Pills or Prayers? Madness and Religion Onscreen

Madness and religion are two enduring narrative themes. What are the consequences when they’re put together? Two recent television series are tackling just this, with variable success.

In my last post, I discussed the religious elements of The Leftovers. There is, however, a combination of issues that occurs beyond the presence of these elements, both in this series and in Amazon’s recent Hand of God. That combination? Religion and madness. Both series utilize the narrative trope of religious experience as madness and vice versa. In this post, we’ll examine the portrayal of these themes, and whether it serves to undermine religious experience or downplay the seriousness of mental health issues.

The central focus of Hand of God is the character Judge Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman) and his mental breakdown. In the opening episode (“Pilot”), he is seen naked in a fountain, speaking “in tongues.” This is the beginning of his vigilante quest for justice, seeking vengeance for his comatose son PJ, who shot himself after witnessing the rape of his wife. But, the events don’t matter as much here as the contention between madness and religion. Pernell believes he is being instructed by God to search for vengeance and joins the Hand of God church, run by the Reverend Paul Curtis. The seemingly insidious reasons for the Reverend’s establishment of the church are perhaps best saved for another post, but at his urging, Pernell makes increasingly irrational decisions based on his newfound faith and the divine instructions he receives.

There is a divide in the series between religion and madness, and conflation of the two. Religion is shown as both the solution and symptom of the madness of the characters. For Pernell, God (in the form of his son, PJ) gives him direction and helps him come to terms with his own guilt about the situation. Yet, when he is medicated without his knowledge by his wife, the visions stop and he can no longer see what his next move should be. This cessation of contact with “God” or a divine force due to medication implies that the source of his behavior is less about religion and has more to do with madness. However, the answers the visions provide are eerily accurate, giving the audience the impression that they are authentic and not the consequence of a chemically imbalanced brain.

By contrast, there is an established history of madness in The Leftovers that runs through the series from the beginning. Unlike Hand of God, the characters suffering from it, Kevin Garvey and his father, are not religiously motivated, but their visions do embody spiritual elements. And while the terms religion and spirituality are used differently in varying contexts, there is a noticeable distinction between them on these shows: organized/institutional in opposition to the personal/individual. Kevin, the protagonist of the show, is prone to blackouts. Where he goes and what he does during these periods is unknown, until we find at the end of season one that he has played a part in Patti’s death, the leader of the Guilty Remnant, which is the spiritual cult at the heart of the series. In season two, she becomes a visual manifestation of his insanity. Although there are similarities between Pernell’s visions of his son in Hand of God and Patti haunting Kevin, The Leftovers presents an entirely different picture. Kevin’s purpose is unclear, whereas Pernell is on a divine crusade. The spiritual element of The Leftovers sets the tone for Patti’s presence, whereas Pernell’s visions are seemingly out of context; Hand of God focuses on the life of a judge and his apparently secular family, so the introduction of his visions disrupts the balance of this world.

Can the actions of these characters be explained by religion or biology? Cured by pills or prayer? The issue here is that religiously-defined madness, as these characters exemplify, is an interesting plot device. It provides ambiguity and motive for further developments in the story. But, is it damaging to reduce these two very serious themes to plot devices?

Reviews of Hand of God have touched upon this problem, with Todd VanDerWerff arguing in Vox, “In any show where it seems like a person is either crazy or communicating with God, the answer is always the latter, because it’s just more interesting from a storytelling perspective.” The Atlantic’s David Sims argues that the “pseudo-religious” show’s “exploration of fundamentalist Christianity seems mostly a surface-level justification for the vigilante violence that ensues.” God here is interesting within the story, but critics aren’t convinced by the use of him. Interesting to note in the discussion of Hand of God is the absence of discussion around Pernell’s mental state. The primary focus is the use of religion as a justification for the story, rather than mental illness as a motivating factor. Perhaps it is due to the different ways the two themes manifest: religion presents itself in the external world, whereas mental illness often resides internally.

By contrast, the responses to The Leftovers have been much more positive, and in some cases, have reached out to the showrunner, Damon Lindelof, to explain his thinking. In talking to the LA Times, he notes: “We live in a day and age where we can’t tell the difference between crazy and prophetic.” This divide between mental illness and religion is further expanded when he confirms that it may be a “real” vision in an interview with Kate Arthur of Buzzfeed: “this possibility has to be open for us,” but in a reversal of the situation on Hand of God, “Kevin would probably rather be crazy than believe that this is actually Patti Levin following him around.” The debate between the two possibilities is dealt with intricately, without enforcing a religious perspective.

The same cannot be said of Hand of God. The forced “edginess” of the show, as many critics have picked up on, seems to be trying to replicate the success of networks such as HBO, which are known for courting controversy. Ron Perlman discussed the fact that the series was pitched to a number of networks, and stated that the religious themes of the series were what proved to be too controversial. This could offer, in part, an explanation for the difference between the two series here.

Two shows, two different approaches to the problem of defining and diagnosing mental illness and religion. Does either show present a better view? Hand of God is definitely more heavy handed, and relies on the stereotype of overzealous religious beliefs created by madness. Is The Leftovers in its ambiguity any less damaging to the understanding of religion and mental health? Both protagonists are seemingly characterized by their struggles between their spiritual urges and mental illness. The external presentation of their religious and spiritual impulses begins to take on a defining effect on their identities, which is a discussion we’ll have in the next post.

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