Monday, January 19, 2015

The Leftovers, Season 1, Episode 6: Guest

This week it’s Nora’s story, the woman who lost her entire family during the Departure and now has a job performing the huge number of interview questions for Departure compensation (looking for similarities in those who Departed).

We have a brief montage of Nora’s life showing how torn she is still by the Departure – her watching kids playing, her still buying children’s treats and cereals, her kids’ bedrooms still exactly how they left them despite 3 years having passed (including a half-finished jigsaw puzzle). She shops for a household of four then throws the food away, unopened and untouched just to replace them with exactly the same products.

She makes an appointment with a sex worker, Angel, to come and, much to Angel’s horror (it’s an extremely emotional and powerful scene with Angel finally agreeing for $3,000) shoot Nora in the chest: she’s wearing a bullet proof vest – it isn’t suicide, it’s a simulated suicide. And it isn’t the first time Nora has done it. Angel even asks “what happened to you?”

Nora goes to court to have her marriage to her Departed husband ended (a new legal process that has been allowed), but she chooses to keep her married surname. There she runs into Kevin also there for his divorce from Laurie, now a member of the Guilty Remnant. She, rather randomly, invites Kevin to Miami – she has a work conference in Manhattan and has suddenly decided to miss it and go to Miami with Kevin instead. Kevin points out he lives with his daughter so can’t just drop everything and Nora says “fuck your daughter” quite light and bright about it. Her brain catches us up with what she just said and she apologises and leaves as fast as she can.

She goes to work for a meeting with her boss to prepare for the conference and flag a concern with the questionnaire interview she performs: everyone she interviews answers “yes” to one of the questions, question 121 – and it’s just her, not anyone else performing interviews. She herself answered “yes” to that question on her questionnaires – all three of them.

Nora arrives at the conference – and there’s a horde of protestors, cultists and others outside she has to walk past. She books into the hotel and hears that last year there were behavioural issues with the attendees. At registration there’s lots of posters for a book written by an author who lost 4 people during the Departure and finds her badge is missing, someone else has picked it up. She’s offered a Guest pass instead – but she doesn’t want to lose her name, or the fact she’s a Legacy (someone who has lost someone and who get specially marked badges).

She goes into the mixer as a Guest and runs into Marcus who babbles away trying to attract her attention – and she’s very very not interested. She’s more interested in checking the attendee list to find out who has her badge – and finds someone has signed her name. She goes looking for the person through the conference (while a lecture about the rise of prophets and cults goes on). She decides to follow one woman who won’t look at her, assuming she’s the one who stole her badge, but it turns out the woman was avoiding Nora because last conference Nora tore strips off her for pointing out a high percentage Departed children eating sugary cereals which Nora took to be an attack on her children.

She’s then grabbed by Marcus and a lift full of his exuberant partiers he offers her a choice and very very very heavy handed metaphor: spend the next two days following the rules of a depressing conference and “dying” a little bit or break the rules and party with them.

To the party! There they openly mock Patrick Johansen (the man who lost 4 family members and wrote a book) and “oranges” (Legacies get orange stickers on their badges) and how they’re all so tired of expressing condolences to them every year. This is all in between booze and happy pills. Which leads to people making out, drinking, stripping dancing and generally behaving in a way that probably motivated the little behaviour policy warning. We also find out that Marcus sells the replica bodies of the Departed to grieving loved ones (and he even has a demonstration model – an eerily accurate copy of himself). They sell them for $40,000. He tries to justify himself and it sounds both like a sales pitch and like he is genuinely conflicted about what he’s doing and wants Nora’s reassurance that he’s not a bad person. He also asks if he can kiss her (despite being married) and she says yes – and straddles and kisses his replica

The next day she is kicked out of the hotel for destroying hotel property – in the bar, though she wasn’t in the bar. She tries to convince them that someone stole her badge and it wasn’t her; they don’t listen, despite her having a panel to attend.

She’s undeterred, she gets dressed up and has a copy shop create an ID badge for her – which she attaches Legacy stickers too. She goes back to the hotel but is stopped – and they’re concerned about her fake (though accurate) credentials and gun. The hotel manager asks why someone would impersonate her and she tells them about losing her husband and both kids which visibly shakes him.

