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The Leftovers Recap: Just Shoot Me

HBO  2014The Leftovers Episode 106"Guest"Characters-Carrie Coon-  Nora DurstPaterson Joseph-  WayneTom Noonan-  CasparBrandon Espinoza-  Ray

This week, The Leftovers gave us another single-perspective episode, focusing on Nora Durst. This episode was less tense than Matt’s — no beating of thieves to a pulp, no race-against-the-clock climax — but I still enjoyed it more than the recent ensemble episodes. Maybe part of the problem with the ensemble episodes is that we don’t see enough of these characters to get to know them. I stand by my opinion that not enough is happening in this show, but that might matter less if I cared more about the characters. I keep thinking about Six Feet Under. That show wasn’t driven by a great overarching mystery, either, but it still felt driven: by our fascination with the Fishers, our concern for them, our love for them.

The principal characters in The Leftovers have compelling stories, but I’m somehow not compelled. I keep wondering: Why now? Out of all of the years since the Departure, why have the creators of the show chosen to show us these particular months and days? Occasionally I get an answer in the ensemble episodes — this is the day that Gladys died, this is the day that Laurie gave the Chief the divorce papers — but in the single-perspective episodes, it’s much clearer: These are the days when Matt loses his church. These are the days when Nora loses her pain.

What if they’d decided to make The Leftovers an anthology? What if we saw ten self-contained, interlinked episodes, each focusing on a different character? Would it work any better? I don’t know. But I do know that I understand Matt and Nora in a way I don’t understand Laurie or Tom (or Jill, or Meg, or pretty much any character in the show, with the occasional exception of the Chief). How cool would it be if we saw the town entirely from the Mayor’s perspective, or Jill’s, with the same time and depth given to Matt and Nora? We’ve known since before the premiere that the show isn’t about solving the mystery of the Departure. Fine. But if it only exists as a way to explore these characters, then for crying out loud, use it as a way to explore your freaking characters already. The crucible is ready and waiting. Let’s heat it up.

Nora and the Empty House 

Of all the characters in this show, Nora seems the most cruelly victimized by the Departure — and she knows it. She even seems to have something akin to a sense of humor about it. She pokes people with it. She drops her mug in the coffee shop to see the barista’s ire turn to embarrassment; when the Chief, meeting her in the high-school hallway, realizes who he’s talking to and lets slip a too-revealing “Oh ...,” she shoots back a wry, challenging “Oh?” of her own. She’s secure in her grief, even comfortable there.

I mean, sort of. She still buys food for the kids she no longer has, she pays a back-page sex worker to shoot at her (Kevlar-covered) chest, and she has a disconcerting tendency to loiter outside the preschool where her Departed husband’s former mistress works, bearing a grudge and a gun — but of all these grief-stricken people, she’s the only one who seems to have found a kind of peace. She’s not joining a cult like Laurie. She’s not being eaten alive by anger like the Chief. She’s carved a space for herself in her empty house, with its unfilled paper-towel holders and its unopened boxes of Lucky Charms. She’s found a way to survive.

It’s a bleak, weird way to survive. But still.

Nora and the Officious Government Job

She’s even found a way to make a living out of her grief: working for the Department of Sudden Departures, interviewing Legacies — the Leftovers, as it were — as part of their benefit applications. The questions, and in fact the entire process, is highly suspect. Is the data leading anywhere useful, or is the whole thing an obstacle course set up to dissuade people from claiming their benefit money? Nora neither knows nor cares. She only cares that she helps people like her, and when she interviews them, they all, every last one of them, say that they believe their Departed loved ones are in a better place.

The Departure conference she attends is just a regular old hotel-ballroom conference, with tote bags, breakout sessions, and badges in plastic holders. Nora’s badge is stolen before she arrives, and for a few hours, she’s nobody. She’s the Guest (which is also the title of this episode). Somebody else is wandering the hotel, being Nora Durst, bearing the three orange stickers that represent her Departed husband and children. Nora is furious at having her identity — and her burden, and her difference — taken from her, but soon she falls in with a tribe of conference-goers bent on using this tedious, tedious event to forget as much as they can about why they’re there. There are no names in this crew, just booze and pills and one of those creepy Loved Ones simulated corpses. As the Guest, Nora can relax. She can even have fun. But it’s telling, I think, that of all the people in the room, it’s the Loved One that the drunk, stoned Nora ends up kissing (and grinding on, with disturbing enthusiasm). Of course it is. There’s no place in Nora’s world for real people.

Nora and the Writer

But the bell eventually tolls for our Cinderella: the faux Nora has been misbehaving in the hotel bar, and the real Nora gets booted from the hotel. In two shakes of a conference badge she’s back, though, heading to her panel with hotel security in tow to reclaim her identity, which turns out to be a little anticlimactic when the woman wearing her badge leans toward her microphone and says, “I’m not Nora Durst.”

Of course she does. Who wants to be Nora Durst? Not even Nora Durst wants to be Nora Durst. The disappointment and hopelessness is clearly evident on Nora’s face as the burden of her identity slides back onto her shoulders. (Carrie Coon is great here, by the way.) The imposter babbles something about plasma rays from outer space, but Nora isn’t listening. She may have won, but she’s also lost. It’s not long before she, like the imposter the night before, is misbehaving in the hotel bar, screaming obscenities at the writer of an inspirational book about the Departure. The previous year, she’d berated another conference-goer until the woman wept. When Nora screams at the writer in the bar, she’s not losing her shit. She lost her shit on October 14, and despite appearances, she hasn’t ever gotten any of it back.

Nora and the Prophet

Which might explain why, when a stranger promises proof that the author’s a fraud, she willingly follows him to a dingy Manhattan apartment. The proof is Holy Wayne, who offers to take Nora’s pain away. Finally, we see the magic hug, and it looks like ... a hug. I’d say that was the show’s way of suggesting that reaching out to other people will help you through your pain, but Wayne is still fucking terrifying. He feels like a shapeshifter in a science-fiction movie, and at any moment his head is going to break open and a giant scorpion is going to pop out.

I don’t buy that his magic hug made Nora all better, either. Sure, she can buy exciting grown-up food like Greek yogurt and rice cakes again, and when the Chief shows up, she can invite him inside and even accept a dinner invitation. But something else is different: that question, the one every single person used to say yes to? Suddenly, they’re saying no. Nora’s delivery hasn’t changed; she has. Something in her used to give those people a faint, battered kind of a hope, just enough to believe, if only for a moment, that their Departed loved ones were in a better place. And now that something, whatever it was, is gone.

Nora’s meeting with Wayne is the first glimmer we’ve seen that all of the threads of this story are coming together, that they’re going somewhere specific. But as much as I sympathize with Nora, I can’t help but feel a little sad about the way she ended up. Nora’s pre-Wayne life might have been bleak, and it might have been miserable, but she dealt with her grief in an entirely singular way: She didn’t drink it away like the Chief, mope it away like Jill, or hive-mind it away like Laurie. Unlike Laurie from the last episode, Nora changes over the course of this one; but if a character is interesting and unexpected, and then they change, what do they change into?

Let’s hope it’s a different kind of interesting and unexpected. Let’s hope it’s not like Matt and his prayer group: nice for him, lousy for us.

Random Things

  • Pro tip: When visiting New York City, do not accept invitations from random strangers to go to their homes. Just don’t.
  • If the Departure really was plasma rays from outer space, and we’ve just been watching the wrong characters, that’ll be a fun gotcha at the end of the series, won’t it?
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO