In the world of “The Leftovers” there is no character who has felt the weight of loss more than Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). Losing both her husband and children on October 14th — odds of 1/128,000 she cooly notes in this week’s “Guest” — have made her an odd symbol in the town of Mapleton. She’s a human monument to the town’s collective mourning, and a reminder even to those that did lose family members and friends, that their situation could be even worse. But three years on, Nora’s grief — coupled with the revelations about her husband’s infidelity — now weigh like an anchor around her neck. The more she tries to live with the pain or understand it, the more she is sent into a spiral of guilt and self-loathing that will take a miracle to overcome.
In the episode’s cold open, we see how Nora’s life has almost become like “Groundhog Day.” A trip to the grocery store finds her buying all the items she would have obtained if her family were still there. She goes home and throws out full boxes of cereal and unopened jugs of milk, and replaces them with newer versions. Nora still clings to hope that maybe they’ll, or that there will be some kind of resolution, but that feeling also eats away at her. Things take a turn for the weird when she sets up an air mattress in the living room and calls an escort. But it isn’t companionship Nora wants — she needs to feel alive again. And so, wearing a bulletproof vest, with the mattress setup to break her fall, Nora hands the understandably freaked out escort a wad of cash and a gun, and tells her to shoot her in the chest. With heavy metal music at full volume to set the mood (and likely to mask the sound of a gunshot from neighbours) the escort reluctantly pulls the trigger, and Nora goes down like a ton of bricks. And there is a brief moment where she doesn’t move at all — until she comes up gasping and gulping for air, like someone drowning, who at the last moment has been pulled ashore. For Nora, it’s a pass moment of rebirth, allowing her to hit reset on her grief before it builds up to an unbearable level again.
But even Nora’s well of hurt has its limits, as after the opening credits, she’s in a courthouse getting her divorce from Doug finalized. His indiscretion doesn’t deserve the well of feeling that consumes her each day, and letting him go — at least legally — is likely a small way to alleviate the burden she still carries on her shoulders, and senses each time she returns to her empty home. However, this week Nora won’t be spending much time in Mapleton. Like the excellent nearly standalone third episode “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” “Guest” narrows its focus to centre on Nora, with the action mostly taking in place in Manhattan at the Departure Related Operations and Procedures conference.
Even before she arrives at the event, Nora thinks about bailing on it altogether. Running into Kevin (Justin Theroux) at the courthouse, where he was also getting his divorced finalized, she awkwardly blurts out to him an invitation to spend the weekend with her in Miami. Noting that he has a daughter to take of, Kevin declines, so Nora heads to DROP anyway, though she likely wishes she didn’t bother at all. Invited as a panelist, when she arrives to register, she learns someone has accidentally taken her badge, so she’s given the more anonymous Guest pass. And then at the mixer she meets the douchey Marcus, who carries all the slick appeal of Christian Bale‘s Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho,” refusing to wear a name tag and cajoling people into asking him what he does for a living, and when they do, he responds playfully, “You don’t want to know.” For Nora, it’s a quickly tedious game.
For the most part, the rest of her day doesn’t get much better. She spends her time dipping into various panels trying to find who is signed up under her name to track down her badge. During a talk on Post Departure Delusion Disorder (about figures who emerge after tragedies claiming to have prophetic powers, in a nice foreshadow of what’s to come) Nora thinks she’s found the fraudster, and follows her to the bathroom. But the woman isn’t the fake Nora, but someone named Margaret Boutet, and she’s encountered before. Margaret reminds Nora that at last year’s conference, the latter called her a “heartless bitch” and reduced her to tears after an offhand comment during a cocktail. “I’m sorry, last year I was having a really hard time,” Nora says, with Margaret countering sarcastically, “You’re doing so much better now.”
And just when Nora thinks things can’t get any worse, she gets caught in an elevator with Marcus and his crew of his friends, and she’s given a simple choice: come and party with them, or go back to the boring conference. Nora decides to let hair down, and soon drinks and pills and makeouts and dancing on couches become de rigeur in Marcus’ hospitality suite. And Nora is propositioned by Marcus, who asks her for a kiss but she ups the ante slightly. It’s been revealed that Marcus is the man behind the Loved Ones bodies last seen in episode four, “B.J. And The A.C.” And in order show how good they are replicating the bodies and faces of the departed, Marcus has the artificial version of himself on display in the room. So instead of kissing Marcus the man, Nora straddles and “makes out” with Marcus the Loved One.
