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We Need More Female Characters Like Nora Durst of ‘The Leftovers’

In praise of Carrie Coon, the HBO drama’s secret weapon

(HBO/FX/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/FX/Ringer illustration)

The first time Kevin Garvey goes home with the woman who will turn out to be the love of his life, Nora Durst, two imposing members of the Guilty Remnant cult are standing guard outside her house. Kevin is daunted, and for a moment it seems like he might turn around and go home. But before he can move a muscle, Nora suddenly reappears with a garden hose and, without a word, sprays down the interlopers at close range. She then turns to her date, smiling flirtatiously as though nothing has happened. “Wanna come inside?” she asks.

Portrayed with fearless brilliance by Carrie Coon, Nora Durst was one of the weirdest, most complex, and, I think, best female characters of this era of TV. As a woman enduring the profound loss of her children and her husband, she so easily could have been a cliché of one-dimensional and hysterically feminized grief. Instead, she was about a million different contradictions that never once resorted to stereotype. She made me snort and gasp and sob with admirably equal frequency. I’ll miss her as much as I’ll miss the show itself.

Nora was both broken and strong, explosive and contained. Feelings moved through her fluidly but she stayed as rooted to the earth as an old tree. A true rarity for women on screen, she got to be sexy in a complicated way: She had what you might call issues, but she was never reduced to the “hot, crazy chick.” She carried a revolver in a LeSportsac and broke her own arm to prove a point to herself. She was often hilariously straightforward about her desires. When she first asks Kevin to come over in that episode and he asks if she’s sure, she says bluntly, grinning, “First four dates I was on the fence, but I’m over it now.”

Playing opposite Justin Theroux, Coon had the benefit of a costar who could match her emotional depths. She also had the rare experience of playing the female lead on a show that unabashedly filmed its male protagonist more like eye candy than it did his love interest. (In a recent Vulture profile, she quipped of her placement on the show’s Season 3 posters, “They hid me behind his abs.”) Gender roles often felt subversively fluid on The Leftovers, and Coon was the perfect actress to fully and freely explore her character’s range.

This is true, too, of her recent work on Fargo. That show’s creator, Noah Hawley, has even said that Coon’s ability, as Nora, to scramble gender stereotypes is a big reason why he cast her as police chief Gloria Burgle. “I needed someone who could play a female Gary Cooper type,” he said. “You know, why are the men all the strong, silent types? Why can’t women be stand-offish and stoic as well?”

The first time Nora Durst appears in the pilot of The Leftovers, she’s telling a crowd of strangers about the best day of her life. It’s Heroes Day in Mapleton, New York, three years after the Sudden Departure, the unexplained event in which 2 percent of the world’s population — including Durst’s two children and husband — vanished into thin air. “Every one of us was touched by the events of October 14,” the mayor says, “but no one more than our honored speaker, Nora Durst.” In a measured but warbling voice, Durst delivers a speech that evades easy, maudlin sentiment but sneaks up on you to wallop you with something more uncomfortable but ultimately more powerful. The best day of her life, though she didn’t realize it at the time, was a few months before the Departure, when she and her husband sat seaside on a blanket and watched their kids build sand castles. “I’m not greedy,” she tells the crowd in conclusion. “I’m not asking for that perfect day at the beach.” She’d be fine reliving a previous memory when her entire family had the stomach flu, “all four of us sick and miserable, but alive and together.”

This is the monologue Carrie Coon read in her audition for the part of Nora. “[I]t felt like she was hiding something in her read,” series cocreator Damon Lindelof later recalled. “There was something slightly disingenuous about the speech that made you think, why the hell is she doing this? You felt like you needed to know what was going on so much more.” On the strength of her audition tape, Coon — who up until then was mostly known for her stage work, namely a Tony-nominated star turn in the role of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — was the first actor they hired. Said Lindelof, “Nora became a different character because she was playing her.”

Coon is the reason that Nora’s role on the show expanded far beyond its sketches in Tom Perrotta’s book, in which Nora is a minor character orbiting around the Garveys. She was a peripheral presence in the show until its masterful sixth installment, “Guest,” a quasi-bottle episode that follows Nora to a Departure-related professional conference in New York City. In the course of a short weekend she gets high, gets kicked out of a hotel, and makes out with a synthetic corpse, and given all that it’s extra impressive that the episode is best remembered for this emotionally belligerent monologue she delivers at the end:

That’s what was so thrilling about watching Nora: Even in her messiest moments, she does not make herself small. “I find she taught me more about myself than almost anyone I’ve worked on,” Coon reflected after wrapping the series, “because playing Nora — that steely resolve and the way that she stands and takes up space — she doesn’t suffer fools. I was like many women I know, taught to say yes to everything and to not make trouble for anyone and not have an opinion about anything. It doesn’t get you very far in terms of developing as a human being. So I’m so grateful for the invitation to walk around in that body because it’s changed my body. I’m so much better able to stand up for myself.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I feel a bit like that too, having watched Nora Durst these past three seasons. Sometimes when a TV show you loved ends, it feels like some of your friends have moved away; after The Leftovers’ final fade-out on Nora on Sunday night, it felt more like my therapist was retiring. I hope her role creates ripple effects for other characters, or maybe just results in Carrie Coon getting a lot more work. Her departure feels all the more poignant because there are still too few female characters who take up space quite as defiantly as Nora Durst, The Leftovers’ welcome and convincing argument that the strong, silent type has no inherent gender.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.