We need to talk about Nora. The unshakeable woman of the Heroes Day dais is now a distant memory, long since shadowed by intimations of a troubled inner life: the handgun, the broken coffee mug, the news of her husband’s infidelity. Until tonight, though, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) remained mostly inscrutable, the Mapleton resident least susceptible to profane rants and crying jags. No more. With “Guest,” at once funny and dire, playful and painful, The Leftovers whittles away Nora’s placid exterior until all that’s left is the abraded soul inside.
If you think this sounds bleak, you’d be right. Where “Gladys” was punctuated by sudden bursts of feeling, “Guest” builds gradually to an emotional climax, but it nonetheless deals in heartache. Much has been made of how “depressing” The Leftovers is (Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Maerz publicly abandoned the series this week, concerned that “there’s no rhyme or reason” to its “relentlessly grim” proceedings), but such criticisms rarely admit how true this emotional palette is to the world the series imagines. (Dan Abromowitz’s list of “good, sound, legitimate reasons to stop watching,” on Gawker’s Morning After, rounds up some of the most common complaints.) In my recap of “Pilot,” I mentioned the echoes of 9/11 in the parades, speeches, and monuments designed to commemorate the Sudden Departure, but the comparison seems increasingly untenable. “Guest” makes clear that the inexplicable nature of October 14th amplifies the grief engulfing post-Departure society; the loss isn’t just personal, but phenomenological, stripping away the mechanisms by which we create meaning from what Joan Didion once called “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” As we learn in one presentation during the conference on Departure-Related Occupations and Practices (DROP), Nora’s attendance at which consumes most of the episode, prophets, soothsayers, cult leaders, and conspiracy theorists enter the void left behind when the old ways of understanding prove terrifyingly inadequate. The despair at the heart of The Leftovers is without “rhyme or reason” only if we expect the characters to adhere to some preconceived notion of what the aftermath of October 14th should look like. Strange questionnaires, vows of silence, and healing hugs don’t seem to me particularly extreme responses to the abrupt disappearance of 140 million people and the failure of any traditional form of science or religion to explain it.
Whether paying a sex worker $3,000 to shoot you in the chest at close range qualifies as “extreme” in this context is another matter. The image of Nora in a Kevlar vest, listening to Slayer—“Infamous butcher, Angel of Death!”—has the “see what I did there?” smugness of a bad pun (“the escort’s name is Angel, get it?”). I’m almost tempted to call the moment an instance of the episode’s cheeky self-awareness gone too far, of a piece with Kevin Garvey’s (Justin Theroux) later comment that he doesn’t know how to joke, but this is too lenient even for me. The gunplay is ludicrous, all the more so because the preceding glimpses of Nora’s lonely existence portray subtler forms of self-harm. Eyeing the preschool teacher who slept with her husband and replacing untouched boxes of her vanished children’s favored cereals, Nora appears unlikely to go in for theatrics: The available evidence suggests that she prefers to seal herself inside the family mausoleum, silently communing with the departed.
This caveat aside, “Guest” extends the show’s streak of outstanding episodes to four, in part by developing the darkly comic register introduced in “B.J. and the A.C.” Coon, tremendous throughout, finds in Nora an almost wacky vein of mischief. The way she throws up her hand and chuckles, telling Kevin, “Oh, fuck your daughter!,” when he declines her impromptu invitation to spend the weekend in Miami, manages to be both funny and unsettling; it’s hilarity delivered with the manic exhilaration of a woman near the end of her rope. Later, after her conference nametag goes missing, she’ll enjoy the anonymity of being known simply as “Guest” by dancing on the sofa in a hotel suite and flirting with the inventor of life-sized commemorative dolls that sell for $40,000 apiece. (From photographs and home videos, the man explains, “we generate every little thing that made them…them,” which may explain why I mistook the figures for corpses in “B.J. and the A.C.”)
These moments of levity will satisfy viewers seeking a respite from the show’s “depressing” bent, but the anarchic humor in “Guest” actually reflects the same understanding of Nora’s character as the episode’s more mournful interludes. She struggles mightily against the constraints of martyrdom, yet she’s been defined by October 14th so long that the identity of “Nora Durst” is impossible to relinquish. When the head of hotel security learns that her husband and two children departed (she’s a “triple legacy,” in DROP’s parlance), it’s telling that she knows the exact answer to his offhand rhetorical question, “What are the odds?”: “One in 128,000,” she replies. Along these lines, she keeps her married name, snaps at a conference worker, and eventually confronts her imposter, a series of events conveyed in microcosm by the episode’s most singular image. The sight of Coon’s hands applying three orange stickers to her new nametag is a ghostly reminder of her status, a way of acknowledging that “Nora Durst, U.S. Department of Sudden Departure” is ultimately made present by the absence that surrounds her. To allow this profound sense of loss to lessen even briefly, for Nora, is to risk disappearing herself.
That’s why she lashes out at Patrick Johanson (Curtiss Cook), the smarmy author of the self-help bestseller What’s Next, when he offers her a platitude-filled anecdote about finding happiness. That’s why, after chasing him from the bar, screaming, “What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!,” Coon returns Nora’s face to its glassy default position, pausing to sip from her martini as though the exchange never happened. That’s why, in the end, she relents to Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph): The $1,000 she pays for an audience with him is not an attempt to understand what happened, but an opportunity to be understood. For Wayne lays out no theology of the Sudden Departure, expresses no pity for her condition. Though he gets around to foretelling his own death, his attitude is that of a war profiteer rather than a prophet: “I’ve already got your money,” he tells her, “and I’m fucking exhausted.” But his powers of perception turn out to be the genuine artifact, and it’s his empathic description of the hidden part of her, as much as the embrace itself, that ultimately sends her reeling.
Nora’s fierce, possibly cathartic sobs set the episode’s conclusion in motion. The fleeting sequence that follows inverts the order of events that mark the beginning of the hour, and with clever alterations of detail, “Guest” resolves into a lovely whole. For all the talk of The Leftovers as a blunt instrument, in such passages it emerges as a delicate piece of work: Nora gives up spying on the preschool teacher and unloads yogurt from her grocery bag; her brother, the Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), leaves an apologetic message on her machine; Kevin asks her to dinner. Was this hope I spied in the final minutes of “Guest,” as the season enters its home stretch? Was this some intimation, quiet and hard-won, that even the worst storms eventually pass? Any optimism I have on this count is mostly for Nora’s sake and not my own, because both the starkness and the unexpected cheer in “Guest” reaffirm my assessment of the series thus far: The Leftovers is great television.
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