From Ashes to Ashes

This is a semester long assignment I completed for my television criticism class. The purpose of this assignment was to gain experience generating television studies discourse through an original critical analysis of the television series The Leftovers.


In this paper, I consider the functioning of objective correlatives in The Leftovers and argue that producers use cigarettes to convey characters’ desire for purpose and to signify and resignify the meaning of fire as the show progresses as a way to structure the show. Using a narrative analysis framework described by Sarah Kozloff, I build on the work of Ellen Seiter on semiotics and Jeremy Butler on characterization, to explore how The Leftovers makes meaning of the characters smoking cigarettes in the episode “The Garveys at Their Best” (S1 E9) and the fire at the end of the episode “The Prodigal Son Returns” (S1 E10). Ultimately, this research serves to illuminate narrative tools used by television producers to give structure to television content that invites discourse on larger themes of purpose and existence amongst its viewers.

The structure of this show follows the description of minimal narrative explained by Todorov in Sarah Kozloff’s article. According to Kozloff’s article, Narrative Theory and Televisions, minimal narrative is, “a move from equilibrium through disequilibrium to a new equilibrium (Kozloff, 53).” The producers of The Leftovers highlight the steps within the journey along this path that the show takes through the developing meaning of cigarettes and fire within the show. This is a result of the role of cigarettes and fire as signifiers within the show. According to Ellen Seiter in Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television, a signifier in a show is the image itself and the signified is the idea or concept behind the image (Seiter, 24). As the show develops and moves through the phases of minimal narrative, the signified behind the signifiers, cigarettes and fire, changes to indicate the development of the narrative.

Cigarettes and fire permeate the show’s narrative from beginning to end and signify character development throughout the narrative. Kozloff states, “Television series often create in their initial premise a tension or enigma that centers on character development or relationships (Kozloff, 59).” The search for existence and purpose in this show is this initial premise and it is conveyed through the development of the characters in the show. The smoking of cigarettes acts as a symbol for the process of character development for Jill Garvey, Patti Levin, Laurie Garvey, and Kevin Garvey. Additionally, according to Kozloff, the methods producers use to manipulate time influences the development of a narrative (Kozloff, 54). The flashback in “The Garveys at Their Best” (S1 E9) is a tool used by producers, which exemplifies how these signifiers are spread throughout the show’s narrative from start to finish.

“The Garveys at Their Best” (S1 E9) is the first episode where Kevin is seen struggling with his cigarette addiction and consistently sneaking cigarettes. According to Jeremy Butler in Television, Critical Methods and Applications character signs, “Are all the aspects of a character that communicate his or her nature and personality to us (Butler, 57).” Cigarettes are used as a character sign in this show to indicate when Kevin is mentally struggling with the things in his life that are out of his control. Kevin’s cigarette smoking acts as a signifier for Kevin’s search for purpose, which is revealed in this episode. In this episode, Kevin reveals he does not feel satisfied with what and whom he has in his life. Kevin’s dissatisfaction and desire to find a greater purpose leads him to self-destruct through extra-marital sexual promiscuity.

The signifying function of this character sign is established further in this episode when Kevin and his father share a cigarette at his father’s birthday party. While they are smoking, Kevin’s father tells him that he has no greater purpose and to stop searching for it. The association between smoking cigarettes and Kevin’s confusion about his existence is highlighted again in this episode when as Kevin sits on the curb sneaking a cigarette during his morning run, a car comes down the street and pauses in front of him. The woman in the car says, “Are you ready?” Confused, Kevin replies, “Excuse me?” The woman quickly speaks to the other members in the car and turns to Kevin to say, “Sorry I thought you were someone else (The Garveys at Their Best).” This interaction is an external portrayal of the question of identity and purpose that Kevin is asking himself as he smokes a cigarette.

Following this scene, this association with Kevin’s search for purpose and his desire to define his existence is emphasized once more when Kevin goes home to Laurie after his run and they fight. The fight starts because Laurie calls Kevin out for lying about smoking cigarettes and for not telling her about his interaction with her son, Tommy Garvey, and her ex husband. When Kevin says that it isn’t his place to tell her, Laurie says, “What is your place here Kevin? Is it here? Be honest. (The Garveys at Their Best)” Kevin responds admitting that he has been lying about smoking cigarettes and wanting a dog. Kevin’s marriage is falling apart because he has reached a place in his life where he is not satisfied with what he has but he is simultaneously at a loss for what to search for next.

