The Leftovers, HBO’s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic drama, is currently airing its third and final season. Below, Vox Culture writers Todd VanDerWerff and Caroline Framke discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” the season’s second episode, in full — so beware, there are spoilers here, and lots of ’em.
Todd: In some ways, Nora Durst's inability to register with touchscreens is the sort of over-obvious metaphor The Leftovers sometimes over-indulges in. Nora, reintroduced to the idea that she might be able to find out what happened to her husband and children in the Departure, starts to feel like she too is slipping off the map. All of the ways she's defined herself since the Departure — as a hard-charging DSD agent, as Kevin's partner, as Lily's adoptive mother — are being stripped from her. So does she still exist? The touchscreens sure don't think so.
But this symbolism is also kind of brilliant. And so is "Don't Be Ridiculous," which both solves a pretty big plot problem — how is everybody going to get to Australia? — and tells a riveting story about who Nora is, seven years after the Departure, a story that reaffirms why The Leftovers' character focus has made it one of TV's most essential shows. You don't always notice the plot wheels turning because the character work is so strong. Over-obvious and more subtle than you notice at first glance? That's pretty much The Leftovers' M.O.
As such, "Don't Be Ridiculous" unfolds as a series of two-person confrontations between Nora and various other characters, including Regina King's Erika Murphy, who was absent from the season premiere, and Mark Linn-Baker, the star of Perfect Strangers, playing himself as the only cast member left behind. (That beloved cheesy sitcom gives the episode both its title and theme song.) Nobody can hold her own in a scene quite like Carrie Coon can, but what she does beautifully here is underline how Nora is spiraling, grasping at straws, trying to avoid discussing the hole at the center of her life.
While watching the episode, though, I kept thinking of a frequent complaint I saw levied against The Leftovers in its first season: If 2 percent of the world's population disappeared, would everybody care this much? Nora has always been the show's best argument that, yeah, they would probably care quite a bit. But the further The Leftovers gets from the Departure, the more of its characters have moved on. It seems like Tommy, for instance, has finally gotten to a place of peace and stability, to say nothing of little Lily, now living with her biological mother.
That runs the risk of making Nora and those who join her in being unable to "get over" the Departure seem all the more unbalanced. I think "Don't Be Ridiculous" manages the trick, but I'd be lying if I didn't say "let's go to Australia!" doesn't have me a little worried as a storytelling strategy. What about you, Caroline?
Caroline: I knew the story was going to travel to Australia sooner rather than later, but I won't lie: the details of how it happened definitely surprised me. (Though then again, when has that ever not been the case with The Leftovers?)
The way Linn-Baker appeared to reveal this new claim that people can join their Departed loved ones (via a device that bathes them in radiation that will carry them to wherever the Departed went), paired with Nora's unraveling self, resulted in a scene that left me with no idea whether Nora is determined to go to Melbourne at a moment's notice because she’s committed to exposing fraud or because she genuinely believes she might join her family again.
But that ambivalence is not small feat on The Leftovers' part. Nora has always been a logical person at heart. She always comes back to answers that have discernible beginnings and endings.
We see that in "Don't Be Ridiculous" when she scoffs at The Book of Kevin as a piece of sad fiction. We see it when she questions a widow (played by Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire fame — classic ABC sitcoms abound!) who says she saw her preacher husband, none other than Pillar Man, Depart just this week — and then we see it again when Nora tears down the woman’s account with a stark image of the man's body, bruised and bloody after he fell off his pillar mid-heart attack. Nora Durst has also spent the entire time we've known her furiously resisting the idea that she is — to use the newspapers' cruel words — "Nora Cursed."
But "Don't Be Ridiculous" reminds us in painful bursts that Nora has never quite been sure of anything, and that's driving her up the fucking wall.
I have a feeling that we're not going to have any shortage of praise for Coon, who sells Nora's rage and pain like no one else on television could. She, more than anything, is what eventually sold me on the idea that Nora would, in a fit of misery, decide to travel halfway across the world for something resembling a real answer.
But I'm curious to know what you took from Nora's approach to this scam and/or game-changing revelation, which struck me as both classically Nora and not like her at all.
Todd: You've reminded me of the most important thing we need to talk about in this episode: the death of Pillar Man. RIP, Pillar Man. You will be missed.
I think I know exactly what you mean when you say her decision both makes sense and doesn’t. Nora has been sold by the show as so no-nonsense for so long now that it's hard to grapple with the thought of her going to Australia, even if you think she's just making the trip to try to shut down the scammers. It's outside of her jurisdiction, if nothing else.
