saying that, if the thesis is right, then time is fixed and the woman knows EXACTLY the next thing I’m going to say. Time cannot be changed, so there cannot be any other option beside what she already knows. BUT, this experiment is built so that as soon the woman offers her answer of what I’m going to say next, I’LL SAY THE OPPOSITE. Because that’s exactly what I told her. If she says I’m going to say A, then I’m going to say B, breaking her prevision.

I’ve now offered this thought experiment to quite a number of different people to see if someone offered a new angle and prove what I’m saying has some kind of flaw. But the reaction is generally always the same. Usually people suppose there’s something wrong with the way the experiment is built, so they’d generally say, for example: she can’t answer because she knows that then it would produce a contradiction, so she’s in a position where she just will stay silent.

The problem with this explanation is that people want to cling to their intuitive model instead of realizing that the model itself is broken. This thought experiment has a solution, instead. The solution proves there’s a fallacy at the presumption the thought experiment is based on.

SOLUTION OF THE PARADOX

The paradox is easily solved. The concept of time as a solid is built on the premise nothing can be changed and so follows a complete description, set in stone. There’s nothing incorrect in this premise. The mistake is built on the next aspect: the presumption that the state of this system can be “known” from inside the system (like this woman who can see future events) without this knowledge producing any effect on the system itself.

What happens in this scenario, when built correctly, is that whenever the woman receives memories from future events, those memories are new information that is going to ALTER the system. This means, in ALL cases, that every information about the future WILL alter the future.

I repeat: if time is truly a solid there’s nothing wrong. But if time is a solid then it cannot be possible to take information from a future moment and give it to an agent (this woman) in a different moment leaving the system unchanged. This creates a recursion where information in the past has to account for itself in the future, then goes back in the past, causing the future to shift again, and so on and so on. In technical terms this system never closes and continues to grow without reaching a final state. So creating an infinite recursion where we will never obtain a fixed state. And so a system where future events can’t be known because the time is always shifting, which is the opposite of the premise “time is fixed”. It cannot be fixed if it can never reach a closure and so a final state.

Applied to the thought experiment above the result is that when the woman receives information from the future (for example that she says A, and I’ll say B), and then she correctly predicts and say B, by saying that she ALTERS the flow of time, so that I’ll instead say A. But this will alter again the future, so she’ll instead know I’m going to say A, and so she says I’ll say A, altering AGAIN the future and making me say B, which will change again her vision of the future, and so on and so on.

“Time is fixed” presumes there’s a final state, and that this state is then recorded and unchangeable. But what I’ve proven is instead that if you build this system under those rules what you obtain a system that is caught in a recursive loop similar to the concept of “infinite regress” so that this system can never possibly close, so denying the possibility of eventually reaching a fixed final state.

So you’ll ask, how does “Dark” fit in this picture? Dark (trying to not spoiler too much) shows characters who see themselves doing things in the future. Then the time comes, and they do EXACTLY what they previously saw.

It’s stupid. Because as I’ve explained here knowledge of the future necessarily changes it. In fact Dark seems built on the premise everyone’s an idiot. It cannot afford thinking characters because there’s no way to make it work that way. They have to somewhat wave all that away and “make believe” in a clumsy way and convenient Deus Ex Machina. That guy couldn’t make 1 + 1 and so ended up doing the same thing he tried to avoid. Because time is fixed? Nope, because he’s stupid and because if he wasn’t the plot wouldn’t work.

Both Dark and Arrival take a concept that is quite valid. The hypothesis that time might be “fixed” is a good one. That’s why people naturally accept it, and it’s already famous because it’s part of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return. The point here is that Nietzsche wasn’t an idiot and he didn’t make THAT mistake. The mistake of imagining time as fixed AND giving that information to entities that are part of the system without realizing that doing so creates an infinite regression.

If we imagine a system where time is fixed, all is correct. There’s nothing “paradoxical” about it. Just as long the information on how this system evolves can only be known when you observe the system without interfering with its process (like observing from outside). But if you take this information and you push it INSIDE the system, then this information HAS TO account for itself and alter the system. Because it’s brand new information that perturbs the system and sends it in a new state. And having done just that means that time isn’t anymore fixed: you created a recursion that never produces a fixed closed system.

Recursive systems are a bitch. Please handle with care, especially if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.

I was keeping editing the previous entry, so I decided to keep it separated without cluttering that messy post written across a few days and so already kind of inconsistent in its flow.

What I wanted to add is that the strong statement the show makes, as I explained there, is to crown uncertainty by using that ultimate mystery, and the story Nora tells, as the principal way to deliver that symbolic ambiguity. One ambiguity to rule them all.

