Every week, Vox Culture is diving into an episode of HBO’s The Leftovers, which is currently airing its third and final season. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writer Caroline Framke got together to talk about "Certified" the season’s sixth episode. You can read our previous coverage here.
Caroline Framke: This is the kind of television episode that makes me wish I saved all my best adjectives for it. I’ve called almost every Leftovers episode this season “gut-wrenching,” or “devastating,” or “extraordinary,” or all of the above. But goddamn if the show didn’t just outdo itself all over again with this gorgeous hour, which knots three journeys together with such intricate finality that, more than ever, I have no idea where The Leftovers goes from here.
First, “Certified” loops back to the day Laurie decided to join the Guilty Remnant. We see her sitting across from a patient, who just so happens to be the first person The Leftovers ever introduced to us: a young mother (Natalie Gold) whose baby disappeared out of his carseat in the Departure. She cries as she describes the long struggle with infertility that suddenly gave way to let her get pregnant with her son, only to have him disappear six months after he was born, and begs Laurie to tell her what the fuck she can possibly do now that he’s gone. Laurie has no answers, no words of wisdom beyond, “I don’t know.”
Once left alone, Laurie tries to kill herself by swallowing as many pills as she can find — and then changes her mind, opting instead to join the cult where no one will ever ask her to have the right words, or any words at all.
The episode then unspools in breathtaking, often nauseating waves, anchored by Amy Brenneman’s alternately warm and pragmatic performance. After the credits, the episode picks up some time after that fateful sex cult cruise (bless you, Leftovers), weaving back and forth between Laurie helping Matt and Nora with a surprising mission one day and, the next, sussing out exactly what kind of awakening Laura’s new husband John and both Kevins Garvey think might happen on the Departure’s seventh anniversary on the ranch. The revelations Laurie, Nora, and Kevin each come to in this episode somehow feel both surprising and inevitable, and I won’t soon forget them. By the end, I was gutted, but also completely satisfied.
I know you love this episode too, Todd, so what was it about “Certified” that grabbed you most?
Todd VanDerWerff: "Certified" is maybe the most religious episode of the season — there's a literal Last Supper, where the characters talk about what disciples they are! — but it smartly grounds that religiosity in the character most skeptical of Kevin's specialness. She was married to him for long enough to know he's just a dude.
Another thing fascinating to me: how much of this season has returned the series' gaze to the Laurie and Kevin marriage. Both people have moved on. Laurie is married to someone else, and Kevin has been with Nora for years (or, rather, he had been until recent events). But the show started out as a story of a family that had shattered in the wake of the Departure, and as it approaches its end, it's becoming about that again.
I actually didn't know that the show would ever revisit the question of if Laurie's unborn child had Departed, but it does, in perhaps my favorite scene of this episode, when she and Kevin have a long chat the night before he is to be drowned (in order to visit the afterlife) and before she is going to… do something (which we later see). It's bruising and honest and filled with love, and I didn't know how much I needed it.
This is something that's little talked about when discussing the shows of Damon Lindelof or the books of Tom Perrotta, something that made them natural TV collaborators: They have finely tuned emotional intelligence. They almost always have a great sense of where a story needs to go emotionally, which can carry them through rougher patches in terms of plot. (It's also probably why movies the two have been involved in have been more hit and miss — it's far easier for a movie to get sucked into the trap of, "and then this happened!")
But we should probably talk about the ending before we get too deep into this. So tell me what you think Laurie did, and let's also talk about where we think Nora is, because hoo boy.
Caroline: When the final scene opened with Laurie on a boat wearing scuba gear, I literally yelped, “oh fuck” at my screen — a feeling that, if I’m honest, hasn’t subsided much since I watched the episode last night.
