'The Leftovers' Creator Damon Lindelof Discusses The Final Season And Not Making A 'Twisty' Show [Interview]

Until the end, The Leftovers delivered the unexpected. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's HBO series grew into a show that defied or subverted all expectations. After the first season, which now feels like a complete contrast to the series finale, it felt like all bets were off.

Kevin Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux) as a messiah? Matt Jamison's (Christopher Eccleston) spiritual journey on a sex cruise? And then there's Nora Durst's (Carrie Coon) experiences in season 3. The Leftovers seemed like it could go anywhere it wanted and earn it. After an ambitious season 2, Lindelof and Perrotta took more chances with the final eight episodes. Big swings that led to one emotionally satisfying finale. It was a show so good that the Emmys almost completely ignored it.

In the first of an expansive, two-part interview, Lindelof talked to us about some of the choices made in the final season of The Leftovers.

In what ways did the show evolve after season one in ways you didn't imagine?

I think that even if you asked me at the end of season one in the midst of writing the finale and you essentially said, "In season two we're going to do an entire episode told from Meg's point of view and it looks like she's going to basically blow up a bridge in Texas while you're playing Olivia Newton John's magic," I'd be like, "That is never going to happen on The Leftovers. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. I mean, Liv is great but that doesn't sound like our show at all."

I think that over the course of the second season it was constantly surprising me and the fact of the matter is I'll say this until I'm blue in the face, the show became so many other people's visions. Obviously starting in the writer's room but then Mimi and many of our directors and the actors took a sense of personal authorship. The ability for the show to surprise me was constant. Someone would pitch something in the room that I would laugh at, because it was amusing to me not because I thought it was a stupid idea, and then I'd suddenly go, "Okay, let's let this breathe a little bit before we drink it. Can we do that? Is it inside the boundaries of what a Leftovers episode is? Are there any boundaries?"

When I was asking myself those questions that's when I was most excited as a storyteller.

I think the fans of The Leftovers don't have too many expectations or hopes for where the show went. Is that freeing in any way to you and the others? What they want it to do, does that feel free to you and the other writers in a way?

Yeah, we are talking about the audience all the time. I think when you're in a medium like television, there's an artsy-fartsy approach, which is "We're just making this for ourself and hopefully people will appreciate it," and that certainly exists but if you're trying to communicate ideas, whether they're emotional ideas or narrative ideas, you don't want the audience to be completely and totally confused unless the characters are confused.

I think that it's not ... I wouldn't define The Leftovers as a twisty show, in terms of "Oh my god, it was this all along!" Or this character was holding a secret agenda, but there were things, particularly the main storyline of the second season where what happened to Evie and her two friends, that relied on a bit of a twist, but it would've been okay with us if people guessed it. It still would've been really satisfying, I think, emotionally when we got there, but that is one of the benefits of having a show that isn't a huge zeitgeisty show. It lives in more of a cult space which is if the internet decides to start crowdsourcing and looking for surprises, they're going to find them because the audience is so sophisticated now.

I think that the best kind of twist shows are the ones that you're watching where you're like, "Oh, I'm not even looking for a twist," and then they can really sneak up on you. I think that when you take a character-centric point of view, and I don't mean that in terms of everybody says "Oh, it's all about the characters. That's all that we care about." That's true, but if the characters are just sitting around doing crossword puzzles all day, who gives a shit about the show? Then the narrative has to really be interesting too and I think that when we approached every episode as "Whose point of view are we in? This is Nora's episode, this is Matt's episode, this is John Murphy's episode," we were able to constantly move beyond the boundaries of what a traditional episode of The Leftovers is because it's like almost every episode is a back door pilot for another series.

The finale was maybe one of the show's most intimate episodes. There aren't many locations, it's a lot of interiors and mostly just characters talking. What made you want to keep it so contained?

I do think that, not to compare it just to the Lost finale, which is a conversation in and of itself, and obviously that show is all about build, build, build, build, so there was an expectation for the finale to have a certain scale, but even when you think about something like the Breaking Bad finale in terms of the audience expects some degree of high drama, life or death stakes, like you're building to a big set piece, but then some of the greatest finales of all time ... I love The Sopranos finale, I love the MASH finale. They were really about scaling down and essentially, what is the big climax of The Sopranos finale is that there's just a family eating dinner in a diner. The audience is like, "That climax wasn't satisfying enough so it has to be that Tony got killed. That would be exciting."

I think that our need to have a big moment happen, a big life or death set piece, very often those expectations can get in the way of what the story really wants to be. We felt like giving the audience all of that in the penultimate episode where Kevin basically nukes the world, and cuts out this key from his assassin identical brother, that was us trolling this idea of the big mega-finale.

Then there's going to be an episode after that one. Hopefully the audience understood that our show was not about the end of the world, it was about what you do when the world doesn't end and that necessitated us showing, in the most dramatic terms possible, the most anticlimactic, deflating of an ending, which is "Oh no, everything that they've been promising since episode one, that something big is going to happen on the 14th, in fact, nothing big really happened but something massively big happened emotionally for the people that we really care about so that when we meet them again in the finale, they've all shifted as a result of the world not ending and they realize, 'Oh now I guess we have to live our lives."

