Fragile. Handle with care.
That was the message inscribed on the right side of the screen in the opening shot of episode 6 of The Leftovers, titled "Guest." And it's a message that describes Nora's character almost to a tee. Nora is fragile, and she has to be handled with care. If not, she just might end up going off the deep end. And while she hasn't done so yet, she's certainly inching closer and closer to the edge.
Writers Kath Lingenfelter and Damon Lindelof (also a producer of the show) created a fantastic episode with "Guest." Watching a show like The Leftovers requires the audience to enter into a pact of sorts with the writers — we tune in every week committing to the writers' vision and trust that the writers will ultimately lead us and our beloved characters to redemption. And every now and again, we are given a reminder that our trust is not misplaced. This week's episode was just that: the reminder that the writers of this series know what they are doing, and that every single, subtle detail — an empty roll of paper towels, a jar of peanut butter — has been written into the mythology of The Leftovers with precision.
In the opening scene, Nora (Carrie Coon) was conducting a Departure interview with a man who lost his husband on October 14. Her questions were random and arguably invasive — was he born in a hospital? did he ever attempt suicide? — and they bothered the grieving man. "I understand you want to protect your husband's privacy, but the more questions you answer honestly, the better chance your claim will be processed." Nora's line about his husband's privacy called to mind her own husband's secrecy. In episode 3, her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) in a burst of anger revealed that Doug was having an affair: he was sleeping with their kids' pre-school teacher.
Later in the episode we watched as Nora, parked outside the pre-school, stared down the young teacher as she played with her class during recess. How long had Nora been making these trips to the school to watch her husband's mistress? Was it part of her daily routine, just like buying groceries for her departed family? The camera followed Nora as she robotically marched down the supermarket aisle filling her cart with the foods that her children loved — children's cereal, cocoa, etc. She then went home and put the groceries away.
This was one of the saddest moments of the episode. Nora grabbed a trashcan, opened her refrigerator, and threw away an unopened gallon of milk — the milk that she had bought for her children to use, the children that weren't there. She then took the unopened cereal boxes out of the pantry and discarded those, replacing them with the new cereal she'd just purchased. Nora's not naive and she's certainly not stupid — she knows her family is gone, and that they probably aren't coming back. But she doesn't do this for her family; she does it for herself. Nora doesn't want to move on because, as she screams at the end of the episode, "What's next? What's fucking next? NOTHING!" And so if there's nothing next, then you do what you've been doing, and you buy cereal for your kids, and you buy milk for your family, and you leave the paper towel holder just as it was on October 14, the day that your family sort of died, the day that you sort of died.
How do you describe Nora's loss? She isn't a widow because, well, her husband isn't really dead. Nor did her children die. Death is often seen as decisive and final — even if one believes in an afterlife, certainly death is the ultimate negation of at least one type of life. But Nora's mourning isn't decisive because nothing about October 14 is decisive. Her family is gone somehow. Her family is gone somewhere. And now she lives within the tension of life and death, of presence and absence.
Nora's memories seemed to overtake her, and she picked up the phone to hire a prostitute. Nora didn't want to have sex — in fact, Nora probably hasn't been touched in a long time. What Nora wanted was to be shot. "All you have to do is aim right here. Just above the stomach, just below the heart," she said to Angel (Liza J. Bennett), who was uncomfortable with the request. "If I wanted to die," said Nora, "I wouldn't need you." She handed the escort the gun that Jill (Margaret Qualley) discovered in her purse several episodes back, and, after putting on Slayer's Angel of Death, positioned herself in front of an air mattress.
Smell your death as it burns
Deep inside of you.
Abacinate, eyes that bleed
Praying for the end of
Your wide awake nightmare.
Nora finally convinced Angel to pull the trigger, and she was shot back onto the mattress. The song came to an end, and Nora remained temporary lifeless, in limbo between this world and some other place, just like the family she was mourning. And then in an instant, Nora inhaled wildly and her bleeding eyes shot open. Her wide awake nightmare would continue. But that nightmare is her continual reminder of her family. That grief is the continual reminder of what she once had. She worries that if she heals that grief, if she moves on, then she will lose the only part of her family she has left. And so whenever she feels the pain slipping away, she forces it back upon herself, just below the heart.
