“You’re the calmest and nicest person I know.” — Kevin Garvey, speaking to Nora.
Season 3’s premiere began with the tragic disillusionment of an 1844 Millerite woman expecting the second coming and ended with a slightly altered Nora (answering to the name Sarah) in Australia and denying knowledge of any man named Kevin. How are the two connected? Is Sarah Nora’s future? Is Sarah Nora’s long-lost cousin, making them, I dunno, “Perfect Strangers”? What fate awaits Nora in Australia?
The new opening credits are the old opening credits, minus Iris DeMent. Instead, viewers were treated to the theme song from the ABC sitcom Perfect Strangers. For the unfamiliar, the series, which ran from 1986 to 1993, chronicled the wacky adventures of a sheep herder named Balki (Bronson Pinchot) who immigrated to Chicago from a fictional island near Greece and became roommates with his high-strung cousin Larry (Mark Linn-Baker). In the world of The Leftovers, the sitcom experienced a post-Departure renaissance because it was once believed that all four stars (Pinchot, Linn-Baker, plus Melanie Wilson and Rebeca Arthur) had vanished on Oct. 14. As it turned out, only three had really departed; Linn-Baker had faked his disappearance and was later discovered hiding in Mexico. This is all essential — as are the names of the episode’s credited writers: Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious. According to HBO, those are pseudonyms for Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, derived from an online Wu-Tang Name Generator. The more you know…
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In the opening of “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” the clock runs out on Pillar Man, who suffers a heart attack when everyone’s sleeping and falls off his pedestal, hopefully dead before he crushed his skull on the ground. Actually, the clock reads 4:20 a.m., which provides not only a timely shout-out to weed but a plethora of Biblical verses to reference. I chose Romans 4:20: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” A fitting epitaph for the man, especially when we learn more about him.
It turns out that Pillar Man hadn’t always been a monk. His wife Sandy (Brett Butler) met Matt in “No Room at the Inn”: She paid him to beat her son with an oar when he needed money to get back into Miracle. Such bouts of purification through pain run in the family. “He settled for the pillar only after we got arrested trying to crucify him,” Sandy tells Nora. “I got one nail in before those f—ers had me in cuffs. Free country, my ass.”
Nora’s involved because despite what TV viewers saw, Sandy is claiming that her husband departed: “That man never wavered. He proved himself to God. And last night he got his reward.” She saw it with her own two eyes (“faded out, like he was on dimmer”), and she has plenty of witnesses who, well, are sorta, kinda sure they saw the same thing. Nora is skeptical, because it’s literally her job to be. It’s also her nature, so when one Spanish-speaking eyewitness mentions Sandy spent the morning after the purported miracle with her brother Matt, Nora marches directly to his house.
Matt lies, but she knows him like an open book. Matt tries to justify his actions with Sandy’s total dedication and overwhelming grief. She’d been abandoned by her husband, and yet she camped out with the dregs outside the gates. After the GR stormed the gates, she took up a vigil under the pillar, never receiving even a nod of recognition from her husband above. “He deserves a legacy,” Matt says. “Can’t you give the man a little grace?” He may as well be talking about himself, after his own similar ordeal with Mary. Nora doesn’t play games, though, not about this stuff: “So are you going to dig him up, or should I?” she asks. I suspect Nora did it.
Nora doesn’t have time for nonsense. She’s always been one tough cookie, but her outer shell has grown thick (like an arm cast). And prickly. She mocks the Kevin-as-Messiah theory, tells John the new gospel (which Kevin spared from the fire) was fun bathroom reading, and generally never misses an opportunity to ridicule the notion. “If we can’t have a sense of humor about you being the Messiah, we’re going to have a problem,” she notes. But dost she protest too much?
Below the pillar, where a makeshift shrine has popped up for the recently departed, Nora can’t even fake a sincere expression of sorrow to Sandy, and she clearly resents the charade. Kevin has to pull her away from breaking the truth to a circle of believers who are there to honor Pillar Man. “You’re the calmest and nicest person I know,” Kevin tells her, urging her to help keep things level and steady in the days leading up to the Oct. 14 anniversary.
