Content warning: this post discusses suicide in connection with the episode’s story.
‘Guest’ is the first truly great episode of The Leftovers. It is downright astonishing. It’s the one that cemented it’s narrative style for the rest of the show (limited POV, character-focused episodes), and the episode that moved a background character who’d appeared in a handful of scenes to the starring role. It’s remarkable television.
The episode opens with Nora, working for the Department of Sudden Departure, once again administering the DSD questionnaire designed to assess whether a person’s absence is a legitimate departure. From the oustide, and to outsiders, these questions are seemingly random. At turns banal, or too specific, it’s hard to ascertain the validity of what the DSD is assessing here. What would constitute an actual departure?
And yet, this is also a necessary process for Nora, as it allows her to continue defining the margins of her family’s departure. To try and connect the dots, and possibly get an answer. Why did they go?
Did they want to go?
Something that is raised in the cold-open’s questionnaire scene is the connection between suicidality and the departed. How would the Sudden Departure feel for those who are suicidal? Would it bring the feeling of annihilation closer to those who remained, or something else? The connection of this question in the first scene, and the following scene at Nora’s house certainly suggests the writers want the audience to think about whether Nora is suicidal, and whether it’s possible to live with hope in a traumatised world.
Nora seemingly goes about her life, buying groceries, working her job, but she is constantly living with the absence of her family. And now, she’s incapable of processing this past any initial bereavement after her brother Matt revealed that Nora’s husband had been unfaithful. Does life hold any value anymore, other than an accumulation of moments? If all Nora had was the hope that she could somehow move past her grief, Matt has effectively taken that from her.
Nora’s transgressions, her challenges to normality, are then one of two things. Either they’re a release of everything that’s built up, the rage and frustration, the dread at the enormity of everything that’s happened to her. She pays a sex worker $3000 to shoot her while wearing a kevlar vest just to give her the chance of breathing it all out. Of exhaling. Just for a moment. Just enough to get by.
Or, Nora’s behaviour is the escalation of her state of mind. A feeling that nothing matters anymore. She needs to continually push the limits of her existence closer and closer to where her family went. Maybe she can go too.
This is contrasted with her brother Matt, whose anger is that the unrighteous departed but he didn’t. If a divine miracle occurred, then why was he not allowed to be a part of it? Nora’s actions are rather those of someone who has been pushed past the bounds of what a person should endure. Now she can do what she wants. Break a coffee mug. Divorce her absent husband. Get shot, therapeutically.
“It became a totem, almost like a meditation, I’d read it in the morning, maybe before work, before going through hair and makeup. And then I’d have it on set with me. I could open it to almost any point, and any paragraph would be evocative in a useful way that just reminded you of the magnitude of her loss. A toenail, a dead leaf inside a cricket bag—anything can trigger it.”
But Nora isn’t Matt. Her rage isn’t ‘why not me?’ but rather ‘why?’, and ‘what now?’ She wants to move on. She wants to not be this survivor, this burdened victim, this object of others’ pity and sympathy and distanced concern. She wants a better life.
She meets Kevin, passing him outside the court room after filing her divorce, as he is on his way in. It’s their second meet-cute cast against a background tapestry of trauma and grief.
“If that’s a traffic ticket I can get you out of it.”
“Divorce. I just got myself out of it.”
“Small world. Me too.”
“I should have got the hint when she joined the Guilty Remnant.”
“Oh you’re not joking.”
“I don’t know how to joke.”
“Do you want to go to Miami?”
“I’m supposed to go to this work conference in Manhattan on Friday but it’s going to be terrible and I was thinking maybe Miami, instead.”
“I live with my daughter, so…”
“Oh fuck your daughter.”
Their meeting is both depressing and hilarious, and put blandly as words on a page can help explain why so many viewers thought the characters in the show were unrealistic, and behaved in ways normal people don’t behave. But through the performances of these actors, particularly Carrie Coon, it’s clear how these people are bringing normal, common garden existential dread to the surface of their characters’ lives, and letting it be the driving force of their actions. Nora and Kevin are constantly living with this feeling of unreality, this knowledge that everything normal has gone and anything that reminds them of normal is suddenly revealed as monstrous. So every minor interaction, even a flirtation outside the court room, suddenly becomes charged with a needing for something. Something to change, to fix, to renew, to revitalise. Like a person drowning who sees a twig and thinks it a life-raft, Nora especially reads everything into nothing and becomes enraged when the nothing keeps happening. She is wanting to, and trying to defy the world while it defies her.
