“I think I’m going crazy,” The Leftovers’ Nora (Carrie Coon) admits to Erika (Regina King) in season three’s “Don’t Be Ridiculous.” We’ve watched Nora circle implosion this entire episode, chasing dead-end promises and false hopes across multiple state lines. One bad decision spiraled into the next until she’s crashed over a dear friend’s kitchen counter. The rapture-like Departure of Nora’s entire family, and the loss of her adopted daughter Lily, back into her biological mother’s custody, unfurls control away from the dry and practiced survivor.
“How are you not going crazy?” She wants to know of her friend, who has also lost a daughter, Evie—a teenage girl who found nihilistic purpose in a cult called the Guilty Remnant, recently erased by a government drone.
“Evie died,” Erika says, never breaking her gaze. “And I got to bury her.”
“I got to bury her,” she repeats again, lest either of them forget.
Erika had the ending, however cruel. She had the narrative, however difficult. In a reality teeming with unanswered, inexplicable loss, hers was a carnage that she could touch. There was no glimmering miracle to keep optimism cannibalizing her sanity. She knew, and she respected; how blessed was the grave.
Nora had no bodies, no churning dirt. She had two children who vanished in front of her, and a third grown into a stranger. Her life was devastated, but fate wasn’t polite enough to cauterize the wound. There were tiny, microscopic mights that wormed and pecked and destroyed her moving-on front. Maybe they’re not dead. Maybe I can make her remember.
It is not death that eats us alive. It is the living ghosts, the questions that life isn’t tidy enough to answer. The best friend who stops speaking to us. The love who leaves. These staircases-to-nowhere serve loss while leaving the technical, remote possibility of reconciliation. The undefined, complicated, unresolved trauma makes us messy—how do we tell our story without an ending?
There are so few maps to guide us, the strange grievers, as we try to veil our pathetic desire for one last chance, a final word, a miracle. We fortress our weakness behind whatever bricks and boulders we can scavenge, cobbling a façade that crumbles at the simplest suggestion of what if things could be different ? The Leftovers becomes a rare touchstone for indefinite mourning, as it understands that the only force more devastating to the heart than death and loss is the specter of hope. Faith eats us from inside.
I Departed on July 12, 2014. I’d arrived at the Tucson Airport with a round-trip ticket to Portland and checked a bag with enough underwear for one week. My out-of-office Outlook reply promised I’d be back to respond to your message the following Monday. I left my husband Matt in our rented adobo house with my unfinished tub of Trader Joe’s Mediterranean Hummus, pita chip tracks skirting the surface. The novel I was reading was left splayed open to keep my page; my dirty towel hung from the shower rack, mildewing. Everything was as I’d left it before that morning of Departure, a careless, ordinary footprint in space that had become so ordinary in the year and a half we’d lived in it.
My phone rang while I was in the boarding line. “I’m so happy to officially offer you the position,” the HR director I’d been ping-ponging with for weeks told me as Southwest Airlines demanded A 1-30 enter the aircraft. The director was with a company in Portland, a whim on a 110-degree afternoon when I was done with the desert and the skull-rotting technical editing job and the homesickness. I didn’t think I could take another summer in this scorched place 1,800 miles from the lifelong home of our friends, family, our belonging. In the rust-colored parking lot with its futile palo verde and prickly pear shade, I fired off an email to an old boss at his new business. Want to work with the best Marketing Coordinator this side of the continental divide? I joked. I don’t think I can stay here much longer . It was a cathartic Send, an act of rebellion to lift my sinking self. I didn’t expect a reply, let alone the subsequent phone call, Skype interview, and this sudden emergency chute back home.
Amidst the Tin House Writer’s Workshop I’d flown up to attend for a planned week’s desert respite, I picked up keys for a Portland room rented by an old coworker. I emailed Matt lists of what clothes I’d need from my closet from now until we-had-no-idea-when. I apologized my way through class and craft talks and ducked out half a day early to make it to Seattle for my cousin’s wedding, just as I’d promised months before anything else was so much as a dream. I can’t remember how I got up north, or where I changed into the ugly red dress I balled into my carry-on, or how my relatives reacted to the sudden news that actually no, I wasn’t headed back to Tucson tomorrow, I was staying here forever. And nope, no idea when Matt’s job would transfer him back up here. Could be a week, could be a year.