But what I like about this revelation is how it plays into one of The Leftovers' central ideas: Hope will drive you mad. I really do think Nora travels to Missouri in the hopes of shutting down a scam, which is a part of her job, after all. But even though her rational brain knows the scam can't possibly be real, her irrational brain wants so desperately for it to be real that it doesn't matter. Once hope takes root, there's nothing she can do to dislodge it.
That's why, I think, she goes to see toddler Lily, even though she knows nothing good will come of it (and, indeed, Christine is right there). She needs to have some reminder of what used to be tangible, what used to tether her to reality. But now, in the absence of the tangible, she's going to Australia, and her partner is probably losing his mind, and when she tries to draw others into her spiral, they pointedly resist (though at least Erika lets her jump on a trampoline).
Of course, "a character who seems like the sanest character out there but is actually on the verge of losing it completely" is a space Carrie Coon thrives in, which helps paper over any "flaws" that "Don't Be Ridiculous" has. It is, in a real way, a leap of faith on the part of the show, and Coon is right there to catch it.
Caroline: Speaking of leaps, thank you for giving me the perfect segue into that trampoline scene, because oh my goodness, that trampoline scene!
We so rarely get moments of actual joy on The Leftovers, so watching Nora and Erika leap in slow-mo to the tune of Wu-Tang Clan made me grin so hard I practically sprained my face. Yes, the scene was brief, and sure, both women are definitely just trying to forget their constant, palpable grief; even the (perfect) music cue was bittersweet, given the fact that its origin story came from Nora hastily getting the Wu-Tang logo tattooed on herself to cover up her Departed children's names.
But for a moment, both women forgot all their pain to just jump around on a dumb trampoline, for no other reason than that they thought it would be fun. That was nice! (And not for nothing: The Leftovers is quickly proving that Big Little Lies' DJ Kid has some stiff competition in this show's music supervisor.)
I loved that scene so much that it made Nora's trip back to Jarden and inevitable fall back to earth hurt that much more. Tommy confronting her about visiting Lily was tough, but not nearly as tough as the moment when she tries to say she wished he'd never dropped Lily at their door, and Tommy informs her that Nora wasn't part of that equation at all.
"I didn't even know you existed," he says, before leaving Nora in her car to gasp in visceral pain. Nora was never supposed to be a factor in Lily's life, and now, Lily isn't Lily anymore, and has no idea who Nora is, anyway. As far as Lily is concerned, Nora never even existed.
All things considered, it's not altogether surprising that Nora is now questioning the fact of her own existence, too.
Todd: I thought we agreed to never speak of the Big Little Lies DJ Kid ever again.
But yes, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” revolves around the idea that the definition of any one person is in some ways dependent how other people define them, which is an interesting conundrum for those who, like Nora, have lost just about everybody. (Who's left, really? Kevin, obviously, and ... her brother Matt? That's about it for Nora.)
Nora is increasingly an island, and it's no surprise even the touchscreens don't seem to notice her existence.
All of which brings us to that final scene, set on our most island-like continent, which neatly restages much of the very first episode of The Leftovers — but restaging as if it were native to Australia, with kangaroos taking the place of deer, this Kevin Garvey having a thick accent, etc. The Leftovers knows how to throw a curveball, but this is impressive, even for them.
I have seen beyond this episode and know where some of these developments are going, so I'll step back and let you bring us to the end. Just what's up with Australia anyway?
Caroline: An excellent question! I have no idea!
When I watched that ending sequence with the cowboy lady-gang abducting Australian(!) Kevin, I had a single pressing question: Who was the jerk who uploaded The Book of Kevin onto the internet?!
Anyway, it's nearly impossible for me to parse exactly what was happening there, beyond the fact that these women clearly thought that forcing this Kevin into death would bring about some miraculous event, and all they got was a bloated corpse for their trouble.
And then our Kevin's dad stumbled out of the house behind them, and I really had no idea where we were or what was happening anymore. It appears as though we got to drop in on the scene that Kevin saw through the TV screen in his purgatory hotel last season. Or something? I won’t even attempt to guess what’s going to happen next.
All I know is that whatever Nora and Kevin are looking for in Australia surely won't be there. One thing The Leftovers does better than almost any show out there is make it plain how searching for something concrete inevitably raises more questions than anyone knows how to answer.