Underneath her hard shell, though, Nora is extremely vulnerable. It’s almost like that cast was holding her together. As soon as the arm cast comes off, Nora begins to spiral. We briefly glimpse the dark markings the cast was hiding, and the doctor sheepishly asks about her injury, since one of the orderlies thought he saw her inflict it upon her self by slamming her arm in her car door. Hurrying to her car after her doctor’s appointment, her cell rings and it’s Mark Linn-Baker, the Actor. “I’m calling on behalf of a third party,” he says. “They asked me to ask you: Would you like to see your children again?”
Nora’s first instinct: This is a scam and I look forward to doing the “Dance of Joy” all over your ass, Mark Linn-Baker. But MLB says all the right things and invites her to a hotel in St. Louis in the next 24 hours. When Nora repeats, “St. Louis?” all the edge in her voice is gone. She’s fragile. With a quick call to colleague George Brevity (Joel Murray), she gets DSD approval to pursue the celebrity “carrot stick.” (Did you notice the sign on the wall of Brevity’s office: “If You Don’t See Someone, Say Something”? Nice.)
Nora races home to pack, just as Kevin comes in unannounced in the middle of the day. Both are surprised to see the other. “I just came home to change a shirt,” he says, which is now Leftovers code for his afternoon asphyxiation fix. Something is off between them, and it might be aggravated by the Book of Kevin. She mocks the Kevin-as-Messiah theory again, and they find multiple ways to say “I love you” in a lame effort just to conclude the conversation.
If MLB’s phone call rattled Nora, particularly the mention of her two Departed children, Erin and Jeremy, the airport doesn’t help matters. A malfunctioning kiosk refuses to respond to her selection and keeps asking, “Will you be traveling with an infant on your lap?” The annoyingly chipper airline employee explains that it is the result of a “dead spot” on the screen, but “dead spot” to a mother who’s lost three children (Lily, too, apparently) is perhaps the wrong choice of words.
At the St. Louis hotel, it’s time for MLB’s scene. Is he an actor playing a part as part of some scam? Or does he have the answers Nora is looking for? He’s equally suspicious of her, tossing her phone in the toilet to make sure she’s not recording. Just hardware, he says. “Everything that matters is up there in the cloud, right?”—as in data… and children?
MLB reads from notes, because when you’re trying to explain Low Amplitude Denzinger Radiation, a rare kind of neutron radiation that Leftovers-world scientists have recorded in places where departures happened, you want to get the facts right. They’ve built a machine that blasts people with LADR, sending them “through”… for a price. Nora puts up a skeptical front, accusing MLB and his scientists of incinerating people with radiation. But some really smart people have signed up for this, says Yale-educated MLB. When she accuses him of being suicidal, he strikes her Achilles heel by bringing up his Perfect Strangers Departure experience: Three of the four cast members vanished, and he was left behind, abandoned. Nora knows the long odds of that happening, because the same thing happened to her and her family. They did nothing wrong, and yet this landed on them. They both want some control back in their lives.
Would Nora really go through with this? If so, why? Well, because of Lily. The missing baby from the season premiere is safe and seemingly thriving, living with her mother Christina in not-so-nearby Kentucky. Nora drives for an unannounced and unwelcome visit, stalking Lily at the playground, and when the little girl doesn’t recognize Nora, something inside her breaks. Her children are gone. Everyone else around her has their family: Kevin has Tommy and Jill back in his life, Christine has Lily and another newborn, Matt and Mary have Noah. No matter how wonderful Kevin is, he can never understand her loss, her pain. Only Erica might understand.
Erica and John broke up after Evie died. He thinks Evie might be alive somehow; Erica has come to grips with the facts of what Evie did and that she is gone. But Erica is still in the Jarden picture, apparently, friendly enough to have been invited to Tommy’s birthday party. With no place else to turn, Nora visits Erica and says the same words that an addled Kevin Garvey once told her: “I think I’m going crazy.” Yes, she did break her own arm in a car door. She did that because she needed a cast to hide the tattoo she got on her left arm, a “Wu-Tang Band” logo she hurriedly selected to hide another tattoo she quickly regretted: the inked names of her children. Erica knows just the right thing to say and do: rock out on her new trampoline to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck.”