The next day, Nora stopped by her office before heading off to the annual Departure Related Occupations and Practices (DROP) conference, where she was to be a panelist. Her boss (David Aaron Baker) reminded her not to "take questions about the data" — the data she's been collecting via her 121 question surveys of the Leftovers, or Legacies. By the way, her boss asked, what was Nora doing on the final question of the survey? She's been getting a "yes" from every single respondent and headquarters wants to know why. How is she asking: Do you think the Departed is in a better place? Maybe, her boss suggests, she's delivering the question in such a way as to elicit sympathy from the respondents? Perhaps she's divulging the fact that she herself lost 3 people? After all, who wouldn't feel sympathy for her? As she herself noted, the odds of losing your entire family on October 14 were 1 in 128,000. Still, Nora seemed offended that her professionalism was being questioned, and she assured her boss she was delivering question #121 with the monotonous drone that typifies government auditors.
Outside the conference, Nora encountered protestors of all varieties. BRING THEM BACK, read one sign. THE VATICAN DID IT, read another. She was handed an empty grenade shell with the words ANY TIME NOW painted onto it. The image of Nora holding this bomb was poignant enough: she herself is a grenade, and her explosion is all but imminent. Nora made her way to the registration table on which was displayed hundreds of copies of a book called What's Next. The punctuation of the book's title — period, no question mark — really irked her, as she told the author, Patrick Johanson (Curtiss Cook) the next day in the hotel's bar. "No offense," said a tipsy Nora, "but it's not like you know what's next."
When Nora got to the front of the line, she learned that "she" was already checked-in — someone had already claimed her name. She was handed a badge emblazoned with GUEST. This understandably offended Nora, who informed the check-in woman that she was a Legacy, and she needed her badge to say her own name. Nora Durst. That name is important to her, after all. Even her husband's infidelity wasn't destructive enough to strip her of it. We get the sense that Nora is clinging desperately to her identity because it's one of the only things she has left in the world. Identities are intricately related to function. Nora functioned as both a wife and mother — in fact, she still functions this way as her opening scene to the market demonstrated — and so that is how she identifies. October 14 erased Nora almost as cruelly as it erased her family. She needs her name because it is her only reminder of her past life and her continued existence.
The conference Nora attended was certainly an interesting complication of the narrative of the series. From what we know, the DROP conference is a place where government officials gather to discuss various phenomena related to October 14. Just like a normal academic conference, there are several breakout sessions, one of which is titled The Prophet's Dilemma: A New Coping Mechanism. In this lecture, an academic (Max Baker) gives his take on what's happening with groups like the Guilty Remnant. It's worth reading his remarks in their entirety:
We cant deny the rising instances of Post-Departure Delusion Disorder, or, as some pundits have cheekily taken to call it: The Prophet's Dilemma. For most of humankind's existence, certain individuals have come forth as self-professed interpreters of the world's mysteries. But what happens when those conversations with God go wrong? Following a catastrophic event or circumstance, let alone one that defies scientific experience, the incidence of prophetic delusion rise dramatically. And this isn't just megalomaniacs who make the news for a week — this is happening to our friends, our neighbors, our own families. This belief that a higher power is speaking to us, whether through dreams or signs, or even voices, is a powerful coping mechanism. And if left unchecked, it is a very dangerous one.
A few things. First, the government has taken note of various grassroots prophetic strains, which is what we learned last week from Kevin's (Justin Theroux) conversation with Agent Kilaney. And when it comes to dealing with these prophets, the government seems to not be opposed to using force to stamp them out. Second, this lecture picks up a theme that Lindelof likes to explore: religion v. science. But though this academic is seemingly speaking with the full faith of the US government, that isn't necessarily reason to trust him — as we learn at the end of the episode.
What makes them … them?
As Nora explored the conference, she bumped into the heartthrob Billy Magnussen, who played the creepy but hunky Marcus. He wasn't wearing a nametag because he said he didn't believe in them. And if his job was any indication, he really doesn't believe in them. Marcus manufactures and sells dolls that are made to look like the Departed. Mourners send him pictures and videos of their vanished loved ones, and about one month — and $40,000! — later, he gives them a life-size doll of those they're mourning, complete with the appropriate scars, tattoos, piercings, and body hair. As he explained it to Nora, he "slowly generate[s] every little thing that made them … them."