Kevin’s struggle to find purpose in his life and to stay faithful to Laurie is paralleled by Kevin’s struggle to stay away from cigarettes and get over his cigarette addiction. Each time in the narrative that Kevin experiences a loss of control over the events taking place in his life, he has a slip up and smokes a cigarette. This association is emphasized in “The Garveys at Their Best” (S1 E9) when he shares a cigarette with a woman he meets who accidentally hit a deer with her car. She says, “He came out of nowhere.” Kevin responds, “He didn’t belong here.” To which she replies, “Neither do I (The Garveys at Their Best).” Kevin cheats on his wife with this woman. While Kevin is having sex with her, The Departure occurs and the woman disappears in the middle of their sexual relations. This interaction is utilized by producers to invite a discourse on existence, the larger theme in the show. This interaction takes the signified meaning of a search for purpose that is assigned to cigarettes and associates it with The Departure and the concept of existence.

The Departure leads to many of the characters in the show joining Kevin’s state of mental distress over the question of purpose and the idea of existence. Membership in the Guilty Revenant is the solution some of these characters choose to try to solve this mental dilemma. In the episode “Cairo” (S1 E8), Patti tells Kevin that every person who joins the Guilty Revenant does so because they are searching for purpose. This association between the contemplation of one’s purpose and smoking cigarettes is reinforced at the opening of “The Prodigal Son Returns” (S1 E10). The episode picks up where “Cairo” (S1 E8) left off and Kevin sits on the ground smoking a cigarette next to Patti’s dead body. The speech Patti gave before she killed herself was about the purpose of the Guilty Revenant. She said that the search for purpose is what inspired its members to join the group. Patti indicates the purpose of the Guilty Revenant is to strip away the colorful distractions that people have created in their lives from the memory of The Departure. The members of the Guilty Revenant want to be erased until they are blank slates.

The consistent chain smoking that each member of the Guilty Revenant engages in suggests a connection between the signifier cigarettes and the signifier fire. Fire erases all that it touches. This association suggests that the chain smoking of cigarettes by the members of the Guilty Revenant communicates their desire to be blank slates. Additionally, this associates the signified meaning of cigarettes with the larger question of existence that the show explores.

Bible references in The Leftovers give a great deal of meaning to the show narrative. According to the website Bible Meanings, fire in the Bible represents the love of the Lord. Additionally, this website states that the Lord appeared as fire when he appeared in a vision (Bible Meanings). The purpose of the Guilty Revenant is to be a constant reminder of the lost loved ones in The Departure. The members of the Guilty Revenant are constantly smoking cigarettes, objects with a small amount of fire at the end. This small fire can be interpreted as a reminder of existence and the fire that is supposed to give life and be the love of the Lord. However, while the fire at the end of cigarettes serve a reminder of this love and life, the cigarette itself indicates the opposite. Instead of giving life, cigarettes take life away and bring loss to the loved ones of those that smoke them. Therefore, the cigarettes serve as a signifier that mimics the effect of The Departure and the purpose of the Guilty Revenant.

Additionally, in accordance with the Bible references from the show, cigarettes act as a signifier of those who fear for and search for the unknown meaning of The Departure. This is supported by the verse Reverend Matt Jamison asks Kevin to read in “The Prodigal Son Returns” (S1 E10) before they bury Pattie. Kevin reads:

My feet have closely followed His steps. I have kept to His way without turning aside. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips. I have treasured the words from his mouth more than my daily bread. But He stands alone and who can oppose Him? He does whatever he pleases He carries out His decree against me and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him. When I think of all of this I fear Him. God has made my heart faint. The Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face (The Prodigal Son Returns).

As previously stated, Kevin and other characters smoke cigarettes whenever they are contemplating their purpose or the meaning of existence after The Departure. This verse that Kevin reads illuminates the fear that Kevin and others feel in this search for meaning in life. The “thick darkness” in the last sentence of the verse can be interpreted as cigarette smoke or smoke from a fire. This line suggests a sense of hope beyond the fear of the unknown. It suggests that, somehow, the search for purpose and for the meaning of existence will not destroy the characters in the show.