Eventually they agree to walk her to the conference to see if there’s anyone impersonating her – they do and yes, there is someone impersonating her. When Nora confronts her, she admits she isn’t Nora – she’s there to protest the Department of Sudden Departure. She’s dragged off, but Nora doesn’t seem happy

To the bar (the hotel is giving her everything free for obvious reasons) where she drinks next to a man who turns out to be Patrick Johansen – the quadruple legacy. He talks about the pain of ambiguous loss which is worse than grief because there’s no closure which is a powerful thing to note – but Nora realises from his story that though Patrick lost 4 people, he still has living family, a daughter. Nora is outraged about his story of hope – because she has no-one (and she doubts part of his loss –it’s like a loss competition). She has an epic rant at him in the middle of the bar and he leaves.

As she leaves she’s followed by a man who asks her “do you want to feel this way?” She says adamantly not and he continues to follow her, saying that she’s right about Patrick being a fraud because he’s not in pain. And he can prove it.

He takes her to see Wayne – charging her a $1,000 to see what Wayne did for Patrick. She pays and is taken to Wayne who explains he took Patrick’s pain from him. He insightfully examines how Nora feels, identifying the underlying hope she has that causes so much pain; she cries. He tells her he’s going to die soon so she has one chance and asks her again “do you want to feel this way?” She checks that she won’t forget her family, then hugs Wayne, wailing and crying

Back in town, Nora isn’t at her usual spot by the playground. She goes shopping and doesn’t buy the children’s cereal. She gets a visit from Kevin and they agree to a date sometime – though he does warn her “I’m a fucking mess”.

In the next interview she conducts, she gets her first “no” on question 121: “Do you think the Departed is in a better place?”

Nora’s story here is incredibly powerful and layered – I was impressed by how it was done on so many levels. Nora is defined as being the woman who lost 2 children and a husband during the Departure. This defines her, this is her identity, this isn’t just who she has been presented to us as and not even how everyone sees her, but how she sees herself. We’ve seen hints of it before with her being called on to make a speech about her loss at “Heroes’ day” or the time she deliberately spilled a cup of coffee in a coffee shop and she was viewed with such gentle, pitying sympathy. Her current job revolves around it, every aspect about her life revolves around it – she’s stuck in that mindset, shopping for the family she doesn’t have, constantly thinking about the family she’s lost.  It’s an overwhelming part of her. And the way she relates to that is fascinating – she’s both trapped by it (clearly unhappy, embracing a kind of suicide with the sex-worker and clearly upset and in pain) – and she has an almost wild cathartic relief when she has that brief moment of anonymity, that brief escape from being Nora-Who-Lost-Her-Family. But at the same time it’s a badge she clings to – and there are so many reasons she would cling to this – as we see her being outraged by that identity being stolen – or what she sees as her loss being counterfeited or falsely claimed or not properly respected or even trumped by the Patrick: because he lost more but doesn’t feel like she does, he has the audacity to hope and be positive and in doing so kind of invalidates her own identity.

The added power of this depiction is that it’s something of a metaphor for the society at large. Lucy said in the first episode that people want to move on and they want to feel better – and it’s very true. That is, after all, one of the essential parts of the grieving process – moving on. This is a global grieving and we have been shown in a thousand wonderfully subtle ways how completely all-consuming the Departure was. People want to moe on this constant grief, this constant pain - but they can’t. That’s why people like Rev Matt and the Guilty Remnant are viewed with such hostility, because they are actively stopping people from moving on. And it’s why the party at the convention was so wild and they were so scathing of the people who had lost loved ones in the Departure – because they’re in industries which makes them wallow in this collective grief every day.

It’s one of the most powerful episodes of The Leftovers so far and really shows both the power of the event and how it affected everything – and how these personal stories have plenty of drama to them

We have the show’s first confirmation LGBT people exist – a nameless man is married to one of the Departed and all we know about that man is that he drank more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day and that he was once suicidal. Both are pertinent issues for LGBT people, but I dearly hope this 1 minute appearance isn’t going to be this show’s token checkbox moment. We also got a teeny-tiny-blink-and-you-may-miss-it of two guys who may have kissed in the drugs-and-drink debauchery party. Using two guys kissing (really briefly, I mean straight folks crawling all over each other and doing drugs? Fine to show. Guys kissing? Careful there! Seriously after that tiny flash they don’t even appear in the group scenes) to show off how edgy and out of control they are is a horrendous trope – same-sex sexuality is constantly regarded as a fetish or something taboo and controversial that cannot be seen and is not Done By Good People.

I do feel a lot of the mistaken identity thing could have been solved by checking IDs and CCTV which no-one bothered to do. I also feel it’s odd that a conference that is clearly being targeted by all kinds of frightening people (someone handed Nora a fake grenade outside the hotel) would have such a lapse policy when it comes to ID-ing not just attendees but speakers