Marcus is an intriguing character, and I hope we see more of him. On the one hand, capitalizing on mourners' grief is disgusting; but on the other hand, he's really providing a service that many of the leftovers feel is necessary to help them go on. "They're coming to us," he tells Nora. The demand for bodies to bury, to gaze upon, to touch once more is already there; he's simply providing the supply. That doesn't make him soulless, right? he asks Nora. He wants to give people something — something real. Something that bears the name of the Departed. "This," he said, "this is real," touching his own doll just above the stomach, just below the heart — in the exact place where Nora told Angel to shoot her. But neither Nora's death nor Marcus' doll is real. Just as Nora is protected from fully experiencing Angel's bullet, Marcus is prevented from fully experiencing Nora's affection, which is what he cheekily learns when, after asking Nora for a kiss, he's forced to watch her straddle his own doll and offer herself to it. The thing Nora is kissing may look like Marcus and it might even bear his name, but it isn't him.
After her wild night with Marcus, Nora woke up to angry hotel security guards kicking her off the premises for breaking a mirror in the hotel bar. Nora tried to explain them that she didn't really do it, that someone wearing her name tag was imitating her. They didn't believe her, and escorted her away, despite the fact the she had a panel to get ready for. Frustrated, Nora went across the street to get ready at a store called Village Copier (facsimiles, anyone?). She watched herself in the mirror as she put on makeup, washed under her arms, and changed clothes. The copyboy made her a new badge for the conference; in fact, he made her several options. She selected the name tag she wanted — she chose the Nora Durst she was going to be — and then applied three orange Legacy stickers, one for each departed family member, to it.
A determined-looking Nora marched back into the hotel with a plan: she was going to find the fake Nora Durst and expose her as a sham. But like all things in The Leftovers universe, there was a hiccup, and security seized her and took her to questioning. When she tried, again, to explain to the head officer what was happening, he coldly said, "No offense, but who would want to pretend to be you?" That question stung her. After all, Nora didn't even want to be Nora. When she explained to the officers that she was a Legacy, they started to act more leniently towards her. Nora seemed genuinely bothered that she was being treated this way, which certainly contrasted with how she welcomed the pity in episode 2 after she purposely shoved her coffee mug off her restaurant table. At any rate, security agreed to escort Nora to her panel to see if she was in fact telling the truth. If a fake Nora Durst were there, the real one would be off the hook.
Nora was telling the truth. There on stage, sitting behind a placard reading Nora Durst, was Courtney Boyd (Kelly Caitlin McFerren) — a character curiously billed on IMDB as a Departure Enthusiast. Nora walked up to the microphone and interrupted the moderator (John Cramer): "I have a question for Nora Durst," she said defiantly, daring the fraud to out herself as a sham, as nothing more than one of Marcus' dolls. But Courtney didn't play along. "I am not Nora Durst," she said, and then proceeded to explain her intentions to the confused conference hall. According to Courtney, everyone in attendee was blind to the fact that October 14 was a government hoax. The DSD was an elaborate smokescreen, she said, to distract the public's attention, and the Departure Benefits were were the government's way of buying silence from the leftovers.
Courtney's words weren't what Nora wanted to hear, and she began to zone out. As she did, the noise around her became muted, which was a really neat way for Damon Lindelof to only kind of give us the following information through Courtney: in 2005, the government was experimenting with "a type of plasma that had ability to target human matter from outer space and leave almost no residue." So Courtney believes the government is responsible for the disappearances, and it seems like there might be something to that. We can't be sure at this point that Courtney is a reliable character — she lied about her identity after all! — but we have learned thus far in the series that the government does at times behave duplicitously. I wouldn't rule our Courtney's theories just yet.
Hug it out
After she reclaimed her identity (did she, though?) Nora was shown drinking at the hotel bar. While there, she bumped into Johanson, author of that self-help grieving book everyone was going on about at the conference. Johanson told her a story about his eight year-old finding happiness in the wake of October 14, and then said if a child can heal, adults should be able to, too. Nora called bullshit, and the fight escalated from there. "You're not in pain," she screamed. "If you were in pain, you would know there is no moving on!" There is no healing for Nora. There is only almost death, and almost dying, and almost opened milk, and almost eaten cereal, and an almost human being to straddle and kiss, and an almost trip to Florida with Kevin.
