The OA Part II Review: Beautiful and baffling, The OA Part II asks you to take another leap of faith

It’s been over two years since the first season arrived on Netflix and now, Brit Marling’s mind-bending The OA returns. You’d be forgiven for forgetting what on earth happened. And Marling, who is co-creator, executive producer and plays the title role, isn’t going to take your hand and guide you through it. Part II is bolder, grander, and far weirder than its predecessor. If you weren’t on board with a bizarre interpretive dance with the power to raise the dead you might struggle with parallel dimensions, magic mirrors and animal telepathy. But for those willing to embrace the oddness it’s as beautiful as it is baffling.

My essay review is available to read on Screen Queens: TV REVIEW- The OA Part II: Beautiful and baffling, The OA Part II asks you to take another leap of faith

The Book of Nora: How The Leftovers Rewrote its Male Antihero Narrative in the Final Episode

The Leftovers ended a year ago last week. Its final episode is an antidote to despair, a lit match in a darkening world, a hand outstretched towards hope and healing and the possibility that, in the end, however trite it sounds, love might just conquer all.

But what I found most moving was the way that The Leftovers, which like many “quality” American television dramas is mostly about a middle aged heterosexual white man in crisis, relinquishes male subjectivity in its final episode. Writers Damon Lindelof, Tom Spezialy and Tom Perrotta and director Mimi Leder permitted a woman to be at the centre of the story in the form of Nora Durst, played by the astonishing Carrie Coon.

While there are full episodes devoted to other characters, The Leftovers remains largely focused on Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) as a male leader literally left behind in this disordered new world. The show begins four years after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes or “departs”. Kevin is losing his grip on reality after losing his wife to the clutches of the local cult and his father to a mental institution. He can’t connect to his disaffected teenage daughter, her scantily clad friend hangs around their perfect suburban home like the ghost of Mena Suvari in American Beauty and he’s struggling to succeed his disgraced father as the new police chief. So far so Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under and any number of award winning series that portray the alienation of traditional masculinity in the modern world. He’s no diabolically evil Walter White but he kidnaps and beats cult leader Patty Levin (Ann Dowd) and seems primed to join the angsty antihero hall of fame.

Kevin

As The Leftovers continues it moves towards grander theological themes and Kevin isn’t merely struggling with his responsibility as a male authority figure, now he’s potentially a literal messiah. At the end of the second season he dies twice, finds himself in a purgatory-like state and is resurrected. In the third and final season’s opening episode, The Book of Kevin, he sports a beard and rides through the town on a horse like Jesus meets a Texan gunslinger, the pinnacle of American masculinity. Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is even writing a gospel about him. It’s the midlife crisis elevated to a cosmic level. In the penultimate episode, The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother) Kevin is “killed” and resurrected once again to prevent an incoming Biblical catastrophe.”What now?” his father asks him. The middle aged, heterosexual white male messiah, The Most Powerful Man in the World, has saved the world he presided over and remains disillusioned. While the The Leftovers could have easily ended with Kevin continuing to ponder his place in the universe it unexpectedly shifts subjectivity away from him and towards Nora.

Nora, who lost her husband and two children to the departure, might ostensibly be Kevin’s love interest but is a complex and unpredictable character. Grief personified as a woman burdened with unresolved love and guilt, she was always a crucial part of The Leftovers’ identity. However, while she certainly never existed solely to soothe Kevin’s existential mangst she is moved aside to accommodate his story. That is, until the final episode, The Book of Nora. She deserves a gospel just as much as Kevin.

Nora

Nora stares straight into the camera. She’s about to let a group of physicists annihilate her in a strange machine in the hope that it will send her to wherever her departed family went. She blankly tells us her name, that she is of sound mind and is acting of her own free will. “I don’t believe you”, says the physicist. She makes her statement again, this time naming her departed children. The mask of stoicism slips and her voice trembles with emotion. Not only is this Nora’s story now, but the act of her telling her own story truthfully is crucial to the final minutes of The Leftovers.

After Nora seemingly “goes through” the machine we cut abruptly to a sequence first glimpsed at the end of The Book of Kevin, where a much older Nora now calling herself Sarah delivers cages of homing doves. And so, extraordinarily for a show with a typically troubled male lead, the final hour of The Leftovers rests upon the grand yet intimate questions of what Nora experienced in the machine and whether there is any hope of her finding some kind of peace by revealing it.

Director Mimi Leder never leaves Nora’s side, allowing us intimate access to her solitary new life which is suddenly shaken by an older Kevin appearing on her doorstep. He acts as if their tumultuous romantic relationship never happened, that they only met once and that he just happened to bump into her on vacation in Australia. He invites her to a wedding reception on false pretences and Nora can’t tolerate any of his lies. “I can’t do this, she says, in tears, “Because it’s not true.” Later she’s disproportionately angry when a nun blatantly lies to her about the man she has just seen sneaking out of the nun’s bedroom window. She’s getting closer to abandoning her false identity and telling us her story.

