Tat’s Alright: Covering Up Pain With Ink on ‘The Leftovers’

The characters on HBO's 'The Leftovers' wear their tattoos and uniforms as protection.

Carrie Coon as Nora Durst and Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. Van Redin/HBO

Welcome to our TV Fashion column, where TV Ate My Wardrobe‘s Emma Fraser discusses the trends in television apparel. This week: The characters on HBO’s The Leftovers wear their tattoos and uniforms as protection. 

The seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure is fast approaching on The Leftovers and the desire for control is stronger than ever. Kevin and Nora have returned to the jobs they had when the series started, which took place three years after two percent of the world’s population disappeared. There is a gravitational pull toward the familiar. Outward appearances maintain the impression that everything is fine while inner turmoil reigns and a uniform does a good job of projecting unity.

When Kevin went to the hotel on the other side last year and was presented with a closet of outfits to match a vocation he picked a plain black suit and initially became an international assassin. Part of this was so he could finally be rid of Patti Levin (fun fact – the child version of Patti is Chloe from Big Little Lies) and he avoided his old Mapleton uniform. In the season 2 finale, when he made his second trip to the place beyond, Kevin instead picked the uniform he tried to leave behind and in doing so he made it back home to his family.   

Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey and Chris Zylka as Tom Garvey. Van Redin/HBO

Three years later, Kevin is once again the Chief of Police and his Miracle uniform is far more relaxed; he gets to ride a horse, wear jeans and switch the white shirt for a black one. Aviators were the one piece of his overall look that made the trip from Mapleton; it is sunny in Texas after all. Dry cleaning also played a pivotal role in Kevin’s season one descent and this thread is picked up in a slightly different way this year. Instead of hanging his shirts out in the woods Kevin is using the dry cleaning bag for a non-erotic auto-asphyxiation ritual, something that Nora walks in on in “Don’t Be Ridiculous.” Her response to the scene of Kevin’s shame is one of stoicism and as with their season 2 confessional, this is a time for pulling back the veil. Or pulling up her sleeve, if you will

Nora and Kevin came into each other’s lives at a time of emotional turmoil; Kevin was grappling with his mental health and the real Patti Levin (before she killed herself and then started taunting him from beyond) while Nora swung between her role as the family member who was left behind and wanting to feel something again.

Before going on their first date Kevin warned her “You should know though, I’m a fucking mess” and the morning after they first slept together Kevin also mentioned “I think I might be going crazy,” a sentiment Nora echoes when she goes to see Erika in ‘Don’t be Ridiculous.’ Kevin was giving Nora an out before things got serious, an out she didn’t take, and there’s always been this aspect of them impulsively leaping with their eyes open while also hiding some really big secrets.

Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey and Carrie Coon as Nora Durst. Van Redin/HBO

Secrets like broken wrists to cover a tattoo, which is covering another tattoo. Nora’s identity is in part tied to being the one who has been left behind. There has been a shift in Nora since she met Kevin and they left Mapleton; style wise she’s gone from a whole lot of grays in her wardrobe to color and print. Costume designer Rudolph Mance makes her workwear look more fashionable including patterned blouses, cropped pants and kitten heels that she wore up on the platform and to the airport. Her hair is now shorter and cu ier, but manages to avoid the pitfalls of Felicity Porter and Marcia Clark. Like Kevin with his aviators, Nora still has something from her old wardrobe and the denim jacket which was her most casual item is still something she wears in Texas. Now it is paired with skinny jeans and ankle boots. She wears cute floral dresses while hosting birthday parties looking the picture of happiness and everyone plays their part. Pain still reverberates right down to her bones, but she got good at hiding it. Well, mostly.

Everyone is far from fine and coping mechanisms range from smoking to bags over the head. When Nora had a bad day she got the names of her kids tattooed on her arm, but instantly regretted it after realizing that she would be forever explaining its significance. When Nora lived in Mapleton she was Nora Cursed; the woman who lost her family and then broke her leg the next day (that is some shitty luck). Moving away means no longer being met with sympathetic gazes and she’s in control of her story. But there was also an aspect of being Nora Durst (or cursed) that gave Nora something to cling to. When someone took her name badge and she became “Guest” in the season one episode of the same name she lost her legacy, making her anonymous. She could party it up a storm and make-out with guest star Billy Magnussen’s plastic likeness, but she is still the same Nora experiencing a loss that can’t be explained.

