‘The Leftovers’ Makes A Joke Deadly Serious In ‘Don’t Be Ridiculous’

Senior Television Writer
04.23.17 35 Comments

HBO

A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I get a “Wu-Tang Band” tattoo…

“Four series regulars. Three go. One stays. Me. You know what the odds of that are?” -Mark Linn-Baker

“Don’t Be Ridiculous” opened by giving me the biggest, most prolonged and profoundly soul-warming laugh a TV joke has in years, by bringing back the season two main title sequence, but swapping out Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” for the Perfect Strangers theme, which ordinarily is supposed to accompany these images:

The title of the episode — Balki Bartokomous’ Perfect Strangers catchphrase — primed me for some kind of callback to my favorite weird Leftovers running gag, but I never expected… well, that. There is committing to a joke, and then there is what The Leftovers did at the start of this hour, and it took me a few minutes to compose myself before I could move on to the episode proper. (Had I a good friend or cousin nearby, I might have needed to do the Dance of Joy before continuing. It does not work solo. Trust me.)

But once I was able to accept that The Leftovers had turned into its own meme by presenting Balki and Cousin Larry’s song over the familiar photos of the Suddenly Departed cavorting with their loved ones, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” did that miraculous thing that The Leftovers somehow makes look routine: it turned this silly little joke about a goofy ’80s sitcom into the devastating emotional core of another incredibly powerful episode.

As Mark Linn-Baker — doing some heavy-duty dramatic work as “himself” after a brief comic relief cameo last season — puts it when he first calls Nora, “This is real.”

What started off as a pitch in The Leftovers writers room that made everyone laugh reveals itself here to be something much more complicated and tragic and beautiful, as the idea of Pinchot, Rebecca Arthur, and Melanie Wilson(*) all Departing, while Linn-Baker found himself still on Earth, turns into a numerical parallel to Nora’s own strange circumstance. They weren’t his actual kin, but sitcom casts throw around the phrase “we’re like a family” so much that it’s easy to imagine them starting to believe it, and these are the other three people with whom the world most associates him. Even if he wasn’t in the same room with them with his back turned while one cried about a mean thing he’d just said, the 1 in 128,000 odds of that would of course shake Mark Linn-Baker to his roots, and maybe even inspire him to do something absurd, like faking his own Departure so the world wouldn’t keep asking why he didn’t get to go with the rest of them.

(*) Melanie Wilson’s birthday? October 14th!

The idea that Nora Durst and Mark Linn-Baker could meet in a hotel in St. Louis and discover how much they’re alike would never have occurred to me before I started watching this episode, but by the end of that riveting scene — a reminder that the real Linn-Baker not only has two degrees from Yale (including an MFA), but has more than held his own on stage and screen acting opposite giants like Peter O’Toole(*) and Michael Caine, and can deliver a monologue that’s drowning in technobabble as something understandable and incredibly vital and raw — it made all the sense in the world.

(*) Linn-Baker and O’Toole’s collaboration in 1982’s My Favorite Year was, is, and will always be one of my favorite movies, and is more than worth the digital rental price. Trust me, and afterwards we can quote Alan Swann dialogue at each other.

Even Nora can see their connection, though as usual she seems determined to disprove any evidence of Departures or Departure-like activity outside of the event itself(*). This is who she is and what she does: On Departure Day, Nora Durst suffered as acute a loss as any human being could, and she will be goddamned if she allows one single person to claim the existence of a later loss or cosmic event that didn’t actually happen. “Don’t Be Ridiculous” proper opens with the very concrete and normal death of the Jarden Pillar Man, which we even get to see before Nora begins investigating the claims of his wife Sandy (one of Matt’s friends from the tent city outside town in season two) that her husband actually Departed in the middle of the night. It’s a different kind of choice for The Leftovers, which tends to offer the idea of something magical before offering up evidence to the contrary later on, but it does a good idea of putting us in the mindset of Nora, who (like Columbo) knows off the bat what really happened, and as she tries to prove it — to borrow a line from a song Balki Bartokomous and Cousin Larry Appleton know so well — nothing’s gonna stand in her way.

(*) It’s a bit surprising that she didn’t end up with John Murphy during the three-year gap, given their respective histories of stamping out magical fraud.