Reminiscent of Kevin’s symbolic encounters with feral dogs and a stag, Nora is given a similarly profound, more explicitly Biblical experience. She must struggle up a hillside in the driving rain to free a goat from a tangle of bead necklaces and a wire fence. This seems to symbolise nothing less than the entrapment of mankind’s collective sin. Kevin then returns to her house and finally confesses. Of course he remembers everything that happened between them and he’s been coming to Australia for years to look for her. And while Kevin shedding the dishonesty and exposing his vulnerability is a powerful moment it’s not really his story anymore. It’s time for Nora to write her own gospel.

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In the final minutes of The Leftovers we hear what happened to Nora and its the closest we’ll get to a big reveal. The mystery at the heart of the series, the fate of the departed, is semi-solved. Nora tells Kevin her story of finding a parallel world through the physicists’ machine, a world in which 98% of the population has departed and the missing 2% were, in fact, the leftovers. After seeing her children safe and happy she realises that she is in fact the lost soul and she returns to ‘reality’.

The surreal experience she describes isn’t visualised, merely vocalised, but it’s reminiscent of Kevin’s dreamlike purgatory visits. A number of viewers insist that Nora must have been lying to Kevin yet his equally surreal misadventures aren’t questioned to the same degree (hello, Reddit). In my view it’s not just cynicism and a bizarre devotion to what’s ‘possible’ (“how could a society with only 2% of the world’s population function?”) within a drama that is fundamentally constructed around the impossible but a refusal to let a woman be that important to The Leftovers’ complex mythology. “I knew if I told you what happened that you would never believe me”, she says. “I believe you,” he replies. Faith is one of the series most crucial themes and in these last moments Nora reaches out to Kevin and the audience and asks us both to trust her. “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here,” he says. “I’m here,” she repeats, tears flowing as she smiles. In this final scene we see these two broken people returning to each other but we also see a woman rediscovering her identity because we listened and because we believed in her.

At the beginning of The Book of Nora Nora says her heartbreaking goodbye to her brother Matt and recalls that as children he called her “the bravest girl on Earth.” Now she has a title to rival Kevin, The Most Powerful Man in the World. At last, it isn’t just men who get to have profound existential experiences. In its final episode The Leftovers subverts the once transgressive, now tedious, dark male antihero formula by showing us that the simple act of a woman telling us her story can be the most powerful act in the world.

Hail the Dernaissance: Five Fave Performances

We’re living in some challenging times. Thank God for Laura Dern. From Big Little Lies to Twin Peaks to Star Wars (!!!) she is having a truly incredible year. I wish I could claim the term Dernaissance (“Did you mean: renaissance” listen Google, I know what I mean). The earliest use of the hashtag that I can see on Twitter is from January 2017 and I’ve seen it everywhere, sweeping the internet like a critically acclaimed contagion. In honour of said contagion and particularly her upcoming performance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (that purple hair is already iconic) I invite you to join me as I rank a few of my favourite Dern roles. Long live the Dernaissance!

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  • Jurassic Park

I can be grateful for Dr Ellie Sattler, paleobotanist, for many reasons. Evidently highly intelligent, adventurous and compassionate, in the year of our lord 2017 she is, rather infuriatingly, still a breath of fresh air when it comes to women in blockbusters. This film is the same age as me, for crying out loud.

On paper her role might seem to be the nagging girlfriend who just wants to tie her partner down with the responsibilities of having children and prevent him from pursuing his Manly interests. But while Alan Grant is off performing the parental role Ellie more than holds her ground in a wholly male group, most memorably venturing out where the raptors are loose to turn the electricity back on. “We can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back”, she says with a raised eyebrow. Iconic.

(Bryce Dallas Howard’s straight laced Claire Dearing in Jurassic World eventually swooning over Chris Pratt’s totally retrograde, hyper-blokey Owen Grady was a painful step backwards. Don’t get me started on those bloody high heels).

Ellie is not there to be sexualised, mocked for her femininity or to act as the token Action Girl, punching raptors in the face while still asking the male hero “what do we do now?”. Laura Dern imbues her with curiosity, tenacity and independence, providing us with feminist soundbites for the ages (“Woman inherits the earth”) and a brilliantly easy fancy dress costume. We should all be truly grateful.

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  • Big Little Lies

The Dernaisscence we are blessed to be currently experiencing really kicked off with this utterly brilliant miniseries that gradually enthralled me until the final episode had me weeping in my pyjamas.

Initially packaged as a story about the intense rivalry between alpha mothers flicking their impeccably styled hair outside the school gates, the series totally subverted my expectations. While it appeared to be about dirty secrets, thinly veiled barbs and a guaranteed knife in a Tiger Mom’s back the story was ultimately about a group of women feeling trapped and alone coming together to protect each other and eradicate the abuse they’ve suffered.

This duality of tone is perhaps exemplified best by Laura Dern’s Renata Klein who is simply delicious to watch. A CEO who’s clearly clawed her way to the top, she’s a gunslinger in stilettos as she tells Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline “You’re dead in this town” for disrupting her daughter’s birthday party. She is persistent in her attempts to expel the boy she believes is responsible for choking her darling little Amabella and seems just a few sips of white wine away from completely losing it.

