So, by this point I feel like most viewers know whether or not they are going to see this season through its 10 episodes. The Leftovers is not an easy viewing experience. The show can actually be unsettling and purposefully uncomfortable, and yet I find myself drawn to this dark and dramatic exploration of What’s Next.
This episode scores high for me because of the narrowed lens on Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) who carries this episode with compelling believability as the most grief laden woman in Mapleton. We know that Nora has lost her husband and two children, and we also know that her brother, Reverend Matt Jamison, is the one who informed her that her husband was cheating on her. So not only does she carry around the weight of unbearable and inexplicable (or is it?) loss, but she must conduct herself in this world shaped by the presence of absence. A world in which she is viewed as a legacy due to her loss, a world that provides her with extra attention and sympathy that is probably doing more damage than good in Nora’s situation.
Before the opening credits even roll we get a glimpse of Nora’s “coping” strategy, which is a basically a fundamental denial of the Sudden Departure. During the day she interviews strangers for the U.S. Department of the Sudden Departure (DOSD) pushing paperwork and playing a cog in the bureaucratic and capitalist machine of Departure Related Occupations and Practices (DROP). But out of the public eye, Nora clings to unhealthy behavior like keeping her kitchen stocked with the same food that was present when her children suddenly departed. She keeps incomplete puzzles and an empty paper towel role in a state of preservation. She even stalks a local playground, and perhaps that ‘s even the teacher her husband cheated on her with who tends to the children that Nora watches to keep her wounds open and unyielding. And most disturbingly, it seems that to compensate for memories that start to fade, like everything with time fades, she hires women of the night to come and shoot her. Sure, she wears a Kevlar vest, but she is still paying someone to cause her pain.
Pain is what defines Nora’s identity. This entire episode is built around the thematic premise of identity. Even the episode title of “Guest” is indicative of Nora’s quest to find herself beneath all that has happened to define who she is in the eyes of others and who she still thinks she is while she shops at the grocery store. I find it interesting that due to the ambiguity of the Sudden Departure some things must be dealt with as though the person is still possibly alive, like Nora’s filing for divorce from her departed husband. Yet, there are those who move forward as though their departed are dead and so they pay $40k to have replicas made just so they can bury the replica and feel the internal satisfaction of emotional closure.
Which brings us to the episode defining Question 121. On the surveys that Nora fills out for everyone she interviews on behalf of the DOSD Question 121 reads: In your opinion, do you believe the departed has gone on to a better place? Apparently, Nora’s respondents all answer ‘yes’ to this question. Her boss wonders whether Nora is influencing the answer to this question with her own story of experience, or maybe she even automatically answers ‘yes’ and skips the question. It is a mystery in the beginning of the episode: what does Nora do to get this optimistic outlook from survey respondents?
I imagine this question is still floating around in her mind as she heads off to the DROP conference. Leaving Mapleton behind, Nora’s story has a chance to blossom in a broader arena where she is not the most known person and her experience is just another story within this crowd of people who make their living off of the Sudden Departure. Nora’s work with the DOSD is just another masochistic way to keep the pain of her loss alive as much as possible. So when her identity is stolen at the conference, we see an uglier side of Nora claw to the surface to promote her own self importance as defined by her degree of loss. She kept her name intact after the judge granted her a divorce, because she is Nora Durst – the most bereaved woman in Mapleton. But outside of Mapleton she becomes an ill defined “Guest” who rides the wave of unfolding events and links up with a group of party people and follows them down the rabbit hole.
Upon taking some mystery fun drug, “Guest” is probably feeling all the feels. She’s dancing, she’s flirting, she’s mounting a $40k replica of a salesman – she’s alive. While still lacking the possession of her identity, “Guest” is roused from her sleep and tossed out of the hotel for something her Nora Durst impersonator did. Then it becomes clear what must be done, she must fight to regain her identity and prove to security that she is who she claims to be. Nora must face the dreaded question of, “who would want to be you?” To even begin to understand how to answer that question Nora must acknowledge some of what comes from being Nora Durst like the attention and the sympathy. It is the attention and sympathy that Nora discreetly thrives off of like we saw in the episode where she pushes the cup off the café table on purpose. These emotions bestowed upon those who have suffered great loss have been enabling Nora to stay wrapped up in that loss and living the same sad cycle over and over again.
