It makes sense that, in an episode focused almost completely on one character’s connection with grief, HBO’s The Leftovers has finally delivered an installment that didn’t make suicide feel like a satisfying episode chaser. “Guest” was an episode-long trip into the life of “legacy” Nora Durst, sister of Reverend Matt, who also got his own episode a few weeks back. Actress Carrie Coon’s performances are a definite series highlight, and her chapter was well-deserved and, thankfully, well-received by yours truly. Make no mistake, the overwrought emotional clutch is still present, but it actually gives way to hope here, instead of suffocating viewers into an unfit Sunday night slumber.
A Day in the Life of Nora Durst
Morning: Wake up. Maybe a cup of coffee and long, hard looks in the mirror.
Afternoon: Grocery shopping for the exact same food items that were in the house on the day when her family became Departed. Stare longingly at the melancholy paper towel roll.
Evening: Hire an escort to shoot a gun into Kevlar vest-wearing self while loud music plays. Deduce more ways to deliberately waste money in the name of acceptance.
The Real Nora
Before heading off to the second annual Departure-Related Occupations and Practices conference, Nora takes posthumous vengeance on her philandering husband by formally divorcing him, capping it off by verbally insulting the (admittedly shitty) daughter of Kevin, her potential suitor. (“Oh, fuck your daughter,” is a staple of all romantic comedies, no?) It isn’t made obvious that Nora would ever make decisions where happiness is a goal, but she puts forth several attempts in this episode, albeit partly through illicit substances and unprovoked abuse. She heads to this conference expecting to do her job and deliver a panel about…whatever.
Her work involves grating survivors with lengthy questionnaires about their Departed loved ones, to see if they’re worthy of the government’s financial settlement. There’s a small stink about her not being upfront about a specific question surrounding the applicants believing their Departed family members are in a better place. A “yes” has been marked for everyone she asks, and it’s possible she just hasn’t wanted to deal with those who want to humanize their situations with explanations. Nora has embraced the recognition that comes along with being one in 128,000 to lose an entire family, and she also likes to fill her life with misery that she feels is warranted, but to allow someone else to express their own grim feelings would be too much for Nora.
So she is especially rankled to find that someone else has taken her conference badge, not helped by the amazingly lax badge-hander-outer, who doesn’t appear to give two shits about laminated identity theft. Without the badge colorfully promoting her legacy-ship, she is allowed to wander the event as a stranger, which immediately attracts the attention of Marcus, an ego-oozing plug of a human being who invites her to a drug-and-booze-filled suite retreat. She starts to feel alive again, and instead of making out with the schmooze-talking weirdo, she straddles and grinds her body against his lifelike Loved Ones “doll,” the ones that are sold to grieving survivors who want someone to bury. The guy sells them, and has his lookalike sample on hand, but even if that weren't a total turn-off, he;ss married, and that definitely isn’t going to put Nora in the mood.
Nora is awakened by hotel security, who are there to escort her from the building for smashing a bar mirror. Only it wasn’t her – and it isn’t really clear why they couldn’t immediately disprove that she was the one that did it by actually having someone identify her – so she takes hotel security to her convention panel, where her rebellious badge-stealer is revealed to be a zealot intent on spreading her anti-propaganda words of wisdom. It was kind of a shock, and one that didn’t feel particularly forced or too heavily built-up, made all the more pointed by the initial red herring: a woman whom Nora called a heartless bitch for mentioning a possible correlation between high sugar intake and those who were Departed. It’s a sign of how impulsive and condescending Nora was in the past. And now?
The New Nora
It’s no surprise at all when Nora resorts to the exact same behavior in her encounter with Patrick Johanson (Curtiss Cook), the author of the survivor self-help book What’s Next. She calls him out for being a fraud after he drops the same kind of practiced routine that Marcus the Loved One tried on her earlier in the episode. She might be right, but it’s not because Johanson doesn’t care about those he’s lost. It’s because he’s been helped along by the one, the only, Holy Wayne!
A bald and comically frightening Tom Noonan is haunting the conference, finding people who are tired of grieving and want their woes eradicated. All it takes is $1,000 and a hug from the holy one and all signs will point to happiness. I still don’t understand Holy Wayne and his Bible-spouting methods, though Nora’s new grocery list at the end of the episode shows us that his hug helped her. Whether this is a case of mind over matter or potentially supernatural healing powers, I’m not sure. In any case, I’m hoping to see a happier Nora in future episodes, when she and Kevin get their divorcee bone on. Maybe she’ll repair her relationship with Matt and then can eat bowl after bowl of cereal together.
If there’s a complaint to be had with this episode, it’s in the “somebody took Nora’s badge” storyline, where hotel cameras apparently aren’t working and no one offers Nora with a modicum of respect. Not that her harpy cries of “Someone is impersonating me!” sound all that meaningful, but still. Otherwise, “Guest” is another good example of storytelling being used to broaden this world of loss and redemption, rather than spectacle. I’ve said a foul thing or two in the past about the works of Damon Lindelof, but The Leftovers should definitely be on his business card above Lost from now on.
Even knowing that the central mysteries behind this series’ catalysts probably won’t be explained in full, I still love seeing all the details set up for this post-Departure world. Like the disciples from the Guilty Remnant at Nora’s New York City-set convention. You’d think this would have been a job for the Remnant’s big guns, but they’re probably dealing with Gladys’ death still. (By not caring about it or referring to it, presumably.) It’s also interesting to think about what Nora’s intentions are in carrying a gun around. Before, when we saw it in her purse, it seemed like it was just a form of security; but now that we know what she does with guns, it could mean something entirely different.
Also, what was up with that protester talking about the government having plasma rays that could evaporate people? Was that just useless chatter to balance the thoughts about the questionnaire, or are they teasing something here? Believe it or not, those are the questions I like thinking about after watching The Leftovers, because otherwise it’s just mulling over how her husband’s former lover feels about Nora not stalking her anymore. We’d need a new roll of paper towels to wipe up that mess.