The Leftovers: “The Book of Nora” Closes the Circle on One of the Decade’s Best Dramas
(Episode 3.08)Ben King/HBO TV Reviews The Leftovers
After the strangers’ wedding, after her lover’s appearance and her brother’s death, after all the water that’s passed under the bridge in The Leftovers’ ark-like third season, “The Book of Nora” returns us to “The Book of Kevin,” as if to bring the cosmos back into alignment. As she climbs atop the roof in search of her birds, Nora (the breathtaking Carrie Coon) recalls the lonesome woman of the earlier episode, pleading with God to whisk her away: the supplicant awaiting the signal, the proof, that she doesn’t lie, that her experience is the truth. For Nora, of course, the question is not whether a higher power exists, but whether we can indeed “come home”—from fifty miles distant, as the flock is trained to do; from the other side of the skein between this world and its negative, as she does with that frightful device. But in the pastoral quiet, the skyward glance, the absence that each tries to fill with prophetic visions and tearful prayers, “bulletproof vests, hugs from holy men, tattoos to cover up,” “The Book of Nora” intertwines their fates, becoming the ideal companion to “The Book of Kevin.” From the series’ confrontation with the holes in our lives, it weaves a perfect whole.
After focusing on the dead in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” The Leftovers turns, in the end, to the living: To Nora, calling herself Sarah, whittled down by years of solitude; to Kevin (Justin Theroux), in search of her so long that he lies when he finds her; to Laurie (Amy Brenneman), offering her insights over the phone; to Jill, married; Tommy, divorced; Kevin, Sr., perhaps immortal. Only Nora’s brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), is missing from the list, though it’s a relief to know—after that harrowing conversation on the Australian coast—that he rebuilt his marriage and revived his faith before cancer stole him away. In fact, his confession to Nora that he’s not scared for her sake contains the germ of The Leftovers’ greatness, which is to recognize that deaths and Departures alike are hardest for those on this side of the skein: “Most of all, I’m scared that I’ll survive,” he says, in the midst of a scene the mere description of which still brings tears to my eyes. “Because if I do, how can I ever stand in front of a room full of people and convince them that I have the answers when I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about?”
Run through with barbed humor (“I do not want to go to the fucking dance!”) and intense pain (“I refused to believe you were gone”), inexplicable images (the goat snared in the fence) and mysterious messages (I know you’re out there), “The Book of Nora” marshals the full complement of the series’ strengths—its strangeness, its precision, its force—in the service of its central conviction. To live at all, The Leftovers suggests, is a radical act, and “The Book of Nora” attends to this notion by setting the characters’ choices against the allure, as I wrote last week, of “complete annihilation.” Though its most memorable interlude is Nora’s sharp intake of breath, and the smash cut to the blue skies of her future, “The Book of Nora” is, first and foremost, a remembrance of things past: As she enters “the event chamber of the device,” for instance, Nora’s mind returns to that moment of impatience in her kitchen before the Departure; her words to the nun (“Don’t waste your breath”) echo the Remnant’s message in “Pilot.” The backward glances accumulate: the flashes of Kevin and Nora’s conversation at the Christmas dance, or on the day of their divorces in “Guest”; Laurie’s repetition of Nora’s question (“Same time next week?”) in “Certified”; the mention of Miracle, the scar on the heart, the desire to cleanse “past misdeeds.” With this weight to bear, and much more besides, is it any surprise that life might not seem worth living? And is there any doubt that deciding to live is the harder path, the problem for which there is no clear solution?
And yet—they live. Kevin realizes that he cannot, in fact, “erase it all,” that the water under the bridge is what carries us forward; Nora climbs the hill to rescue the goat, stumbling in her Sisyphean efforts: Both emerge from their respective netherworlds committed to the belief that it’s better to be here than there, that becoming someone else’s ghost is no relief at all.
“Over here, we lost some of them,” Nora says of “going through.” “But over there, they lost all of us. They were the lucky ones. In a world full of orphans, they still had each other.”
It’s impossible, perhaps, to do “The Book of Nora” justice, or indeed The Leftovers itself. Nora’s escape from the bathroom confronts, in quotidian terms, the terror of being alone; her tearful dance with Kevin, to “Dreams to Remember,” is a meditative, achingly romantic expression of the desire for connection, understanding and love: Both are brief passages in the series’ run, and yet both consider our most intractable, unanswerable questions, about what it might mean to live in our own world of orphans, and whether we can, as the title song suggests, let its mysteries be.
That The Leftovers does this in such poignant, ferocious, daring terms, and yet finds its way back to that perfect whole, reminds me of one other connection, to the hour I’ve since come see as the series’ stricken keystone. Of the broken circuit in the first season’s penultimate episode, I once wrote: “‘The Garveys at Their Best’ closes the circle on the Sudden Departure with the recognition that there’s no forgetting ‘the ordinary instant,’ that the terrible thing that happens is terrible, in part, because we failed to see it coming.”
With the return of the birds, their homecoming, in that gorgeous final frame, “The Book of Nora” closes the circle on one of the decade’s best dramas by replacing the absence of the earlier episode with presence. I was wrong, I realize now, to argue last week that Nora chose life. It’s not that simple, not when it comes to circumstances—deaths and Departures, beliefs and doubts, loves and losses, cataclysms large and small—that are beyond our command. That’s the thing about Nora, about The Leftovers, the concluding words of which, “I’m here,” are proof of nothing and everything at the same time. Nora chose life. But life chose her, too.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.