Resolution to the identity theft is quickly arrived at as soon as security hears her out and Nora confronts her impersonator. However, what comes next is an interesting step toward the greatest mystery of all in the show – what happened to 2% of the world’s population? The woman impersonating Nora tells everyone they are blind, that the DOSD is a smoke screen perpetuating the illusion of progress, the questionnaires are sent to incinerators, and the payments are just another way to silence people from asking more questions. Then this woman mentions a 2005 testing of a plasma ray that could target all human matter and demands to know why there isn’t a panel of experts discussing that interesting piece of information. At this point Nora is tuning out; she has regained her identity and all the apparent drawbacks like her unstable emotional state. But we may have just gotten a Lindelof clue regarding what the Sudden Departure really was…a plasma ray? I mean, hey, it’s a theory. Granted, it’s a theory spouted off by an imposter looking to relieve her own issues through blame, but it’s the first real clue we’ve heard so far.
I think this episode was framed by a powerful beginning and ending. Everything in between was a woman’s search for her true identity. Nora is no longer the mother and wife and she knows that where she currently resides in the unlucky 1/128,000 percentile, a triple legacy, is not where she wants to be. Her conversation with the writer of the book What’s Next provides us with another glimpse of the darkness lurking within Nora. This Mr. Johansen explains to Nora that what they are experiencing isn’t grief, it’s ambiguous loss, and it’s never-ending. With ambiguous loss it becomes difficult to navigate What’s Next because no one really knows. Nora answers that question as she yells at the writer and tells him, “Nothing is next!” Because that is Nora’s experience, that is the cycle she’s caught in.
I was relieved after the hike through the seedy apartment building lead by the super creepy guy and Nora dishing out $1k that Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) was the man behind the curtain. It seemed…right. If it was some unknown delusional prophet the story would have felt too sprawling, but it wasn’t. Mr. Magic Hugs is on the lam, still scraping in the profits by sending his gophers out to bring him people in the clutches of pain. This scene was seriously my favorite part of the episode and I watched it several times. Holy Wayne seems in a bad mood at first, but as he reads Nora’s pain he becomes animated and reconnected with his purpose. In fact, it isn’t hard to see why Tom would follow a guy like Wayne.
Wayne tells Nora, “You believe that you will always feel that pain, and if it starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you? But you won’t let it kill you, and you won’t kill yourself,” he says, nailing her behavior at the start of the episode “For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope. And surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. Hope is your weakness; you want it gone because you don’t deserve it. Nora, you do deserve hope.” I’m not going to spend too much time dissecting his prophet speak, but I will say that the intimacy of that scene, Wayne’s breath moving Nora’s hair, the closeness between the two of them as he confronts her with the truth of the pain that has grown to define her existence is very well done. The chemistry between his compassion and her grief becomes an element all of its own. And at the end Wayne says that the ultimate question remains the same and it isn’t What’s Next, it’s Do you want to feel this way? And Nora relinquishes her hold on her pain and gives it Wayne.
She returns home to Mapleton, shops for just herself, saves a message from her brother on her machine, and accepts the offer of a date from Kevin Garvey. Things seem to be looking up for Nora after her Holy Wayne encounter. And then it happens. In giving another DOSD survey, Nora asks question 121 and for the first time someone answers, “No” – they do not believe the departed is in a better place. It’s hard to know what happens here. Nora recognizes in this woman a lack of hope, whereas Nora has just had her hope affirmed. It makes me think that this new Nora may not endure. Or if she does endure, she may need to get a new job that doesn’t revolve around the tedious bureaucratic bullshit underlying the DOSD.
In its entirety, I thought this episode was successful in showing us another perspective of pain and how the government and commercial world are exploiting the Sudden Departure as much as all the new cults and prophets. Carrie Coon and Paterson Joseph deliver a beautifully moving scene that pulled the whole episode together for me. I have really enjoyed both of the single character centered episodes so far this season and hope to see more. I also hope to find out more, especially with that teaser delivered by the impersonator. Plasma rays … we’ll see.
Amanda Lowery lives, writes and studies in Baltimore where she is held hostage by potholes, stray cats and rats that make her watch way too much TV and rhyme unnecessarily. You can find her book reviews and pop culture thoughts at amandasthinkingoutloud.blogspot.com.