A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I kill my daughter’s hamster…
“No, I’m here to say goodbye.” –Laurie
Maybe the Guilty Remnant was right.
Maybe the world did end on October 14, 2011, and the people who are trying to go about their lives as if it didn’t are the irrational ones. Maybe humanity’s continued attempt to function normally in the wake of such a cosmic event is like a chicken continuing to run around after its head has been cut off, or like Gus Fring straightening his tie seconds before death: an instinctive response that has nothing to do with what’s really happening.
And maybe Laurie has known this all along.
“Certified” — the saddest and most beautiful episode of this final season so far — opens with Laurie still working as a therapist two years after the Sudden Departure. She can barely get through a session with the grieving mother from the series’ opening scene, then swallows every pill she has in the house in an attempt to make the pain and the confusion and the emptiness inside her go away. But she can’t do it, and after vomiting up the fatal dose, she gets decked out in white and throws in her lot with the Remnant. We know that Laurie will eventually leave the group after Jill nearly dies due to one of Patti’s stunts, and will devote herself for a time to trying to help others get out of the GR and back to their own lives. But when “Certified” ends with her appearing to follow Nora’s advice about a way to commit suicide without pain, and without leaving your loved ones with the burden of knowing you killed yourself, it’s hard not to think that Laurie — like the woman she tried and failed to counsel back in “Off Ramp” — never really left the Remnant. Or, at least, that she never really came to disagree with the fundamental belief at the heart of the group.
In what Laurie and Kevin both come to realize is their final conversation, he asks her if Nora is gone — whether through the LADR machine, a flight home to America, or something else. Laurie thinks for a moment about how to answer her ex-husband’s question, then lays out the idea that she has long believed, even if she never wanted to say it out loud:
“We’re all gone.”
One of the best things about The Leftovers is the way that the Sudden Departure serves to magnify basic concerns of our own reality. Two percent of this world’s population didn’t all go “poof” at the same time, but we all go through every day with the awareness — even if we bury it deep down below happier or more frivolous thoughts about our families, our favorite TV shows, or just the grocery list — that the lives we’ve been given are temporary, and can be snatched away without warning. You can take that understanding and use it in an attempt to make every moment you have on this planet special. You can turn to religion and thoughts about the world to come. You can just ignore it and do what you can, while you can. Or you can let it all paralyze you, until thoughts of life’s apparent meaninglessness, coupled with whatever bad things are happening in the here and now, can lead you to hurt yourself in an attempt to escape it all.
And that’s just in our reality. In the broken Leftovers world, it’s easy to see how coping would be even harder, how the temptation to end things on your own terms would be greater, how even someone like Laurie — who had fallen apart, put herself back together, and built a pretty good life with John and Michael — could decide not to wait for Kevin Sr’s promised apocalypse, and drown herself before Kevin could try to drown himself.
Does she go ahead and do it, or does she just go for a swim? And when, exactly, did she even start thinking about it?
It’s an enigma, but then, so is Laurie Murphy. The thing you have to remember is that when we first met her, she didn’t speak. She was more committed to the GR’s tenets than either her mentor Patti or her protege Meg, and kept to her vow of silence until her daughter’s life was in danger.
