This might be my favorite episode of this season so far. Nora and Erika are fantastic characters, and Carrie Coon and Regina King play them to the hilt. This world so often seems like everybody in it is shooting in the dark; maybe Nora and Erika are, too, but their hands almost never shake. They’re spellbinding to watch.
More than that, The Leftovers has been setting John and Kevin up as opposing forces from the moment the two men met, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see the first stones thrown (so to speak) by the women. The expected thing to do, story-wise, would have been for the two badass moms, both burdened by the loss of their children and their unpredictable men, to join forces and fight for the good guys. But Nora and Erika aren’t tropes; they’re fully realized, three-dimensional people, chock full of private agendas and irrationality. Character development like this is why this show keeps me hooked, even when it’s depressing as shit.
Which — let’s all admit — it can be, and often is. So here’s another pleasant surprise: Nothing explicitly, graphically horrible happens to anybody in this episode. After Matt’s saga last week and Tom’s rape the week before that, I think we could all use a break.
In the first season, Carrie Coon played Nora with a smart, bone-dry wit and a spine of steel, but there’s no two ways about it: Nora was on autopilot. Nora was depressed. Nora was half-dead. Then she met Kevin, and they found Lily, and Nora came back to life.
Now, Nora’s first-season life — the DDS, the questionnaires — has come back to her. A few episodes ago, a team of investigators from MIT suggested that perhaps Nora’s family disappeared because of where they were sitting in the kitchen; in this episode, we meet a new team of investigators, with a new theory. Nora is a lens, they believe: not the kind that helps you see more clearly, but the kind a sadistic kid might use to burn ants (an unnecessarily cruel metaphor, if you ask me). This would mean that she’s not just responsible for the Departure of her own children, but those of Evie and her friends. When Nora presses for particulars, these particular scientists spout some whackadoodle nonsense about the demon Azrael. In another show, this would seem reasonable. In this show, it’s laughable, and laughing is exactly what Nora does. Or maybe she’s crying. Or both.
It turns out that the DDS is onboard with the lens idea, although they’re basing their theory on UV rays, not demons. Nora learns this from a DDS agent sent to investigate Evie’s disappearance. Erika is stonewalling him, but he finds Nora aggressively, effusively friendly. Because Agent Brevity — I swear this is his name — has let slip that the lens theory is incorporated into the new questionnaire.
Nora needs to see that questionnaire. When she found out that her house might have been responsible for the Departure of her family, she moved across the country; if the responsible party is Nora herself, there’s absolutely nowhere for her to move to. (As Jill said a few weeks ago, “Wherever you go, there you are.”) Nora can’t bear the idea that the loss of her children is her fault, and if that’s what Evie’s disappearance turning into a Departure would mean, then as far as Nora is concerned, Evie didn’t Depart, and she’s going to prove it. So Nora steals the questionnaire, and takes it to Erika’s house to administer it, and that’s where things really get intense.
Because the moment the Murphys’ loss was cited as evidence that Nora is a lens, she started to hate them. She doesn’t throw that rock through their window because John banished Matt to the camp; she does it because if not for the people living in that house, Nora would still feel safe. She’s worked hard for that sense of safety. She doesn’t give it up easily.
Meanwhile, Erika Murphy has had what seems like a spectacularly bad day. Not only is she still dodging the DDS guy, but at the clinic, she finds herself cleaning up yet another of John’s victims. He plans on pressing charges; she not-so-gently suggests he not do that. At home, when John discovers the rock through the window and asks her if she thinks it’s his fault, she’s not gentle with him, either. “You need to hit people because you need to hit people,” she says, which is what we’ve all been thinking for the past five and a half episodes. He has the decency to look guilty. So at least there’s that.
When a teenager drops off another mystery pie, hearing-aid-less Erika chases him down in a distorted — and highly effective — silence. The teenager leads us to Virgil, in the trailer, and a few moments of Answer Time. Virgil is family. He’s also the guy John tried to kill, and apparently John had good reasons. And he’s the one who left the other pie, too, so I guess we can assume that neither was poisoned. He sent the pies, he says, because the family was in pain. Erika points out that they weren’t in pain on John’s birthday, and Virgil says, pointedly, “Weren’t you?” She was, actually; she was planning to leave John. Surprised? I was.
Answer Time Part Two happens at the fund-raiser, when Erika loses her temper and explicitly confirms what we’ve all suspected: The entire town of Jarden is deliberately reliving the day of the Departure over and over, just like Matt did with the day Mary woke up. John beats up the water-sellers and fortune-tellers, Erika points out, but doesn’t hassle the guy with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of sacrificial goats, and it doesn’t matter anyway because none of it has worked. Evie Departed, she says. Evie is gone.
And, like Nora, she’s worried that it’s her fault because she buried a bird in a box, and made a wish that her children would be okay after she left. Less than 24 hours later, the child she was most worried about was gone. I suppose it’s true that if Evie Departed, she’s probably not actively unhappy, wherever she is, but that seems like kind of a skewed definition of “okay.” This is a key question in The Leftovers: Are the Departed in a better place? Are they Chosen, or are the ones who remain Chosen? Who gets to call themselves lucky?
In an intense — and amazing — sequence of close-ups, these two grieving women go to war over the question of responsibility. (Honestly, I’m not sure where Regina King had more fun in this episode, here or the fund-raiser.) Erika absolutely believes herself to be responsible for her child’s disappearance; Nora absolutely cannot consider the possibility that she’s responsible for hers. Their battling worldviews literally cannot co-exist. In the end, it’s Erika who strikes the killing blow: Nora may have sniffed a bit because Erika can’t remember Evie’s last words to her, but Nora can’t remember her children’s last words, either. You’re no different from me, Erika seems to be saying. That’s exactly what Nora doesn’t want to hear.
As she walks into her house, fighting tears, Nora meets her husband, who informs her that he’s lost his mind. Throughout this season, Kevin’s been all about the honesty, but there’s one white-garbed, rick-rolling secret that he’s kept: Patti. Now, he finally gives it up. “Do you see her right now?” Nora asks, understandably baffled. “Is she talking to you right now?”
“She’s telling me that I just made a huge mistake,” Kevin replies.
We’ve been outside Kevin’s point of view in this episode, so we don’t know what finally pushed him to talk. This season has done a lot of playing with the Rashomon effect; we’ll probably still find out, but I like not knowing. Kevin is fighting his own battle, and it doesn’t stop just because we’re looking elsewhere.
Oh, by the way, Laurie called. She’s smoking again and Tommy’s gone on a walkabout without her. This is the story line I’m least excited for, but their battle is still happening, too, wherever they are.
- Forget “lenses”: Those scientists should be studying sleep. Kevin sleepwalks, John sleeps too heavily, Nora can’t sleep; Mary isn’t exactly asleep, but Matt is certainly interested in her waking up again. The GR want to “wake” people, too, even if it’s into a colorless cigarette nightmare. In a way, it’s Erika’s wish again: Are the Departed “awake”? Was the Departure a “wake-up” call?
- Nora has a PayPal account because Holy Wayne’s people set it up for her.
- I’m pleased to see that Matt’s doing just fine in the camp — in fact, he’s doing great. He’s out of the stocks and wearing clothes; he’s even made friends, and in his words, “they’re not all degenerates.”
- Sing it with me: Jill and Michael, standing on a lawn, platonically holding hands while symbolizing the innocence of youth and the inevitability of love. I’m glad Jill’s happy, because other than this moment, all she gets to do is look worried and act like a grown-up.