This post contains spoilers for the finale of “The Leftovers.” If you haven’t seen it yet, maybe come back another time!
Justin Theroux deserves all the praise he has received for his portrayal of Kevin Garvey in HBO’s “The Leftovers.” But this is a love letter to Nora Durst, played by Carrie Coon. While the actress also deserves all the acclaim for her role, I want to specifically focus on the character. In the interest of full disclosure, it has been three or four weeks since I finished the series. And I haven’t gone a full day without thinking about it. A lot of shows I find easy to marathon view and “quit,” but this hasn’t proven easy with “The Leftovers.”
Glossing over some of its half-baked philosophy (Kevin may be Jesus?) which makes this feel like Damon Lindelof’s apology for ABC’s “Lost,” this is a powerful show. Its powerful because of what it accomplishes rather than what it depicts. I was moved to have a rather deep series of conversations with my boyfriend precisely because we invested our time in viewing it. And it reminds me of part of a quote of one of my favorite lines by one of my least favorite thinkers (a strange collision of realities I’m still working through):
(…) what we seek is not power, or security, or equality, or even dignity, but a sense of worth gained from participation and contribution to a common adventure. Indeed, our ‘dignity’ derives exactly from our sense of having played a part in such a story.
It’s not the full quote. Stanley Hauerwas is making an argument about religion and politics, but this little bit helps me navigate why I find “The Leftovers” so compelling. At its core, “The Leftovers” is an extended meditation on loss. In this case, sudden, unexpected, severe loss. And some characters are better than others dealing with that fact. But what I have come to really love about the show is Nora herself.
So this is the letter I would send her.
I love you. I love your clarity and steadfast resistance to “getting over it.” Because some tragedies are too immense to write off. Some traumas help shape who and how we are. And that’s okay. You achieved what the Guilty Remnant wanted: You never forgot just how patently, absurdly horrible the Sudden Departure was.
“Bad geography” and “luck” are poor explanations. I understand why the show let that hang so horribly: No explanation can be enough. What you experienced was horrific.
You’ll meet people (I myself was once one of them) who will tell you perpetual victimhood will get you nowhere. But when you’re a victim, you get to decide when to claim the title. You were wronged. And “bad geography” isn’t a good enough reason why.
I love you for coping. I love you for showing coping isn’t always getting up and moving on as a whole person. You’re fractured. And your grief leads you to self-harm. I can’t take that away because the work of surviving can be brutal. (You do learn to overcome your most severe habit, which is great!) You’re beautiful because you’re human. In a show of would-be prophets and saviors, you’re just Nora.
It’s your show. Kevin is pretty to look at. Kevin gets the cool parallel reality. But Kevin is a background character in a story that ultimately proves to be about you. You are a joy. People who don’t (or refuse) to see that make me sad because they’re missing a larger, yet seemingly ignored, reality: You don’t get to be happy all the time.
And if my husband and small children literally vanished on me, I’d probably be unhappy to. Hearing people tell you to “get over it” must be exhausting. To be so untrusted about your own feelings must be added punishment. The human capacity for cruelty knows no bounds. I’m sorry for a lot of people who surround you.
I’m happy you got away. I love that you do what you do. Keeping birds that “deliver” messages of love to unseen people is some kind of poetic justice. That you (normally) toss them away without reading them adds a layer of dark humor to it. You are very fully yourself. And that seems to scare some people.
You are my favorite. In a show I can’t seem to shake, it’s you. I can explain Laurie. And on some levels I can explain Meg (which maybe says something about me). But you’re the one I cling to. You divorce your departed husband, which is the most badass phrase I’ve written in a long time.
You’re the person with such a strong sense of self they gave you an episode in which someone steals your identity, ruins a hotel bar, and fresh off a blackout night of drugs and alcohol, wakes up, fixes it, and then leaves. You scream at strangers with terrible advice and smug attitudes. You buy a house you’ve never seen because you want to. You are so very much yourself.
And I get that it’s polarizing. We humans tend to conceal so much of ourselves. I once had a German professor who told me the American obsession with smiling and polite greetings struck her as bizarre and inauthentic. You don’t play pretend anymore. You’re just Nora. And I love that.
There is no apology great enough to make you forget the losses you experienced. In my field there’s a whole debate about the virtues of “letting go” of the past. I read some of the literature in abject horror at the callousness of some thinkers. You are a human. You have to remember. You cannot will yourself to forget your kids. And you sure as hell can’t will yourself to forget the fact they vanished.
Knowing how and where they went didn’t prove enough for you. And that’s okay. You’re still you. That counts for something.