But over the course of “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” we see Nora’s commitment to her usual rational philosophy waxing and waning. She has no patience for Sandy, and quickly takes Linn-Baker for either a con man or a suicidal dupe in someone else’s scheme, but her lack of belief keeps wavering. The fact that Linn-Baker wants to meet in St. Louis — a reasonable drive from Eminence, Kentucky, where it turns out Lily is now living with her biological mother Christine — seems to throw her, as does the moment when she realizes her odds and Linn-Baker’s are the same, and again while she watches the testimonials of the various people who agreed to go into the device. She has suffered a senseless loss — and then a more human-scale but still incredibly painful one when she agreed not to fight for custody of Lily, thus sparing Christine from feeling the same absence Nora carries around with her every day — and resents not only fakers, but those who claim to have figured out a way to let go and move on. But there are times when evidence of a grander cosmic plan becomes harder to ignore, and this trip is full of them, including the way technology — the airport touch screen insisting that she is traveling with a baby, the rental car GPS that doesn’t seem to want to take her to see Lily, the ticket machine at the airport parking lot that won’t accept her prepaid receipt so she can go home to Kevin — keeps conspiring against her as she tries to move forward. (When Linn-Baker suggests the destruction of her phone isn’t a big deal because “Everything that matters is up there in the cloud, right?,” the phrase takes on a very different — and far more literal to Nora Durst and what happened to her on October 14 — connotation.)

Despite her many losses, Nora has always carried herself as the most self-assured and sane person on The Leftovers, even though we have ample evidence — inviting sex workers to shoot at her while she wears a bullet-proof vest, for instance — that she’s just as damaged as everyone else, if not more. The doctor who removes her cast confronts her with talk that she injured herself, which she later admits to Erika Murphy that she did out of shame for having covered up the tattoo of her children’s names with a Wu-Tang logo(*). Whatever peace she gains from the visit to her old neighbor is washed away after Tommy confronts her about seeing Lily — and, through the story of his own adoption (and awful relationship with his birth father), leads Nora to again second-guess her decision to give her up — and suddenly she’s not Nora Durst, or “Nora Cursed” (as she describes herself to Erika), but Nora the Worst, committed once again to eradicating anyone else’s sense of peace because she can’t find any herself. Printing out a giant photo of the Pillar Man’s corpse certainly does the trick of stamping out any and all talk of his alleged Departure, but it’s done in a way designed to make everyone who cared about him feel as miserable down deep as she does.

(*) This leads to a music cue so wonderful, it nearly upstages the Perfect Strangers theme as the episode’s best, as Erika and Nora bounce around on Erika’s trampoline in slow motion to Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” flying through the air in a way that, at least temporarily, removes Nora’s pain and replaces it with a broad smile.

It’s a testament to the writers and to the incredible Carrie Coon that we all love Nora as much as we do, because she can be unspeakably cruel, even considering the awful hand she’s been dealt by the universe. Sandy’s not the warmest character this show has, but faking her husband’s Departure was a victimless crime meant to make her and the people around her feel better about their circumstance, and Nora disrupts it in the bluntest, most public, most unsettling manner possible. And when Kevin — mere moments after she has walked in on him doing his daily plastic bag ritual, and looking even sicker and more desperate than when he told her about Patti’s voice in his head — proposes the idea of having a baby together, her cackling fit in response is both wholly understandable and the worst thing she can do to him. It’s a ridiculous suggestion, obviously, but he’s also deeply in pain and she just laughs and laughs at him, and at the idea. It’s her puncturing his illusions with as much force as she does for Sandy and friends, and this is the man she loves (or claims to, anyway) and has built a (shaky) life with!

When the call comes from the scientists inviting Nora to Australia to participate in their experiment (in exchange for $20,000 in cash), she quickly agrees, but is she going to try to bust them, or to really try to get to where Doug and the kids went? It is, like a lot of things about The Leftovers, ambiguous. We saw Nora’s faith in science and reason be shaken by Mark Linn-Baker and the video testimonials, and at one point Linn-Baker suggested only her relationship with Kevin might prevent her from joining him in the void. But when she walks in on him with a plastic bag taped over his head, and gets indisputable evidence that both he and their relationship are no healthier than they were three years ago when they still had Lily in their lives, might she recognize that the only thing keeping her tethered to this planet isn’t something she can, or should, hang onto?

Linn-Baker insists that he doesn’t want to commit suicide, but that, “I want to take some fuckin’ control!” This has been Nora’s struggle at least since her family Departed, if not going back to the day she and Matt watched their childhood home burn down with their parents trapped inside. (That tragedy sent the Jamison siblings in very different directions: Matt to become a man fervently committed to belief in a higher power and a cosmic plan for the universe and our suffering, even as that universe keeps punching him in the face for it; Nora to become a cold, hard, non-believer in anything but what she can confirm through science or her own two eyes.) She keeps trying to take control here, but often in inappropriate situations or ways: snatching the shovel out of the hands of the little boy who first took it from Lily (and scolding him in a very non-maternal tone), going Nora Smash on the airport parking gate when it won’t open for her, or printing out the giant corpse photo to prove her point to the world. But that quest for control hasn’t made her happy, hasn’t put her at peace, hasn’t healed the wound beneath the cast, beneath the Wu-Tang tattoo, beneath the one with Erin and Jeremy’s names on it. Nora going to Australia to run a DSD sting against the Swiss scientists would be a very Nora Durst thing to do, but it feels like as much of a futile pattern as the Millerist woman who kept climbing the ladder in the premiere’s opening sequence. Letting those scientists actually blast her with “Low Amplitude Danziger Radiation” — or LADR, which looks a lot like (Jacob’s?) “ladder” — seems insane and/or suicidal, but it would also suggest a Nora Durst who is open to greater possibilities than what she can see or hear or touch, and even if it takes her nowhere at all, maybe that’s where she, like Cousin Larry, wants to be.