That alarm is, of course, the exact point of this final scene. Nora explains earlier in the episode why she thinks the most elegant way to kill yourself is to go scuba diving and trigger one of the many, many accidents that could leave you gasping for air. What makes it even more startling is that Nora delivers this recommendation in such a matter-of-fact way, smoking her cigarette and smirking as hard as a noir detective in that van as they stake out the supposed scientists sending people to their Departed loved ones.
And really, the way they all talk about suicide and/or the act of leaving everything behind is exactly this nonchalant. Kevin just about shrugs when Laurie asks him if he’s scared to get drowned (again). Laurie, even after that (rather on the nose) phone call from Jill as she prepared to dive, still straps on her mask and drops over the side of the boat with only a second’s hesitation.
So, yes: having not seen anything beyond this point, and knowing what I do about her, I can believe that Laurie went there to die. But I won’t be at all surprised if she comes back, because after all, this is still The Leftovers.
As for Nora… whew. Laurie probably puts it best when Kevin asks if she’s gone: and Laurie responds that they’re “all gone.” But gone to where, I honestly couldn’t tell you. What do you think?
Todd: What do I think? I think that Lindelof and Perrotta are softies at heart, and we're eventually going to see Kevin and Nora find their way back to each other. Could I tell you what plane of existence that will happen on? Of course not.
I also initially found myself thinking that Laurie had gone scuba diving to end her life (as you suggest), but when her kids called, at least 25 percent of me doubted that reading.
That's why I love the final shot — the waves rocking the boat she's just plunged into the water from. You can read it however you want. The show isn't going to explain it to you. It's also why I love the double meaning of the title "Certified." She's either a certified scuba instructor, or… some other version of certified.
Really, we could talk all day about the direction of this episode (by Carl Franklin) or the script (by Patrick Somerville and Carly Wray). How about the use of cigarette smoking to tie Laurie's time in the Guilty Remnant in with her time in Australia? Or the suggestion of cigarette smoking as slow-motion suicide?
But where I ultimately want to land is on Amy Brenneman herself, who has always been a little overlooked in this show's pantheon of great performances. But I'll go full-stop here: If I gave out Emmys, she'd win my supporting actress award. She's phenomenal in this episode. It's next-level stuff.
Caroline: You'll get no arguments from me on that front. She's astonishing in this episode, which certainly doesn't lack for great performances (shoutout to Kevin Carroll and Carrie Coon, as per always). Even when Laurie's saying nothing at all, Brenneman makes sure you can see her thinking — and she's always thinking.
But honestly, I'm pretty sure we could argue her brilliance on a single, smirking line reading alone: "I borrowed your pills."
That whole "Last Supper" scene, in fact, is top to bottom great, even if the whole "which apostle are you?" quiz is a little obvious (but then again, so is much of Scripture). Kevin Garvey Sr. and Laurie are as fascinating an odd couple as Laurie and Matt were, even before the revelation that Laurie's the one who committed Kevin to a hospital ward. Watching them dance around and attempt to bulldoze each other's beliefs was a treat — and then there's that amazing shot of Kevin Sr. faceplanting into his food. What more can you ask of TV than that?
Todd: Nothing. There is nothing more than that.
Most of all, what I love is that this episode leaves every single character in a place of tension that I can't imagine will be resolved until the finale. That’s a whole lot of weight to place on the third-from-last episode, and “Certified” is ably up to the challenge.
Matt and Nora are standing on that precipice, looking down at the machine that might take her to another world. Laurie is slipping into the sea. And Kevin appears ready to head into the afterlife again — or maybe the weird hallucinatory state he enters when his brain is deprived of oxygen.
These are big, significant things that need to be dealt with, but if the show follows form, Kevin’s journey will take up much of next week’s episode, which means that everything about “Certified” has to hold us in tension for two full weeks. That it’s able to do so is a tribute to its power.
So no matter what these final two episodes bring, good or bad, I am so thankful for this final season and the mere existence of "Certified." This is beautiful, riveting television, and it will surely be high atop my list of episodes of the year.
The Leftovers airs Sunday nights at 9 pm on HBO.