What “Guest” proved is that The Leftovers is at its best with its single-focus episodes. One of the show’s major flaws has been a lack of world-building. The lives of all of its main characters seem to begin when the series does, and the particulars of The Sudden Departure remain nebulous at best. As for the leads, there are mentions of their old life, but barely; and there are certainly no examples of how things were before the Departure. Was anyone ever happy? At least with Matt’s episode, and now with Nora’s in “Guest,” The Leftovers is able to close in on a portrayal of grief and desperation that finally feels like something. Hit the jump for why “I don’t give a shit about you, I already have your money, and I’m fucking exhausted.”
The two best episodes of The Leftovers so far have been complicated portraits of a single character going through a grieving process. In “Guest,” cut out all of the mumbo jumbo related to prophets and conferences about the Departed, and what you get is one woman’s story about losing her family. She has been considered a hero of sorts in her town, and she clings to this distinction — and the sadness that goes with it — at all costs.
The question mark behind the Departure is, it seems, what makes it so hard to move on from. There’s still the possibility that they could come back. This was a question that the first season of Homeland dealt with exceptionally well from both sides: can you ever go home again? And even if your family did wait for you, would it be the same?
People are reluctant to move on in the wake of the Departure, an idea which drives the Guilty Remnant. They feed off of that despair and turn it, and life, into something both boring and cavalier. Holy Wayne is on the opposite side of the spectrum. It is his desire, through whatever methods he uses, to rid people of that pain, and to allow them to move on.
“Guest” did a beautiful job of exploring Nora’s grief in a way that felt universal — forget about the Departure. She leaves her life untouched: the paper towel dispenser needs to be replaced, but she leaves it, along with unfinished puzzles, and mementos of her children’s artwork on the refrigerator. In one of the most haunting passages, she continues buying milk and cereal for children who are not there, and throws the containers out later, unused, replacing them with new ones that will also never be drunk or consumed. It’s a ritualistic delusion that so wonderfully captures the confusion of sudden loss.
Nora’s “acting out” towards Kevin (asking him to go to Miami, telling him to not give a fuck about his daughter) as well as her embracing Marcus and his party-hard style at the conference also showed the various sides to her despair. She only ever goes so far, though; she backs off of her pursuit of Kevin, and only kisses Marcus’ dummy, and not him. Though she comes to appreciate the anonymity of “guest,” she’s later desperate to retrieve her identity. That, of course, is what “Guest” was really about. In the end, Nora reclaims her name tag and her life.
There were a few interesting elements of a post-Departure world scattered about, but as I mentioned at the start of the article, The Leftovers‘ biggest failure outside of character development has been world-building. There is almost no sense of how life was before, and how it has changed in the wake of the Departure. However, Nora’s job working for the Departure Department shows that there is a desire to boil the incident down to metrics, but there are many who believe it adds up to nothing, if it’s actually being added up at all. And suddenly the bodies Christine steps over make sense — were they rubber dummies being shipped out to those who want something “real” to cling on to, in the wake of their missing loved ones?
The desire to latch on to anything that will help the process of grief* has led to the rise of prophets like Holy Wayne. What is it that Wayne does to get his followers to believe in him and move on? Is it something supernatural, or is it information he possesses about how the incident wasn’t supernatural at all? Regardless, there’s a lot more to explore there, and that mystery has been one of the more interesting aspects of the show (and one of the slowest to be revealed).
In the meantime, episodes like “Guest” keep The Leftovers from being too bogged down in characters we don’t connect with, and stories that don’t add up. Over and over again in the last several weeks, I have said that The Leftovers hasn’t give us enough in its hourly segments to make sticking around for the bigger reveals worthwhile. In “Guest,” there was a reprieve. It was an excellent episode.
Episode Rating: A+
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Could not have been less enthused to review this episode, and could not have been more surprised by how much I liked it.
— *for 2% of the population … again, I just can’t get over this number. The show makes it seem like it’s about 50% of the population
— I am getting so sick and tired of that same piano melody playing through every episode. Could they afford to vary it up a little bit?
— So does Nora pay to get shot so she can feel something? So she can hold on to a tangible pain, even if she’s not feeling it emotionally?
— Kevin was so cute and awkward at the court house and later at Nora’s house.
— I liked the comment someone at the conference made about North Korea claiming they didn’t lose any people, ha!
— Really nice, very real moment when Nora confronted the woman she thought had her tag, but it was really someone she had called out the year before. “I was having a really hard time.” “Yeah, you’re doing SO much better now.”
— I am starting to really love Holy Wayne, because he just does not even give a shit. Gimme that PayPal!
— Kevin: “You should know though that I’m a fucking mess.” Nora: “Thanks for the heads up.”
— And then, Nora gets her first “no” on Question 121: do you believe the Departed is in a better place?