We only got a brief glimpse of Nora Durst in The Leftovers pilot and it was clear that her story was among the most tragic. Her entire family goes missing in an instant as a result of the unexplained event simply known as The Sudden Departure. She was a featured speaker at the event commemorating the third anniversary of the mass disappearance but since then, we’ve discovered that she’s not typically one to engage in public mourning or excessive sentimentality. She is quiet, mysterious and a bit chilly, with an array of eccentricities. We don’t know who she is now but this is who she is now under the weight of such tremendous, life-altering grief.
When we next see her, it’s in her capacity as an employee of the Department of Sudden Departure. Why would a woman who has lost her entire family subject herself to daily tales of heartbreaking loss from one family to the next as they respond to the lengthy set of inquiries from a questionnaire designed to determine if one is eligible for a post-Departure benefit? (And perhaps to provide data that could lead to answers as to the cause of the Departure?) One could see it as her feeling it was the only way she could contribute in the quest to explain this mass disappearance that took her whole family or perhaps she was a glutton for punishment, not satisfied unless she was miserable and surrounded by the misery of others, but the surprising answer came in this week’s episode, “Guest.” She simply likes giving people money.
It makes a certain kind of sense. Nora knows better than most that money won’t heal the wounds inflicted by a family’s tragic loss, but it’s still a blessing and one she’s able to help bestow through her job. It’s as if her pain is so severe that turning her attention to helping others has become her best recourse. Still, it’s curious that her noble motive doesn’t bring a little more warmth to her presence at these people’s homes. The first time we see her going through these incredibly invasive questions, she’s fairly emotionless and detached, seemingly compassionless in her delivery.
Of course, the truth is that Nora has been through an ordeal that has inevitably added a layer of complexity to every emotion she experiences, every action she executes. When she flirts with Kevin, there’s a sense of relief in her eyes and smile as she allows herself to become a crushing schoolgirl for a few moments, but there’s still a sense of deep sadness permeating the charade. When she laughs at the revelation that her husband had been cheating on her, you’re inclined to think that she’s just so tapped out that she can’t afford to even be sad or angry anymore, but this week we saw her in court requesting a divorce; perhaps the only futile attempt at revenge she can make against her absent spouse.
Through every interaction we see Nora take part in, she exhibits this steely resolve that indicates she’s embraced a numbness that has left her hollow and protected her from the unrelenting grief of her situation. My impression of her was that she was a person who often lied to herself and forced herself to behave as though everything was okay and normal even though every day was littered with reminders of the family she lost. But in this week’s outing, we discover that her approach is quite the opposite. Despite her cool exterior, Nora is a woman that not only lives with indescribable internal pain, she’s determined to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere. And when numbness does rear its head, she hires a prostitute to shoot her just so that she feel the all-encompassing, incapacitating pain she’s afraid to let go of.
The thing about Nora is that her persona is not who she really is. She conveys strength and works hard to not be viewed as a victim and that sometimes makes her appear as a woman who has let go of her family, but that is clearly not the case. Three years after the rest of her family has left the Earth, her answering machine still refers to her home as the “Durst residence” as if she isn’t just a lonely women living with memories at this point. Her cupboards are full of cereal that her kids used to eat (likely long-expired at this point, but they represent a more innocent time) and her car’s glove compartment full of their old candy. My guess is that their rooms also look exactly like she left them. It strikes me that what comes across as cold and unfeeling in Nora’s nature is actually just the result of a woman living in a time capsule and so haunted by pain that she barely remembers how to function like a normal person anymore.
In this week’s Nora-centric episode, there was no shortage of trippy, puzzling moments, but it was her scene with Holy Wayne that caught me most by surprise. Nora is mysterious and hard to read, but one thing I know for sure is that she is not a woman who suffers bull. If there was one person who could call the magic hug giving messiah figure on his bluff (after paying him $1000, no less), it would be her…but instead she fell under his spell like everyone else. His words seem to pierce her otherwise impenetrable exterior and for a moment, she actually believed healing was within grasp and allowed herself to have faith in something.
The Nora we see in the last few minutes of “Guest” doesn’t seem all that different, but there does to seem to be a lightness to her, as if Wayne really did possess the ability to free her from the weight of her burdens and sadness. Does this mean that Wayne is actually the source of some special power or just that he has impeccable timing and an effective sales pitch? Was Nora just more easily manipulated after a frazzling couple of days filled with drugs, stolen identities, opportunistic authors and non-stop reminders that she is one of the biggest victims of one the single worst events to ever happen to humanity or is Wayne actually “holy”? This being The Leftovers, those answers are still far away, I’m sure, but there does seem to be a slight shift in Nora’s aura for the time being.
Grief is different with everyone, invading your life with no regard to what life was before its existence and transforming your very nature. At an earlier point in life, Nora probably wouldn’t break mugs at coffee shops for no discernible reason, desperately ask a man she barely knows to run away to Miami with her (and then profanely insult his daughter), or invite a prostitute into her home to shoot her with a gun, but brokenness can change a person. Make then desperate and unstable, resorting to avenues they would have thought unthinkable before. But perhaps now, for Nora, a woman with a more intimate and extreme acquaintance with grief than most, there is a chance for hope.
Gray runs Untempered Television, a site devoted to television critique and commentary.