It’s apt, perhaps, that the therapist once sworn to silence should spend “Certified” explaining herself. Laurie (the tremendous Amy Brenneman) launches again and again into the analytical mode of her medical training, searching for stories that scan: on suicidal ideation and Biblical prophecies, on the difference between deaths and departures, on Jesus’ disciples and the strain of skepticism. In the process, she spars with Nora (Carrie Coon) and comes away with a shiner; drugs her husband and three others so she can speak with her ex; offers what wisdom she’s gleaned from a life made and remade more than once in the seven years since “The Garveys at Their Best.” What she cannot do, with that forlorn glance back at Nora and Matt (Christopher Eccleston), or that tearful farewell to Kevin (Justin Theroux), is shake the fear—the one we all share—that it adds up to much less than she’d hoped, and as such “Certified” counts as The Leftovers’ most sorrowful hour, a headlong dive into one woman’s confrontation with meaninglessness itself.
Still shadowed by her failure to heal the new mother of the series’ opening sequence, after which Laurie attempts suicide, thinks better of it, and joins the Guilty Remnant instead, the doctor’s attempt to rationalize the swirl of strange occurrences that comprise the episode’s twinned narratives is at once futile and all too human. It’s the longing to be told what to do, a plea Laurie hears from her patient and repeats to the Remnant’s recruiters; it’s the want she identifies in Kevin, Sr.’s (Scott Glenn) plan for his son’s death and resurrection. Through Laurie, the character least prone to fantasies of suicide machines and Last Suppers, The Leftovers reminds us that its animating questions—about grief, about kinship, about life’s purpose, or its lack thereof—are not limited to the realm of faith, or at least that logic becomes a belief system of its own.
It’s notable, in this context, that Laurie’s testiest exchanges in “Certified” are with Nora: Though the latter is not quite the Doubting Thomas she seems—both “G’Day Melbourne” and her pursuit of the two physicists behind the radiation scheme suggest that she’s desperate for it to be real—both women’s upset stems, at least in part, from being unable to believe the stories that propel those around them. (“So it’s only literal when it’s not ridiculous?” Nora quips at her brother on this point.) Despite their similarities, Laurie and Nora’s alliance is an uneasy one, full of prickly disagreements over the need for closure and that fight for the lighter that was Jill’s (Margaret Qualley) Season One gift; even among those for whom religion is a bridge too far, The Leftovers implies, the range of interpretations of the human condition is boundless, and no two people speak exactly the same language.
The notion that our particular understandings of the universe are so often at cross-purposes is foundational to the series’ shattered structure, with each episode now given, more or less, to one character’s perspective, and in this sense “Certified” is the fullest expression of The Leftovers’ own search for stories that scan. Toggling between Laurie’s stakeout with Nora and Matt and Laurie’s subsequent journey to Grace Playford’s (Lindsay Duncan) ranch, “Certified” cycles through countless responses to the Sudden Departure and its seventh anniversary, none of which Laurie manages to embrace. She is, as she says, the Judas of lore, not the Thomas: “He was sure,” she remarks of Jesus’ betrayer, as her dinner companions slip one by one into sleep. “He believed in something, and he acted on it.”
Though The Leftovers has been accused of nihilism, and “Certified” courts it more closely than any prior episode, Laurie’s decision to frame the absence of belief (in Jesus, in The Book of Kevin, in “going through” the physicists’ device) as a form of belief is telling. There is a difference, after all, between searching for meaning and coming up empty and suggesting there’s no meaning to be found in the first place; the moments of profound connection that Laurie shares, in the end, with Nora, with Kevin, with her children are not the nihilist’s radical rejection of life’s purpose, but the existentialist’s Sisyphean struggle to continue in the face of despair. “Why would he want to do that job? Why would anyone?” Nora asks, referring to the usher who deflated a beach ball at a childhood baseball game, and by extension to Laurie, to herself. “Because if he doesn’t, that ball is going to go onto the field,” Laurie replies, “and it’ll be fucking chaos.” The tear she wipes from Nora’s cheek, the women’s embrace, the carton of cigarettes she collects as a retainer: There is meaning, purpose, in their communion, however fleeting, and though it requires no faith in a higher power, it is nonetheless a kind of miracle. The scene’s empathic power is an inexplicable wonder, no less remarkable than a trip to the afterlife or a conversation with “God.”
If Laurie decides to end her life, resigned to the fact that she has not brought order to the chaos despite seven years of trying, I suspect she sees it as an act akin to Judas’—an act of genuine conviction rather than doubt—though The Leftovers, as is its wont, leaves the door open to another ending. From her aborted suicide attempt in the opening sequence to the use of Gravediggaz’ “1-800-Suicide” to the echo of her earlier note in her message to Kevin (“I’m here to say goodbye”), “Certified” frames her scuba diving as such; for Nora, it is the most “elegant” way to end one’s life, with its “clean, quiet certainty.” Of course, the episode ends without confirmation of Laurie’s fate, and with the storm rolling in, Nora’s allusion to the potential for accidents roils beneath the sound of water slapping against the boat’s hull.
I’m hard-pressed to remember a more moving evocation of the blurry border between addressing despair and being consumed by it than the final minutes of “Certified,” which is why the saddest TV episode I’ve ever seen is also one of The Leftovers’ finest. Anchored by Brenneman’s inimitable performance, her face an imprint of Laurie’s mercurial thoughts, the tension that emerges in her conversations with Kevin and their children is as wide and as deep as the ocean, and though “Certified” does not cross into nihilism, it does acknowledge that suicide is one possible response to the terrors of The Leftovers’ universe, not to mention our own. Combining tenderness, love, with the unbearable weight of Laurie’s heartache—and suggesting that these are, in fact, inseparable—the conclusion of “Certified” is an emblem of the series’ central subject, which is the unknown, or perhaps the unknowable. Does Laurie change her mind? End her life? Fall victim to the squall that shadows the horizon? Does she land on the heady joy of that phone call, or the bereavement of her encounter with Kevin? I have no answers to these questions, nor, I expect, will The Leftovers, and yet I responded so strongly to “Certified” that it left me shaken. Even the bleakest reading, the one Laurie offers herself, is so suffused with honest emotion that “Certified” becomes one of the stories that scans, a melancholic masterpiece for “crazy times.”
This is just one among infinite stories, innumerable beliefs, that The Leftovers considers; we do not—cannot—know if her assessment is the right one. But it is a measure of the series’ brilliance that it doesn’t shy away from the question, or indeed the notion that Laurie’s might be one of the answers. “Is Nora gone?” Kevin asks, and her response underlines what it might mean to be abandoned, left over, left behind.
“We’re all gone.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.