A review of tonight's “The Leftovers” coming up just as soon as you shoot me…
“Guest” offers us our second single-POV episode of the season, and if it's not as intense or disorienting a ride as the story of Matt's big night at the casino, it's still a valuable and fascinating portrait of what life would be like for someone who lost so much in the Departure.
Nora's been a background character until now, interacting briefly with her brother, with Kevin and with some fellow “legacies,” but this is the first extended time we've spent with her (just as episode 3 was the first – and to date only – significant spotlight on Matt). There have been hints that she's actually doing much better than the image the town has of her, but also signs that her grief is very real, and more bottomless than anything any members of the Garvey family are going through.
“Guest” reveals that it's both at once: that Nora has learned to function through ritual – including continuing to buy her husband and kids' favorite foods each week at the grocery store (then discarding them, unopened, after an interval at which they might have been eaten pre-Departure) – but still feels so empty and alone that she hires prostitutes to shoot her in the (Kevlar-protected) chest, just so she can have a few brief moments to experience what death might feel like, even if she has no idea if Doug and the kids went through anything similar when they vanished.
She'd like to disappear herself, yet when given the chance at the Departure conference – when another woman (who turns out to be an October 14th truther) steals her identity and leaves Nora wandering around as the eponymous Guest – she doesn't want to take it. She's outraged at the thought of someone else assuming her identity, and her pain, though she briefly finds excitement in the company of a group of cynical salespeople. The Nora Durst impostor is more lifelike, and troublesome, than the Loved One dolls that the handsome Marcus sells (which Tommy and Christine ran across in episode 4, and which were featured in a “Six Feet Under”-style fake commercial before “Guest” began), and she temporarily gets the real Nora kicked out of the conference. But just as Kevin eventually found the bagel in the back of the toaster, and as other people eventually saw the dog-killer, the impostor proves to be more than Nora's paranoid fantasy – even if the woman is loudly espousing paranoid visions of her own – and the aftermath puts Nora on the path to meet two different men who could potentially appreciate her pain.
One is the author of “What's Next?,” and you can see just how excited Nora is for a few moments to be in the company of someone who can relate to what she's been through. But when he turns out to be doing just fine without four members of his family (but still with at least one child), she storms out and meets an emissary (played by the great, and always unsettling, character actor Tom Noonan) of Holy Wayne.
And it's her encounter with Wayne that's the most fascinating of all the episode's glimpses into post-Departure culture. It's not that Wayne has been presented to this point as a fraud – clearly, his hug had an effect on the Congressman in the premiere episode – but that we've never actually seen him in action. Tommy declined a hug when the opportunity was offered, and most of what we know about Wayne is his love of underage girls. And when he first meets Nora, he's ready to wave goodbye and take advantage of her money while he still has time to do so. But he does see things in her that no one else can, and if the effects of his hug are the result of a placebo effect, it's an incredibly powerful one, based on all the sobs escaping Nora in the moment(*), and then how she's finally able to move on with her life after the fact. (She not only stops buying groceries for absent children, she even stops stalking the preschool teacher who was sleeping with Doug.)
(*) With the burden of the entire episode placed on her shoulders, Carrie Coon more than delivers.
“Guest” also offers a stronger sense of how the U.S. Department of Sudden Departures functions – or (mostly) doesn't – as we see that Nora knows almost as little about the questionnaires as we do. Her supervisor notes the odd streak of getting 100 percent affirmative responses to question 121 – which we learn in the final scene is “Do you believe the departed is in a better place?” – and the streak is finally broken after Holy Wayne helps her move on from her grief. If Wayne's powers are real, then is it possible that Nora's pain in some way projected out to the other legacies she interviewed? And that, with the pain gone, others now have the ability to give their own response to 121?
Like most of “The Leftovers,” these are questions I don't expect answers to. The show is about a mood, and that mood is at its most claustrophobic and potent in these single POV episodes. I don't know what role a happier Nora Durst has to play in the show going forward (especially since Matt largely receded into the background after episode 3), but I love the idea of the show periodically presenting these short stories from the post-Departure world.
What did everybody else think? And are you more likely to think of this episode in the future when you hear Crowded House's “Don't Dream It's Over” (from the hotel party scene) or Slayer's “Angel of Death” (from the hooker shooting scene)?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com