“In your opinion, do you believe the Departed is in a better place?” —Nora
Of all the damaged people in The Leftovers, Nora Durst is the only major character who actually lost someone close during the Rapture. In her case, it’s made her a minor celebrity in Mapleton because she’s the rare 1-in-128,000 case who lost her entire family—husband and two young children. What makes her even more unusual is that she now works for the government’s Department of Sudden Departure, interviewing people like herself with an intrusive questionnaire before they can receive the government’s generous payout for their loss. That she works for the government in such an official capacity was a surprise to me; when we first witnessed her at work, badgering the parents of a departee with Downs syndrome, I suspected that she was a fraud, callously freelancing in order to quell her own pain. After all, this is The Leftovers.
Turns out, Nora carries a badge, so to speak. She also carries a gun in her purse, though that’s not in any official capacity. Jill and Aimee first spotted the concealed weapon at the coffee shop weeks ago, the first time we also witnessed Nora’s warped satisfaction in her own sad celebrity. As painful as it is, she revels in the hurt while welcoming—and even courting—the sympathetic attention that comes with it, even if it’s just free coffee. But is the gun a symptom that she’s suicidal? Is she dangerous to others?
After restocking her kitchen pantry with her dead kids’ favorite breakfast cereals—untouched food that she’ll throw out and replace with new boxes next week—Nora makes a surprising phone call, ordering a female escort named Angel who advertises that “nothing is forbidden.” But despite the inflatable mattress she sets up in the living room, Nora doesn’t have a taste for kink. “I want you to shoot me,” she tells Angel, while trying to hand her the gun she carries in her purse. She’s not suicidal, per se; she puts on a Kevlar vest and instructs a freaked-out Angel where to aim so as not to kill her. “You’ve done this before?” asks the escort. “Yes,” replies Nora, though she adds that her last shooter won’t return, despite the $3,000 she’s willing to pay for the special service. While Slayer’s “Angel of Death” throbs, a panicked Angel reluctantly shoots a calm and composed Nora, who flops backward onto the inflatable mattress, motionless—until she takes a huge gasp of air.
There are at least two ways to view Nora’s reckless behavior. One, that her shooting ritual is a flirtation with death that breaks through the numbness of her everyday misery and reminds her that she’s alive. Or, more likely, that the process of staring down the barrel of a gun and absorbing a bullet in the chest is a sense of dread and terror that she feels she deserves. Combine that with her masochistic decision to interview tortured souls like herself for the DSD and she becomes a person who isn’t just wallowing in her sorrow but feels obligated to punish herself on a daily basis. Why? Is there part of her that is tempted to forget her children, part of her that wants or needs to move on from the tragedy? And she hates that part of herself.
NEXT: Stolen identity
Nora is moving on in at least one way. Since her brother Rev. Matt spitefully blabbed that her husband was cheating on her with the kids’ preschool teacher, she’s been unable to forgive or forget. She drives near the playground during preschool hours to see the guilty-looking young woman who engaged in the affair, and she goes to court to divorce her Departed husband.
Why bother? Why divorce a Departed husband? Out of principle? Maybe it has something to do with Question 121, Nora’s survey query that was flagged because 100 percent of her respondents answered, yes, they believe their Departed is now in a better place. Nora’s boss asks how she’d answered the question, back when she was on the other side of the survey. “Yes,” she replies, “all three times.”
To truly believe that a deceased or Departed husband is in a better place—with your children—can make a mother feel abandoned, left behind. Then, to discover that he was cheating…? A wife might think, “No, you don’t get it both ways. You don’t get to be in some better place with our children AND be lionized and mourned as a saint by me and others who knew you in Mapleton.”
Or… is this just another way for Nora to elicit sympathy? Not only is she the woman who lost her entire family to the Departure, but her husband was cheating on her, too.
She’s not the only person finalizing a divorce. Chief Garvey is also at City Hall, signing off on Laurie’s request to end their marriage. He seems at peace with it, a far cry from where he was emotionally when she asked for it and when he told his daughter about it. And Nora seems lighter, too, after her divorce is made official. “Do you want to go to Miami?” she asks him on a whim. Um, huh? Chief would actually probably love to go to Miami, but he has this job and he lives with his daughter, so… “Oh, f— your daughter,” Nora blurts out, which is always, in every situation, a conversation killer.
With Miami nipped in the bud, Nora has no choice but to attend the DROP conference in New York City. That is the Departure Related Occupation and Practices conference, where she’s scheduled to be a frustratingly vague panelist representing the DSD. The conference attracts all sorts of protesters, including Guilty Remnant members who give out hand grenades that read “Any time now,” conspiracy theorists who blame the government and the World Health Organization, and Christians holding up John 20:31 signs.