The big problem here is that this statement and this type of ambiguity are FALSE. And we are even outside of the dichotomy between fiction and reality I used in my mythological explanation. The message here is directly ludicrous and wrong (and it’s a mistake specific to the TV show since the book doesn’t make it).

It takes the first 20 pages of John Fowles’ “The Aristos” to make a much better statement, without even the need to conjure any “character”. But the nature of our reality isn’t ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s human condition, that’s the observer, not the observed. It’s not reality, it’s us. Whereas in The Leftovers it’s the world itself that declares itself ambiguous. It’s a world embodied into Nora’s story. A world fashioned. Because we receive that ambiguity, but that ambiguity isn’t factual, since Nora knows the answer about whether or not she lied, and Nora is just another human being. So we aren’t facing an ultimate mystery as the nature of our existence. We’re facing a man made one. It’s such a basic epistemic mistake, to confuse a limit we have with a limit of the world.

Here’s a quote from LessWrong, that reads as an answer to The Leftovers, and pertinently titled “Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions”:

ignorance exists in the map, not in the territory. If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. A phenomenon can seem mysterious to some particular person. There are no phenomena which are mysterious of themselves. To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.

The Leftovers (the show) made that ignorance into an idol to worship. I can’t see this as a positive message.

Well, that was 100% unexpected.

While I was watching the season 2 finale I was thinking it was really good. Then I checked and noticed there was a whole chunk left to see, the whole final part. I was satisfied even without that one. So this time I made sure to never check how much was left. And when it was over my reaction was… What? …That’s it?

I’m not a completely cold-hearted guy, there are stories that move me. But even the emotional side of this one felt flat to me. Analyzing, it’s probably because it didn’t ring true for most of it, so there wasn’t enough time for me to connect. Like Nora, I couldn’t believe Kevin arrived in that place at random. But unlike Nora I couldn’t trust the narrative either. I didn’t know if it was just bad writing or if there was an explanation within the story.

So in the end for me it was mostly honest curiosity driving my experience, more than emotional connection. But anyway, that emotional side of the story doesn’t look particularly meaningful to me. Kind of banal? But not in a genuine way either. Too coated in rhetoric even when it tries to be raw and honest. That’s the feeling I have about this whole season. It was interesting and with plenty of good ideas, but it lost most of the genuine emotional side that fueled season 1. It lost authenticity.

I thought I was going to be writing about mythology here, but is there anything to say? I was expecting the finale to make some very wrong move, and be enraged by that, or it to make a brilliant, inspired one, and be awed by it. It was neither. The mythology and mystery just fell off. The finale was not a finale. Well, I’ll be cynical after all. It was sentimental banality. Too gamed to be true, needlessly convoluted too.

But it wasn’t absence of mythology either. There’s the rest of the season to account for, and it’s a gaping hole. Really. This went back to The OA levels of missing footholds. It’s completely arbitrary and pointless, nothing to work with and leading nowhere meaningful. (in fact the always enlightened Jeff Jensen calls it “anti-theology”, it works the same as “anti-mythology” and it’s exactly what we have here, more or less deliberately, where for “deliberate” I mean the intention of not giving anything solid to speculate about, a deliberate absence being built)

What was the point of Kevin’s resurrection powers? Everything else? The theme vanished from the finale. We got one big “answer” as a way to check that one box about what most people wanted to know. But only to show how what most people want to know is utterly pointless. You got your answer. It obviously leads to a complete lack of satisfaction. It’s the most underwhelming revelation ever. And that’s fine, because that really wasn’t the point. It correctly shows that what most people attention is on, is pointless. It’s a good, correct message.

But the rest? It’s all put aside and gone unaddressed. The finale has no suggestive suggestion, no statement either. It just moved on and everything fell away. The OA at least was inspired. This one was carved empty.

Well, it cannot compare to LOST. Despite its mistakes LOST tried to soar high. The Leftovers has lots that is good in it, but most of it is contained in season 1. This was a finale where the stakes are massively lowered instead of raised, maybe for the fear to disappoint, or to stay on what is familiar and proven. Season 2/3 were fun rides with good ideas, but in the end leading to nothing meaningful. Sidetracks. The parts being better than the sum, because the sum disperses what was being built. There’s no arriving place, and, retrospectively, no meaningful journey.

The ambiguity in Nora’s story

Reading now other people’s reactions I notice that some think the finale (and it’s bogus answer) is ambivalent: Nora might be lying. All her story is just a story we/Kevin are supposed to believe, or not. This is seen by people as a way to answer this final question in a kind of open way, because maybe this is just a story she tells us. It’s not ultimately verified. But well, okay? I fail to understand why this ambiguity can be seen as relevant. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to me. It doesn’t seem a meaningful dilemma to think about?