This sense of loss and hopelessness associated with cigarettes is supported by Daniel Leffert’s article ‘The Leftovers’ Is Redefining One of Tv’s Most Enduring Symbols. According to this article, Tom Perrotta, the co-creator of the show and author of the book the show is based off of, linked the excessive smoking of cigarettes to a sense the Guilty Revenant members have that there is no future. This article suggests The Leftovers resignifies cigarettes from their previous depiction in the mid 20th century media as hip and sexy, to a symbol of despair. This connection is created when the flashback in “The Garveys at Their Best” reveals Laurie and Patti’s former relationship as therapist and patient. In this episode, Patti tells Laurie that she feels like the world is going to end. When Laurie responds with a joke Patti says, “I know why you’re telling jokes, because you can feel it too, can’t you? Something’s wrong, inside you (The Garveys at Their Best).” Throughout the narrative in the other parts of the season, Patti and Laurie continuously chain smoke as they share spots as figureheads of the Guilty Revenant. This reveals the association between smoking and cigarettes and the despair that Laurie and Patti feel about the fate of the world.

In “The Prodigal Son Returns” (SI E10), Jill tries to join the Guilty Revenant. Jill’s search for purpose is heavily weighted by her desire for reconnection with her mother. This episode opens with Jill sharing a cigarette with her mother in the Guilty Revenant house. Jill’s attempt at renewal of her relationship with her mother foreshadows the larger meaning for fire in this show that is revealed by the end of the episode. At the end of the episode, conflict in the show comes to a climax when the Guilty Revenant pulls a stunt that upsets the whole town. A massive fire is set to the Guilty Revenant’s compound and riots ensue. Jill is caught in the burning Guilty Revenant house and Laurie breaks her vow of silence to tell Kevin to save Jill. This is the first time after The Departure that Laurie has given into her maternal feelings towards Jill. The fire forces Laurie to reveal the connection Jill has been searching for and allows Kevin to strengthen his connection with Jill.

The destruction of the fire leaves in its ashes a sense of renewal and a hint of hope. The Guilty Revenant, the constant reminder of the loss and pain from The Departure, is burnt away. Pattie is dead. Jill’s connection with her father is strengthened, enabling her to let go of her search for a connection with her mother. Laurie makes peace with both of her children, Tommy and Jill. Finally, Kevin is presented with the opportunity to regrow his family with the baby Tommy brings home and Nora Durst. This episode reveals that cigarettes and fire are being used to signify the theme of the show, which is rebirth in the face of disaster. In this episode, the show’s producers reveal how fire wipes out everything in its path. Fire has a destructive presence that is unable to be ignored. It creates a blank slate, destroying everything it touches, leaving only ash in its path.

Television continues to become a legitimized medium and the available content expands via new avenues of creativity. This is leading to television becoming increasingly discursive as a medium. This paper’s analysis of objective correlatives and their significance in relation to show structure aims to highlight the importance of narrative tools, semiotics, and characterization in the future development of television discourse between show producers and audience members.


Butler, Jeremy G. "Building Character." Television, Critical Methods and Applications: 55-65. Web.

Kozloff, Sarah. "Narrative Theory and Television." Channels of Discourse Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2005. 52-76. Print.

Perrota, Tom, and Damon Lindelof. "Cairo." The Leftovers. HBO. 17 Aug. 2014. Television.

Perrotta, Tom, and Damon Lindelof. "The Garveys at Their Best." The Leftovers. HBO. 24 Aug. 2014. Television.

Perrotta, Tom, and Damon Lindelof. "The Prodigal Son Returns." The Leftovers. HBO. 7 Sept. 2014. Television.

Person, and Daniel Lefferts. "'The Leftovers' Is Redefining One of TV's Most Enduring Symbols." Mic. 2014. Web. 03 May 2016.

Seiter, Ellen. "Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television." Channels of Discourse Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2005. 23-49. Print.

"Spiritual Meaning of Flame." Spiritual Meaning of Flame. Web. 01 May 2016.