A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I tell you that Finland won the World Cup…
“Kevin, are you and Nora okay?” -Laurie
There are songs from my childhood that echo through my adult mind simply because they’re great songs and my brain has no reason to dislodge them. And there are songs that stick around because of something else: a memory of hearing it during a special moment, or a joke my best friend and I used to make about it, or, in some cases, because of the video, which was a big deal if you were watching a lot of TV in the 1980s.
Case in point: “Take On Me” by a-ha.
It’s a catchy song, to be sure, but why does it endure for me and so many other Gen X’ers more than, say, “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo? It’s because of that video, which looks primitive and cheap by modern standards, but was mind-blowing for 1984, both for the rotoscoping effects used to turn people into comic book characters, and for the core idea of the girl in the cafe being sucked into the story she was reading, and its hero then following her back out into the real world through sheer force of will.
“Take On Me” plays three times throughout “G’Day Melbourne”: first by Dr. Eden on the piano as Nora arrives for her intake interview with the LADR scientists, then by the French horn group Genghis Barbie as Nora climbs into the box while Kevin explores the library, and then the a-ha version over the concluding images (more on that in a bit) of Nora alone in the hotel room after her epic fight with Kevin (more on that, too).
Nothing The Leftovers does even once is an accident, let alone three times in the same episode, and it’s hard to hear the song and not think of how its famous video is reflected by both of this hour’s POV characters: Nora, who finally realizes how desperate she is to cross over into whatever place Doug and the kids went to, and Kevin, who has twice woken up in a different reality and done bizarre, intense things to make his way back to Nora, safe and seemingly sound.
The two have allegedly been a couple for about four years at the time of this episode, but they’ve really just been one another’s port in a never-ending storm of despair, tragedy, and madness. They’re traveling together to Australia, but not really together. She’s on a mission; he’s tagging along because he is terribly lonely and afraid of what he might do without her. She has $20,000 in cash taped to her midsection, and didn’t even think to tell her boyfriend the cop about it. But then, that’s the way it’s always been for these two: their relationship is built on silence, repression, and cheerful smiles. They might be candid every now and then, but for the most part they function as a unit by not telling each other about the many troubling thoughts rattling around their heads, and they make big executive decisions (buying the house next to the Murphys, swallowing Virgil’s poison) entirely solo. They reveal so little to each other that, when Nora reads The Book of Kevin passage about the events of “International Assassin,” she assumes Matt must have made the whole thing up out of whole cloth. If they were to actually attempt to communicate, it would turn out like… well, exactly like that savage argument they have in the hotel room, where Kevin hurls one unspeakably cruel thought at her after another: that she gave Lily back to Christine because having another child meant no one would feel sorry for her anymore, and that he and she would be better off if she somehow went to wherever Doug, Jeremy, and Erin wound up.
It’s monstrous when Kevin says it, but it’s also a realization Nora has come to on her own over the course of “G’Day Melbourne.” She may tell Kevin that she’s come here to bust the LADR scientists as murderous scam artists, and may even believe that on some level, but her desperation to see them and their device isn’t that of an investigator chasing a hot lead, but that of someone who, like Mark Linn-Baker, is ready to take some fuckin’ control of her life in this horrible, random world. And when that opportunity to pass through is taken away from her when she gives the wrong answer to the baby question(*), all pretense of a rogue DSD investigation is replaced by genuine panic and despair at the thought that she might not be able to follow Linn-Baker and the others to wherever her family went — even if it is, as Dr. Bekker suggests, one of the many places in the universe unsuited to sustaining human life, the option seems better to her than staying behind here on Earth, with this perpetual lack of closure, given constant reminders of all that she’s endured, and lost. (Once again, someone places a baby in her custody, albeit in a more temporary arrangement while she goes for her job interview, setting up Carrie Coon’s hilarious delivery of the line about discriminating against mothers.) Later, when she’s back in the hotel, again using her aluminum foil trick to fool the smoke detector so she can attempt to calm herself with a cigarette, she tries getting George Brevity to come in and bust these people, but the hysterical tone of her voice belies her words. She just needs to find them, and either convince them to take her, or punish them badly for their refusal.