In the end however, Renata is no pantomime villain, even with the eyepatch. She’s a high achiever desperately trying to maintain control of what she’s earned beneath a veneer of smiles of gritted teeth. Her dogged search for justice for her daughter ultimately reconciles her with Shailene Woodley’s Jane and culminates with her presence in the bloody denouement in which justice is served. I don’t think there’s been a more satisfying moment on television this year.

Laura Dern’s strengths as an actress are clearly on display here as she balances an often very funny barely suppressed rage with an underlying sense of helplessness. It’s a brilliant performance that rightfully won her an Emmy.

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  • Twin Peaks: The Return

To put it mildly, I did not love Twin Peaks: The Return. Hours of seemingly totally disconnected scenes that are impossible to follow spent with characters I have no interest in punctuated with truly horrifying sequences of violence against women does not make for must see quality television. However, the reveal of the unseen Diane as played by Laura Dern had me cheering.

It’s a too small role for Laura (we’re on first name terms now) but every moment she’s on screen she shines. With her bob haircut, heavy winged eyeliner and chain smoking habit she brings the enigmatic Diane to life and demands that you take notice. It’s time to be seen.

I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what happens to Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return. I couldn’t for the life of me really tell you what happens to any character in Twin Peaks: The Return. But her withering glares, judgemental head tilts and icy silences occasionally broken with a “Fuck you, Gordon” or “Fuck you, Albert” make for more compelling viewing than pretty much anything else on screen.

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  • Wild at Heart

Laura brings depth, soul and yes, heart, to the role of Lula Fortune in David Lynch’s dark, disturbing, romantic road trip. It’s a twisted Wizard of Oz meets lovers-on-the-run movie, with Lula as a damaged Dorothy searching for love, stability and family. She may be wild but there’s no place like home.

As with virtually all of David Lynch’s characters, Lula is rather cartoonish. She’s a Marilyn-esque, intensely sexual woman, all red lipstick, black skintight clothing and cigarettes, drawling that she’s “hotter than Georgia asphalt”. And, sadly unsurprisingly for a Lynch film, she’s also the victim of rape and violent sexual assault, first at the hands of a friend of her father when she was only thirteen and then later by Willem Dafoe’s truly loathsome gangster. While both depictions of trauma are typically Lynchian in their sensationalised, eroticised portrayal of sexual violence against women Laura brings a vulnerability that grounds her trauma in reality.

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  • The Good Time Girls

Just fifteen minutes long, this short is an inspired subversion of the Western genre in which Laura and her girl gang brutally (this is very NSFW) punish the men who have done them wrong. The film was produced as part of Refinery29’s award winning Shatterbox Anthology program promoting female filmmakers and it feels like a timely “up yours” to the patriarchy, particularly as abuse allegations continue to shake Hollywood. Subtle it absolutely isn’t but it acts as a nice counterpoint to Westworld in which Dolores does rise up against her tormentors but also…kind of falls in love with her rapist. Hm.

Laura excels as the gun toting madam/matriarch relentlessly searching for justice and retribution. Luckily for her the gang of outlaws who murdered her daughter just so happen to ride into town and unsuspectedly approach their welcoming brothel…

You can watch the beautiful, bloody film in all it’s glory for free right here!

Honourable mentions:

  • The West Wing

It’s a small role but her performance as US Poet Laureate Tabitha Fortis in Season 3’s aptly titled The US Poet Laureate is delightful. She engages in a rather flirtatious debate with Toby (“Nothing rhymes with Ziegler”) over a treaty on the eradication of landmines and delivers one of the show’s very best lines: “An artist’s job to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is”.

  • Inland Empire

If you thought Twin Peaks: The Return was slow, confusing and abruptly terrifying you haven’t experienced Inland Empire. Three hours and seventeen minutes long, although it feels longer, this film is probably David Lynch at his most baffling and bizarre. It’s a nightmarish, inscrutable journey into the psyche (I think?) that features a thoroughly committed performance from Laura Dern. Her face fills the screen for a large portion of the film, sometimes to terrifying effect, to the point where once the film relinquishes its grip you half expect her face to be staring back at you in the mirror. She is, of course, brilliant, but I recommend it to Lynch and Dern completists only.

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Again, a single episode appearance but I just love her performance as Wendy, the woman desperate to marry Jon Hamm’s cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Wendy earnestly reading out his “poems” (notes asking her to bring along $100 next time she visits him in prison) and exclaiming that “If we only see each other one hour a week, he’ll never realise what a useless piece of crap I am and he’ll love me forever, and that’s what I deserve!” are particular highlights.

  • Enlightened

I have not seen Enlightened. I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Enlightened before recently combing Laura Dern’s IMDB; I think I had it confused with Nurse Jackie. Anyway, it was an HBO series from 2011-2013 about a self-destructive executive who tries to rebuild her life after a stint in rehab and becomes a whistleblower on the corrupt corporation she worked for. The trailer gives me a Six Feet Under feel and Laura won a Golden Globe so I’m confident that it’s excellent and on the watchlist it goes.

  • Blue Velvet

Because she sells that “the robins represented love” nonsense, godamnit.