What an episode. If you want to dig deep for an objection to the sublime Leftovers season two, it’s that there wasn’t a ton of Nora relative to what Coon had shown she could do in the first; there’s that remarkable spotlight in “Lens” (albeit one she shares with Erika), but she’s deep in the background, if not absent altogether, from many other episodes. This is more in the mode of “Guest” — Nora enduring the indignities of travel and the rituals of a world where no one else quite understands all that she’s been through and why she can never really move past it — with superb work from Coon, from Mark Linn-Baker, and from director Keith Gordon, who on several occasions frames a moment so that Nora will eventually appear to be walking right at us — as if, rather than wait for the scientists to call her back, she has figured out a way to exit her world and, through sheer force of will, march straight into ours.

And all of this came from a challenge Damon Lindelof threw down to his season one writers to think about what pop culture would look like in a post-Departure world. Jacqueline Hoyt, who was on staff for the series’ first two years, became fixated on the idea of an old TV show becoming relevant again once their whole cast Departed, and after a conversation with her husband — who used to watch Balki and Cousin Larry’s adventures in college as comfort food — settled on Perfect Strangers.

“The next day,” she tells me, “I anxiously waited for a lull in the room, then took my shot. The pitch hung in the air for a moment until… A smile washed across Damon’s face. I guess he liked it.”

Somehow, we’ve made it from that smile in the writers room — and from Hoyt and Lindelof independently thinking of the idea of a castmember “planking,” or faking their Departure to escape their old life — to this riveting hour that started with the joke, then made it acutely, painfully real.

Some other thoughts:

* I interviewed Mark Linn-Baker about his appearances on the show and the oddity of having Perfect Strangers return to the public consciousness in this manner.

* Like the premiere, this episode concludes with another weird Australian epilogue, this one quite a bit longer than our glimpse of Old Lady Nora (or “Sarah”), involving an Australian police chief coincidentally also named Kevin (played by the perfectly-named-for-this-mistaken-identity-circumstance Damien Garvey) who runs afoul of four older women (led by Grace, played by Rome alum Lindsay Duncan) who quote passages from Matt’s The Book of Kevin at him before drowning him as if he were Kevin Garvey — whose father Kevin Senior appears in the hour’s closing moment to ask the women what they’re doing. I’ve seen episodes past this that explain what the hell is happening, so all I can say is that my initial reaction when I watched was to draw a link between Grace’s crew and Old Lady Nora, and wonder if perhaps some kind of time travel was in play for the final season, with these women returning from a future where all they know about the present is what they read in Matt’s book. Would Damon Lindelof build another late stretch of a show around time travel? Only one way to find out, and it involves traveling through time the slow way to next week’s episode, and the one after that, etc.

* The episode’s script is credited to “Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious,” which is what Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof got after they fed their names into a Wu-Tang name generator, which seemed appropriate for the story in question. For what it’s worth — and also very fitting for this series — when I tried, the result was “Irate Assassin.” (True story.)

* Besides “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” — which we also heard in a lovely piano version (by Leftovers composer Max Richter) as Nora drives to Kentucky — and “Protect Ya Neck,” other songs this week included “Appleseed John” and “Songs of the Pious Itinerant” by The New Christy Minstrels, “Meet Me in St. Louis” by Judy Garland, and “I Never Heard A Man” by The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

* Following last week’s return of Michael Gaston as Dean, this one gave us a couple of additional faces from seasons past: Joel Murray as George Brevity, who’s apparently Nora’s supervisor now that she’s back in the DSD; and Annie Q as Christine, now caring for both Lily (or whatever she’s called now), plus a baby she had with someone other than Holy Wayne.

* Even before the Wu-Tang came on, it was great to see Regina King do her thing again in this role (while Max Richter’s piano theme cued all of us to feel things deeply), but Erika’s return was bittersweet: on the one hand, the story seems to have largely moved on from her (and King is busy with American Crime and 60 other things), but on the other, it’s moved on from her in part because Erika is doing okay for herself, and The Leftovers has no room for healthy souls. She’s better off with us not watching.

* Though Family Matters was a Perfect Strangers spin-off, Linn-Baker once guest-starred on it as a character who was not Cousin Larry. Since this episode brought back Grace Under Fire alum Brett Butler as Sandy, it’s a shame there couldn’t also be room for Family Matters vet Darius McCrary to share a scene with Linn-Baker, even if he wasn’t still playing Isaac.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com

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