Outside the hotel, a strange man named Casper (Tom Noonan) — Marcus called him "Baldie" — approached Nora, telling her he overheard what she told Johanson. "Do you want to feel this way?" he asked an irritated Nora, who told him to fuck off. Casper followed her and told her she was right about Johanson. "He's not in pain, he's a fraud. I can prove it." That was selling point enough for Nora, who followed him into a really creepy apartment where a hugely-buff guy was waiting to take her payment of a thousand bucks. $40,000 for the bereavement doll, $1,000 to find out what happened to the book-selling Johanson, $135,000 for Nora's Departure benefits: grief has a price tag.
After paying the money, Nora was allowed to pass behind the curtain. The room was mostly empty, save for Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) sitting in a chair in the corner. "I don't think she's heard of me," said Wayne in response to Nora's blank stare. She may not know who Wayne is, but we certainly do — he's the guy who hugs the pain away from mourners. He held out his arms but Nora didn't budge. "What's your name, love?" he asked her. "Nora," she proudly said, knowing that she fought doggedly to earn the right to call herself the name she wanted. "Nora, I don't give a shit about you. I've already got your money, and I'm fucking exhausted."
Every episode of The Leftovers has once scene that leaves me speechless. In the pilot, it was the scene that showed every Garvey member individually grieving, with Jill picking the glass out of the picture frame, and Tom (Chris Zylka) screaming underwater. In episode 3, both the baptism scene and the one where Matt bathed his paralyzed wife were both equally moving. In this episode, the encounter between Holy Wayne and Nora was as compelling a moment as any other that preceded it in this series. Not only did it confirm what a force of nature Coon and Paterson are as talents, but it propelled both characters by complicating and propelling their arcs.
"You've lost someone, yes?" Wayne asked, and Nora's face gave away the answer. No, Wayne corrected himself: "You lost someones." Max Richter's simple melody played, and Nora began to gradually, carefully open up her heart to this stranger who seemed to narrate to her exactly what she'd been feeling since October 14. "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 — you won't kill yourself." This was the explanation of the gun: but did Wayne catch an actual glimpse into Nora's soul, or was he just like Marcus, a salesman, dishing out banal adages to whomever was buying?
Holy Wayne then showed his familiarity with the Holy Bible yet again: "For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope. Surely a live dog is better than a dead lion." This passage comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the context is worth reading through:
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, andmadness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
The context of this particular passage Wayne recites seems to be an answer to Matt's problem: why have the wicked been raptured away with the righteous? The author of Ecclesiastes would answer that all of us, good and evil, are subject to the same event — any of us could have departed on October 14, and any of us could have lost someone. And yet, that doesn't mean Nora should despair, said Wayne. She should hope. But that's her problem, that's her weakness: "You want [hope] because you think you don't deserve it," Wayne said. But he promised her that she did deserve to hope. Nora was almost completely broken at this point, and Wayne invited her to hug him, if she was ready to stop feeling the pain. "Let me take it from you," he said, spreading his arms.
Nora may have been ready to forget about the Departure, but certainly not the Departed. "Will I forget them?" she asked. And as Wayne spread his mouth into a diabolical smile, and said "Never," she slowly, painstakingly placed her head onto his shoulder. She began crying quietly at first, and then, as Wayne cradled the back of her head, she broke into a wail. Was this was the first time that she's been touched since October 14?
Whatever power Wayne wields seemed to have been successful. The next time we saw her at the grocery store, she was buying Greek yogurt and rice cakes and a smaller carton of milk. She ended up using her rewards card to discount the purchase. (I deserve it, she might have thought.) While she was putting away the groceries later at home, she managed to replace the used paper towel roll. Kevin stopped by, too, and they finally agreed to a date. They both seemed excited about the prospect of new romance, but Kevin still thought a warning was necessary. "You should know I'm a fucking mess." Nora wasn't fazed.
Everything was right with Nora until the final shot of the episode, which showed her conducting another Departure Benefits interview. As she came to question #121, she hesitated a bit, no doubt calling to mind her boss' accusation that she'd delivered the question in such a way as to receive an affirmative response. Maybe she even thought of the affirmative way she'd answered the question all three times it was asked of her during her own interviews for her family members. "In your opinion," she asked, "do you believe the Departed is in a better place?" For the first time since Nora has conducted the interviews, she got a no.
Is a hopeful dog better than an honest lion?