Carrie Coon as Nora Durst.
Photo: Ben King/HBO
“The Book of Nora” has many chapters. It begins with an extended look right into the face of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, in the final act of one of TV’s all-time great performances) as she willingly chooses to risk annihilation in an attempt to re-create the Sudden Departure and reunite with her long-lost children. It continues through her heartwarmingly funny farewell to her brother, Matt, as they compose her obituary with an ad hoc game of MadLibs. (“The Department of the Sudden Diarrhea” is a gem.) It includes her scientifically induced Departure, which seems constructed solely from imagery pried from nightmares: human remains, creepy dolls, vulnerable nudity, traumatic memories, inexplicable machinery, harrowing claustrophobia, disorienting noises, the fear of drowning. It rolls right into the dual mysteries of what happens between then and our next glimpse of Nora, now a significantly older woman, and whether the Kevin Garvey who shows up on her doorstep saying that they’d only ever had one brief conversation back in Mapleton, New York, is telling the truth. There are revelations about the rest of the cast, both minor (Jill Garvey is in a great marriage, Tommy’s didn’t work out) and major (Matt is dead, but he died reconciled with his wife, Mary; Laurie Garvey is alive and didn’t commit suicide by scuba dive after all, and she alone knows where Nora’s been hiding all this time.) There are animals in peril, from trained doves who disappear after their release at a wedding reception to a “scapegoat” goat who gets caught on a barbed-wire fence because the partygoers festooned him with Mardi Gras beads. There’s a nun who has sex with a hunky biker dude. There’s a ton of Billie Holiday and an incredible dance-funk jam from Procol Harum’s Robin Trower.
Then there’s the final chapter, and it’s the one that matters.
The day after the party and Kevin’s ill-fated attempt at reconciliation, he returns to Nora’s isolated house to come clean. He’s spent all these years searching for her, using his two weeks’ vacation to scour Australia on an annual basis. When he finally got lucky and found her (thanks to the frisky nun), he froze, and concocted the whole “we barely know each other” schtick in an attempt to get past their troubled history by simply erasing it. It’s then that Nora tells him, and us, what happened to her after she stepped into that machine.
At first glance, and second glance, and every other glance you can fit in during its endless minutes, Nora’s monologue flies in the face of just about every screenwriting convention, including the First Commandment itself: Show, Don’t Tell. But that depends on what it is you’re trying to show, and what it is you’re trying to tell.
If your primary interest here is watching Nora navigate her journey to an alternate dimension, traverse the empty globe, track down her surviving family, change her mind when she sees that they’re happy without her and she’d just destroy that hard-earned happiness, turn around, cross the globe again to find the scientist who invented the Departure machine, wait for him to rebuild it, and travel back through, then, yeah, you’re getting told rather than shown. You’d have needed, conservatively, an entire episode to see it all. If you really wanted to get the flavor and feeling of this all-new, all-different Leftovers world, you might have asked for an entire season. Maybe each episode could be split between the main branch of reality and, oh, I dunno, let’s call it a sideways universe? You get the picture. I’m not here to tell you that following Carrie Coon through a depopulated planet that’s even more emotionally and physically scarred by the Sudden Departure than her own would be boring — it sounds amazing, frankly. But for all kinds of logistical and financial reasons, it clearly wasn’t in the cards.
What is The Leftovers showing us instead? Just Nora, herself, in one of the many sustained closeups that director Mimi Leder uses to drive this episode, the way another show might use action sequences. We stare at her face as she spells out the entire saga. You might expect the telling to break her all over again, but she’s had years to process what she experienced. So perhaps the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to a human being in history gets boiled down to a story told over a kitchen table between two estranged lovers, in a calm but sad voice, with a placid but sad face. The Leftovers has the confidence in its camera and in its performers to convey the enormity of it all, and Nora’s lonesome acceptance of that enormity, just by watching and listening to Carrie Coon talk.
Tellingly, Nora starts breaking down only when she gets to the most recent development: Kevin’s return to her life forces her to face the fear that kept her away from him all this time, the fear that he wouldn’t believe her. Here’s where “show, don’t tell” comes into play again. As we’ve seen, Nora has long since come to terms with her astonishing journey to another world and back again, in search of a lost family she now chooses to leave behind after years of grief over having that decision taken out of her hands. That’s not really what this conversation is about, for her. It’s about whether she can ever get close to anyone again, or whether her peerless pain has rendered her separate from all of humanity basically forever. To find out, she has to face her fear of rejection by the human she once cared about most. She has to find out if Kevin Garvey believes her.
“I believe you,” he says, through a face so warped by emotion his skin seems to be sloughing off his skull on one side of his face. “You do?” she asks, stunned. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” he replies. “You’re here.” “I’m here,” she confirms, to herself and to him, her hand in his, both of them smiling through tears.
It’s the final dialogue in the series, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well had we actually watched Nora’s trans-dimensional adventures. Here, we’re put in the same position as Kevin, whose own alternate-reality experiences the show has depicted in lovingly bizarre detail, enhancing the contrast with the finale’s approach to Nora’s. We’re presented with the same information and asked to make the same decision. That, not the trip from world to world, is what The Leftovers wanted to show: a desperate person asking to be believed, and another desperate person believing.
Is there a better summary statement for the series? Everything that happened after the supernatural terror of the Sudden Departure — the cults and the crackpots and the crackdowns, the mystery of Miracle National Park, Kevin’s jaunts to International Assassinland, the song to stop the Great Flood, the Book of Kevin, Nora’s hunt for the Departure machine — are all just obstacles to, or substitutes for, human connection. And we cling to them because human connection is fucking scary. Who’s to say that the people you need, or the people who need you, won’t turn on you or leave you or get suddenly snatched away by death? Choosing to forge connections anyway is as big a leap of faith as Nora took when she stepped into that nightmare radiation chamber and held her breath.
So, yes, the series finale could have shown us yet another substitute. It could have followed Nora’s journey across the multiverse. Instead, it showed us the journey that really mattered: the one across the kitchen table, as Kevin took Nora’s hand in his own, and Nora took Kevin’s life back into hers.