The second episode of season 3, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” is what the creators of the show call a “Nora episode,” since she will be our main POV (point of view) throughout the episode. This is one of those Leftover episodes (very much like the whole first season) that dwell on the desperation of the characters confronting what seems like a cruel and meaningless universe. Nora has lost her children and her husband during the Sudden Departure, and just when she was rebuilding her life with Kevin and Lily (the daughter of Holy Wayne and Christine), Christine decided to take her back. The episode feels like a punch in the stomach, but it is also a moving exploration of what it is to live with nothing to live for. Nora is like the Biblical Job without the faith, shit just keeps happening to her, and she is getting to the point where she can’t take it anymore. If you think this sounds grim, the episode does have a funny plot that includes Mark Linn-Baker from the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers as himself. We also get a glimpse of Kevin Sr. in Australia and what I think might be the Four Horse(wo)men of the Apocalypse!
This season, the opening credits remain visually the same, but each of the episodes opens with a new song that, as Lindelof has explained, functions as an overture that signals the mood or the theme of the episode. The overture for this episode is, hold onto your seat, the music for Perfect Strangers, the 80s show about Larry Appleton (played by Mark Linn-Baker) and his Eastern Mediterranean cousin Balki Bartokomous (played by Bronson Pinchot). This serve two purposes, one, I went right away to Wikipedia to figure out what happened to those two actors. Two, it sets up (believe it or not), an important plot point of the episode.
How to Make a Saint
The episode, begins with a night view of Jarden’s main square, where we see the Man on the Pillar, the stylite saint of sorts that made brief appearances in episodes 1 and 2 of season 2, having a heart attack and die. The next day, his wife claims in an interview with Nora, who works for the Department of Sudden Departure, that she saw her husband depart. Nora argues that her husband was on top of the pillar as part of an “elaborate coping mechanism” in order to deal with the events of the Sudden Departure, but her wife denies this, and there is a long list of witnesses who also claim to have seen him depart. Here we see the interesting process by which a human becomes a saint. The Catholic tradition, for example, has a very clear process that outlines the requirements by which a person can be canonized as a saint. During the recent canonization of Mother Teresa (she was canonized in 2016), the Bishop of Los Angeles explained to NPR that:
“A saint is someone who has lived a life of great virtue, whom we look to and admire, […] But if that’s all we emphasize, we flatten out sanctity. The saint is also someone who’s now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of it.”
Bishop Barron on the canonization process of Mother Teresa, NPR August 2016
According to the wife of the Man on the Pillar, her husband had “proved himself to God and last night he got his reward.” If she accepts that her husband died of a heart attach (which he did), his devotion and suffering (he lived for five years on that pillar) would have been for nothing. So would have been her devotion to him even if, as Matt later point out, he would not even look at her during those years when she took care of him from the bottom of the pillar, since his only preoccupation was God. Remember that this is a show that explores our need for meaning, and a simple heart attack would have made all of these meaningless. That is why the wife propagates the lie that her husband departed, because even if it is not true, in her mind (and heart) it should be: it gives both of their lives with meaning. It is not a “lie” since it expresses a truth she wants to belief: that her husband died for something and not for nothing. The same goes for the people interviewed on camera who would corroborate her story, they are not simply lying (that would be too simplistic), they want to belief the story, they want to believe that this person who behaved like a saint was, indeed, a saint. And that’s one way the stories of saints are propagated (although as we saw during the last election, that’s also how fake news spread!).
Nora finds out that Matt helped the wife bury the man and covered up the real cause of death. Matt defends his actions because “he deserves a legacy,” but Nora is relentless and wants to reveal the truth. At this point it seems clear that for Nora is not really about the truth, but her own agenda that identifying the Sudden Departure with the Rapture is simply nonsense. In many ways, Nora shares the nihilistic approach to the Sudden Departure of the Guilty Remnant which, if it revealed anything is that nothing makes sense. The Guilty Remnant takes that notion to its ultimate consequence and embraces that nihilistic nothingness as a way of being in the world (silence since words do not have meaning, smoking since they are are not afraid to die, etc.) For Nora, this nihilism doesn’t point anywere, it just simply leaves her without direction in life and without the ability to emotionally connect with others (this is something that will also be explored in future episodes). And that’s why it is so important to her that the truth is uncovered, because it validates her own pessimistic view of the world. That’s why, in the next scene, while Nora and Kevin are on top of the pillar collecting the Man on the Pillar’s possessions, she is so sarcastic (even mean) to Kevin about the fact that Matt and John Murphy wrote a book that considers him the Messiah.
Why in God’s Name Would I Do That?
After helping Kevin, Nora goes to the hospital to get the mysterious cast in her left arm removed (we saw it in the first episode but there was not an explanation as to how it happened). The intriguing part of this short scene is that 1) under the cast there is a new W shaped tattoo, and 2) the doctor lets Nora know that a nurse saw her break her own arm with her car’s door at the parking lot of the hospital two weeks before. Say what?
