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The Leftovers: Nora Durst (A Character Study)

Nora Durst looks down the bar with a martini in front of her

Sometimes the world looks perfect,
Nothing to rearrange.
Sometimes you just get a feeling
Like you need some kind of change.
No matter what the odds are this time,
Nothing’s going to stand in my way.
This flame in my heart,
Like a long lost friend
Gives every dark street a light at the end.

Standing tall, on the wings of my dream.
Rise and fall, on the wings of my dream.

The rain and thunder
The wind and haze
I’m bound for better days.
It’s my life and my dream,
Nothing’s going to stop me now.
(Nothing’s going to stop me)
It’s my life and my dream,
Nothing’s going to stop me now

-“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” by Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay

Nora begins to cry as she meets with Holy Wayne

Nora Durst lost her whole family when the Sudden Departure occurred on October 14th, which is hard to imagine. She was in the kitchen, working on breakfast, and turned away from them as her two kids were complaining and her husband was being not great; when she turned back around, they were just gone.

As much as Nora’s story in The Leftovers centers around Kevin and the Garvey family, it is important not to forget this: she lost everything. All of a sudden one morning, those closest to her just disappeared. How does one cope with that? How do you deal with those you love most deeply just suddenly being gone?

In this way, Nora exemplifies the question raised by the Departure, the one central to The Leftovers in general: how to face the inexplicable nature of loss? It fundamentally does not make sense to us when those we love are gone; when they die, for example. It is as if our brains don’t know how to process it. You’ll start thinking that you want to tell that person something, and then realize all over again that you can’t. You’ll dream about them. Years later, even, you may dream that they didn’t really die after all, but that it was something else—some kind of weird thing that caused them to disappear for awhile, perhaps even a deception on their part.

It is in this way that the Departure is not different from death; it simply presents the quintessence of it. It could happen any time, for no reason, or at least no reason you could predict, and when it does that person will simply be gone. Where will they go? Will you be able to go there as well, and rejoin with them? To what extent is that what we fantasize about when we fantasize about an afterlife?

Nora goes on because she must, even though she can’t. In my first piece on The Leftovers, I chose the following epitaph, from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable:

Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Something about this resonates through the stories of all of the characters I have covered in this series, but also with Nora Durst in particular. She can’t continue, but she does anyway. She hires sex workers to shoot her, for example. Of course. She wears a kevlar vest, so as not to actually be killed, but this still represents something along the lines of a suicidal impulse: she can’t go on; she must go on; she’ll go on.

Perhaps if her family had died, and she were the kind of person who believed in an afterlife, she would have committed suicide to be with them. As it stands, however, she joins the bureau that investigates departures. On the one hand, this may be because she has a true desire to understand what happened, but on the other it seems to involve her insistent denial that there were any secondary departures. The idea of it having happened again is anathema to her, in part, it would seem, at a metaphysical level. Even though she does not believe in God, she says, “[T]he ark took on all the animals it needed; why in God’s name would it take on more?”

The point is that it is important to her to believe that this was a one-time thing, which has to do with how she values her own loss. Those who claim a secondary departure are trying to co-opt that loss, which is something that Nora finds incredibly offensive, and with good reason. You don’t get to claim something like that when it isn’t true. It is much like telling your girlfriend that you have cancer when you don’t (to pull on a story that relates to a friend of mine); this is not an acceptable thing to do, and it does seem to be the case that all of the claims she assessed in this regard were, in fact, fraudulent.

However, the disappearance of Evie Murphy and her friends does seem to be more complex. That is, it fails to set off the usual red flags, as George Brevity from the DSD notes. Yet Nora is adamant that this was not another Departure, even going so far as to steal the questionnaire from George and confront Erika with it in an attempt to prove as much.

This creates a harrowing scene in which Nora reads the questions from the survey with a kind of cold detachment. For example, she knows that Evie has epilepsy—she saw her have a seizure the night they all met—but she reads the question anyway. Of course she does. Nora is a consummate professional. But it is at that point that Erika’s willingness to play along with the whole thing starts to break. She enters a story about her grandmother telling her that Jarden was chosen, and how you can prove it by burying a bird in a box for three days and then making a wish when you found it to still be alive. Even as a little girl, she says she knew that was pretend, and that the good lord was pretend.

But when October 14th came, and no one from Jarden departed, Erika started to question that. It took a few years for her to try the whole bird-in-a-box thing, though, as she contemplated the idea of leaving John but worried about Evie being OK. So she took a wounded bird she found and buried it in a box in the woods. When she found it alive a few days later, her wish was for her daughter to be alright. And then, the next day, her daughter disappeared.

