The first scene of “Guest” perfectly encapsulates the special kind of world we talked about in our review of the previous episode “Gladys“. Sure, the second scene steals the show: Nora leafs through a newspaper, makes an appointment with a prostitute advertised under the headline Nothing is Forbidden, invites the scantily-clad girl into her home, plants a pistol in her hand, dons a bulletproof vest, then demands the girl shoot her directly in the chest. Nora’s done this before, she assures the prostitute, although the last girl she got to shoot her “said she’d never do it again”. Thousands of dollars change hands, as do a great number of understandable health-related concerns. Tears fall. Eventually the gun goes off and Nora lurches backwards onto the blow-up air mattress. The hooker flees. After a long moment, Nora gasps a breath of fresh air.
Hell of a scene, no? Even if you aren’t sold on Nora’s self-help methods as a kind of New Grief — as if the old methods of grieving for lost loved ones no longer cut it — the intensity of the scene is still powerful. It builds moment by moment, starting as the prostitute steps over the threshold and holding an inhale as she darts back over it after the gunshot, finally exhaling at the same time Nora does. But a large part of the intensity of the scene might be attributed to the fact that this is the second scene of “Guest”, and the first is so deceptively twisted and unimaginably tragic that the gunshot scene almost becomes inevitable.
Our discussion of “Gladys” painted The Leftovers as neither a post-apocalyptic wasteland nor a familiar place: it’s a blend of both, a temporary apocalypse. All the vestiges of the “normal” world are still there, begging those who find it incredibly difficult to deal with the Departure to grasp them and hold onto the world they know and trust. Few find it more difficult than Nora, who lost her husband and two children — her entire family — on that fateful day.
…”that fateful day“…yeah, yeah, melodramatic, right? Melodramatic and woefully incorrect, actually — the Departure wasn’t necessarily fateful at all. Death is something different, something more tangible, and The Leftovers raises the awful-sounding possibility that Death is actually the better of the two options. For the living that’s almost certainly true, and for Nora the torturous notion that her family now resides on some terrible and unknowable paranormal plane is too much to bear. Question 121 on her Legacy Benefit questionnaire is just that: “In your opinion do you believe the Departed is in a better place?” As Nora’s boss points out, Nora’s charges have an unorthodox pattern of answering that question in the affirmative: they’re in a better place.
So: the first scene. Just as we stated in our “Gladys” rundown, people try desperately to live their lives as they did before by going to concerts, throwing house parties, getting coffee, going jogging. At the start of “Guest” Nora buys food at the grocery store and then takes the trash out. That’s it. If you’d never seen The Leftovers before, it’s conceivable that you’d walk away from that first scene into the gunshot scene with only that knowledge: Nora buys food at the grocery store and then takes the trash out. She seems to have forgotten to buy paper towels, too, because the roll on the counter only has a single shred of white single-ply clinging to it.
But you and I have seen The Leftovers (sidenote: you have, right? What? You haven’t? What are you doing reading this? Do you just always skip to the sixth paragraph of the sixth review of a show you haven’t seen?); we know that there’s always a layer submerged under the surface, that thing Don DeLillo called “the world beneath the world”. Nora’s world doesn’t consist of buying food at the grocery store — Nora’s world is buying food at the grocery store for her family. The Lucky Charms she stocks in her fridge, the gallons of milk, and the rest of it is all exactly what she’ll dispose of a week later, keeping her kitchen stocked exactly the way it was in the event that her family would one day miraculously sit down to breakfast again.
Interestingly, it’s a distinct possibility that Nora doesn’t long for her family as much as she longs for the version of herself that existed before her family disappeared. When the hotel bar gives her drinks on the house due to a mix-up with security, the treatment of post-Departure Legacies is captured in a nutshell: she’s handled with care not because she’s “been a loyal customer” but because she’s “been seriously wronged”. Maybe Nora isn’t stocking her kitchen in preparation for the return of her family, but instead reaching back into the past seeking the return of her old self.
Overall, these complications make “Guest” the most compelling hour of the first season. Like “Two Boats and a Helicopter“, “Guest” takes a page from the Lost playbook and focuses on a single character for the entire episode. As the second season approaches, let’s hope that the same level of care is given to the new characters we’ve yet to meet.