Sunday, April 23, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Leftovers' - Nora Learns a New Theory Behind the Sudden Departure in 'Don't Be Ridiculous'

HBO's The Leftovers - Episode 3.02 "Don't Be Ridiculous"

In her official capacity as fraud investigator for the Department of Sudden Departure, Nora travels to St. Louis to investigate a possible scam that involves convincing the family members of The Departed there's a way to see their loved ones again.

The Leftovers set up a number of mysteries in its final season premiere last week. Where is Erika Murphy? What happened to baby Nora? What's going to happen on the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure? What's going on with the glimpse of an older Nora in Australia? Some of these questions are going to remain very important and mysterious throughout the entire final season. I'm not expecting the anniversary of the Sudden Departure to actually hit until the season finale - where something will or won't happen. The tease of Nora in Australia probably won't become relevant until then either. But it is fascinating to get some answers on some of the other questions in "Don't Be Ridiculous." The show set them up in the premiere so that it felt like the audience was just walking into a random day in these characters lives. But now, it is providing more context for the audience while still being as emotionally devastating as ever. This Nora-centric episode reveals a ton but it has a very visceral and moving punch as well.

Across three seasons, this show has done an excellent job in showing how various people react to grief and suffering in numerous different ways. The Sudden Departure has no explanation. It's simply something that occurred. It affected everyone on the planet. It changed the world. And now, everyone is coping by telling themselves stories. They need to believe something in order to rationalize all of this. It can't simply be a random event that occurred in the universe. The search for answers has been a main component of this series. And yet, it's not a mystery that the show ever has to definitively answer. It's more important to see how these characters are coping with all of this. It has been seven years since the departure. But Nora is still dealing with the loss of her children and husband in some profound ways. She's back working at the Department of Sudden Departures. She continues to be an excellent agent who can discredit any false report of people departing. But there is a hard edge to her this season as well. She's become this way because she has suffered some immense pain over the last few years. And thus, it's absolutely devastating once the show starts peeling the layers back to show that Nora is as fucked up as she always is. But that's okay too because she's surrounded by people who understand and are just as fucked up as she is.

"Don't Be Ridiculous" also examines whether or not it's okay for one person to expose another's coping mechanism as false. This hour opens with the man in the pillar having a heart attack and falling to his death. It's another brutal way to start an episode of this show. But a cover-up occurs to make it seem like he was taken just like the rest of the Departed. It's a story his wife, Sandy, is telling the world. It's a story that will make all of his suffering have a purpose. He went up in that pillar and stayed there for five years in order to suffer. He did so to show his devotion to a higher cause. It would be meaningful if he was rewarded for that. But he wasn't. The people of this community need to believe in miracles. One happened on October 14. They are hoping that they'll continue to happen in this town. People come here to believe in the impossible because great things have happened in Miracle, Texas. Nora wants to expose all of this as a lie. A story to make people feel better when the man's suffering was completely pointless in the end. He died and there is no more meaning beyond that. He left the entire world behind to be on that pillar. He died all alone for no reason whatsoever. It's still cruel that Nora gets as big a picture as she can make showing his dead body to this community. But it's also her doing her job and making sure these false narratives don't get much traction. To her, there simply are no miracles in Miracle. She's just doing her job to the best of her ability and proving that what people believe are wrong.

That's what makes it so gripping to watch as Nora is given some new information about the Sudden Departure that can't be explained. She gets a call from the actor Mark Linn-Baker. He's promising a way for her to see her children again. When she travels to St. Louis to hear what he's selling, it's a story about science and the presence of rare radiation on departure sights. He's giving her an opportunity to be blasted with the same radiation and go to the place her children were sent to on October 14. It's the latest explanation this world has to offer for why the Sudden Departure happened. Mark is suggesting that it's something that can be recreated. And thus, these grand reunions can happen. The power of this scene comes less from the science behind it all and more from Nora's reaction to it. She has moved on with her life. She's in a serious relationship with Kevin and has returned to a job she's really good at. She wants to rationalize that this experiment is simply killing people with radiation instead of sending them to see their departed relatives. That's the appropriate and rational thought to have. And yet, this organization has convinced more than a hundred people to go through the procedure. And the emotion of possibly seeing Erin and Jeremy again is very overwhelming.