It is worth noting the extent to which Nora disbelieves Erika’s story, particularly in light of the story she herself tells Kevin at the end of the series. Nora is not just skeptical when it comes to Erika’s claim; it is clear that she finds it to be ridiculous, beyond the pale of possible belief. She goes so far as to call Erika’s presumed worry that she may have been the cause of her daughter’s departure “pathetic.” Erika ultimately turns the table back on Nora and questions her, but it turns out that Nora was right about Evie and her friends: they faked it. Long live the Guilty Remnant.

In Season 1, we see Nora get angry at her brother Matt for his thing with the fliers. He wants to show that the people who departed were not (all) good people and is working to expose their misdeeds. He even tells Nora, when things come to a head, that her husband was cheating on her (though he would never make a flier about that). All of this is in no way to the point for Nora; the point is that Matt is being an asshole. Maybe he wants to show that this wasn’t The Rapture, but from Nora’s point of view that is a dumb idea anyway, so he is really just antagonizing people who have lost loved ones, as she has, for no good reason. If it’s a test, as Matt says, she thinks he might be failing.

Nora is not interested in considering the Departure as an abstract question; for her it is terribly concrete. She lost everything, and the move to engage in metaphysical or theological theorizing about the event strikes her as offensive with regard to that loss. From her perspective it would seem that the only appropriate response is a sort of perpetual mourning—to tarry with the loss and respect it.

Yet, how does this stand with regard to how she treats Erika, and her own insistence that there have been no secondary departures? Sure, she was right about Evie and her friends, but she was also a bit of an asshole to Erika, who was worried and distraught about her daughter. Are Nora’s actions with Erika that different from Matt’s actions with the fliers?

While Nora may not be interested in metaphysical interpretations of the Departure, she is firmly committed to the idea that it was a one-time thing. On the one hand, this is surely because she finds claims of secondary departures to be demeaning with regard to her loss, but whither the stridency of her position? To what extent does she believe that October 14th was like the flood, and that the ark took everyone it needed, as she tells Jill?

If Nora is not interested in the question posed by the Departure abstractly, she certainly is concretely. As she tells Laurie in Season 3, Nora (unlike some others who lost loved ones to the Departure) wants closure. When she begins to pen her letter to Kevin at the end of Season 1, she begins by saying that she needs to say goodbye to someone who is still here:

Dear Kevin,

I need to say goodbye to someone I care about, someone who is still here, so I am saying it to you.

You were good to me, Kevin, and sometimes when we were together I remembered who I used to be before everything changed. But I was pretending, pretending as if I hadn’t lost everything.

I want to believe that it can all go back to the way it was. I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization. I want to believe that it is still possible to get close to someone… but it’s easier not to. It’s easier because I’m a coward, and I couldn’t take the pain, not again.

I know that’s not fair, Kevin. You’ve lost so much too, and you’re strong. You’re still here. But I can’t be, not anymore. I tried to get better, Kevin. I didn’t want to feel this way, so I took a shortcut. But it led me right back home, and do you know what I found when I got there? I found them, Kevin, right where I left them. Right where they left me.

It took me three years to accept the truth, but now I know that there’s no going back, no fixing it. I’m beyond repair. Maybe we are all beyond repair.

I can’t go on the way I’m living, but I don’t have the power to die. But I have to move towards… something. Anything. I’m not sure where I’m going, just away. Away from all this. I think about a place where nobody will know what happened to me. But then I worry I’ll forget them. I don’t ever want to forget them. I can’t. They were my family.

I think I loved you, Kevin. Maybe you loved me, too. I wish I could say this to you instead of writing it. I wish I could see you one last time to thank you and wish you well and tell you how much you mean to me.

But I can’t.

Like I said, I’m a coward.

So, wish me luck. I think I’m going to need it.

Love, Nora

When she goes to drop off this letter and finds a baby on Kevin’s porch, it does not cause a turn in her that makes the sentiments she had expressed false; rather, her immediate connection to Lily relates to her desire “to believe that it is still possible to get close to someone”—the thing she wrote that it was easier not to do because she couldn’t take the pain again. This is worth bearing in mind in when thinking about the impact that losing Lily from her life has on Nora. In fact, this letter to Kevin/monologue provides a key to understanding the actions of the character as a whole. Nora considers herself to be beyond repair.

When she encounters Patrick Johansen, author of a popular book entitled What’s Next, at a conference, her question to him is why there is no question mark, and his response infuriates her. For Nora, there is no moving beyond the Departure. She lives in the space of that question, which she believes does not have an answer. There is no “next.”

Thus when she meets with Holy Wayne and pays him for a “magical” hug to take her pain away, one might take the fact that her pain lingers as an indication that Wayne was a fraud; or perhaps it was Nora’s resistance that was the issue. Like many who have lost loved ones, she fears the idea of forgetting them.