And thinking about it more, I also cannot find any good reason why Nora would lie. Lies and truths are meaningful because of their implication, but it seems nothing is implied here. We have a finale where Nora and Kevin are back together, a starting point, ending on a positive note. It would seem quite pointless if this reunion begins with a big lie, especially because Kevin and Nora’s relationship started on the basis of hiding nothing. So, to me it seems that the overall narrative leads me to “believe” Nora, exactly as Kevin does. In a way, the whole journey has the purpose to lead to trust that story without the need to question it, because of what we’ve been through. We arrived at a point where we don’t need a proof. Then nope, this aspect of the finale isn’t ambiguous. The story the way I received it tells me Nora wasn’t lying, because she couldn’t be lying at this point in the story.

The only good reason to motivate that Nora lied is that her story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (why wouldn’t anyone else come back, then? That they all live happier is kind of silly, even if it seems to be validated by the fact that when Nora returns she decides to live in a “technologically light” kind of town, supposedly similar to how those people live on the other side. Aka: technology is bad, you feel better living the good olde ways, yeah). Heh, might be just the best story the writers came up with and whatever implausibility has to be ascribed to that. The problem isn’t whether or not *I* believe the story, the problem is that the choice of making her tell that kind of story that way feels contrived. The whole thing of these two possibilities to preserve and reinforce this ambiguity is contrived.

She could still be lying, it remains a possibility even if it doesn’t make a narrative sense to me. But the important aspect is that it really makes no difference. Either she found out the world was split, or she doesn’t. Neither case has any explanatory power, or is compelling to consider. It’s dry speculation without consequence.

So why again? No images being shown, as a writing choice. Faithful to the ambiguity that runs through the whole show and that instead of being solved is made into a foundation. THIS is the statement. It rings a bit hollow and artificial, but that’s how I read it. The purpose driving it is the choice the writers made: to crown ambiguity. To keep it open ended. To leave that doubt not as a thing to solve, not as a complex mystery encoded in the story and hard to unveil, but as the ultimate statement. To leave human beings uprooted, ungrounded, nowhere to go beside doubt. Lacking information to be able to choose. But while this is praiseworthy as an ultimate goal, I think this specific theme was handled badly, and it’s one of the weaker parts of the whole show. So making it as the theme that connects and builds the whole thing, well, it’s weak.

Let’s at least discuss what little mythology is there. In the case Nora’s lying, well, we don’t have much. As I said we aren’t juggling real alternatives, so if Nora’s lying we just have nothing in our hands. No theory is offered in the show beside the hidden and unfathomable hand of god. If Nora’s lying it’s because she’s ashamed that she couldn’t go all the way. She’d feel a coward and so she’d close herself from the rest of the world, as we’ve seen. We’re left with nothing in the way of answers to what happened. But if Nora’s saying the truth, then we have a little something, at least indirectly.

In my own schematics I always analyzed this in terms of the boundary of fiction. The threshold. The “event” being seen like a gap that opens and then closes. This is all in accord with the transcendental theme. I imply an inside and an outside. The hand of the god comes in from outside, and the departures go to this outside. But Nora’s story changes all this radically. If that story is *true* then it means the departures only went to some kind of parallel world, not an outside. This perspective changes everything because the parallel world, conceived in this way, is still part of an “inside”. It just became more complex, more differentiated, but still “inside”. It’s a scientific possibility. The event itself becomes normalized. A new event for science, but not outside science. We didn’t break through the “dome”, we just found out another place, still within it. The story is still encapsulated and not breached. Ideally, as in Nora’s story, we can build machines that let us walk between one place and the other. We didn’t move into spirituality or into an afterlife. We just moved into an parallel universe, and that’s well within the potential of science.

In this case the idea that the hand of god comes in, takes some people and moves them to a parallel universe, well, it is kind of silly and far-fetched. Far more plausible would be some rare physical event that created a fracture on the timeline. Something spontaneous but with an ultimate scientific explanation. The god of this world would be identical to ours. An hidden hand, not an explicit one. The idea that god permeates reality, but doesn’t intervenes directly, or tampers with it. It’s the occluded god of Kabbalistic tradition.

It opens a problem, though, and it’s where the whole show has to be questioned. This finale wants to make a statement about ambiguity and uncertainty, as I said, but that ambiguity is what the original book was about, the main theme. And that story was already fully contained and really well adapted through the whole first season. I have commented how season 2 and 3 expanded that story and introduced a new layer. The magic and mystery were featured more prominently, it seemed that the show was leading somewhere else, that it wanted to make a jump. That’s why the finale was a disappointment. In the end season 2/3 didn’t really add anything. The mystery and magic fell off, the theme disappeared and for the finale we simply went back to restate what season 1 already delivered with much more precision, meaningfulness and depth. We got a very long, very interesting sidetrack that ultimately lead nowhere if not backwards. A detour that was fun, but pointless in the Grand Scheme of Things.