However, when morning comes, the fun is over. Nora is given a rude awakening by security, accused of destroying property in the hotel bar and thrown out of her room and the conference. Her pleas that someone else is at the conference using her badge go unheard, but she’s not about to give up yet. Nora cleans herself up, heads to a local copy shop, creates a new fake guest badge, and heads back to the hotel…where she is again intercepted by security. But this time she’s able to come up with a plan to prove who she is. She’s due to speak on a panel that afternoon, so she tells the security to accompany her there and whoever is sitting up on stage behind the name Nora Durst will be the imposter. And the scheme works, with the fake Nora giving herself up and revealing herself to be a “truther,” using her brief moment on the panel to put forth her belief that the Department of the Sudden Departure is a “smokescreen,” with benefit payments used to silence any further inquiries about what happened, and the questionnaires incinerated instead of analyzed. It’s a faulty assertion — before her trip Nora is told that one particular question in her questionnaire is getting results in the affirmative far too often – but an indication of the variety of ways October 14th has manifested itself in the culture for good and bad.
Later in the day, Nora hits the hotel bar for a much needed drink and strikes up a conversation with Patrick Johansen, the author of the memoir “What’s Next,” which has been given out as swag to attendees of the conference. Patrick has lost four people close to him, and yet he doesn’t seem to carry the same weight of pain on his shoulders as Nora. He describes the ongoing emotion not as “grief” but as “ambiguous loss” — and this infuriates Nora. She explodes in the bar, calling Patrick a fraud who doesn’t know the real, deep, wounding pain of loss exclaiming, “What’s fucking next? Nothing is next!” But she’ll quickly learn that a life to be lived and enjoyed can be found.
As she storms out of the hotel, she’s approached by a man who has been in the background of the entire episode (he was pointed out briefly by Marcus, and seen at the periphery of a couple scenes), and he asks Nora a simple question: “Do you want to feel this way?” She doesn’t immediately take the bait, until the man promises to show her how Patrick is a fraud. He takes Nora to shabby building, up an unending flight of stairs, into an even shabbier apartment where a man sits with a laptop. She’s told that for the price of $1000, she can go through a curtain and see “what happened” to Patrick. She’s dubious, maybe even a little conceded, but certainly curious and she authorizes payment via PayPal on the laptop and goes through the curtain to whatever awaits. And on the other side? Wayne (Paterson Joseph).
It’s a terrific reveal, but Wayne is not in the best of spirits. He tells Nora he doesn’t “give a shit” about her, he’s “exhausted” and treats her initially like just another client, walking in to be healed. But Wayne softens when he sees she’s truly suffering, and tells Nora what she probably already knows deep down inside — that feeling this despair is the only way she knows how to live, as difficult as it is. “Hope is your weakness. You want it gone because you don’t deserve it,” Wayne observes. “You do deserve it. I’ve seen my own death and it’s coming upon me very soon, so this is your one chance, you only chance, and the question remains the same: do you want to feel this way?”
“Will I forget them?” Nora asks.
“Never.” And with that Wayne takes Nora into his arms and for the first time this season, we see him take the pain from someone. And while the conference warned of fraudsters and would be prophets, there is no denying how real this moment is for Nora. She is emotionally released, entirely. And as the episode closes, there’s a lightness in Nora that we haven’t seen before. She’s no longer obsessed with stalking the woman who slept with her husband, a trip to the grocery isn’t an ordeal in preserving the memory of October 14th, and she even makes a date with Kevin, who comes by her house rather charmingly to give her another chance to make a better impression (while he adds, “You should know though, I’m a fucking mess”).
But perhaps the biggest signal of the change in Nora comes from how others perceive her. On the questionnaire, Nora had been told that the answer to question 121, “In your opinion, do you believe the departed is in a better place?” had come back disproportionately with the answer, “Yes.” Perhaps the respondents had been sensing Nora’s own faint hopes and aspirations for her own family, and telling her what she wanted to hear, because when she asks her next client at the end of episode the same question, the answer is, “No.” And it’s a sign that Nora, perhaps for the first time, is able to live with uncertainty, or with what Patrick described as “ambiguous loss,” without the guilt of moving on with her own life to hold her back.