Reviews

"The Book of Nora" Opens as 'The Leftovers' Draws to a Perfect Close

Kevin and Nora share a moment as The Leftovers draws to a close.

The story ends with a story, making The Leftovers' experiential sensation one of divine artistic intent.


The Leftovers

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 8 – "The Book of Nora"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2017-06-04
Amazon

As far as The Leftovers goes, "The Book of Nora" tests viewer patience. Like reading sacred scripture itself, there are parts -- entire books even -- that are a chore to work through. The reader powers through these setbacks, ultimately, in hopes that the grand narrative will ultimately provide answers, or a kind of spiritual payoff for lack of better words. This is the case with "The Book of Nora" and, really, the narrative layout of The Leftovers' final season.

On the one hand, viewers, for the most part, are treated to episodes that hone in on a single character's journey and worldview. This perspectival format inevitably follows the Lost pattern forever linked to Lindelof's storytelling stylistics, but whereas Lost's flashback method later became shorthand for wily filler, The Leftovers applies character focus in ways that shadow the apostolic function of the biblical New Testament. While only the bookend episodes carry the "Book of" homage in their title formats, each episode throughout the third season clearly serve the purpose of enriching a single character's vantage point, notably those of Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn) in "Crazy Whitefella Thinking", Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) in "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World", and long-forgotten Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) in "Certified".

These three episodes tinker and toy with the fragility of mental health and its connectedness to mourning and trauma alongside spiritual meditation and emotional experience. In this post-departure world, viewers watch how individuals grapple to make meaning through spiritual, existential, and perhaps nihilistic outlets.

On the other hand, "The Book of Nora" has the imperfect business of "wrap up" duty, and no narrative could ever completely encapsulate the ideas and expressions laid out by The Leftovers architects. In many ways, audiences are left frazzled and fascinated, confused and bewildered, haunted and yet hopeful as this story reaches conclusion. Indeed, with careful patience and emotional vulnerability, the finalé provides enough of an auteur bait-and-switch to warm hearts and secure open-coded closure for what's come before and what will be.

To Boldly Go Where No [Finalés] Have Gone Before

As far as epic series finalés go, "The Book of Nora" is deceptively (or intentionally?) simple. The pre-credits return to the folksy optimism used for season two's openings (something I predicted when the penultimate episode used season one's ominous neoclassical gem of a theme). Stressing simplicity -- but really spotlighting immense character depth -- writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta and director Mimi Leader cut directly to Nora's (Carrie Coon) "final confessional" video recording. These videos function as a liability form of sorts for the clandestine scientific gatekeepers that allegedly have the knowledge-power to transport willing (or "qualified") volunteers to wherever the departed went. The menacing pseudoscience of it all suggests elaborate assisted suicide, as their method includes "zapping" concentrated radiation onto subjects within a large machine unit. Get the picture?

To Enter This World as We Leave It: Stripped Away

In season three's Nora-centric mirror episode "Don't Be Ridiculous" the pseudo-science whatchamacallit felt like the drama's latest narrative MacGuffin: a device implanted to lead to character revelations, or in this case, Nora's desire to join her children in post-departure perpetuity. Just when I was ready to put this conspiracy theory to bed, however, the sixth episode, "Certified", suggested that this device would actually play a final role in the show's epitaph.

Thus, the finalé's extended opening witnesses Nora overcome the odds to gain access and permission to go through. There's a gentle and emotion conversation shared with brother Matt before her big moment. Episode director Leader frames Nora's disrobing and entrance into the ominous science box with Kubrickian symmetry. Her clothes stripped away, Nora's "long, naked walk" down the cold dark corridor has become HBO's go-to trope when framing female characters for darkly shaded finalés. That said, Lindelof and company previously disarmed viewers by enacting a mirroring sequence in the bottom of a submarine to open "It"s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World". In that opening scene, a nude military man performs an intimately large-scale suicide mission of his own in effort to nuke the planet and end the world. By contrast, Nora is simply looking to nuke herself in an effort to gain final closure.