Also, for those claiming that characters in the show weren’t realistic (and this was particularly levelled at the GR), it’s worth pointing out the protest sign outside Nora’s conference: ‘World Health Organisation Did It’. You wouldn’t think the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world’s population could be rendered into a hoax, something that could be denied, but here we are. Perhaps The Leftovers had the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.
Nora doesn’t go to Miami, and attends the horrible conference. But someone has already signed in as her and taken her named lanyard, so she is provided with a ‘guest’ name-tag instead, and is referred to by other delegates in an extended sequence. She is a guest now, she doesn’t belong here anymore. There’s no life for her among the living, and small irritations and inconveniences tip her over into anger, as if the universe is out to get her. Later, when she’s evicted from the hotel because someone with her name-tag smashed the mirror in the bar downstairs, it’s further evidence that there is no place left for Nora, or for Nora to be Nora.
Marcus, another delegate, challenges Nora to come drink with them upstairs in the hotel rather than attend other sessions. In other words, he says to her: do you want to spend your time dying, or do you want to live?
Nora doesn’t want to die. But she also doesn’t want to live in a world that lives through dying. Dying every day, in tiny little moments of ordering coffee and picking up lanyards at conference registration desks, and putting away the groceries and replenishing the paper towel in the kitchen. Life should be something else. No, it needs to be something else. Now.
Nora does get drunk with Marcus and his friends upstairs, and for a moment, as she lays on top of him, propped up by his arms and legs, she looks like one of the fresco figures from the opening credits, torn between holding on to the terrestrial world, and letting go to ascend somewhere.
Because even when Nora is evicted from the hotel – given a life that she doesn’t deserve – she pushes back. She says no. Even though she could probably solve matters calmly, she’s had too much now, too much has happened. She can only fight against her reality, because to Nora, clearly the universe is conspiring against her. Someone is impersonating her, stealing her pass, taking her life away from her, her husband, her children. Even her happy marriage. And she’s left with nothing. But in her moment of triumph, her vindication that yes, all these bad things are happening to you for a reason, this moment when she can finally convince everyone that she has been singled out for something unfair – even this is taken away from her. It has nothing to do with her. Someone stole their way in to the conference, using her pass so they could perform a conspiracy-nut stunt. It might as well have been someone else. The universe is indifferent.
But Nora is intolerant to this. It’s a world where the Sudden Departure happened, a world where Nora’s husband and children vanished in front of her but because of her husband’s infidelity she can’t even mourn the loss of a perfect family, she can only mourn the loss of a lie she didn’t realise she was living. And now Nora’s being told it’s not about her? It was never about her?
“If you were in pain, you’d know there is no moving on, there is no happiness. What’s next? What’s fucking next? Nothing is next. Nothing.”
In this despair, she finds her way to Holy Wayne, operating out of a half-finished building, payment taken by a bro in a singlet via paypal, and escorted across the shabby threshold by a looming Tom Noonan. Because this is the marvellous thing about Nora: this is someone who has every reason to hate the world, to think that there is no hope, no sense of a future. Every reason to want out. But despite all of this, she does hope. She will, despite all her anger, follow her hope.
The Leftovers continues to thread the needle with Wayne – as it has with so much of the story that could be explained either rationally or mystically – presenting him in a way where he could be an opportunistic con, or someone who can legitimately read and relieve Nora’s pain. He could be both.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what he is. I’ve said this before, but here’s it’s the show’s thesis revealed on the surface for the first time. It doesn’t matter. It’s also the first time a character has a moment of emotional connection with someone else. This is what Wayne trades in. An embrace. He meets his clients on the level of their pain, he acknowledges it. He doesn’t have to care about it, doesn’t even have to know anything about it, but he’s the first person Nora’s encountered who doesn’t explain her pain away. Doesn’t try to lessen it, or condescend it, or tiptoe around it.
Here is your pain, in this embrace. And it is okay to feel the pain.
And so The Leftovers returns us back to Mapleton, back to Nora in her job, back to asking the same questions over and over. But something’s changed. Now we see Question 121, the one answer Nora had always returned a statistical anomaly to, where all her clients would only ever answer yes.
“In your opinion, do you think the Departed is in a better place?”
For the first time, someone says no. The writers of this episode were toying with the idea that Nora’s grief radiates out to those around her, changing her environment through her pain. But now, she gets a negative. Maybe it’s better here. Maybe, for the first time, this world isn’t as bad as it seems.