'The Leftovers' Recap: Hugging it Out

We lock in on Nora Durst's lingering grief and the show gives us the biggest emotional boost yet, just in time (thanks, Holy Wayne).

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I think a lot of people have given up on The Leftovers by now, and I get it. The last episode began with a woman being stoned to death. Entire scenes consist of dialogue written out on notepads. The entire show is about the nagging philosophical despair that comes with agnosticism, joined with the intense grief of losing someone close to you, and the last few episodes have been dreary, tough affairs. But last night's episode, "Guest," which focused solely on Nora (Carrie Coon), one of the show's most fascinating characters, was an arresting, devastating hour, more than enough to keep me in the fold until the end of the season.

What we knew until this week was that Nora lost her whole family in the Departure, that she's been carrying a gun in her bag, that her job was asking other "legacies" questions about their vanished relatives, and that she maybe had the hots for Kevin. This week we followed her to a big Departure conference in New York, and I feared that we were in for a worthy but dreary exploration of her grief. Which I guess we were, but the episode was well-plotted enough to keep things from getting too miserable.

Damon Lindelof (who scripted the episode with Kath Lingenfelter) began with a scene I found excessively corny, in the worst tradition of his previous show Lost (which would always try to hook the viewer in with similarly startling, gimmicky scenes). Nora hires an escort for a weird, specific purpose: to shoot her in the chest while she's wearing a bulletproof vest. The escort protests, but is eventually goaded into doing it, and Nora collapses onto an inflatable mattress. Is Nora just trying to feel something? Is she, as noted later in the episode, trying to draw profound pain back into her life, to prevent herself from letting go after her loss? The episode could have proposed these questions without this scene, which played out pretty tediously for me (we know she's not gonna get hurt), but I guess it was an arresting way to begin.

Once she arrives in New York, Nora is concerned with the apparent theft of her guest badge, but it frees her from being identified as someone who lost her husband and kids ("legacy" attendees get orange stickers), both a burden and a blessing in a place like this. Nora can now mix it up with the more callous conference attendees (who make creepy replicas of departed corpses for people to bury) without them having to walk on eggshells around her. But when she's accused of making trouble at the hotel bar, she can't put her shields up and have everyone defer to her in the same way.

The episode lets us decide whether it was the real Nora who threw a bottle at the hotel bar or the woman who stole her name-tag (some conspiracy theorist who gives a saber-rattling speech at the panel Nora was supposed to be on). From everything we gather about Nora, it's easy to believe she was the one making trouble, since we meet another attendee who she cursed out last year and watch her verbally assault another "legacy" attendee who wrote a book about his loss. She's not a toxic presence exactly, but she also can't reconcile herself to just letting go.  She approves a divorce from her departed husband, but is reminded that should he return, the divorce will remain final. Even when she attempts to legally put the departure in her past, she's reminded of its crippling ambiguity.

That's what makes the final scene of the episode so incredibly powerful. For weeks, we've been told about Holy Wayne's magical healing hugs, incredible enough to form a whole colony around him in California. At the end of the episode, Nora is hooked into getting one of these hugs (for the low cost of a thousand dollars!) in an abandoned apartment. It's great to see Wayne again (he's been hiding out for a while) especially since Patterson Joseph's performance is so transfixing. But what's really incredible, in both the writing and his performance, is that you totally understand why he has such a magical effect on people.

It's hard to go into the specifics of what Wayne is doing (and the scene is fantastic enough that it just needs to be watched), but the important thing is that he's offering Nora hope for the future, acknowledging her desire to feel something (largely pain), and not dismissing what's she's already been through. When Nora accepts that hug, you really feel energy moving between them, and that's the kind of ambiguous mysticism Lindelof has always excelled at. We don't see anything happening, and Nora's apparent change in mood at the end of the episode is explicable in so many ways, but a little part of you wants to believe in magic. It's a great metaphor for watching this show—there's a lot of heavy grief to navigate through, but enough promise of a reward on the other side to sustain me.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.