In the end The Leftovers denied its own statements. The conflict was solved without producing something new. What worked well was the tension between two writers. In Season 2 we saw Lindelof seizing control, to push the story toward this new place, to embrace more fully its mystery. Season 3 is even more liberating, in the sense that we move further onward into Lindelof territory. But then comes the finale. It’s like there’s a missing piece. It’s like there’s a world between episode 7 and 8, and it’s like during that implied war between Perrotta and Lindelof, the latter lost (LOST). Or better, he surrendered.

This hypothesis is directly validated here:
http://www.vulture.com/2017/06/leftovers-finale-behind-the-scenes-exclusive.html

Lindelof actually pitched early on that they should show the mirror world – which received support, except from book author Perrotta.

“He made it so f**king compelling,” says Perrotta, “and everybody in the room is going, ‘Yeah!’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘No!’ ” Lindelof, comparing his writers’ room to 12 Angry Men, says that “Perrotta became Juror No. 8” — the lone dissenter who brings the room around. Perrotta gave a version of his Leftovers stump speech: “It was always just a given for me that there is this mystery, the same mystery of where do we go when we die, and the idea that there’s one authoritative answer seems palpably ridiculous to me.”

Lindelof was seducing the writing room. The same as season 2 and 3 were seducing the public with its mysterious, magical and crazier elements. Boiling and bubbling up as the seasons progressed. He was winning the war until Perrotta claimed control again.

Lindelof clearly lost. He left while still trying to make a dent, throughout season 2 and 3, but ultimately the finale restates Perrotta’s book without even a little change or addition. It still backpedaled. And I tend to think that Lindelof lost simply because he once again was chasing a trail that he didn’t know what was actually about, and that meant he couldn’t produce good arguments to win that war. That trail lead nowhere, and the show ultimately led nowhere if not back to what was known: the beginning. Restating something that is only superficially convincing and that more than give a closure, it DISTRACTS from closure.

This is my opinion on The Leftovers. A show that was a tension between two writers. Two different perspectives. That is creatively fueled and enlightened by that conflict but that ultimately fails to produce a synthesis or something new. An imperfect work that tries to arrive to a balance, but failing. It’s still immensely interesting, of course, or I wouldn’t write about it here. Maybe third time’s a charm.

My explanation of The Leftovers’ mythology remains valid. The finale didn’t prove it wrong, but it made it pointless. What was the premise for a mythology, even if weak, became a statement for an anti-mythology. The finale not only didn’t produce answers, but ultimately made the questions themselves irrelevant. The answer to mystery is pure doubt. Theories and systems, that are the premise to build a mythology, were made impossible.

Of course you should check out Jeff Jensen’s take, because he always makes things better than they are.

I’m now catching up with the show, with episode 8 ready to go. But first I wanted to write down some notes about the mess that was episode 7. In fact I wrote down some obscure notes so I wouldn’t forget them while being carried by the rest of the story:

Once you master a level you awake, all you’ve learned is lost. New level, new problems. Surf the trajectory. Every new level resets the importance, relevance is contextual.

With only the finale left, I’m peering at the possibilities. For me, right now, the show could go either way. Polar opposites. It could be the best or worst thing ever. I hope it does something clever and consistent, but I have zero faith on this. It could as well be a total clusterfuck that retrospectively ruins everything up to this point. And this episode 7 fits this mold.

It’s not a bad episode, it’s not good either. This whole third season has been pretty much useless, but at the same time it can still be great if they pull off something. It can potentially be great even if these seven episodes didn’t have substance.

So I see the episode and of course the reaction was WTF. Purely that. Nothing makes sense here, nothing is understood. So I go to read those recap that journalists write.

http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/otherworldly-leftovers-kevin-fulfills-his-purpose–256008

It’s a show with an elaborate, layered mythology for those interested in delving into it

WHAT?! Are you fucking kidding me? That’s why I have to write this down, because it seems I’m the only one who’s interested in delving into it. BUT THERE’S NOTHING TO DELVE INTO.

Where is this elaborate, layered mythology? Because of course none of those articles that mention it actually delve into it or even know what it is. They only mention it. It’s no one business.

But first, I’ll point out to the total lack of coherence.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/28/15701402/the-leftovers-episode-7-most-powerful-man-in-the-world-identical-twin-recap

The Leftovers is still, at its core, what it’s always been: a story about wrenching, deeply personal grief.

To then continue with:

in all of the craziness, we’ve missed something important: The real tragedy is Kevin and Nora’s breakup.