Since then, she’s been among the most verbally assertive people on the show, but only in a way that’s directed outward. She will talk forever and a day about what’s ailing the people around her, but what’s actually going on behind those big, expressive eyes, or under that mop of hair she’s never been willing or able to untangle since the day she attempted to kill herself, gave up, and joined the GR? Push her too hard to examine her own inner turmoil, and she will either try to change the subject, or completely lose her mind for a moment:
“Certified” is an enigmatic episode to match its heroine — even the title could be read as either referring specifically to Laurie’s dive certification, or to the colloquial term for someone who’s mentally ill. It opens with a flashback to that aborted suicide, then leaps ahead five years, and even within that story toggles back and forth between Laurie’s day at Grace’s ranch and her adventures the night before with Nora and Matt, where the three of them get to play at being hard-boiled private eyes trying to solve a mystery for Nora. Over the course of the hour, that scrambled structure gradually and often movingly answers many of its own mysteries: How did Laurie get the black eye? Nora gave it to her during a tussle between Kevin Garvey’s two exes. Why does her van have a screwdriver in the ignition? Nora and the others stole it to track down Drs. Eden and Bekker. How did Laurie find Grace’s house? Michael called her, no longer willing to support another messianic suicide episode for Kevin. Why can’t Laurie tell John what happened to Nora? She took her on as a patient — for the fee of a pack of cigarettes — to preserve the secret that Nora decided to go through the LADR machine, if the scientists would give her a second chance. Why has she come to the ranch? Not to stop Kevin from taking another trip to the afterlife hotel, but to have one last conversation with him away from the pushy zealotry of Kevin Sr. and the others.
The episode even answers a question I’m not sure I ever expected resolution to: when Laurie stared at the ultrasound machine at the end of “The Garveys at Their Best,” she did indeed see the image of the fetus vanish at the moment of the Sudden Departure. The pregnancy ended by supernatural causes, not because Laurie decided she didn’t want to bring a child into a world that no longer made any sense to her. (Which means the Garveys actually were directly affected by the Departure, and didn’t just fall apart as stunned bystanders to it.)
But “Certified” elects not to answer, at least not for now, the questions of whether she goes through with Nora’s plan, and when the thoughts of suicide returned to her.
In “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” Laurie doesn’t come across as a woman looking to end her own life. She’s on a mission, albeit a different one than the other members of her traveling party. Matt, John, and Michael want Kevin to fulfill their prophecies for them on Departure Day, where she just wants to get her ex-husband the psychiatric help she believes he so desperately needs. The real world is full of tragic stories of people who seemed to have everything going for them and committing suicide nonetheless; is this what’s happening with Laurie? Is dying on her mind as she embarks on that mission? Does she intend to get Kevin into a hospital, and then figure out the best way for herself to go? Does the thought reoccur only after Nora — dark, devious Nora, snacking in their stolen van and speaking casually of the best way to kill yourself without too badly scarring your loved ones, as if she has researched this subject a lot in the years since her family disappeared — presents her with the scuba idea? Is it when she stands on that cliff with Nora, and realizes Nora has decided not to try to bust the scientists, but beg them to send her to where her family went — even if that place is oblivion? When she arrives at the Playford family ranch and sees how committed everyone is to this Wizard of Oz idea where Kevin’s latest suicide attempt will bring closure to Grace and John, and help Kevin Sr. save the world? Or is it only after she’s drugged the others with the dog’s pills, settled all family business with Kevin — from small secrets like the expensive spa trip to big ones like the pregnancy and its Departure — and looked him in the face for what each knows will be the last time?
And if she really does plan to appropriate Nora’s suicide plan for herself — to do the thing she couldn’t find the nerve to finish five years earlier, on the day she joined the GR — does she actually do it, or just go for a swim? Her unexpected phone call from Jill and Tommy seems to give her the perfect note to end her life on, but she also doesn’t tell the kids that she has followed their father to Australia, and is planning on taking a deep sea swim before Departure Day — which defeats the whole purpose of Nora’s theory that this would spare your loved ones any questions or guilt from the idea that you killed yourself.
We don’t know. We may never know. The Leftovers itself is almost all gone, and each episode now carries the same weight of impending doom that its characters feel as the seventh anniversary approaches. If not for the Old Lady Nora epilogue from the season premiere, it would be easy to look at Nora and Laurie’s final conversation as our farewell to Nora Durst. Matt could keel over at any moment. Jill and Tommy’s giggling voices on the phone could be our last exposure to them. Etc. This fictional world that Tom Perrotta, Damon Lindelof, and company have built is coming to an end, one way or another, and in two weeks all of these people will be gone from us.
But if this was Laurie’s way of saying goodbye to the world, and the show’s way of saying goodbye to her… what a way to go.
