Although I might not share their opinions exactly, quite a few of my friends and colleagues have balked a little at the way that The Leftovers has presented itself over the course of the season so far. Fortunately, the latest episode, "Guest", seems to buck that trend and show us a side of the HBO series that I've been waiting to see. Among the grief-laden population of Mapleton and the thick fog of violence and depression I've been most enjoying the moments of levity and real life that pop up when you least expect them to. Ok, ok - The Leftovers is not a comedy, at least not in the familiar sense, but it is noted that Tom Perotta's novel (that the series is based on) was originally penned more along those lines than what it eventually turned out to be. Personally, I think that a lot of that seems to be seeping into the drama now.. albeit between some particularly hard to watch scenes (e.g., Gladys's death by stoning) that tend to root themselves a bit more firmly in our minds as we watch the show.
Anyway, "Guest" continues the trend started by Damon Lindelof back in his Lost days of focusing episodes on only one character and thusly delving far deeper into the character's psyche and motivations than can be accomplished over the course of a normal program that takes turns with multiple characters being the focal point. So, Nora Durst.. we've known for some time now that she has lost almost her entire immediate family (those particular odds being one in 128,000 apparently) to the Sudden Departure, harbors feelings of terrible guilt and remorse, carries a revolver with her in her purse and has a brother - the Reverend Matt Jamison. This episode, though, dives headlong into her day-to-day life - specifically into what are probably the most important few days that she has had since the day when her family disappeared. Through her work, Nora is invited to a conference to be a representative of the Department of Sudden Departures and speak on a panel. She had done this the previous year as well but this time would end up much more chaotic and ultimately rewarding for her.
But before we get there, it would certainly be remiss not to mention what happened before Nora left for the conference (and apparently at least one time previous to that as well). We knew Nora was slightly off the beaten path but for her to hire people to shoot her in the chest while wearing a Kevlar vest - just to experience something close to peacefulness through death.. yeah, crazy. But so is everyone else in this world - just look at the game that the High School kids were playing in the first episode - Fuck, Burn or Choke? Really? Yeah so we as viewers do need to understand as has been pounded into our heads by the first several episodes, that this new world in the wake of the Sudden Departure is an awful one.
During the conference, Nora runs into all sorts of trials and tribulations. First, someone has taken her badge and we find out later that there is a woman who impersonated Nora Durst to make some kind of a statement.. conspiracy theories! Who would have though it? We definitely need more of this going forward in The Leftovers. Second, Nora meets a married guy who works for the company called Loved Ones (whose commercial we see at the beginning of the episode). A little alcohol, drugs and craziness later, Nora has actually had a good time.. and in the meantime we are treated to some of the best scenes that The Leftovers has ever shared with us onscreen. Thank God for martinis and drugs that are as yet unapproved by the FDA.
The whole theme of this episode is change. Nora was really one of the people most affected by the Sudden Departure and she showed it. From the unchanged paper towel roll to the trips to the grocery store, Nora was attempting to live life as though nothing had changed when she absolutely knew that everything had. Internal conflict at its best. Because Nora didn't have her badge, she was given one that said 'Guest' instead. During the party scenes, everyone only knew her as 'Guest'.. and she loved it. Separating her own individual identity from the poor woman that had lost her entire family only really happened, though, when she ended up meeting with Holy Wayne. Through someone at the conference she was drawn to an apartment building in a bad part of town, asked to pay $1,000 and then admitted to see Wayne. Two things: Wow, Nora has no problem parting with her money, huh? Also, Wayne's super power is hugs. There are two theories here, I suppose.. either Wayne is the most empathetic character ever in a TV series since Deanna Troy on Star Trek or he has some sort of power that lets him take people's grief from them - supernatural or otherwise.
Bottom line is that now Nora is bereft of her long-held feelings of depression and grief. The Leftovers makes sure that we know.. showing us scenes of the teacher that she was previously stalking (because she allegedly was having an affair with her husband) and grocery shopping for only herself and no longer for the people that have disappeared from her life. I have to say, this episode was my favorite of the season and I'm really hoping that the trajectory of the show continues. The fact that I can go from absolute horror at the beginning of one episode to a satisfied grin at the end of the next speaks volumes about the quality of this series. Can't wait for the next one!