(*) Note that the suicidal man Kevin Sr. met in the Outback last week claimed to have been rejected for giving the opposite answer from the one Nora did: he said he wouldn’t kill the baby, while Nora said she would. Does this make the whole thing some bizarre psychological experiment? Or is the answer itself less important than the way that it’s answered? After seeming to take the question very seriously — asking whether the babies would be hers, and whether the dead one would suffer — Nora’s delivery of her answer seems to treat it as something of a joke. Like the DSD survey we’ve seen her administer several times in the past (including to Sandy in “Don’t Be Ridiculous”), the question seems to have no bearing on the matter at hand, yet has some deeper meaning to which the interviewee isn’t privy.
Nora in that hotel room is in no shape to be around anyone she professes to care about, and especially not Kevin Garvey after he’s had another one of his periodic spins at the “Divinity or Madness?” wheel. No good tends to come from Kevin being in a hotel, but rather than a glimpse of his father after a good dose of God’s Tongue, this time the hotel TV reveals what appears to be Evie Murphy in the background of a local morning news show. Though Kevin remains publicly in denial about his adventures in the afterlife, he remembers all of it vividly, and immediately assumes Patti has sent Evie back from the dead to resume haunting him. But where the show maintained ambiguity about whether Patti’s ghost was ever really next to Kevin, and whether the afterlife hotel is a metaphysical place or just a mental defense mechanism, here we seem to get clear proof that Laurie’s psychotic break diagnosis is on the mark. This is not Evie Murphy at all, but Daniah Moabizzi, a completely unrelated woman whose only resemblance to Evie is that they (like John) wear similar glasses.
Why is he seeing Evie, of all people? Laurie suggests that he understands Evie’s decision to abandon her family, because he’s always wanted to do that with his own. This is not a theory that comes from nowhere. Kevin literally crashed into Laurie and her young son and somehow came out of the accident with an instant family, becoming more curdled and unhappy until his only respite was literally running away from the house and around town, and then cheating on his equally unhappy wife. Then he found himself in another makeshift configuration with Nora, Jill, and Lily, and kept looking, consciously or unconsciously, for ways to escape, whether turning himself in to the cops for his role in Patti’s death, jumping into the Jarden river, or taking Virgil’s cure.
The “Homeward Bound” performance seemed to be reminding him of just how much he loves and needs Nora and the others, but then, he also seemed pretty happy and at peace at the end of the first season. One of the themes of The Leftovers is that grief, depression, anger, and other difficult emotions don’t travel a linear path. You don’t grieve until one day you stop forever; you get past it, but it still comes back and hits you when you least expect it, sometimes years or decades later. Kevin keeps telling himself that he wants to be with this woman — needs to be with her — and maybe on some level he really does. But like Nora being handed other people’s babies, Kevin keeps seeing ghosts whose presence seems designed to divide him from Nora, from his kids, his friends, and everything about the life he’s lived that always felt like someone else’s. (He even carries his father’s name, and does his father’s job.)
So when they verbally throw down in the hotel room — about The Book of Kevin, about Kevin calling Laurie for help rather than Nora, about Lily and Evie and Erin and Jeremy, and all the other missing children whose absences still painfully linger — it is with a viciousness that we’ve never seen between them before, though we’ve seen similar levels of anger directed outward at others. Kevin lights Matt’s book on fire, reminds Nora that they never talk about anything, suggests that she might just give away any new baby they had, and complains that she’s somehow still not over her grief. And when she retorts that her children aren’t dead, just gone, he crosses over into an emotional reality from which there’s no return, using these seven words to mark his passage:
“Then you should go be with them.”
There seems to be no coming back from that, no way to hit the reset button and return to the repressed but seemingly happy status quo, and to be sure that he’s completely made his escape, he doesn’t even look back at her, even though Nora’s stricken expression is that of a woman realizing, maybe for the first time, how much she really cared for this man who just destroyed her with a sentence. Once upon a time, Kevin thought he cared that much, too, enough to sing a song to escape the afterlife and make his way back to her, just like the singer in the “Take On Me” video smashes himself against the walls of reality until he gets to be inside them with the woman he loves. Now? Now Kevin doesn’t need music, or magic, or poison or hallucinogens or a well-placed gunshot to cross over and back. Now he just has to say those seven words, get his bag, and walk out of the hotel, where he finds his father and Grace. As Grace’s truck drives away, Kevin’s face shows some regret, but not enough to get out and go back and try to undo what he just did, if it were even possible to do so.
