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Carrie Coon is a revelation.
“Guest” is the much-awaited (at least by me) Nora-centric episode of The Leftovers and the most engaging hour of the series by far. Since the second episode in which we get tiny glimpses of Nora and her peculiar ways (gun in purse, mysterious job, etc.) she has been an increasingly enthralling figure in the series. The show has provided various looks into her life that tease her experience that created a lot of intrigue and built anticipation. With this more extended look into Nora’s reality, the series does not disappoint. It is a nearly perfect hour carried by a magnificent performance by Coon, who conveys the inherent sadness of the character while simultaneously instilling a certain playfulness and spark to Nora that makes her extremely compelling to watch. Like “Two Boats and A Helicopter” earlier in the season, this episode focuses on one character’s journey and in Nora’s case a significant couple of days that just might alter the way she carries her life from here on out.
The Leftovers utilizes the construct of the rapture to examine how different people deal with death and loss, some turn to religion, others cope with self-destructive behavior, some wallow in their pity, etc. Nora is entrenched in sadness and mired in a peculiar stagnancy. Her private life is a preservation of the time before the departure of her family; she buys the same groceries over and over, refuses to replace the paper towel holder in some kind of attempt to hold on to what is gone. But this episode shows her making a turn towards moving on, not only because of her encounter with “Holy Wayne” at the end of the episode, but even before that, she divorces her departed husband, awkwardly attempts to connect with Kevin, and decides to let loose for once with Marcus and his crew. Being able to witness how the character navigates these encounters and life changes is deeply satisfying and captivating.
The writers do a fantastic job in making Nora a complex and multi-faceted character. It was easy in the beginning to see her as a purely sympathetic figure, a fragile woman who lost her entire family. It would have been very easy to just depict her as a total victim and throw her a big pity party. But the series presents her as a dynamic character, and not as a precious, delicate figure. In fact, she comes across as abrasive and prickly at times. She surprises even herself with her bluntness and is easily flustered. She is entitled, when she doesn’t get her badge at the conference she is annoyed, but she is more angry to not have that higher “legacy” status. In Mapleton she doesn’t need a badge to stand out or make her status known, everyone knows she lost her family in the rapture, but in this conference she isn’t the only one and without that physical marker she gets lost in the crowd. She is aware of the sympathy she gets for having lost her family and exploits it to her advantage. She enjoys the privileges her status grants her. For the past three years this has been her identifying factor and for the first time she has to live without it, this new perspective spurs the narrative and takes the character to unexpected places. Suddenly she has to evaluate her place in the world and ask herself who she is, what arises from that is simply captivating.
With her identity as a “legacy” stripped from her she is free to have different experiences, like joining Marcus and his friends in the hospitality suite. This is a great sequence in which she is confronted with other people’s thoughts and attitudes on the “legacies” and actually seems to enjoy herself for the first time since forever. Coon plays her giddy intoxication so perfectly, with a charming drunken bravado that makes her incredibly likable. Plus, how much fun is it to see her make out with the fake Marcus? Ha! Nora is the best. And as much fun as it is to see her be happy for a moment and enjoy herself, the show also does a beautiful job with the more emotional moments. The Leftovers sometimes comes across as angst porn, really exploiting the heightened emotions the premise makes possible, but there is a real balance in this hour between moments of intense and affecting emotion and more lighthearted instances. As far as episodes of The Leftovers go, this is definitely the most enjoyable in the traditional sense. The tone is much lighter than past installments without dismissing the melancholic undertones so prevalent in the series’ DNA. That coupled with the captivating story featuring what may be the most engaging character in the series makes “Guest” an amazing hour of television.