In many ways, Nora would seem to be a prime candidate for the Guilty Remnant, but she’ll have no truck with them. When they stand in front of her house as she returns with Kevin, she sprays them with a hose. And when they place Loved Ones™ dummies of her departed family in her kitchen, although it would seem to have the desired effect on her, it in no way tempts her to run into their arms.

Nora sits at her table with Loved Ones replicas of her family

From Nora’s point of view, the Guilty Remnant falls prey to the same kind of sin as Johansen: they claim to know what to do now. Further, their approach is far too impersonal. To claim that the world is over, and that family therefore doesn’t matter, bucks right against Nora’s central existential disposition. It strikes her as an unearned coping mechanism: if only one could believe that one’s personal loss was a part of a grander metaphysical design. It doesn’t matter if that’s hopeful or nihilistic; it only matters that it provides an answer, and that’s unacceptable.

Nora resists attempts to answer the question. She laughs at the “researchers” who think the Departure had something to do with angels and demons, and she mocks the “Book of Kevin” that her brother Matt becomes so invested in. What we might call the supernatural is not a live hypothesis for her; it’s silly. And while most of us may agree when it comes to the suggestion that Azrael was responsible, her disposition with regard to Kevin creates a greater rift.

Of course, one must presume that Kevin never told Nora about the experiences he had in “International Assassin”—how could he, really?—but we saw them, as viewers, and it would be a strain not to give them a certain metaphysical weight. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these things happened in a real sense, thus Nora’s mocking grates on Kevin in a way he can’t express, but which we can see. When it all comes to a head that night in the hotel room in Australia, we understand what is happening better than either of them do.

She has been presented with a potential opportunity to reunite with her family, but she was turned down. Kevin has gone through an ordeal where he thought he saw Evie Murphy, but he was wrong in a way that seems crazy without the context of what happened between him and Patti—including the events of “International Assassin” that occurred beyond the veil (and it might seem crazy even with all that context). And let’s not forget that when Kevin told Nora about Patti talking to him back in Season 2, she left him, however briefly.

Perhaps there are some things we just can’t tell each other, not because they are secrets so much as there is just an inability to communicate them. Words are imperfect. A robust vocabulary and grammatical skills might help, but we still struggle to express ourselves and to be understood by the other. And it’s not just a matter of the words we choose, but something else. It’s not clear that there is anything that Kevin could have said to Nora, or vice versa, to avoid the break what occurred that night in that hotel.

As much as Nora resists any kind of supernatural explanation for the Departure, she finds herself compelled by a more naturalistic one: that it involved a certain kind of radiation and so on. Of course, she seems skeptical when Mark Linn-Baker calls her to tell her about this, and there is an ambiguity in her position that plays right through to the end, but it would seem that an explanation in line with modern science offered her something she could finally believe in. Or perhaps it was her will to believe that drove her to accept something that had even the most tenuous degree of credibility in her own mind.

After all, it is not as though Nora jumped at this chance being offered to her; she seemed very skeptical of it. As she investigates, it is easy to believe that this is just another instance of her trying to disprove the hokum that people have been bandying about since the Departure. To discover that she was serious about it—to the point of tracking the scientists down to change their minds about rejecting her—reveals that her desire to rejoin her family is stronger than her ontological commitments. Finally, here is something she can (maybe) believe in—let’s do it.

Whether she actually did it is left, to some degree, as an open question. It is true that at the very moment that Nora is about to “go through” the scene cuts. She cries out…something.

Did she cry out for them to stop, or was she taking a deep breath to hold for 30 seconds? The ambiguity is intentional.

When we see Nora again, older, she tells Kevin that she did indeed pass through to the other side—a world where instead of 2% of the world disappearing, 98% did—but this, of course, explains nothing. Even the many-worlds interpretation of the problems of physics would be no help here. There could be multiple realities and so on, but that’s a way of solving certain problems that arise in quantum mechanics. Or, equally, we could go back to someone like Leibniz, who considered the question in a purely philosophical way before deciding that there can be only one world: the one that God reasons to be the best.

The idea presented by The Leftovers does not fit with either of these notions insofar as it seems that the Departure presents a real rift between two realities—that is, if we believe Nora. The account she gives is entirely spoken, without accompanying images, and so there is certainly space to doubt it. Equally, there is that moment I referenced before, which I believe is ambiguous. I have seen some others claim it was clear, but usually in what I think is the wrong direction.

The important thing is Kevin’s response: “I believe you […] you’re here.” We are asked to believe along with him.

A grey haired Nora has a tear in her eye as she talks to Kevin

Whether Nora is telling the truth or not doesn’t matter; what matters is whether we believe her, or whether we believe in her. Supposing that Nora’s story is true, she still never got in touch with Kevin, or even her brother Matt. She didn’t go to the latter’s funeral. She enacted her dream of just being somewhere else, away from all of this: a place where nobody knows what happened to her.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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