Carrie Coon as Nora Durst. Van Redin/HBO

Nora doesn’t tell Erika how she broke her leg the day after the departure, but she does share her wrist secret; it was actually to cover her new ink. Nora’s boyfriend has quite the tattoo collection and when she finally shows her Wu-Tang symbol she doesn’t go into the detail of why. They’re still just as fucked up as when they first met and Nora is queen of deflecting; on this occasion it’s joking about catching up to his tattoo total and earlier it centers on the ridiculous notion that he is the messiah.

Tattoos are often incredibly personal and Nora takes something that is unique to her and picks the first thing she sees to cover it up. Leftovers writer Tamara Carter pitched the Wu-Tang Clan idea. Carter tells Vulture To me it represents the most absurd ideology, but also the most progressive when it comes to personal freedom and, also, pain. Nora was just in so much pain, and she carries it like a samurai. You don’t see what’s underneath much.” Everything is open to interpretation so even though Nora saw the symbol as looking like a phoenix (instant Ben Affleck back tat thoughts) the actual elements that make up this band logo is also a fitting tribute. She just needs to remember to get the band name right.

Sometimes you buy a trampoline to feel better and I can’t think of a Leftovers scene that is quite this serene and joyous as seeing Erika and Nora bouncing together while Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” plays. The way Regina King and Carrie Coon are shot during this sequence makes them look like they are floating giving it an ethereal feel and the usual Max Richter tear inducing theme wouldn’t be out of place here. But going for the band that are now emblazoned on Nora’s arm makes sure that there is no wallowing here. In an episode filled with obstacles and emotional hurdles Nora deserves this chance to just let go.

Nora and Kevin can only keep things from each other for so long–whether it’s self-suffocation with dry cleaning bags or a tattoo–and what it always comes back to is the reassurance that everything is okay. Kevin suggests having a baby, which is met by hysterics. This season is leaning further into the tragi-comic than the previous two and sometimes you’ve got to laugh to stop the tears. However, Kevin is incredibly vulnerable in this scene having been caught with his head in a bag and her response is not the kindest even if this band-aid baby suggestion is not a wise one.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that when Nora sat in her white St. Louis hotel bathrobe smoking she looks like a fancy member of the Guilty Remnant. Their white uniform made them instantly identifiable as a group and their purpose was to make sure that everyone remembers the events of October 14, 2011. This all-white attire is worn by another group in the season 3 opener, which flashes back to nineteenth century rapture phenomenon and being left disappointed when nothing happens. History is repeating.

One character who is bouncing between groups is Tommy; he has gone from being a Holy Wayne disciple to helping his mother infiltrate the GR by dressing like them and now he is emulating his adopted father by wearing the same police uniform that he does. Jill meanwhile is in college and her Nirvana “Lithium” tee paired with a floaty skirt and boots is something that could’ve been worn back in the mid-90s by someone the same age. That just shows how cyclical fashion is rather than pointing to something a lot bigger.

When Jill turns up to Tommy’s surprise party she jokingly says “This the house where all the fucked up people live?” and their celebratory crowns are the nearest they’re all going to get to wearing the same thing. Crowns to cover the cracks and on the outside this family that is made up of several families appears to be stronger than ever, but as October 14 approaches it going to take more than dress-up or a uniform to show that everything is going to be fine.

Emma Fraser is the creator of TV Ate My Wardrobe and spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion and costuming; Abbi and Ilana’s Broad City style, the wigs on The Americans and Mindy Lahiri’s pajamas are just as vital as talking about ’90s, ’00s teen shows. Emma has a MA in film and television, and she probably holds Angela Chase responsible for this path. You can find her on Twitter @frazbelina. Tat’s Alright: Covering Up Pain With Ink on ‘The Leftovers’