An overjoyed Kevin Sr. no doubt sees Kevin’s exit from the hotel just as he and Grace are pulling up as yet another sign that his mission to stop a great flood is both real and righteous. But a smaller flood has already arrived by the end of “G’Day Melbourne,” and we see it up in the hotel room as the original “Take On Me” plays and Nora hangs her head in thought of all she has lost today, the water from the fire sprinklers pouring off her eyelids like a gusher of the tears she somehow still can’t shed for her kids, her husband, or Kevin Garvey Jr.
It’s a jaw-dropping shot by director Daniel Sackheim — one of the most memorable images of a series that hasn’t lacked for them — and the only appropriate conclusion for such an emotionally brutal, seemingly final argument, featuring some of the rawest work both Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux have done in these roles. Nobody likes it when Mommy and Daddy fight, but nobody expects them to fight this dirty, no matter how much pain they’re each in.
Earlier, while on the plane to Melbourne, Nora suggests that if the LADR people ask why she brought her boyfriend on a one-way trip, she would explain that they’re in “a toxic, co-dependent relationship.” Kevin scowls slightly at this, perhaps recognizing the truth of the statement that Nora doesn’t want to admit. By the end of the hour, she has no choice but to face it, head bowed, soaked to the bone, without anyone in the world to love or be loved by. No handsome comic book man is going to cross dimensions to save her. Kevin Garvey (who looks more than a little like a comic book hero) already did that once, and it didn’t stick. He’s gone — not in a day or two, like the song promises, but right away — leaving Nora Cursed once again abandoned by the universe.
When I watched “Take On Me” back in the ’80s, I had many questions about what happened to the comic book hero once he relocated to our world. Did he get a job? Have a really complicated citizenship application? Did he and the girl live happily ever after, or did she grow tired of a guy with a limited frame of reference from the comics page? Did their relationship crumble into passive-aggressive bitterness because he came here for her, even though she never asked him to? Crossing dimensions for the sake of love sounds like a swell idea, but then you have to live with that person for a very long time, and Happily Ever After can easily become Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? Now that the song is forever linked in my mind to this show, I have no choice but to believe that the girl moved on, and the boy found himself increasingly miserable, trapped in a world he never made.
He and Kevin would have a lot to talk about.
Some other thoughts:
* This week’s theme song is, appropriately, “This Love Is Over” by Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs. Other songs: “Celestial Blues (The Avener Remix)” by Andy Bey, “Caro Nome” from Act 1 of Rigoletto by Alida Ferrarini, “Deutsche Messe, D. 872 – Sanctus” by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, “It Serves You Right to Suffer (The Avener Remix)” by John Lee Hooker, “Take on Me” by Genghis Barbie (described on their own website as “the leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience”), “Old Devil Memory” by Tommy Raye Tucker, “Take On Me” by a-ha, and “Dite Alla Giovine… Non Amarlo Ditegli” by Dame Joan Sutherland and Matteo Manuguerra and Richard Boynge and The National Philharmonic Orchestra.
* Dutch actress Katja Herbers, who plays Dr. Eden, has been making the Prestige TV rounds the last few years, as a regular on WGN’s underrated Manhattan and as Nina’s cellmate a few seasons ago on The Americans. Always glad to see her, because she can do a lot with a little, like Eden’s reaction to Nora’s baby answer.
* Laurie mainly appears in the episode to help Kevin come to terms with the true identity of “Evie,” but we do get a slightly longer glimpse of the fake psychic operation she and John are running, and find out that, while they will pretend to communicate with the deceased for the sake of their clients’ peace of mind, they won’t do the same regarding anyone who Departed.
* That’s the State Library of Victoria where Kevin confronts “Evie.” The way Daniel Sackheim shoots the main seating area from above makes it look like a space station. Or, given the shape of the desk at the middle, a bit like the Dharma Initiative map?
* When Kevin tries to get a cab from the hotel, a bellman tells him there are none available because of “the explosion.” Don’t worry: you didn’t miss anything, and this will be explained in an upcoming episode.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com