The Leftovers Gives Us All A Lesson In Cultural Appropriation

Photo: Ben King/ HBO.
The Leftovers is usually a meditation on grief, death, and faith following the show’s Rapture-like Sudden Departure. But, the grim HBO drama pressed pause on all of its existential dread to give viewers a lesson in the ills of cultural appropriation with season 3's "Crazy Whitefella Thinking." The unexpected knowledge drop comes to us in the form of Kevin Garvey, Sr. (Scott Glenn), who is attempting to stave off an apocalyptic flood by working his way through the songs of the indigenous Australian people.
The Aboriginal people use the songline as an oral history of the geography, animals, and plants of Australia, along with its ancestral lore, Aussie ABC Radio explains.
Kevin Senior doesn’t exactly give a coherent explanation as to why he believes "the rains will come" on the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure or how his personal performance of the songline will thwart the end of the world. Instead, he proudly tells Aboriginal tribal elder Christopher Sunday that he’s learned "every sacred site, every ceremony, every word" to complete his plan. Except, there’s a huge problem here. Kevin hasn’t asked any of the Aboriginal people for their private, spiritual songs. He’s simply been stealing them.
An earlier scene shows Kevin spying on a tribe while they perform their portion of the songline. He’s literally camped out behind a rock with cassette tape recording equipment, looking every part the bootlegger. The Aboriginals are performing something sacred for themselves and there’s a white man hiding in the shadows watching them, waiting to steal their hallowed ceremony for his own purposes. A sign even marks the area as a "Registered Sacred Site" and requests passersby "respect the sanctity of the area." Kevin responds to this by performing his stolen ritual in copycat ceremonial attire. He doesn’t ask the Aboriginals if this is acceptable or even care what they would think.
Of course he gets arrested by insulted police officers and barred from meeting tribal elders — he’s a cultural thief.
After his arrest, Kevin manages to finally ask one Aboriginal person for the final part of the songline, yet that’s not because he’s learned his lesson. Senior is forced to ask to ask Christopher Sunday for "his song" because the elder is the sole person who knows it. That means the older man isn’t going to be performing his portion at any point, so, Kevin won’t be able to spy on him. It’s important to see Kevin Sr. finally ask for a piece of a marginalized community’s culture instead of simply taking it for his own objectives.
Because this is The Leftovers, there still isn’t a happy ending. Christopher asks Kevin to fix a leak in his roof before he’ll hand over his song. As Senior is standing on the roof, he slips, slides down, and lands directly on Christopher. The injury ends up killing the tribal elder. Because of Kevin's insensitive antics, now no living person in the Leftovers world knows the ending of the songline.
Who would have guessed The Leftovers would give us the strongest argument against cultural appropriation on television after Dear White People?

More from TV

R29 Original Series