I do remember boarding the Portland BoltBus in Seattle’s Chinatown. How did I end up in Chinatown when the wedding was on a South Tacoma lake? How did I get screwed with the last seat up against the rattling air conditioner? Where was my baggage? In three short years, the details have buffered away by sweeping, cataclysmic change that carved a canyon through my timeline. There was Before July 2014, and there was After.
I had three hours to kill and a grinding bus to drown out. I opened HBO Go on my phone and tapped on the screenshot of Justin Theroux. Promos for the series premiere framed every Game of Thrones episode we’d been watching in the spring, back when Matt and I were in this together, eating barbecue and taco dinners with our favorite shows as company.
“I think it looks good,” I said every time.
“Some show about the rapture? Meh,” he always answered.
I was alone. I could watch any shit I wanted.
In the first minutes of the series, a woman argues logistics over the phone as her infant child wails in the back car seat. You see every fork in her life reaching this parking lot misery crush down on her shoulders, clog her sinuses, thud against her temples— shut the fuck up; I need a permanent vacation . A few moments later the crying curiously stops. She glances over her shoulder, expecting to see the miracle of sleep or a plastic toy distraction tossing her sanity a bone. But her child isn’t deterred, he’s vanished. Outside the car, a kid cries out for his parents next to an abandoned shopping cart. A now-unmanned car smashes into another. As distant sirens crescendo, the woman crumples, and the camera fades to black.
At the end of the episode, on the three-year anniversary of the Departure, the same unnamed woman is at a bar watching the news. Our protagonist Kevin, played by Theroux, trades her small talk. Where were you? Did you lose someone? They paint their responses in the broadest strokes, the fragments of answers that inspire the least follow-up questions.
“Hey,” Kevin says, raising his beer in a toast. “We’re still here.”
The woman’s eyes glass; a hint of a smile toys with her lips that crumples into the remembrance: This is not normal . She was so close to having a light conversation in a bar, laughing and flirting and being charmed, before she caught herself. Before she remembered, I have ruined everything .
“We sure are,” she agrees.
My periphery caught the young man in the seat next to me shift away into the window, away from sobs I thought I could hide in my sleeve.
There were days and nights I wished that Matt and I would just break up. Maybe he could find a girl who worshipped the red rocks and would never nag him back north. She’d have skin that didn’t burn and eyes that didn’t dry, crack, and bleed. We could both move forward instead of maintaining these lives suspended in amber wondering, when would our world come back?
It would make my nightly conversations with my roommate-landlord easier. I fantasized coming back to the house (the “house,” not going “home”—a trick of semantics I overcorrected anyone on— I have a home and it’s not this ). I’d walk into the not-my-kitchen and be asked, “So, any news on when Matt’s coming back?”
“He’s not,” I’d tell her. A courier went out today with the divorce docs. No more obsession over when his company would arrange a transfer, or how he’d place somewhere new from a timezone away. An end to the eyes to the ceiling, my phone glowing single morning digit hours, wondering what if he never gets back. Untangling which of us will break first. Marinating in the expanse of a king-sized bed where white space amplified the truth: I abandoned my husband.
My friends would know the orchestration of the tragedy by heart, with all the steps we’d learned in Disney movies and Friday night sitcoms. We’d carve pain out of Ben & Jerry’s pints and slur through sugar-rimmed drinks over how much better life was going to be now that this bullshit was o-v-e-r. When someone mentioned that “this must be hard,” it would begin the conversation, not halt it in a loop of questions I couldn’t answer, of fears and guilt I didn’t dare vocalize.