Inside, at the registration desk, Nora discovers that her identification badge was mistakenly given to someone else, leaving her with a generic “Guest” pass. This will not do. Nora protests, that she needs her personal name tag because she’s on a panel, and oh by the way, she’s a legacy, meaning she lost family in the Departure. Did you feel the reverent and delicate tone of the conference’s representative on Nora’s voicemail? Who’s going to give her the proper attention and sympathy if she’s just a simple Guest? She needs to be recognized as Nora Durst, with three decals on the badge representing her loss.
But being a mere Guest grants her a certain anonymity she’s not used to, and she’s recruited by a coven of attendees who reside on the periphery of the Departure business, thinking perhaps that she’s one of their own. They’re there to party, and Nora decides to “go down the rabbit hole” with them, popping pills, chugging vodka, and shedding her inhibitions. The slick fellow who eyed Nora in the first place sells Loved Ones, the lifelike dolls that people can purchase for $40,000 so that they can have a proper burial for their Departed family member. “Am I soulless?” he asks Nora, though his entire spiel is a shameless come-on. She answers him by electing to make out with the Loved Ones doll which is modeled after him rather than the real him.
NEXT: Nora needs a hug
Nora is awakened that night by hotel security, who kicks her to the curb for breaking a mirror in the hotel bar. She claims that her doppelgänger committed the crime, but who knows for sure after the night she’s had. Last year, she got so upset by one of the attendees who implied a link between child Departures and sugary breakfast cereals that she called her a “heartless bitch.” Forced to scramble, Nora sneaks back into the hotel for her panel, wearing a counterfeit badge. She’s nabbed again by security and taken to the boss, who doesn’t quite understand why someone would want to impersonate Nora. “There are a lot of sick people out there,” she says. “Maybe somebody’s doing it for attention. My husband and two children are departed, and that sort of thing, it gets a lot of sympathy.”
It does get a lot of sympathy, as Nora well knows. It gets her a second chance, when the security chief agrees to take her to her panel to see if there really is an impostor. Were you half-surprised to find that the impostor was actually there, and that she had wackadoodle political motivations? As she is carted away, the impostor rants that the government has the technology to vaporize people from outer-space, but her other accusation that the questionnaires are dumped in an incinerator has a ring of truth, especially after we saw what the government is doing with actual bodies, like Gladys.
It does beg the question: Why is the government giving payouts in the first place? After 9/11, there was a similar compensation fund, but that was linked to the airlines and beneficiaries had to agree not to sue them. If millions of Americans inexplicably disappeared and the government has no clue what happened, why are they compensating the families? Between the militant actions of AFTEC and the DSD’s foot-dragging, there’s plenty of evidence of some conspiracy—if you really want to see it.
Back in the hotel’s good graces, Nora is enjoying a free drink at the hotel bar when she encounters Patrick Johannson, the author of What’s Next, a spiritual post-Departure survival guide. His over-eloquent small talk about “ambiguous loss” and his living daughter’s ability to find happiness again rubs Nora the wrong way, and she erupts on him. “Nothing is next!” she barks at him, mocking his exaggerated loss compared to hers. “Nothing!”
Making a scene attracts the attention of an oddball, a man who asks her, “Do you want to feel this way?” He lures her to a shady walk-up apartment building with the promise of proving Johannson a fraud, and once there, he mentions that the knowledge will cost her $1,000. Seems a tad high, but then, this is a woman who spends $3,000 for people to shoot her. She has her misery money. Then, behind the curtain, she comes face to face with Holy Wayne, who proves to be both a charlatan and an intuitive healer. “You believe that you will always feel that pain,” he says. “If it starts to slip away, you seek it out again, don’t you?” He recites scripture, Ecclesiastes 9:4: “For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.” And then, telling her that she deserves the gift of hope, he offers to hug it out. “Will I forget them?” she asks. “Never,” he says, before she succumbs and weeps in his arms. It’s a $1,000 hug. At the very least, it seems better than a $3,000 bullet in the chest.
Back home, Nora isn’t stalking the mistress at the playground anymore. She’s smiling softly at the market cashier who asks for her rewards card. (There’s a sense of hope in every rewards card.) She saves her brother’s voicemail apology. And when the doorbell rings, it’s Chief Garvey, who’s tracked her down to invite her to dinner. There is hope.
In the final scene, Nora is back at work, conducting another awkward beneficiary interview. Question 121: Is the Departed in a better place? No, says the tearful woman, as Nora contemplates the ramifications. Perhaps Holy Wayne is right: “Surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.”