If you’re plugged into television or have teenagers in your life, you may be aware of an ongoing conversation around the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” which is a kind of cautionary tale and kind of revenge-fantasy procedural about bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. One of the primary reasons the show is criticized is because you see exactly how the protagonist kills herself, if you watch through to the season finale. It’s a little gory and rather disturbing, and because it is so realistic it’s touched a nerve for teens, parents and educators.
I was thinking of that controversy while watching this week’s “The Leftovers,” “Certified,” because of how similar and how different the subject material is. Of course there are few comparison points between a teen melodrama and whatever genre the theological and moral reckoning with loss and grief “The Leftovers” fits into. And yet on the other hand, in “Certified,” there is this creeping sense of collective finality that hinges on a surprising set of divergent decisions towards the same choice: leaving, possibly forever, this earthly life behind. You may not be able to call each one suicide, but each one is suicide in its own way.
For Laurie, it happens twice.
Because for so long Laurie didn’t speak — and because Kevin and Nora left her behind when they initially moved to Texas — she’s long been one of the hardest characters of the leads in “The Leftovers” to really get to know. Amy Brenneman has done fantastic work as her, but some element of her story remained elusive. “Certified” skips through a few timelines, partly because it works to build a narrative of Laurie that predates even the first-season premiere. And it seemed to me that Laurie finally became a full character in this episode — a full character who makes an astonishing but increasingly inevitable choice. In case there were any doubts, the opening credits for this week’s episode are scored to Gravediggaz’ “1-800-SUICIDE,” an upbeat little take on death.
In “Certified,” the show finally depicts the moment when Laurie chooses to enter the Guilty Remnant — after she thwarts her first suicide attempt, a pill overdose in her office. She tries to lie down and wait for it — but then motivated by unknown factors, she forces herself to vomit it up, changes into her white clothes, and meets the smoking pair of watchers outside.
A lot of secrets are spilled and shared in this episode, but Laurie still never tells anyone about that. Just as she never betrays what she does in the final minutes to anyone, even Jill and Tommy in their cheery final phone call. Before she puts the goggles on, there is a moment where she looks up into the clear blue sky with the sun shining on her face, and she looks strangely beatific — like she can access a happiness far beyond those she is leaving behind in life. Of course, we are primed to know what she is going to do, because Nora, taunting her from the driver’s seat of a VW van in Melbourne, jauntily describes exactly how she’d kill herself, if she were Laurie. It seems unlikely that Laurie’s suicide would be quite as explicable as the narrative Nora creates — Laurie doesn’t tell her children she’s in Australia, which is going to make it startling for them when and if they realize she’s died. But at the same time, Nora and Laurie seem to understand these darker impulses within each other — that same weirdly combative intimacy that leads to a stolen lighter, a black eye, and a brand of passive-aggressive psychoanalysis that probably wouldn’t pass muster with the APA.
Throughout the timelines and the depicted scenes, which feel like they have been curated and arranged in a surprisingly thoughtful but mysteriously opaque way, Laurie’s depth — her calm, her acceptance, her understanding of others’ grief — is revealed over and over again. She didn’t lose anyone on October 14, but she witnesses everyone else’s loss with unflinching seriousness. It is her calling. She is past trying to change the way people grieve, which is something we saw her do first as a psychologist, and then as a Guilty Remnant member, and then two-bit charlatan peddling hugs. She is driven to try to help people, but it’s only in “Certified” that she seems assured of being able to help by just being there; by listening and asking and talking, and then letting go of each person, one by one until they are all gone. In “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” she received Matt’s righteousness. In the van with Nora she receives the younger woman’s anger. With her new husband by the ark, she accepts his belief. In Grace’s house, she hears the questions each person wants to direct to the dead. And with her old husband before she leaves, she hears his enthusiasm. Each of those people, in their own way, is preparing for a journey to the other side of something. Laurie is like this show’s afterlife doula: She listens, counsels, and then sends them off to end things however they choose to.
“We all have to be somebody,” Kevin Sr. says at “the last supper,” appointing his son as the absent savior, the missing Matt and Nora as Matthew and Mary Magdalene, and John as John, of course. He suggests Laurie is Doubting Thomas, the apostle who wasn’t sure. As she watches them fall asleep from the drugs she put in their food, she points out that she was Judas all along. (She does kiss Kevin on the forehead, at the end, with the chaste affection an apostle has for her savior. And her work deceiving grieving people and then taking their money could be an interpretation of some of Judas’ history, too.)
It sounds like she’s making the villain’s speech at the end of a movie. “Doubting is easy, ‘cause doubting costs you nothing. But Judas? He was surrounded by people goin’ on and on about how special Jesus was. But he betrayed him anyway. ‘Cause he was sure. He believed in something. And he acted on it.”
But what does Laurie believe, except that everyone should know and understand their own choice? Maybe Laurie, like Judas, knew that before walking into eternity, the savior would need to be challenged. Or maybe she just felt ready for what she had long known was the next step for her, after slowly shedding herself of ties and responsibilities, and relieving herself of the weight of the world. While he’s falling asleep, Michael questions her interpretation with a crucial question. “Judas collected his 30 pieces of silver and hung himself. If he was so sure, why’d he kill himself?” But the point is, Laurie was sure. And that’s why she killed herself.
- It is a moot observation at this point, but Amy Brenneman is really fantastic in this episode.
- Justin Theroux on a horse!!!
- The original music is especially fantastic in this episode. There appeared to be at least three separate themes in use.
- I was trying to parse the way Laurie and John were hugging themselves while standing outside, and realized that in Australia, at least, October is springtime — the same season that Jesus died in, that the Last Supper took place in, and that Judas committed his fateful act of betrayal.