(an aside, I noticed on reddit a comment that correctly said: they didn’t break up, they just were on different pages.)

So, nope, it’s not about any convoluted mythology or fantasy elements. It’s about the characters. Only to then say that “in all of the craziness” we actually lost those same characters. Duh.

And that’s actually correct. The Leftovers has become a mess of a show that in the end does nothing “properly”. It thrives on contradiction. There’s too much mystery and absurdity that get in the way of actual character development, yet that mystery is too all over the place to even begin making sense, or being consistent and generous enough that it makes delving into it a rewarding activity. So BOTH are poorly done.

But as I said at the beginning, it’s extremely wobbly, yet it works. It manages to achieve some form of clumsy balance. Do its own worthwhile thing because it’s at least different from most TV shows. It plays with stuff, might get burnt badly, but it’s still kind of fun and interesting to watch. But it is ALSO a clusterfuck.

Even in the Flood of Nonsense that was this episode, I was able to bring some clarity to myself. It makes sense to me, and that’s why I went to read various recap, to see if other people parsed things in the same way. And they didn’t. They call for that elaborate mythology that everyone points at, but generically and without saying what it is about. Like a looming yet evanescent presence.

So here I am, once again, to explain how it works. Or the way I personally parsed it.

The cardinal point this time is that THERE’S NO MYTHOLOGY. Yes, this is important not as a simple statement, but because it brings actual clarity. And it’s funny that it’s the opposite of what everyone else notices.

What I observe, comparing this episode to season 2’s 8th (International Assassin), is that there are no actual, objective rules. There’s no overarching mythology that has been established, in fact. Where for mythology we imply “systems”. There’s no actual consistency between these two episodes. What instead there’s plenty of is: arbitrary symbolism. It’s very obviously a dreamworld. One example for all, only in this episode we have the seemingly important mechanic of the character transition through reflective surfaces. Yet there were mirrors in the other episode too, they just didn’t have this use.

It’s one element only, but an important one. It says to me that in this world there’s no consistency. It’s not a mythological afterlife with strong rules established and consistent throughout. It’s instead a dreamworld that follows dream logic. Transitions happen by just blinking eyes. Like in dreams.

So where are we? The answer is that we get nothing of an “afterlife”. We are in an afterlife, because Kervin does keep dying and resurrecting, but the nature of this afterlife, its actual mythology, is occluded. We just don’t get to see what it is. Instead we get a simulacrum. The place where Kevin ends up is his mind, obviously. BUT. I also just said he keeps dying, so he is inside an afterlife. The mythology of the show DOES command an afterlife. But it doesn’t reveal it to us.

So where are we, again? We are in an afterlife seen but occluded through Kevin’s mind. We aren’t in that place directly. We are in that place as symbolized by a mind. A place fashioned by a human brain, and so a representation of a place through a mind. A dreamworld again.

That’s why there’s no mythology. A mythology is the sense of structure, of rules. But because this afterlife is entirely occluded, even if it does exists, we can only infer meaning. We can only observe it indirectly the way Kevin’s mind fashions it. And so, because it’s a dreamworld, it follows dream logic.

All this leading to my interpretation of the whole episode, its meaning. The important line for me is:

“You just do what they tell you to do…. What do you want?”

That’s Evie to Kevin. Evie keeps herself in character all the way through. She doesn’t “awake” inside the dream. She doesn’t “wink” at Kevin the same way Patti does. Kevin tries to shake her out of her reverie, in order to deliver the message. But she stays in character. The delivery of the message is a failure because the message cannot breach her character. The message doesn’t reach her.

Yet, what she says works anyway, the same as the speech with god worked in the episode on the boat. Layers. Evie describes Kevin the way he is. He’s doing stuff he doesn’t understand just because he has faith on the fact it works. It still makes no sense. It’s still absurd that he accepts of going through this insane ordeal. But he does, blindly.

That’s why it all does make sense to me. What we’ve seen in this episode is a total failure. Kevin wasn’t able to deliver the message to Evie, because Evie wasn’t awake. And he also wasn’t able to figure out the mystery of the kids without shoes, he got no answer. And he also didn’t get the song from the guy. All three of these missions he had were a complete failure.

Yet it makes perfect sense. It’s a dreamworld. It’s personal even if it’s connected to an afterlife. The only one who can benefits from facing those “demons” is Kevin himself. The owner of the dreamworld. You don’t get to fix someone else problem by telling them what you dreamed the last night. Dreams are personal affairs. What’s deeply meaningful to you is useless to someone else, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen here: Kevin learning something about himself, but powerless to fulfill others’ “tasks”. It’s his dreamworld, it has power on himself. For everyone else it’s useless. The afterlife is completely occluded and you cannot take away anything that wasn’t already buried on this side of the threshold. This afterlife/outside exists within the show’s mythology, but it cannot “speak” or reveal itself, if not through what is already manifest: Kevin’s own demons.

