Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Many a time, I’ve accused this show of holding back, but this episode was a great big gift wrapped in sadness. This is the episode we’ve been waiting for. We’ve spent nine weeks following these people whose lives were irrevocably altered and damaged by a massive, inexplicable event, and now, for the first time, we see them undamaged (or as undamaged as they get, anyway). The opening scenes of this episode are idyllically beautiful: the preparations for the old chief’s party, the Dursts cheerfully high-fiving each other, the younger Jill’s braces and awkward clothes. Despite the rogue deer crashing through, this world is lovely. The party is lovely. The town is lovely. For the first time, Mapleton actually seems like a place a person might actually want to live.
But — as with the Chief’s house, which is gorgeous in a House Beautiful kind of way, but on the sterile side, and in a not-so-subtle piece of symbolism, literally cracking around the edges — that beauty doesn’t entirely ring true. The episode is called “The Garveys at Their Best”; we’ve already seen the Garveys at their worst, and it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the Garveys at their best weren’t all that great, either. In the days before the Sudden Departure, the world is already beginning to tremble. Having seen what we’ve seen, and knowing what we know, the tremors feel like aftershocks.
This episode might not have the brutality of Gladys being stoned to death, but in some ways, it was the hardest to watch. It’s heartbreaking to see all of those faces that we almost know, or know differently: Gladys herself is there, breeding dogs, and the couple with the son with Down syndrome that Nora interviews for their departure benefits. Mary Jamison is up and walking around, and the woman with the crying baby from the premiere is on her way to the laundromat. It’s a flawed, imperfect world, and the people who live in it are flawed and imperfect, too — but it’s better than what came next.
It’s suddenly confusing that I’ve been referring to Kevin Garvey Jr. as “the Chief,” because in this episode, he’s not. (And given the low regard that his fellow police officers seem to have for him, one wonders how he became chief, but I assume we’ll find that out later.) The current chief is Kevin Sr., who seems to be far more than friends with the mayor despite her protestations to the contrary, and who has just been nominated for Mapleton Man of the Year by Matt Jamison. The Garveys throw him a lavish surprise party at their lovely home, with a lot of familiar faces in attendance. Said party, and said home — and said chief, specifically the elder — are all effusively complimented.
But Kevin Jr. is already perched on the edge. He’s hiding his smoking from Laurie, even though she points out that he was the one who wanted to quit, and he’s already losing Jill (who shows a glimmer of her future self when she giggles at a cat video on the internet and then snaps, “No, Dad, you don’t,” when Kevin Jr. says he doesn’t get it). After tearing up during his toast during the party, he asks Kevin Sr., “Why isn’t it enough?” The old man says, “Because every man rebels against the idea that this is fucking it.” It seems like just boring old midlife-crisis stuff, frankly, but — at least in the first half of the episode — it does feel like Kevin Jr. wanted to want his life. He tries; when Tom (home from college and unexpectedly charming) pays a drunken visit to his birth father and the man pushes him down, Kevin makes a special trip to punch the guy in the face. And he does watch Jill’s ridiculous cat video, trying to get it. Still, when Jill gives Tom the lowdown on their parents, she doesn’t say they’re going to split up; she says that Kevin’s going to leave. And she’s probably right.
In the second half, things really start to break apart. Kevin Jr. is almost killed by a flying manhole, and there’s a rogue deer terrorizing Mapleton (literally; children run in fear from the elementary school, where the music room looks like a crime scene).
Kevin Sr., the current chief, has begrudgingly agreed to let Kevin Jr. try to tranquilize the deer, much to the amusement of pretty much everyone; but before he gets the chance, it’s hit by a car, so — in a mirroring of the feral dog scene from the premiere — he ends up having to shoot it, anyway. The driver of the car is an attractive stranger with a convenient motel room, and the last conversation he had with Laurie was about two steps away from the end of a marriage, so things pretty much go where one would expect. “Are you a good man?” the attractive stranger asks him. “No,” he says. At least he’s honest.
In an episode so full of familiar faces, I spent the entire scene wondering if we knew her, too. But we don’t. One minute, she’s there; the next, she’s not. Kevin is alone and naked in the hotel room. Nothing is the same.
The pre-Departure Laurie is surprisingly glam, like her house. She’s a counselor, and one of her clients is the late Patti. It’s sort of fun to see their pre-Departure relationship: Patti is a trembling, weepy wreck, full of self-loathing and premonitions of doom. Only once do we see a shade of the Patti to come, when she tells Laurie that surely she feels the premonitions, too, that there must be “something wrong” in her; then, we see Patti’s steel.
This Laurie has two children who adore her, and her relationship with both of them is easy and comfortable, if a little harried. She misses Jill’s science fair, but Jill still thinks Laurie’s just the bestest mom ever, which is fairly tragic. Laurie is also pregnant, and hasn’t told Kevin Jr. about it, and the show strongly hints that she doesn’t intend to. As it turns out, she doesn’t need to. One minute, the embryo is there; the next, it’s not. Once again: Nothing is the same.
Honestly, I want to try to use the loss of the baby to excuse Laurie and the things she does later. Like Meg, whom Matt Jamison described as “robbed of her grief,” Laurie has suffered a loss that nobody else can see, and in a world full of loss, giving that loss its due must have felt impossible. But Laurie has two other children, and while Tom might have left of his own volition, Jill desperately needs her mother. Even if her husband isn’t exactly up for his own Man of the Year award, she still has responsibilities. When she joins the GR, she gives them all up so she can stay in that moment in the doctor’s office, right after the baby vanishes. It’s hard to forgive her for that.
I left Nora for last because, honestly, it was her story that really killed me. That opening scene, when her kids joyfully attack her in bed, is so very sweet, and Nora is awesomely confident and competent during her interview for the job with the mayor. She wants the job because, in her words, she wants to use her brain “for more than figuring out which juice box is certified organic.” And damn it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and we all know it, but we also all know what’s going to happen to her kids. And I’m not going to lay any oh, honey, appreciate every moment bullshit on Nora, because Nora wanting something of her own has absolutely fuck-all to do with the Departure, and a person cannot live every moment of her life as if a tragedy is about to strike. Still: It’s heartbreaking. Even then, it’s heartbreaking.
And it only gets worse when things go bad: when Doug gets distant, when the morning goes wrong. Nora tells her daughter to hold her cup with both hands, and she doesn’t, and Nora’s phone gets doused, and she misses the call from the mayor. She yells at her daughter, grabs the last paper towel — and that was it for this correspondent, folks. That empty paper towel holder. No wonder she couldn’t replace it. No wonder she hired people to shoot her. How do you live when that was your last moment with your family? How do you look at that kitchen every day and go on?
Nora is amazing. Magic hug or no magic hug, that woman is made out of titanium. She was pretty much my favorite character anyway, but this clinches it.
- Yeah, we still have no idea what the hell is up with that issue of National Geographic. Maybe we’ll find out in the finale (on September 7); but keep in mind that there’s a second season coming, so maybe not.
- And let’s not forget the awful surprise that the Guilty Remnant is planning in Matt’s church. We’ve got that to look forward to, too.
- This episode was full of prescient comments on missing, losing, and forgetting. And it connected many dots, with overt and subtle callbacks to character relationships and motivations only previously hinted at, which should make for a fun seek-and-find on repeat viewing of the series to date.
- Turns out that Laurie did tell Patti to leave a bag of poop on her ex-boyfriend’s doorstep. It makes more sense in context.