Something that I find unexpectedly fascinating in The Leftovers is how it explores the way the Sudden Departure has changed the general landscape of the world in terms of employment and new government facilities. It’s something that I hadn’t thought about before — instead only focused on the emotional aspect — but it plays a heavy role in “Guest,” a Nora-heavy episode.
Nora, as we know, lost her husband and both her children in the Sudden Departure. She now works for the Department of the Sudden Departure, a government agency that sends out employees to talk to “legacies” or “survivors” who have lost loved ones and will receive a monetary benefits package. They fill out an extensive and invasive questionnaire so the agency can look for patterns, to find common connections, and to try to figure out why these particular people departed. (On one of the questions, “Do you believe the Departed is in a better place?” Nora has a 100% affirmative rate; this changes in the very end of the episode.)
Nora’s life has been in a standstill since the departure. Her children’s rooms are all the same, never touched. A half-done puzzle remains on a table and will never be finished. She throws away expired cereal and milk only to replace it with identical products, preserving her house exactly as it was the morning of October 14, perhaps because she believes that if her family returns, they need everything to be exactly the same. She can’t move on; she’s literally surrounded by reminders of her family, literally works with those who suffered just as she did.
In an earlier episode, we discovered that Nora had a gun but no one was quite sure what it was for. In “Guest” she hires a prostitute to shoot her in the chest as she wears a kevlar vest, trying desperately to feel something. It’s disturbing and screwed up, just like everything in Mapleton is. The woman shoots Nora for $3,000 and immediately flees the scene before waiting to see if Nora breathes again.
The bulk of the episode takes place at a conference for those who work in Departure-related careers. Nora’s a panelist but when she arrives it turns out someone has already taken her badge and she’s stuck with a “Guest” badge, one that not only doesn’t display her name but also — and more importantly/frustratingly for Nora — doesn’t have the bright orange stickers indicating that she’s a legacy. These stickers tell everyone around her that she’s lost three people, she’s fragile, and she deserves special attention.
Nora ends up at a hotel party with other panelists, ones who make fun of the legacies because they don’t know Nora is one. She’s given an unknown pill and the scene becomes analogous to “teens on molly” scenes: everyone’s giggly and touchy-feely, sharing too much and kissing each other. She’s somewhat intrigued by Marcus (who is definitely intrigued by her) and his secretive job.
It turns out that Marcus takes photos/videos of the departed and creates these super creepy real life dolls of them, identical down to every tattoo and scar. They go for $40,000 and it’s a soulless way to make money off grief. It’s also such a chilling look at how sad and hollow these legacies can be if they’re willing to spend so much money just to look at a false carbon copy of a loved one. These dolls can’t touch them or love them back but many are willing to take this fake comfort over nothing at all.
Nora gets kicked out of the hotel the next day as a result of not-Nora who destroyed hotel property. She sneaks back in with a fake badge but is quickly caught. At the panel, they discover the fake Nora: a woman claiming that Nora’s job is all for naught and that it’s all a ploy.
The most interesting thing in “Guest,” however, is the storyline convergence between Nora’s ongoing inability to handle her grief and Holy Wayne’s strange practice of healing people with a hug. Nora ends up in a shady room, PayPals $1,000, and is introduced to Wayne. What to make of Wayne hugging Nora and her seemingly being fine in the next scene? There is no way Wayne actually has any sort of supernatural powers so this seems like more of a placebo effect. Maybe Nora wanted so bad to be better that she’ll take any opportunity to pretend that she is, even if it means a strange hug from a perverted false prophet. But she’s taking steps to normalize her life: buying new groceries, finally replacing that roll of paper towels after years, even accepting a date from Kevin. It’s all baby steps but how long will this change last?