The puzzle box structure of the episode is so powerful because it’s not really about any of those individual mysteries. As it is, “Certified” glosses over a bunch of plot developments — Laurie and Matt finding Nora in the ruined hotel room, John and Michael linking up with Kevin Sr., Kevin Jr. being told about his father’s grand plans to kill him (temporarily) in order to save the world — in a few lines of dialogue(*). But it gradually draws out the idea that Laurie, Nora, Matt, and Kevin have all, to varying degrees, made peace with impending death, or death-like events, so that when we get a scene like Nora and Laurie on the cliff, or Laurie trying to comfort Michael as they discuss Judas’ suicide (Laurie, at her most maternal: “Did he leave a note?”), or Kevin and Laurie finally unburdening themselves of all their marriage’s secrets, each one hits so much harder because it seems so unexpected at first, until you realize this is where the story has been taking them, and us, all along.
(*) This is a rare instance of the reduced episode order working to the series’ advantage. We could have seen all of these events as part of a separate hour, but none of them turn out to be necessary. We know how Nora ended up alone in that room, what Kevin Sr. wants Kevin Jr. to do, etc. This way, we get right to the emotional heart of it without having to sit through the characters reexplaining things to one another.
It’s also, at times, a startlingly fun episode about suicide. I would absolutely watch a detective show about Kevin’s two exes teaming up to solve mysteries, with Nora’s goofy brother along for comic relief, and the script wisely never lets the tension between the two women have anything to do with Kevin. Nora resents Laurie for joining the Guilty Remnant — for running away from her life and grief when Nora herself had to stand in the middle of it all and find a way to keep functioning — and for the stunt the GR pulled with the mannequins of her family, while Laurie envies the way that Nora has been able to seemingly keep herself together despite suffering so tremendous a loss, and is annoyed with how effortlessly Nora can push her buttons. And the Last Supper scene at Grace’s house not only hangs a lamp on the Biblical aspirations of the Kevin resurrection story (down to Matt and John already having the names of Apostles), but has a wickedly funny punchline where Laurie, having drugged everyone else, looks at Grace’s dog and whispers conspiratorially, “I borrowed your pills.”(*)
(*) Amy Brenneman’s delivery of, “Yeah, well, I joined a cult, you know” earlier is nearly as good. She’s primarily been a dramatic actress throughout her career — and is spectacular throughout this episode as she’s simultaneously so expressive and so inscrutable — but there’s a reason she hasn’t seemed out of place this season on Veep.
Then those unexpectedly light moments take the inevitable Leftovers turn into the darkness, and good luck making it through some of that material without exhausting your local tissue supply. Nora’s story about the stadium usher taking away the beach ball, and the pain in her voice as she asks, “Why would he want to do that job? Why would anyone?” — Nora confronting the reality that she has devoted her post-Departure life to taking away the metaphorical beach balls of everyone who needed to believe in a little magic to cope with unimaginable global tragedy, and deciding to beg the scientists to try their magic on her — are both devastating. (If that actually had been the last we saw of Carrie Coon on this series, it would have been a hell of a swan song, particularly with Laurie being so warm and protective of her as she figures out a way to invoke doctor-patient confidentiality.) So, for that matter, is the anguished pride in Kevin’s voice as he talks about how much more alive he’s felt each time he’s journeyed to that other place, and his understanding that he is somehow always happier being dead than in a world filled with the people who care so much about him. And then, of course, there’s the look on Laurie’s face as she says goodbye to Kevin, and then when she listens to her children sound so happy and carefree from thousands of miles away. Tommy and Jill have been through their own spiritual crises, but they’ve made it out to the other side, and can laugh and insult each other without the existential burden that is weighing down their mother, and that could hold her underwater forever if she opts to go through with the plan.
It’s an episode that takes us full circle, revisiting the first person we met in this world, explaining how and why Laurie joined the Guilty Remnant, looking back on the Garvey marriage (and Laurie’s relationship with her former father-in-law), and then it takes us very close to the end, for everyone.