Nora’s jump-therapy only goes so far, and a roadside heart-to-heart with Tommy, who knows that she visited Christine and Lily, sends Nora back off the rails. She’s not calm and she’s not nice, going to Kinko’s and printing out the biggest photo of Pillar Man’s exhumed (and dented) body to plaster across his Jarden Square shrine. “You are a heartless bitch,” Sandy barks after her. “Goddamn you to hell!”
After a full day, Nora comes home to a quiet house. But Kevin’s back at it, and she walks in on him with a plastic bag over his head. We’ve all been there, folks. Kevin is embarrassed; Nora is understanding. “It’s okay,” she says. “It is?” he responds. “You don’t need to explain,” she says. She shows him her tattoo, which makes him blurt out, “Let’s have a baby.” Her reaction — laughter — tells you she’s leaving for the neutron radiation treatment even before the phone rings telling her to bring $20,000 to Melbourne, Australia. “Are you happy?” she asks Kevin, a question with no right answer. Respond “no,” and you illustrate why a new baby is not the responsible-parent answer. Say “yes,” as Kevin does, and Nora counters with not wanting to mess that up. No baby for Kevin, and he can’t hide that her quick dismissal hurts.
It’s on that note that she announces her trip Down Under and Kevin says he wants to join her. Just days before Oct. 14, the Jarden police chief is willing to go on walkabout, following Nora for something he doesn’t understand and perhaps stumbling into his destiny. Because there are four women riders in the Outback who might be interested in making his acquaintance. Grace Payford is the ringleader of a quartet that has targeted a police chief named Kevin, a foul-mouthed brute they think might be immortal in the same way Kevin Garvey seems to be. They confront Aussie Kevin outside his place, sedate him, tie him to a seesaw, and dip him into a lake to test his death-defying abilities. At one point Grace recites what sounds like scripture: “And he looked at them and raised his hand but they did not wave in response and so he clutched the stone to his chest and jumped into the water.” But a quick online Bible search doesn’t pick up that verse. Perhaps it’s from a more obscure publication, like the National Geographic issue that Kevin Garvey Sr. values so much. I thought of that only after Aussie Kevin drowns, and the former Mapleton chief limps on crutches to see the commotion outside his house: “What are you ladies up to?” [Note: Several viewers have pointed out the more likely prospect that Grace is quoting from the new gospel, the Book of Kevin.]
Some random thoughts and observations:
Were you shocked to see Christine again? Presumably, in the three years since she abandoned Lily in the rest-stop bathroom during season 1, she’d come to her senses, tracked down the Garveys and applied for custody of her daughter. Seeing her at a playground, with another child latched to her chest, indicates that she’s a changed woman. After appearances by Dean and Christine, I’m starting to get excited that we might see Aimee (Emily Meade) again. She’d be the perfect season 1 character to resurface and throw Kevin for a loop.
Did you notice Nora’s technology misadventures? Not only did the airport kiosk disagree with her, but she also struggled with the rental-car GPS and the airport parking lot exit machine. Her troubles made me wonder if that flash drive of testimonials Linn-Baker gave her was a Trojan horse virus that compromised her laptop.
I studied their faces hard, but I don’t think any of the four women riders were the same actress who played the nun from the end of the season premiere. Am I wrong?
Speaking of that season premiere epilogue, I now have a theory about Nora’s future: That mysterious sequence is the future, but not the far future. In fact, it could be very soon. Look closely at Nora/Sarah, and she doesn’t look old as much as she looks scarred. After hearing her discuss the process of neutron radiation, it’s not impossible to imagine that she goes through with the LADR and fails to go “through,” leaving her slightly damaged, physically and mentally.
Correction: An early version of this post misidentified Nora’s children; she had a son and a daughter.