This is the way the relationship between Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst ends: not with a whimper, but a bang. A big one, apparently. Sirens-in-the-street big. No-cabs-available big. “All flights have been grounded” big.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back on “G’Day Melbourne,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, and conclude that not showing us the explosion that brought society to a standstill was the smartest thing it did. In the luxurious confines of their personal hell hotel, neither Kevin nor Nora (nor we in the audience) had any idea it even happened. They were too busy undergoing an emotional apocalypse of their own.
As early as the opening credits, we had clues this was coming. In keeping with this season’s “different theme song for every episode” approach, the hour begins with the brokenhearted soul of singer Ray LaMontagne’s “This Love Is Over.” Hearing the song juxtaposed against the familiar opening-title images of vanishing friends and family, it recasts the Sudden Departure as a planet-wide bad breakup, which in some cases is exactly what it was. But just as the use of the Perfect Strangers theme song forecast the appearance of Mark Linn-Baker as a peddler of dreams and the Richard Cheese cover of “Personal Jesus” predicted the farcical messianism of Kevin Garvey Sr., the LaMontagne track sets up the split between Kevin and Nora we witness later in all its brutality.
Not that things are going all that great beforehand. The first scene of the episode involves Nora using her government clearance to bypass the standard security line Kevin is forced to go through on his own. True, she has an excuse — she’s smuggling $20,000 duct-taped to her torso, and the body scanner would have caught it. When she comes clean to Kevin about the cash and enlists his help in ripping the tape off in the restroom, it leads to the hottest sex scene these two have ever had. But both the smuggling and the sex are a smokescreen, obscuring how little these two tell each other about how they really feel and what they really want.
Once they’re in Australia, it only gets worse. Nora keeps on describing the quest that brought her down under as a sting, rather than the sincere attempt to figure out if she can follow her Departed children into the great unknown. She sets off for a hastily arranged rendezvous with the scientists behind the mysterious Departure device almost immediately upon arrival. She tells Kevin not to come, she’ll be safe, they’ll get dinner later, but it’s all such obvious bullshit that it’s hard to decide what’s sadder: her false reassurance itself, or Kevin’s shrugging acceptance of it. This is a couple that’s lying to one another, but no longer has the energy to do it well.
The paths they take after Nora leaves are very different, yet they share a frightening dream logic not only with each other, but with the hotel-assassin purgatory Kevin found himself in last season. It’s a phenomenon that’s emerging as the heart of the whole series, and in this episode, some of the references are explicit: Nora reads passages from her brother Matt’s “Book of Kevin” that refer to his hallucinatory journey, Kevin asks for a book about assassins as a pretext for his presence in the local public library, and a hotel room with a faulty TV figures prominently.
Specific similarities aside, the whole vibe is familiar. Using hard gray afternoon lighting and shot compositions that emphasize Kevin and Nora’s isolation, director Daniel Sackheim creates an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that suggests strange, inscrutable forces at work. A desperate woman shows up out of nowhere and begs Nora to watch her baby so she can go to a job interview. A tall, bespectacled man directs Nora into an abandoned building where she undergoes tests to prove her fitness for the Departure procedure, but we never see him again. The scientists leading the project constantly bicker in a language Nora can’t understand (a callback to the panicked Spanish-language conversations of the hotel staff in Kevin’s purgatory, which were never explained).
Nora ultimately fails those tests after saying she’d kill a baby to cure cancer — the exact opposite answer of the man we met in last week’s episode, who burned himself to death because he thought saying he wouldn’t kill the baby is what kept the scientists from approving him for the project. When Nora blows up at Kevin at the end of the episode for his perceived attachment to Matt’s book, it’s as if she’s envious that he has a text to help make sense of it all.
Kevin’s experiences are even more bizarre and unnerving. While dealing with his hotel TV’s refusal to turn off, he sees (or thinks he sees) Evie Murphy, long presumed dead, in the crowd outside a local morning show. She’s holding a sign that reads “SURAH 81,” a reference to an apocalyptic passage in the Quran that prominently features the live burial of a baby girl; that topic is on the minds of both Kevin, who remembers tossing little Patti Levin down a well in his afterlife experience, and Nora, who bitterly resents her choice to give away adopted daughter Lily. Even without that context, the image itself is just so creepy — actor Jasmin Savoy Brown staring right into the camera, eyes alight with terrible knowledge. When the set suddenly shuts off as Kevin says, “Can you hear me?” into the screen, it’s a full-fledged jump scare.
It turns out this isn’t Evie at all, as Kevin learns after a long and awful day of trying to track her down. He accosts the woman in an alleyway, then gets headbutted by a bystander who believes he’s menacing her. He calls his ex Laurie with the news that her new husband John’s daughter is still alive, and she tips him off to her workplace in the library, but immediately calls the young woman herself to coach her on how to handle Kevin if he shows up. When he figures this out, he calls Laurie back, furious that she’s helping Evie maintain her secret identity. It falls to Laurie to slowly walk Kevin through the fact that he’s hallucinating, forcing him to look closely at the picture he snapped of “Evie” to make him see that she’s an entirely different person. He projected Evie onto this stranger, Laurie tells him, because he wants to run away from his family and start a different life.
She’s not wrong. The episode’s two paths converge back in the hotel room that night, where an agitated Nora is smoking and plotting vengeance against the scientists. She claims it’s because they’re scam artists, but her devastation when they reject her, expressed in part by the handheld camera Sackheim switches to as she reels from the impact of their denial, makes it clear why she’s really upset. For his part, Kevin is reluctant to tell Nora what’s so self-evidently wrong with him, since when he came clean about Patti last season, she handcuffed him to his bed and flew the coop.
After that, the flood — or more accurately, the fire. Nora calls Kevin “Jesus Christ Superstar” for hanging on to Matt’s book. Mocking her, he takes the thing and torches it in the sink. Nora demands to know why he didn’t stop her from giving Lily back to her birth mother. Kevin says she never even asked. Nora says he was relieved, which makes his desire to have a baby all the more ridiculous. Unforgivably, Kevin says she’s afraid she’ll give that baby away too — that she can never have another child, because if she does she’ll no longer be a victim who’ll be pitied for the loss of her kids. Nora says she didn’t lose them at all. “My kids are not dead. They are gone. They are just gone.”
“Then you should go be with them,” Kevin replies, then grabs his bag and leaves as the room fills with smoke and the fire alarm beeps.
Everything that happens after that is pure Leftovers — the references to the mysterious explosion, the coincidental arrival of Kevin Garvey Sr. and his disciple Grace, the incongruous use of A-ha’s “Take on Me” (a recurring musical theme throughout the episode), the gorgeously sad and surreal image of Nora’s face in the dimming lights of her room as the water from the fire sprinklers pours off her eyelashes. But it’s also almost unnecessary. Everything we needed to know about what just happened to Nora and Kevin was in Justin Theroux’s alarmingly wild eyes and in Carrie Coon’s strained voice and collapsed posture. The two of them are just incredible throughout the episode: sexy, scary, desperate, and sad. Just like the show, and just like the world.