The Leftovers Asks, "What Happens When Grief Becomes An Identity?"

The Leftovers really is at its best when it focuses in on a single story. Last night, it sent Nora, the show's strongest character, to a Departed industry conference and explored how identity and grief can sometimes get wrapped together.

When we met Nora in the pilot, her role within Mapleton was clear: She's the martyr, the woman who lost her entire family in the Great Departure, and every encounter we have with her is colored by that loss. But Nora also likes to test the limits of the pity people feel for her, and she's given herself permission to be a bit of asshole. When she encounters Kevin, with whom she's had a bit of a flirtation, in the courthouse, her foot quickly flies into her mouth. She invites Kevin on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Miami, and when he says he has to stay home with his daughter, her impulsive response is, "Fuck your daughter." Nora has no kids left; why should she care about anyone else's?

But while somewhere in Nora's heart, she may want to move forward with her life—getting a divorce, making moves on Kevin—she's not actually pursuing happiness. Her kitchen is a mausoleum, a static tribute to the day her family disappeared. When she hires a prostitute, it's not for intimacy or human contact; it's for pain, to act out the moment of her death. She's not just trapped in this cycle of despair; she's hanging onto it for dear life, and she doesn't care that she's inflicting emotional pain upon other people along the way.

The Leftovers Asks, "What Happens When Grief Becomes An Identity?"

Then Nora arrives at the conference and learns that her martyr identity has been stolen. Someone has taken her name badge and the three orange stickers that elicit so much sympathy. At first, Nora is annoyed, but the loss of her identity lets her become a different person for the night, a person called, simply, "Guest." As Guest, Nora flirts with a charming salesmen who peddles lifelike dolls of the Departed for burial. She's privy to gossiping discussions about how conference attendees really feel about the "legacy" attendees, people who, like Nora, lost people in the Departure. She drinks. She gets high. She jokingly makes out with a doll to the cheers of the other attendees. When she's no longer Nora, she gets to be fun.

Nora speculates that someone may have taken her badge in order bask in her sympathy—and perhaps, after she was thrown out of the hotel, she thought the badge thief was trying to mess with her. But when Nora finally confronts the woman who stole her badge, she learns that the theft had nothing to do with Nora at all; the woman was just a protestor trying to infiltrate the conference. When it comes down to it, nobody wants to be Nora, not even for the sympathy.

That's not the end of Nora's sense of being impersonated, however. At the hotel bar, she meets Patrick Johanson, a four-orange-sticker legacy who has written a self-help book about moving on from the Departure. She's startled by his easy manner—and the fact that he still has a daughter—and quickly calls him out as an impostor. If he really felt the kind of loss she felt, he would know there is no moving on.

The Leftovers Asks, "What Happens When Grief Becomes An Identity?"

Or is there? "Aren't you tired of feeling this way?" asks a stranger. It's a recurring theme in The Leftovers—how people react to three years of grief and uncertainty and what they do when they're simply tired of it. A lot of people in Mapleton join the Guilty Remnant, but Nora is given another option: Holy Wayne, who can unburden people. Nora has to make a choice to let Wayne take away her pain and her grief. She has to give herself permission not to be the martyr anymore. Now in real life, recovering from grief isn't as easy as hugging a charismatic prophet, but the decision to move forward is a genuinely important one—and it's not an easy decision for Nora.

Most people in The Leftovers don't get a happy ending, and while Nora gets as happy as ending as anyone could expect, it is colored by a touch of doubt. She's unburdened from her pain. She doesn't need to be that asshole who pays people to shoot her. She and Kevin are going to start dating and might find a bit of happiness with each other.

But one manifestation of Nora holding so tightly to her pain was in the questionnaire she gives to family members of the Departed. When Nora asks Question 121, "Do you believe the Departed is in a better place?" she always receives a yes—at least before her unburdening. After Wayne unburdens her, a woman finally answers no, she doesn't believe her loved one is in a better place. Suddenly, Nora, free from her overwhelming pain, has to wonder if something truly awful happened to her family. Even after we've decided to move forward in our lives, we don't really know what happens to the people who are no longer with us—and that's the sort of the truth The Leftovers should be exploring more often.