That’s how it makes sense to me: Kevin comes back empty handed. The message is clear: you have to fix your own shit without any divine intervention. No magic tricks. You tried going through, but you just hit your head against an hard wall. Rejected.

The show’s central mystery stays unsolved, because that threshold did open once. We now know, simply, that the afterlife delivers no answers or solutions. It’s just an echo chamber.

I’ve just watched the first episode of season three, but these ideas have lingered with me since the ending of season 2. Although that was just two weeks ago, for me.

Is it possible to crack the code?

This is the question. Whether or not this season will deliver answers, or just more questions.

From a random article, the first that popped up:

I’d be surprised if we got real answers. In fact, I think it would be antithetical to The Leftovers’ whole point, which is that in life we don’t really get answers. If the show were to give us any, it would run against its own grain.

And of course Lindelof, because of Lindelof I’m gonna talk:

Tom, myself and our incredible team of writers and producers put tremendous care into designing those seasons as novels unto themselves…with beginnings, middles and ends. As we finished our most recent season, it became clear to us that the series as a whole was following the same model…and with our beginning and middle complete, the most exciting thing for us as storytellers would be to bring The Leftovers to a definitive end. And by ‘definitive,’ we mean ‘wildly ambiguous but hopefully mega-emotional,’ as all things related to this show are destined to be.

Waiting for the season (and show) finale would be too easy, though. And those two quotes already tell us we aren’t likely going to get a whole lot. Promising that an ending is going to be ambiguous isn’t that good of a promise. It’s like: nope, you are getting more character drama to empathize with, but no actual answer about the mystery that supposedly sustains it all.

Do you think that’s enough for me? Nope. There’s a million of TV shows that exploit empathy and offer various levels of character drama, and very few that do “mystery”, or even better transcendental stuff, and do it well.

Part of the fun, as with Westworld, is to expose the writers, know what they are writing about, understand where it comes from, and anticipate where it is going. And if the show is stingy with answers, well, I’ll provide them.

I of course waited at least the first episode to propose my interpretation. I just wanted a glimpse of where it was heading. Would it wrong-foot me? For me the season 2’s beginning was pure trolling and very frustrating to watch. This new episode instead still had a certain amount of trolling, but it was fun and clever. The show starts strong this time, it’s LOST+++ once again. A great episode. And it also fooled me for a while and confused me, made me doubt my conclusions. But that confusion was due mainly to myself because I cannot recognize faces well (or remember names). So when there was that scene with John and Laurie running that scam, I thought John wasn’t John but the original guy that was doing the same thing in season 2, and that the show tried to sell as ‘legit’. Was the show in season 3 debunking that same feature that it sustained in season 2? Is it some form of “retcon”? Nope, because we aren’t looking at the same guy, as I thought. This is John and Laurie.

That turns on itself and becomes a confirmation of what I thought before. It’s classic Leftovers’ trolling + misdirection. Remember season 2? It starts on the same note, repeating pattern: Laurie and Tommy run a scam by imitating the hug-giving guy. A guy that, once again, the previous season (1) tried to validate. The pattern is to validate something in unambiguous way (deal with me, even if you are now thinking it was actually ambiguous), and then come later with a different take where the same thing is turned ambiguous. So you get doubts. Was it the real deal or is it just more baseless superstition?

This is the fucking theme. Look down at other posts where I write about The Leftovers. The question is always whether or not this is superstition. And if it’s real, how the hell does it work? What is going on? Why people disappeared? Why strange stuff does happen in Miracle town? And so on. What are the rules here? How are they built? And, if you look at it meta-fictionally, what where the writers thinking and what are they trying to achieve?

You can read some of my own analysis in the other posts, but here I arrive to my own conclusion and interpretation. To make this whole thing “fit”, into some kind of overall plan. Because, as I wrote, up to the end of season 2 the show didn’t provide anything that could be effectively used to “crack the code”. It’s generous with character drama, but stingy when it deals with mystery. You don’t have much to work with (same as The OA).

And then, the show explicitly trolls you. You say you don’t understand, and the show shoves you the defying sign “you understand.”

UNDERSTAND WHAT?

Take this, again from the previously linked article (I don’t even need to put effort to seek relevant material, because everything ends up relevant here):

This story is, in other words, The Leftovers in miniature: a seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going even when your experience in the world is screaming into your face that everything you’ve ever known might be completely pointless.

The story, it seems to say, is about DOUBT. Or unflinching faith, despite reality keeps kicking you. To actually make you doubt.