I can't get into what happens as the cylindrical tank fills, because I just don't have the time-space to process that here, but I'll keep it short by saying…

Once Upon a Time in the Future

The scene jump cuts to future Nora, or the foreign form audiences saw at the stinger-cliffhanger sequence that concluded "The Book of Kevin". We watch the now repetitious shots of old Nora catching and caging doves and bicycling across the (presumed) Australian landscape; however, this time the shot sequence is framed without the emotional score featured on "The Book of Kevin". The score, like Nora's identity (she now goes by "Sarah") is stripped away. Is this an alternate universe, or perhaps has Nora gone through? What is going on? Thus, a micro-mystery set in motion to start season three unravels gently as it collapses into several dangling plots from season three and the series entirety; narrative convergence as peak TV poetry.

"The Book of Nora" then shifts tonally into a close character study of this new Nora in her everyday life performance. She's remote, alone, and living a disquieting lifestyle what with the ritualistic dove release and retrievals and corresponding with a similarly aged nun. Then, one day, a knock at the door. There stands Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), old and wrinkled, different and yet, like Nora, the same.

The two exchange mistruths. Is that what we call them? Kevin invites Nora to a dance, which turns out to be a wedding, but Nora refuses. (Of course she comes later on.) Like the wedding reception that proceeds, much of the finalé encompasses a song and dance ritual of whole-hearted half-truths between Kevin and Nora. These two star-crossed lovers in mourning have found each other in some distant future neither ever saw coming. The unpredictable has become happenstance lifestyle, and all they (and we) have left is to figure out whether these two lovebirds can co-exist in this ultimately humane future.

The slow rollout of the relational finalé tested my patience in a way that's intimately personal to describe. Knowing that every minute passing brings us one step closer to the end of one of the most beautiful and moving series (a short series at that!) in television history can be a claustrophobic sensation to work through. As the pace of their interactions at the wedding slows steadily, I felt a real sense of panic, or at least a panic akin to futile moments I’ve experienced in real-life star-crossed relationships: the kinds of heart-tugging moments where you can disappear into a moment in time forever or die from the heartache such bliss elicits. I'm right there, weirdly, with Kevin and Nora, and yet I'm somewhere else with someone else all the same. In a sense, I've departed.

A Narrative of Closure

As a first-time viewing experience, it was a gut-wrenching finalé throughout most of the middle and up until the final scene. This series finalé was, like so much of television, an episode that ended up being about storytelling. Kevin shows up telling one story, only to tell another. Nora's living one story of her new life, only to fall back into parts of her storied past. Even the doves carry stories in messages of "love" and other human communication. As I noted above, all of season three is about the setting up and laying out perspectival stories between characters (like Mark Linn-Baker!). Thus, there could be no greater final scene for an intimate series like The Leftovers than to have two characters sitting at a table, sharing tea, and telling a tale so fantastic it's vocal utterance carries the weight of ultimate closure for characters and audiences (even if it remains open-coded). It's the finalé of a lifetime because the scene enacts arguably the most repetitious ritual in human history: stories shared over tea.

Nora tells Kevin a story, that's it. And it's beautiful. This is captivating narrative because the conviction of the performers in this moment feels pure. Coon carries this episode even more in her silent beats than when working through dialogic encounters. In a show devoted to mirroring, doubles, bookends, replicas, and twins (kind of), "The Book of Nora" opens as it closes, with an extreme close-up of Nora telling a story. I couldn't bring myself to watch her the second time I viewed the episode, at least not consistently without breaking away. Her storytelling is so good, so devoid of a true tell, I can’t tell what truth I believe. I'm torn, pulled into a kind of narrative spiritual angst.

Moved by the (Televisual) Spirit

As an ironic juxtaposition, I've never been given so little in a finalé and yet felt so full by the final credits. The experiential sensation The Leftovers conjures through its combined production strategy is one of divine artistic intent. The series viewership is historically underrepresented in terms of audience quantity; however, this actually makes sense, in that it inspires a kind of devout following among the show's true believers. The subsequent small group effect produces cult-like fervor for the text, and the experience of consuming the series thus creates a kind of mystic jouissance for audiences "in tune" with its message. That message? I can't quite say, but I’d love to discuss it over tea.

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