'The Leftovers' Recap: Conventional Wisdom

Grab your guest badge and watch Nora emerge as the series' most compelling character

The Leftovers
Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.
A scene from episode 6 of 'The Leftovers.'
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Holy Wayne is the real deal. If you reverse-engineer the events of tonight's episode of The Leftovers — "Guest" — that's likely the point it was out to prove. He's not just the slimy Brit who accepts off-the-books payments from Congressmen and flees from gun-toting federal troops in between dalliances with his harem of young Asian-American women. Now he's the guy who, it seems, genuinely is capable of supernaturally removing emotional pain – an ability he demonstrates on a character we've gotten to know, a character who's lost more than anyone we've met, a character whose pain we've seen play out over the course of the season. Wayne may be the purpose of the episode, but Nora Durst is the focus. Played with alternately icy reserve and fluid fire by Carrie Coon, she's become the most successful embodiment of the series' themes.

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In this episode alone, we see a number of Nora's coping mechanisms at work. They're not pretty, to put it mildly: Week after week, she buys the exact same groceries she bought the week her family disappeared, throwing out unopened boxes of sugary cereals to replace them with new ones — but leaving a used-up roll of paper towels intact. Since her brother, the good Reverend Matt Jamison, told her about her departed husband's affair with their kids' nursery school teacher, she's begun stalking her as well. She hires the occasional prostitute to shoot her in her bulletproof-vest-clad chest at point-blank range. (It's the episode's corniest scene by a country mile, but as direct demonstrations of emotional distress go, it's certainly effective.) Recognizing her easy chemistry with Chief Kevin Garvey, she propositions him for a spur-of-the-moment getaway to Miami, blurting out "oh, fuck your daughter" when he declines due to family commitments. None of it gets her anywhere.

We also see her reject a number of possible paths to closure when she heads to Manhattan for a conference on Departure-related industries. This begins when a bro-tastic bereavement specialist — the one who works for the company that makes "Loved Ones" simulacra of departed family members for burials or cremations — comes on to her. She enjoys his hospitality suite and his attentions, admitting he's not the soulless creep he might seems, and still chooses to make out with his real-doll doppelganger rather than the genuine douchebag article. Watching Nora writhe atop the mannequin is the series' sexiest moment to date, and no wonder – here's a person deriving an erotic charge from the very concept of closure, making a public show of pleasure out of something intended to be a private totem of grief.

Next, she blows up the spot of the activist/conspiracy theorist who impersonates her at the convention, and appears to blow off her warnings about the Department of Sudden Departures. That's harder for the audience to do, of course; when she warns that the DSD's "questionnaires are sent to incinerators outside of Tallahassee, Florida," we know that the government's burning much worse things than that. But she's even harder on Patrick Johansen, the conference's star attraction and author of What Comes Next, a self-help book for "legacies" of the Departed. Calling him a fraud who's faking his grief, she drunkenly screams at him "What's next? What's fucking next? Nothing is next! Nothing!"

It's this nihilism that attracts Holy Wayne's acolyte to Nora. He knows she's right about Johansen, because the writer didn't work through his grief at all – he had it magically sucked out of him. And when Wayne meets Nora, the healer recognizes that she's not rejecting happiness out of hopelessness, but because she does have hope -- and she wants to get rid of it. "If [your pain] starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don't you?" he asks her, knowing the answer is yes. "Hope. It's your weakness. You want it gone because you don't deserve it." There's a certain strain of depression that internalizes and personifies misfortune, that sees it as the natural state of things, that sees happiness as fraudulent in the face of the shortcomings the depressed person knows better than anyone. This is as accurate an encapsulation of that kind of depression as a TV show is likely to deliver.

One hug later and we're back in Mapleton. The nursery-school mistress goes un-stalked. Nora buys groceries for herself, not her missing kids. She's not answering the phone when her brother Matt calls to apologize, but she's not deleting the answering-machine messages either. She even replaces those paper towels. And when Chief Garvey comes to ask her out on a date – dinner in Mapleton, not fleeing to Miami – she accepts with good cheer rather than impulsiveness. "You should know, though," he adds before leaving, "I'm a fuckin' mess." "Thanks for the heads up!" she replies cheerily, recognizing that shared damage is something they can build upon now that she's not actively stirring up the rubble.

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Does it all really take, though? That's less clear than the new paper towels and the continued chemistry with Kevin make it seem. The episode leaves us with Nora and a victim of the Departure, the first in Nora's entire career as a DSD agent to answer question #121 ("In your opinion, do you believe the Departed is in a better place?") with a "no." Does this woman sense that Nora can handle this harsh truth, while past interviewees felt she was too fragile? She said she never told them about her own story, but people pick up on things.

Or is there nothing to all this but a coincidence...the same kind of 1-in-128,000 odds that led to Nora losing her entire family while so many people lost no one at all? That's the question no one – not Nora, not Wayne, not The Leftovers itself – is able to answer.

Previously: Stoned, Immaculate

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