That’s already the “solution” for me. Because that description doesn’t fit AT ALL with The Leftovers. This is not a correct description of the show.

Leading onward is this interview with Lindelof. Jump to 35:30:

I’m drawn to these ideas that have supernatural underpinnings or, in some cases, overtones because the challenge to ground them is that much greater. But the show has a supernatural conceit, it was written by someone who’s never dealt with the supernatural before, Tom Perrotta. He wrote a “genre” book but, you know… whenever I’ll pitch something in the room Tom will say, “that’s too weird, man.” And I’ll go… (intensity rises) This was your idea! You started it! 140 million people disappearing with no explanation. THAT’S weird. …And he’ll go (dismissively) “Yeah, but this is too weird.” And most of the times he’s right.

When I heard that I thought ‘I knew, that’s exactly the roles I bet they’d have in that writing room’.

You see, The Leftovers existed as a completed book. It was a complete story that Tom Perrotta wrote. For the TV adaptation Lindelof was brought in. They made a deliberate choice there. Lindelof didn’t simply adapt the story for TV format, he did fucking CHANGE it. The first season of the show IS the book, it’s actually a faithful adaptation, too. But the reason why we’re onto season 3 is because Lindelof brought a complete new layer to the story. A layer that doesn’t belong, supposedly, to the book. It’s a brand new take, a new level. The TV show is a new story that is the product of the interaction of Tom Perrotta and Lindelof. It’s a new story, the way Lindelof would write it.

As far as I know, Tom Perrotta’s book only has that supernatural “premise”, but nothing else happens in the course of the book, and the book ends without hinting at more supernatural stuff. Supernatural stuff that is instead far more pervasive and stated explicitly in The Leftovers, the TV show.

As you see from the interaction above, Lindelof would come up with more supernatural ideas, and Perrotta would try to tune them down, saying they don’t ring true to him. Lindelof pushes, Perrotta pulls. Lindelof says ‘most of the times he’s right’. And that implies the opposite: that sometime Lindelof won the tug of war. And so that the show would embrace that supernatural element.

It’s so clear to me, because of what I wrote in my previous posts to “frame” the problem. The split between the character drama and the mystery that causes it.

You see, for Lindelof, and correctly, that little supernatural gap, the disappearance of millions of people, wasn’t just a tiny glitch that immediately closed without leaving a trail. It was a DOOR. Lindelof wedged his metaphorical foot in that door, to keep it open.

The Leftovers, the TV show, describes a credible world, similar to ours, but where supernatural shit does happen. This is the actual solution. As I mentioned above, the show tries to make you doubt of something that the show itself validated previously. But this is an inverted pattern, because what is authoritative is the first validation. Whereas the following doubt is misdirection. A way for the show to hide its ghostly hand, so that the magic trick can work.

It still is a thought experiment, of course. A creative endeavor, of course. But this is how we build it. The rules of THIS (fictional) world. The Leftovers describes a mirror world. Through the looking glass. Remember that scene in The OA, with the mirror in the last episode? The Leftovers is wholly contained beyond that threshold. The world and characters we see in The Leftovers are convincing, they seem like us. So we draw parallels, or recognize parts of us. But the world of The Leftovers is not ours. It’s, as Lindelof states, a “weird” world where people can magically disappear. Where supernatural stuff DOES happen, sometimes. It’s a world similar to ours, with the small caveat that superstition is fucking ‘legit’. Not always, because in The Leftovers’ world human beings can still scam each other, but whether it is god, magical hugs, divination or predestination, sometimes it is. The moment the supernatural gap opens, with the original premise, is the moment the door is kicked open too. Lindelof picked up Perrotta’s story and said that the little glitch is gonna have consequences. He pushed that premise all the way. We moved into mirror-land, where weird shit does happen without any possible rational explanation.

The “magic hugs” in season 1 were working. We later see Nora have some kind of recurrence, the show trying to push back these magic hugs into ambiguity, but Nora is still a different person and she continues to be that even in the following season (the crippling trauma doesn’t come back). That lapse we saw can be explained in various ways. The magic hugs did work, the show made a statement then it tried to partially hide it, but look closer and you’ll see that the initial statement stays true. It’s misdirection, not contradiction. The same as in the middle of season 2 Laurie convincingly persuades Kevin he’s having delusions. This is convincing for us because her arguments are arguments that would be solid, in our world. But you know where the story leads. And you see in this episode as well, when Kevin is confronted inside the church with the evidence of something that cannot be explained going on. And again this first episode, showing/suggesting that the handprint-divination thing is also an hoax. But was it really? Nope, because this is just John and Laurie using the internet, whereas season 2 showed us that the guy who did the legit hand-reading knew stuff that just he isn’t in the position to know, internet or not. Stuff that we get to know through a flashback, and a flashback is an authoritative device. It’s structure. The pattern is inverted because the mirrored world is specular: if in our world skepticism brings us closer to truth, in this mirror world skepticism might take you away from it. But just ‘might’, because sometimes superstition is artificial and human-made as in our world. It’s even more ambiguous.