The world seems to constantly be breaking around Nora as well. Technology is failing her throughout this hour. It seems like everything she does is a constant reminder of the children that she lost. She can't escape that identity. She's a mother who needs to see her children. She can't physically see Erin or Jeremy because she simply doesn't know what happened to them. But she can see Lily again. She knows exactly where to find her. It's a trip to Kentucky but it's worth the effort. And yet, that only reveals just how much things have really changed over the past few years. Nora was devoted to being a good mother to Lily by the end of the second season. She saw her as her child whom she loved and would do anything for. And then, Christine showed up and wanted her back. Lily was taken from Nora. Nora didn't fight it because she saw it as the right thing to do. But it's still so devastating for her to lose yet another child. She can still physically see Lily. But she's no longer Lily. She has a new mother and a new name. She has newfound happiness elsewhere. She doesn't even know who Nora is. That's the most heart-wrenching moment of this sequence. Lily will continue growing up not knowing how much Nora loves her. That's absolutely devastating.

The conversations Nora has with people about dealing with all of this range in effectiveness as well. She is able to confide in Erika because she too understands the loss of a child. With Erika, her daughter died and she was able to bury her remains. She was able to say goodbye. She was distraught for a long period of time not knowing what happened to Evie. But in the end, she did get closure. That's something that Nora can never get. No matter how hard she tries to move on and be happy in her life, she's still incapable of truly dealing with what happened to her children on October 14. She wants to honor them in some way but she doesn't want to constantly remember them or tell everyone she meets her story. So instead, she hurt herself to cover up her new tattoo. That's why she has a broken arm. It's so self-destructive. She can't continue going down that path because it will only lead to more pain and destructive. Jumping on a trampoline with Erika is a moment of relief. That's a terrific sequence because it's the two of them experiencing joy again. It being accompanied by a Wu Tang Clan song is even better. It's a glorious moment. But that feeling doesn't last long for Nora. Tommy stops her as she returns to Miracle wondering if Christine should be worried about her family's safety. He's a lot more blunt in his response to Nora's uncertainty regarding children. He never intended for Nora to raise Lily. He didn't know she existed. She wishes he never left a baby on Kevin's doorstep. She wishes she never got attached to another child. But she did. It's what happened. It shows how unexpected life can be. Things don't go according to plan. But when things really don't work out, it makes people question why it all happened in the first place and if they would have been better off not knowing at all.

After all of this, Nora returns home to discover Kevin with a plastic bag around his face. That was a brutal visual from the premiere that showed that Kevin is still using suicide threats in order to feel alive. But now, he's seemingly in control and doing it just in order to feel something. He pleads to Nora that he always rips the bag off. He never ultimately chooses death over life. He wants to live. Nora understands all of this because she has experienced these feelings as well. She understands what Kevin is going through. He doesn't need to outright say them to her. The two of them do seem more open as a couple this season. He isn't keeping Matt's book about him a secret from Nora. In fact, she has a lot of fun making jokes about her boyfriend being the new messiah. And yet, there's still some distance between them as well. Kevin still believes that they should have a baby. He still wants to be "normal" with Nora. She laughs at him which is an appropriate response. They are both broken people. They've found each other and are happy. All of that is at risk should they try to change things now. Nora is then open about needing to go to Australia for work. That's where this new procedure is now located. She doesn't give Kevin details about it. She allows him to come with her though. So, that's going to be an interesting journey. Will Nora go through with all of this? Or is she planning on exposing these people as frauds too?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Don't Be Ridiculous" was written by Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious and directed by Keith Gordon.
  • The premiere didn't have the title sequence. So, it was also a mystery whether this season would have new titles like the previous two seasons did. Nope, they are exactly the same as Season 2. However, it's accompanied by new music. It's the theme song from Perfect Strangers! That's very fitting for this hour as Mark Linn-Baker becomes even more important. But will that be the music used in this sequence for the rest of the season?
  • Matt is a significant part of the cover-up of the death of the man in the pillar. He was a willing participant because he wanted to give Sandy a reward and some comfort for standing by him for all of these years. He wanted to help but he's propping up a false narrative that Nora is responsible for exposing.
  • How much of the "Gospel of Kevin" has Nora actually read? She claims to have read it on the toilet but that seems like a way to just tease John about it. She takes it on her journey to St. Louis but she seems too preoccupied to actually read it. So, has she read any of it? But more importantly, does she believe that any of it actually happened?
  • Speaking of the "Gospel of Kevin," does Laurie know that it exists? She was aware of Kevin's suffering last season. She approached it very clinically. He was having a psychotic break that needed to be treated. And yet, she is now married to John, who believes that Kevin is a miraculous man who can't die in Miracle just like Matt and Michael do.
  • The premiere saw the return of Dean and this week Christine returns to the narrative. So which other characters from Season 1 are going to pop up somehow this year? For the most part, the characters left behind were left behind for a reason.
  • This episode once again ends on a trip to Australia. This time the sequence is centered around a chief of police also named Kevin who is taken by a woman named Grace and her friends. They see him as someone important and drown him to prove it. Of course, it ultimately kills him. And then, it's revealed that Kevin Sr. is there too. So, Australia just got even more complicated and ominous for when Kevin eventually lands there.