“Would You Like to See Your Children Again?”
After leaving the hospital, Nora receives a very disturbing phone call in which, Mark Linn-Baker, from the sitcom Perfect Strangers (which also explains the use of the sitcom’s theme song during the opening credits of the episode and its title, the famous catch phrase of Balki!) asks her “would you like to see your children again?” and to meet him in St. Louis within 24 hours if she wants to do so. Poor Nora, she can’t really catch a break. Just when you think she is moving on from her tragic past, her past keeps coming to haunt her. The episode is a continuous descending into an abyss of despair, and either she will be swallowed by it, or she will reach rock bottom and will be able to rebuild her life somehow (the epilogue of the first episode, in which we see an old Nora, seems to hint at the second possibility).
Nora decides to investigate what this apparent cruel and tasteless scam is all about and flies to St. Louis to meet Mark Linn-Baker at a hotel. The Mark Linn-Baker plot takes us back to the premiere of season 2, in which we find out that various celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey (there is another joke on the first episode about him), Salman Rushdie, and the main cast of Perfect Strangers had departed. But apparently, Mark Linn-Baker had faked his departure embarrassed by the fact that he was the only one of the four leading cast members who had not departed. The whole idea is so absurd (something of a Lindelof specialty) that somehow works. It is a joke that, in the hands of the writers of the show becomes a tragic and pointed exploration of the seeming absurdity of it all. Linn-Baker explains to Nora that a group of scientists have figured out where the departed have gone, and that they have created a machine that can send you there. There is a funny moment when Linn-Baker tells Nora that he wants to do it since he wants to “take some fucking control,” implying that he wants to be where the rest of the cast of the sitcom are, which, compared to Nora’s story of her being the only one in her family of four who did not depart is tragically funny. Mark tells Nora that if she wants to go through with this, she will receive a phone call with further instructions.
Who Are You?
Before flying back to Jarden, Nora drives to Memphis in order to see Lily, the biological daughter of Holy Wayne and Christine, who was adopted in season 2 by Kevin and Nora. The scene reveals that Lily’s mom, Christine, had a change of heart and took her back. This scene also seems to reinforce what it feels like the curse of Nora’s life: she is the mother who keeps loosing her children. If there is justice and mercy in this world, she is not feeling it. This is also made explicit in a poignant scene in which Nora approaches Lily in a playground and Lily asks her “who are you?” which is utterly heart breaking.
Nora Cursed… I mean Durst
Nora also takes a second detour before returning home to visit Erika Murphy, who is now divorced from her husband (who is now married to Laurie). Both commiserate about having lost their children, and Nora tells her the real story behind her broken arm: she had gotten a tattoo with the name of her children, and when she realized that this was a terrible mistake, she had it covered with a W shaped tattoo for the Hip-Hop band Wu-Tang Clan. To cover it all up, she then broke her arm. She tells Erika that, after the Sudden Departure, a newspaper called her Nora Cursed, since it rhymes with Durst, which does describe her terrible bad luck. The visit ends with a small glimpse of happiness when both of them jump uninhabited in a trampoline (to the tune, of course, of the Wu-Tang Clan). But what goes up, must come down…
I did not leave Lily for You Nora… I Left her for my Dad
The heartbreak continues (there is no bottom to this…) when Nora has a conversation with Tom while entering Jarden in the middle of the night. Tom confronts her about visiting Lily, and Nora tells him that she hopes that he would have never left Lily with her. He responds “I did not leave Lily with you, I left her with my dad. I didn’t even know you existed.” Poor Nora…
You are a Heartless Bitch
When Nora returns to Jarden, she prints a picture of the autopsy of the Man on the Pillar and places it in front of the cheesy painting his followers had made of him, a Jesus looking saint figure ascending to heaven. What’s interesting of this scene is that, for Nora, the truth is like a hammer that she wields not to help and comfort people, but to bring them down to her level: if she is lost and depressed, so should be everyone else. In a show in which religion is so important, she does not believe, she has no faith, and the faith and beliefs of others are stupid. She has become, as the wife of the deceased Man on the Pillar calls her, “a heartless bitch.” Is not that she is an agnostic or even an atheist, she doesn’t want to believe in anything because nothing can explain the loss of her family. If there is a God, why would God do that?