(but then, if Lidelof aligned everything perfectly, we would get something too linear and easy to see through. So the show has fun with some blatant trolling, as in this episode with the “canine conspiracy”. Not all superstition is automatically true. Delusions still exist in The Leftovers’ world. Not all of them are, just some. The show is just playing with you, deliberately exploiting ambiguity so that you lose track of what’s possibly true and what isn’t. So that the show can then surprise and catch you off guard more easily. They have produced a context where superstition can be true AND easily disguised. It’s an extremely powerful tool for a writer.)

We end up with two worlds. One the mirror of the other. The mirror world of the TV show is a “written” world. It’s determined by a god/author who infuses that world with… purpose. It’s a meaning-full world where everything exists for a reason. And because this world is written, the rules are coherent. Responsibility is onto an external agent. This world has to have a direction. It’s a world where superstition can be real, where people lives have meaning and purpose. Where coincidences happen because someone wrote them that way for a reason. And because of these artificial features, the mirror world is specular to ours, where we struggle to find meaning, direction. Where, this time correctly, we’re stuck in a “seemingly endless cycle of faith, pain, and determination to keep going”, because in our case the world we live in is… silent. We don’t get any answer.

Not even a hint.

I decided to keep this separate to write a few comments on what I think the show does right with its metaphysics.

The premise convinced and surprised me. I knew that it was about these people suddenly vanishing, but I was surprised that the show didn’t do any “dressing” of the event itself. People just disappeared. It’s the “purity” of the event that is so powerful. If in other mystery stories something happens that produces a change, here what’s important is that the event happens once and never again. And it happens without actual direct consequences. The event happens without links to anything else. It’s not simply unexplained, but it is unexplainable because it’s not connected to anything else. There is no “whoosh”, there is not weird alignment of planets, or ominous prophecies, or sudden blackout, or a storm, or eclipse or whatever. It’s just a one time glitch. The gap opens and closes so quickly. It doesn’t even “happen” because it’s not a phenomenon. It’s not something that is consequence of something that happens. It’s the absence of an “event”. A touch so fast and so light that was not perceived.

That’s why it is interesting and solid: what happens if our belief system collapses? That’s what the event is about. We believe and exist on the premise of an objective external world. On the fact our experience is “stable” and we can rely on it. That’s why the show then enjoys to play with a character that has an “unstable” experience. But that’s personal experience, you can be crazy. What if factual reality stops being stable, for everyone? This is The Leftovers.

How do you answer the event?

The show is solid because it’s up to humanity to give answer. And they try. How can you answer the event? Through science, through statistics, through correlation, through belief, religion, or through superstition. The show examines all these variations in their detail, because as I said the purpose is to use the event as a lens, to understand how human beings live their life and how they work. In the absence of an objective world, endless possibilities open.

When you unseat science, because science has to rely on a stable external world, what is left is raw. It is purer. It’s not anymore a sporadic case of someone becoming unhinged, it’s all humanity that becomes unhinged. It’s a form of freedom. The world becomes open, truly free. Yet nothing actually changed, on the outside. The world was unaffected, untouched.

WYSIATI. What You See Is All There Is.

Here it becomes the opposite. The dark side of the moon: What You Don’t See Is All There Is.

The world is unchanged by the event, but it’s the end of the world. Apocalypse. The world has ended. Eschatology, rapture. What this means is that the world is internal.

As constructivism would say, the external world is a projection of what’s inside. And what’s inside is what you cannot see, but is all there is. People are missing. Absence. The show examines how absence becomes more powerful than what is there. That 2% becomes more important than the 98% that is left. What’s missing manipulates what remains, it conditions and transforms the world. It’s a shaper of things. The shape given by what is not there.

The “light touch” gives the story its power. If something else also happened, it would immediately create a pattern. Two points that make a line, a connection. And examining that connection would lead to a direction, a way to lay the foundation of another belief. Metaphysics, the premise to build a new world. But because instead this doesn’t happen, because there’s nothing left outside to pick up, all that is “externalized” becomes all that is inside. And what’s inside is, often, trauma. And trauma is catastrophic, fundamentally reshaping everything in dramatic ways. In the maximum freedom, the characterization becomes the only cage. Unfiltered, it becomes pure and raw. Because there’s no other way to go than deep inside.