Does Laurie actually kill herself? And when exactly did she decide to do it? Ultimately, those questions don’t matter, not this close to the end of the series, and not considering the show’s dominant themes. When did Laurie know she was going to die? Hell, she’s always known.
“We’re all gone,” Laurie says. She believes it, and soon — whether on that dive, if the apocalypse comes later that day, or simply when the show ends in two weeks — she’ll be proven right.
Some other thoughts:
* For the second time in its run, The Leftovers uses an Apocalyptica cover of a Metallica song — “Wherever I May Roam” here, after using “Nothing Else Matters” when Jill finally donned the Guilty Remnant white in the season one finale — for Laurie’s initial suicide attempt. Other songs this week: “1-800-Suicide” by Gravediggaz over the opening credits, “La Traviata, Act III: Prelude,” performed by Ondrej Lenard & Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, and “Kneel at the Cross” by Jean Stafford (heard briefly on the radio at Grace’s house). As if to underline the decision Laurie appears to have made, there is no music at all over the closing credits, just the sound of the water slapping against the boat.
* Again, I wish we could have gotten a full John Murphy spotlight episode, but Kevin Carroll gets some incredibly tender and powerful moments to play here, from John’s very simple and heartfelt explanation of what he expects Kevin to tell Evie should he find her in the afterlife — “I want her to know that she was loved” — to his generous offer to Laurie to shred all this craziness and go home together. If Laurie really did go into the water with no intention of coming out, then she had a pretty rotten final interaction with her second husband — drugging him and his son so she could have alone time with Husband #1 — but I also don’t know that Laurie and John had any illusions that they were the great love of each other’s life.
* Given the gravity of Laurie and John’s argument in Grace’s house, I shouldn’t have laughed nearly as loudly as I did at the sight of Kevin Sr. whacking the Australian cop (aka “Officer Koala Fart”) over the head with a shovel way off in the background. Or maybe the juxtaposition, and the matter-of-fact way this act of violence occurred, should have made me laugh even louder.
* Despite being a half-Canadian Gen X’er, this episode was the first I’d even heard of Today’s Special, which was produced out of Ontario in the ’80s and aired in many parts of the U.S. Here’s the theme song that Laurie had to endure over and over on Jill’s behalf:
* Nora provides an explanation of the naked French nuclear missile launch from the opening of “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”: the sailor was trying to prevent the hatching of a sea monster he had read about in the Book of Revelation, prompting derision from Matt the preacher, who tries explaining that Revelation isn’t meant to be taken literally. (Nora: “So it’s only literal when it’s not ridiculous?”)
* Laurie’s surveillance on Eden and Bekker reveals that they’re a couple, which gives new context to Dr. Eden’s comment in “G’Day Melbourne” about how she hasn’t used the LADR machine because everything she needs is right here.
* I’m told this wasn’t an intentional homage, but Christopher Eccleston’s delivery of the line about how Eden and Bekker “Don’t look like physicists to me” sounded a lot like Fozzie Bear declaring that the Electric Mayhem “Don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” The Matt we see here is definitely a more relaxed and light-hearted figure, as a result of the breakthrough that “God” helped him achieve last week. There’s a playful dynamic between him and his sister that’s echoed later by Jill and Tommy Garvey busting each other’s chops on the phone with Laurie, and Matt’s insistence on remaining with his sister — echoing Nora’s bitter earlier line about how today, people should be with their families — a poignant underlining of his decision to focus on the world he knows rather than his oft-disproved beliefs about the world to come.
* Kevin’s explanation for why he never told Laurie he disliked their house echoes his comment to her in “The Garveys at Their Best” that he didn’t want the dog, but said nothing, “Because you wanted it.” Kevin spent most of his life doing things others wanted of him, and there’s a chance he could die the same way if Kevin Sr. and John are wrong about what will happen when they strap him to the Playford seesaw and drown him.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org