I Just Do it To Feel
When Nora finally returns home, she catches Kevin asphyxiating himself again with a plastic bag: “I just do it to feel,” he says to her. She tells him that it is ok, that there is nothing to explain, and she tells her about the tattoo she just got (without telling him the whole story or the reason why). Nora and Kevin are both broken people. Nora has no reason to believe, and Kevin doesn’t want to, even if there are enough reasons for him to do so. Nora doesn’t want to feel, and Kevin is desperate to feel something. It is their brokenness that keeps them together, the only thing that they have in common at this point. It is interesting to point out that the first episode was called The Book of Kevin, while the last episode of the series will be called The Book of Nora. Will Nora by the end of the show believe? Is there hope for her? Will she be able to accept what happened to her family and move on? I guess we all have to wait for some answers.
I am Going to Australia
Their conversation though, is interrupted when Nora receives a call from the scientists who, supposedly, have developed the technology to reunite people with those who had departed. If she wants to do it, though, she will have to fly to Australia with $20,000. She decides to go, and tells Kevin that she needs to go to Australia for work. Kevin tells her that he wants to go with her. The show has hinted at Australia as an important location for the plot of the story several times before in the show, and they even sent Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr., to Australia towards the end of season 2. Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and a consulting producer in the show already alluded at the importance of Australia:
Australia is almost universally understood as the seat of ancient spiritual power, particularly the sort of inland parts, because it’s such a unique landmass with a unique ecosystem. Some of the oldest tribal shamanistic traditions in the world still exist there in vibrant form among indigenous peoples.
Vulture, October 2011
The Leftovers has a clear Judeo-Christian symbolism in its DNA, but it is also a show that explores religion beyond the confined borders of the Bible. As Reza Aslan points out, Australia represents in the show an ancient form of life and spirituality that precedes religion as prescribed by Christian scripture. The Leftovers goes to Australia, the symbolic cradle of religion and spirituality, when the world is coming to an end.
Now let me be clear here, as a scholar of religion, I think this is a romanticization of Australia and aboriginal culture, but at the symbolic level of the show, it does work. Aboriginal religion offers a counterbalance as well as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian interpretations of the events of the Sudden Departure. Until now, it seems that the only questions we could pose is to consider if the Sudden Departure was the Rapture, if there is God (as in a monotheistic God), and lately, if Kevin is the Messiah. Australia may open the religious landscape and offer a wider framework into which to explore religion and spirituality in general, even if most of the symbols used by the writers are still based in biblical themes and characters.
Epilogue: Are you Kevin?
The epilogue of the show takes us to Australia where we follow what it looks like an evil doppelgänger of Kevin: a local chief of police of a small town, also named Kevin, although less handsome and less in shape than Justin Theroux (evil Kevin even kills a kangaroo!). When, after his shift, he arrives home, a group of four women riding horses are waiting for him and ask if his name is Kevin and if he is the chief of police, and when he confirms this, the women shoot a tranquilizer at him, and take him to the edge of a lake where they drawn him while telling him that everything is going to be ok, and that they will see him in three minutes. They obviously have heard of the other Kevin, the one in Jarden, and they believe that he can help them (with the end of the world?) by performing a ritual death that will allow him to go into the other world. We should remember that the show established Kevin (the other Kevin!) as a shaman, as someone who can travel between our world and the world of spirits, and that this ability makes him special, to the point that, as we saw in the first episode, Matt, John Murphy, and others in Jarden think that he is the Messiah. But how do this women know about Kevin? And what do they think temporary killing him will do? Now, the image of the four women riding horses does evoke in symbolism that of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse found in the Book of Revelation, who are sent to unleash the apocalypse in advance of the Last Judgement. Of course they may also simply be four women riding horses, but in a Lindelof show, you never know…
When some of the women in the group start having second thoughts about drowning this Kevin (“What if it is not him?”), they pull him out of the water, and guess what… it wasn’t him and he is quite dead! At that moment, from a house Kevin Sr. comes out walking with crotches yelling at the women: “”What’s going on?” And that was it for the episode.
More on Those 4 Horsewomen of the Apocalypse
The Book of Revelation does mention four horsemen which are considered to be Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. The four horsemen unleash the apocalypse or end of the world that precedes the Last Judgment. If this season is all about the end of the world, it would make sense that Lindelof and the other writers of the show use Biblical symbols and imagery from the Book of Revelation and, therefore, these women would stand in the world of the Leftovers for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Since we are talking about the Book of Revelation, let me add another interesting aspect that may be relevant for the upcoming episodes of the show. In one interesting passage from the Book of Revelation there is a reference to people wearing white robes, signaling those who would be ultimately saved in the Last Judgement. Here is the passage:
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters,[e] were killed just as they had been.
12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned blacklike sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us[f] from the face of him who sits on the throneand from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their[g] wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
Revelation 6 New International Version (NIV)
We saw the wearing of white robes in the prologue of the season with the members of the Millerite movement and, of course, we have the Guilty Remnant and their white clothes. I’ll leave you with a final thought, here is a picture taken on the set in Australia that has Justin Theroux wearing a white tuxedo while filming the final season of the show.. what do you make of that!