Sometimes I’d forget to feel unmoored. I’d be walking down a sidewalk in between a new discovery and an old haunt, gripping my favorite iced Mexican coffee underneath the radiance and blue of the Pacific Northwest summer, and everything felt as warm and right as it had ever been. And I’d catch this girl in a reflection, half-smiling to herself, and the joy was all it took to remind me that I had ruined everything.
I didn’t get to watch episode six, “Guest,” premiere live in August, 2014. I was out that Sunday night as late as I could be, bouncing from brunch with friends in Seattle down to a café in north Portland. When my coffee was empty I moved to liquor: rum in my favorite Tiki bar, vodka from mason jar jugs, hard cider and shots of Fireball.
Come out , I texted my employed, married, grown-up friends. They did not. I was one of them once, a woman who didn’t leave her house on a weeknight after six, who observed Sunday as a School Night. I used to have nothing to avoid.
I stretched the drinks as far as sips would carry me. The later I stayed, the less likely I’d bump into someone wondering what the latest news on My Situation was. Maybe I could pass out asleep without thinking or having another awkward good-night conversation with Matt before he crashed alone on another liquid dinner while my cooking pans collected dust. I mastered the art of curling into a borrowed couch, a dexterity I’d left in my twenties. I took the sips, the hits, the pills that hadn’t littered my life in a decade. Not since I met the man I was supposed to be with forever, the one I assigned the Happy Ending.
“They’re going to be approved by the FDA next year,” a pill-popping stranger promises Nora in “Guest.” She’s away at a conference catering to Departure theory and the inevitable post-rapture industry. Nora has spent the entire episode fighting—a thief at the conference, her volatile reputation. A swallow, a blink and she’s dancing badly on the sofa. A man pulls her away; he’s been taunting her all night, begging her to indulge him and demand to know: What do you do ?
Behind a curtain, a silicon doppelganger of the stranger lays lifeless and perfectly rendered. The man is in the facsimile business, the grief racket, manufacturing duplicates of departed people for $40,000 a pop. “This they can bury in the ground,” he tries to explain. “This is real.”
At the end of the episode, Nora finds herself with another profiteer lurking at her industry’s periphery. She stumbles into an audience with Holy Wayne, a prophet claiming he can hug the pain out of people’s souls. He is the first person all season, perhaps in the entire series, who genuinely sees her and her pain not for the grotesque, curious freak show it manifests, but for what it does to her.
“If you feel it slip away, you seek it out again,” he reads across her heart, seeing straight into the martyr her anguish creates. “Hope is your weakness.”
I didn’t understand until that hungover Monday, watching Nora crumple into Holy Wayne’s arms in the palm of my hands, that it wasn’t being apart from Matt that was driving me out of my mind. It was the mirage of light in the distance promising that somehow, we’d put our world back together.
Madness reveals our character. The point of The Leftovers is not how 2 percent of the Earth’s population vanished. It’s about who they left behind, and who they become. The pure, grieving self falls between our best and our worst. Kevin Garvey is brave but short-sighted. The Guilty Remnant cult is admirable but cruel. Nora is resilient and self-destructive.
I am reckless and uncompromising. I knew leaping out of our withering desert odyssey was painful and cruel, but I also knew where our true home was. I knew what I could bear and what I couldn’t. I held these simultaneous, opposing certainties together and made my graceless leap.
Hope was my weakness, but it eventually became my truth.
Our purgatory lasted four months. It ended the same way it began—with a phone call. “They’ve offered me a position back in the Portland office,” Matt’s voice message played once my plane had landed in Tucson for my first post-Departure visit. It was my birthday weekend in October and the greatest gift I’ve ever received was the absolution of an answer: four months.
In one three-hour flight I transformed into an Erika. I had a body to bury. I could fold my uncertainty and loneliness and fear into the casket. Like her, I left the narrative along with everyone else who no longer needed the specter of faith to validate the present. My story flattened, no longer one that people had to squint and reconcile. “It all worked out for the best,” they tell me. “You’re back here, after all!”
My eyes glass. “We sure are,” I agree.