“Weird” and “like nothing else on television” are two descriptors that need to be purged from the critical vocabulary immediately. Believe me, I’d be first against the wall were that to happen, because quite frankly a lot of stuff on the air these days is weird and isn’t like anything else on television and at a certain point you have to call it like you see it. But simply saying so sells the work short, even before those descriptions are used to, say, lump an empty-calorie sci-fi and/or superhero and/or horror pastiche like Legion together with the trailblazing surrealist exploration of abuse and exploitation that was (and hopefully will be) Twin Peaks. The best “weird” shows aren’t just zany or confusing — they deliberately mess with your head to sneak difficult ideas in there while your guard is down. Shows that truly are “like nothing else on television” are, by definition, doing something so unique that an equally unique description is warranted.
So without further ado, let us discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which was indeed both weird and like nothing else on television. Let’s talk about the title sequence, which reintroduces the memorable family-photo fade-outs of the previous season but drops the jaunty country-music accompaniment in favor of … the theme song from the cornball ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers? Let’s talk about the credits, which list the writers of the episode as … Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious? Let’s talk about the first thing we see after this disorientingly goofy stuff draws to a close … Jardin’s resident old hermit plummeting to his death?
What we’ve just witnessed is the proprietary blend of utter emotional devastation and madcap audio-visual trolling that has made The Leftovers what it is since, conservatively speaking, last season’s “International Assassin” episode. You remember: Kevin Garvey wakes up bare-ass naked in a bathtub in the Purgatory Hotel, takes on the job of a high-priced hit man, murders the ghost of cult leader turned alternate-reality presidential candidate Patti Levin, dumps her abused inner child down a well, and then comes back from the dead, accompanied by blasts of Verdi on the soundtrack and the occasional psychic communiqué from his father, who’s taking some kind of psychedelic trip in the Australian outback? Kinda hard to forget, right? That’s because its never-ending parade of “wait, what the fuck?” moments were designed to crack open our brains just enough to let the emotional reality of Kevin and Patti’s pain seep in, the physical reality of it all be damned.
“Don’t Be Ridiculous” utilizes the same tactics, but in service of Kevin’s co-protagonist Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, concurrently starring in Fargo in a TV double-duty all-timer). At times, it seems Nora is adrift in his fantasy world — checking in to a strange hotel to meet a sharp-dressed man in a tailored black suit about the possibility of warping from a dimension to … someplace else.
That man’s no international assassin, however. He’s freaking Mark Linn-Baker, a.k.a. Perfect Strangers’ Cousin Larry. Last seen on The Leftovers hiding out in Mexico after faking his disappearance in the Sudden Departure — which claimed the lives of his three core castmates on the sitcom — he reemerges here via a disturbing phone call to Nora that makes it sound as if he’s somehow gotten ahold of her departed children. Though Nora plays his claim off as a “carrot stick” con job to her supervisor at the Department of Sudden Departures, it’s achingly clear she hopes for more. Not even hearing Linn-Baker’s cockamamie claims of a rogue team of scientists who isolated the radiation signature of the Departures and artificially re-created it at a level intense enough to make volunteer humans disappear dissuades Nora — at least not after she hears his impassioned speech about why he believes the process works instead of just, you know, incinerating people. “It wasn’t my fault,” Linn-Baker says of his plight. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. So no, Nora, I don’t want to kill myself. I want to take some fucking control.”
With all due respect to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” now Linn-Baker’s really singing Nora’s tune. She spends the entire episode grasping for control of her life with increasing desperation. Machinery stops working for her: The ticket kiosk at the airport won’t let her say “no” when it asks if she’s traveling with an infant; the GPS on her dashboard won’t give her directions; even an automated parking-lot gate refuses to budge for her. When she’s not busy investigating Linn-Baker’s claims, she’s taking an impromptu road trip to visit her former daughter Lily, whom we discover is now living with her birth mother Christine. Nora, who knows what it’s like to be a mother who’s lost a child, couldn’t bring herself to fight the recovering cult member’s custody challenge.
When Nora meets up with her former enemy turned apparent BFF Erika Murphy — who now seems to have a very successful life outside of Jarden — she reveals an even more shocking attempt at control. The mysterious broken arm that had her in a cast until the beginning of the episode? She broke it herself by slamming it in a car door, in an attempt to cover up a tattoo of the logo for “the Wu-Tang Band,” which itself was a way to cover up the tattoo of her departed children’s names that she got and immediately regretted, dreading a lifetime of gut-wrenching conversations about her lost little ones. “I was having a bad day,” Nora deadpans through tears and laughter, an understatement of gutting proportions.
Erika offers an alternate coping mechanism, one she discovered after her own daughter, Evie, was killed after the Guilty Remnant’s invasion of Jarden: a backyard trampoline, on which the two women jump in slow motion to the tune of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off).” Once again, The Leftovers whipsaws back and forth between gleeful absurdity and total despair so fast that your brain barely has a chance to process it.
Nora’s ugliest attempts at control are yet to come. That hermit who fell off the pillar at the beginning of the episode? His wife, played by a steely Brett Butler, has taken to claiming that he departed. When a chance meeting on the road back to Jarden with Kevin’s cop son Tommy, who left Lily behind all those years back, reminds her of the unfairness of her plight, Nora decides to bring that unfairness home to the congregation of people who’ve taken to the dead hermit as a sort of messiah figure. (With the help of her brother Reverend Matt, it should be noted.) She takes a photo of his exhumed corpse and has it blown up to poster size, placing it unceremoniously in front of the whole crew of believers. No wonder she’s so accepting of what she discovers when she gets home: Kevin, in the middle of one of his self-asphyxiation rituals. Sometimes you gotta do whatever it takes to feel you’re in charge of your own life, even if it means risking death. (This is a woman who used to pay prostitutes to shoot her in the chest, keep in mind.)
Anyway, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” is a full, rich episode that demonstrates The Leftovers’ total mastery of its shifting tones, and — huh? Oh, right. Kevin and Nora reject the idea of having a baby of their own and decide to go to Australia so she can continue her investigation, but the show beats them to the punch with a sequence that involves a grumpy Aussie police chief running over and shooting a kangaroo, getting abducted by a cult of older women who cite chapter and verse from Reverend Matt’s Book of Kevin, and drown the cop after mistaking him for Kevin himself, at which point Kevin’s dad comes out of a nearby house to see what all the fuss is about.
What the hell is this? When the hell is this? What has it got to do with Mark Linn-Baker’s audio-vibratory physio-molecular transport device or the fact that Wu-Tang is for the children? Not knowing the answers — not knowing what The Leftovers will do from one second to the next, whether it’ll unleash some fresh horror or drop a music cue that’ll make you lose it with laughter — is exactly what makes the show so worth watching. Nothing’s gonna stop it now.