Each week following episodes of the third and final season of The Leftovers, Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss HBO’s drama about the aftermath of two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.
Sophie Gilbert: Spencer, am I right in thinking that last week there were no opening credits for the show? No OG string-horror as frescoes get sucked up into the sky, no Iris DeMent cajoling us to just let the mystery be? Which only made it more disorienting in this week’s episode, “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” when the show opened to the jazzy tones of David Pomeranz’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” which is also … the theme tune to the popular ’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. It was jaunty. It was contagious. It made me want to grab an extra-large soda and ride on a rollercoaster with Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers. In another similarly idiosyncratic anomaly, the writing on the episode was credited to Tha Lonely Donkey Kong and Specialist Contagious, which seem to be names you might get out of a … Wu Tang Clan generator.
(I have no idea if Perfect Strangers was popular or not, it didn’t make it all the way to England and so I have never heard of Mark Linn-Baker outside of the context of The Leftovers, where, you might remember, he was depicted as having departed in Season 1 along with the three other regular cast members from the show. Then, in Season 2, he was revealed to have faked his departure and was located in Mexico eating tacos. Apparently this was because Mark Linn-Baker gave a really good audition for The Leftovers for another role but Damon Lindelof couldn’t cast him because he’d already departed him. Which I guess is why Jennifer Lopez and Pope Benedict have never popped up as guest stars.)
This episode turned out to be the Nora Episode, which, in keeping with Nora episodes of the past (I’m still completely messed up by Season 1’s “Guest”), meant it was emotionally wrenching. If you didn’t cry at the Wu-Tang Band revelation I don’t think we can be friends. But that’s for later. First, there was the very old man up on the plinth in Jarden’s town square, who, out of nowhere, leaned over the railing on the side of his perch and fell headlong to his death. Nora was left to interview his wife, the woman from Season 2 who paid Matt thousands of dollars to beat a man with an oar (no sign of Brian, though). That woman was, of course, Brett Butler from Grace Under Fire. And she offered a few details about the nameless, very old man: that he wanted to suffer, that she was once arrested trying to crucify him (as per his wishes), and that she truly believes he gave himself to God, and was thus departed only a few days before the seventh anniversary.
Nora, of course, couldn’t let this lie go. For one thing, it’s her job to investigate fraudulent claims of departures. For another, having lost her entire family on October 14, she presumably has low tolerance for people who pretend their loved ones departed rather than died. So she compelled Matt to tell her what really happened, and he revealed the cover-up, and poor Brett Butler, who desperately wants to believe there’s meaning in this cruel, hollow world, was left staring at a blown-up posterboard of her dead husband’s face on the autopsy table.
But you know who also wants to believe there’s meaning in this cruel, hollow world? Right. The same person who, going off of just a phone call, presented herself at Mark Linn-Baker’s hotel room in St Louis. What a perfect scene this was: Linn-Baker, reading off his cue cards like he’s hawking life insurance on infomercials instead of encouraging strangers to get fatally blasted with neutron radiation. Nora, gazing at him, her face mutating from hope to skepticism to pity. “I think you may be suicidal,” she told him, at which point Linn-Baker’s voice cracked. “What happened was arbitrary, it was purposeless,” he countered. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. So no, Nora, I don’t want to kill myself. I want to take some fucking control.”
Which is pretty much what everyone wants to do in this show, right? The elaborate coping mechanisms Nora talked about surely include getting blasted with radiation and choosing to be crucified by your wife; they also include driving to Kentucky unannounced to see your former adopted daughter, and getting tattoos of bands you don’t like to cover up your children’s names so you don’t have a permanent visual reminder of what you’ve lost. We could ponder all day how ridiculously good Carrie Coon is as Nora, but the moment where she admitted to Erika (Erika!) what she’d done broke my heart. But then, in a classic Leftovers flip, it was followed by a scene of the two of them, bouncing on the trampoline to the sounds of “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” their faces full of lightness.
Of course, nothing perfect can last, so going home Nora had to face the sight of Kevin doing his self-suffocation thing again, then asking her to have a baby. Bad timing or worst timing? And not to propagate the Nora Cursed thing, but this episode resurfaced the fact that Matt and Nora’s parents died in a house fire when they were children, which—along with Matt’s childhood cancer—makes for the grimmest backstory I think I’ve ever encountered. No wonder Nora uses humor to deflect pain. (Can holy balls be busted?) Spencer, what did you make of Nora’s journey, and the surreal jump to Australia, and the cheery weatherman who predicted hellfire and locusts, and the four horsewomen of the (near) apocalypse? Were you happy to find out what happened to Lily?
And, if I told you I had a picture of me and a killer whale, would you believe me?
Spencer Kornhaber: Sure I would believe you. In the annals of amazing images from The Leftovers, “person with a killer whale” might not rank in the top 50. But the sight of Kevin and Nora cleaning up the pillar guy’s vacated penthouse might. It seemed the vision of a perfect, loving couple: sharing work and breezy jokes and confident new hairstyles. Maybe people after the Departure can have it all.
But things weren’t so domestically blissful by the time Nora discovered Kevin with a bag on his head and then LOLed at his proposal to have another baby. When they both insisted to each other that they were happy, it was kind of a beautiful, horrible moment, right? After everything they’ve been through, the stability and mutual support they’ve now found “should” make them happy. But something’s wrong.
This episode focused on two ongoing emotional problems for Nora. One was seen in her merciless inquiry into the old man of Miracle, leading to the latest of her many contemptuous outbursts toward exploiters of the Departure. Remember when she screamed at the superstar memoirist in the hotel bar at the DSD convention in Season 1? Or, in Season 2, when she dissed Erika’s fragile superstition regarding Evie’s disappearance by sneering, “That’s pathetic”? As she sees it, using what happened on October 14 as a “coping mechanism” for run-of-the-mill grief is an affront to what she went through. Yet her zealotry toward her job is verging into vindictiveness, and if anyone should respect the value of “coping mechanisms,” it’s Nora. After all, when in the privacy of a hotel room she, like this episode’s fraudulent widow, smokes cigarettes.
The other roiling undercurrent tonight was that Nora, despite outward appearances and assertions of okay-ness, is deep in grief. The loss of Lily reopened a wound that likely hadn’t fully closed in the first place, bringing her to a tattoo shop to memorialize children who’d disappeared 6 years earlier. She thought better of it, continuing her long-running insistence on remaking her personal brand into something other than That Tragic Woman. But the cover-up here is more ridiculous than the crime. She’s now stuck explaining the Wu-Tang Band to strangers for the rest of her life. She’s having to act like it’s normal to be showing up at playgrounds in Kentucky.
Both of these ongoing internal sagas—her punishing crusade for truth, and her losing battle with loss—seem to meet in the strange and strangely unsettling subplot with Mark Linn-Baker. Certainly it’s plausible, given what we’ve seen of her commitment to fraud-busting, that she’d take these drastic measures of spontaneous intercontinental travel so as to nullify scammers taking advantage of post-Departure grief. But with all the smoldering anguish indicated in this episode, it’s also plausible that she deep down holds hope that “LADR” (“low amplitude Denzinger radiation”) is real, and that she can climb—er, use—it.
What makes Linn-Baker’s pitch so striking is, in part, that a radiation-related theory of Departure might dovetail with Nora having been told that her tragedy was “a matter of geography” and “lensing.” If she carries energy that vanishes loved ones, maybe it’s also interfering with touch screens and maybe it can be harnessed for interdimensional travel. Or maybe—probably—this is all nonsense. By heading to St. Louis and/or Melbourne, she’s avowedly on a mission to enforce reason, but there’s a look in her eye hinting that she’s more compelled by the unreasonable.
All of which speaks to some incredible attributes of this show: the way that emotion truly is the driving plot engine, the way that abstract questions are rendered concrete, and the way we’re made to have empathy for even the strangest behaviors. Regarding the sequence of a grey-haired Australian (the storied Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan) drowning an unpleasant police chief named Kevin, there will be, for now, no clarity about its literal meaning. We can speculate that the Book of Kevin has gone viral Down Under, possibly thanks to Kevin Senior. But all we can safely say we know is that the need to reconcile unspeakable feelings and irrational beliefs with cold, hard reality can lead to mistakes—a tattoo, or even a murder.