Which was always, I think, the intention of Tom's book in starting the storytelling three years after the Departure. It was like, "Okay, now we've got to get back to it."

Most Powerful Man

You returned to "International Assassin" territory with "The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)." In season two, did you know that was a place the show would have to return to? 

This is a place where I think we kind of return to the question that you asked earlier about audience expectation. I think that when we sat down as a writer's room, and we're talking about the season writ large, we already knew that ... The most important thing to us was that the show didn't ignore the idea that Kevin came back to life. If Jon Snow comes back to life, that's all part and parse of Game of Thrones. There's magic and dragons, and every once ina while someone will come back to life. That's what happens.

But we were sort of like, Kevin wants to get on with his life, but what if the people around Kevin are like, 'No, we want to talk about this.' What did it mean? And more importantly, how can we use you to get what we want? So this sort of reluctant Messiah narrative began to emerge that was exciting to all of us. We were like, 'So where is that story going to culminate? I guess they want to kill him again, right? When they kill him again, where is he going to go this time?'

We very quickly decided he can't go back to the hotel, because we've already done that, but he has to go back to a space that sort of models and plays by the same rules that we established the first time around. So we quickly realized that we were having that conversation that you inevitably have when you're making the sequel to a movie, which is like, 'How do we use the same foundation that made the first movie work so well, but at the same time, double down and introduce a new idea?' This time, Arnold Schwarzenegger's the good guy. That's why T2 is such a fucking great sequel.

This time, there's not just one alien, but a billion aliens. It's not a horror movie, but it's an action movie. And some of the absurdist humor that worked well in "International Assassin," it was like, 'Let's double down on those things.' So if there was a subtle dick joke in International Assassin One, we need to go all the way with the dick joke in International Assassin Two.

I think that the audience, as we were imaging what we expected, and we're like, 'We just have to double down and go big.' We kept saying 'doubled down', and it was like, 'If we're doubling down, I guess that means we're dealing with two Kevins here.' I guess at that point, it just wrote itself.

I'm glad you mentioned the dick jokes. One of my favorite laughs of the season is the sound effect of the thud. Great touch. 

I'm glad you appreciate that, because on the mix stage, we did have to get note that it 'had to have a little more oomph to it', I believe was the actual note. I don't know how they generated that thud, but I think it was dropping a watermelon onto a carpet.

 I was just re-watching some of season one and-

I'm sorry to hear that.

Know what? It's ...

I'm joking. Season one definitely has its moments.

Knowing where Kevin Garvey Jr. ends up makes season 1 a little less bleak for me. He's miserable and pissed in a lot of season 1, but I'm happy knowing where he's going. 

When there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it definitely changes your perspective versus I think season one where you're like, "Am I even in a tunnel? What do you mean, light? I'll let you know about the light if and when I see the tunnel."

What were some of the ideas and dilemmas Kevin faced from the beginning you wanted to pay off in the final season?

I think that Kevin's dilemma was always primarily internalized and existential, as is every human being's, but Nora's dilemma was physical. She lost her family. You understand why Nora is behaving the way that she is even if she's behaving in this insane way. For Kevin, it's much trickier because you're like, "What did you lose, buddy?" Obviously, your wife joined a cult, but what is the source of your existential despair? I think that what we knew even in season one that I think we made more explicit in seasons two and three is that there is a part of Kevin that basically fears connection and he was even feeling that way before the Departure happened as he articulates to his dad, "Is this all there is? I don't feel connected to my own family." He's behaving in a self-destructive way, sneaking cigarettes, cheating on his wife. All that stuff.

It becomes much more explicit in season two when he's being haunted by Patti who is basically a physicalized representative of this idea of "There is no family." It feels like he keeps pushing back towards this idea of wanting to go home to family but at the same time, in season three he completely, totally detonates his relationship with Nora. Says the most horrible thing you can say to somebody who's lost their kids and now he's atoning for it, but ultimately, the story that we're trying to tell is, there's this thing inside him that's so afraid of being hurt or abandoned that it inhibits him from forming real connections with other people. Real love. He's incapable of feeling real love because he's not willing to accept the risks attached to it. We physicalize that idea in the most powerful man in the world and his identical twin brother, and then he removes it from himself and that basically enables him to go after Nora.

It takes many, many, many years for him to do so. He's still a little angry. One of my favorite scenes in the finale is when Kevin shows up and he says the most romantic thing to Nora, which is, "I've basically been searching for you all these years because I couldn't believe that you were gone," but he's yelling at her and he's dropping F-bombs all over the place. I was like, "Oh, this is good. This feels like Kevin." He's still angry but he's saying the most romantic thing ever.

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Check back next week for part two of our Damon Lindelof interview, in which he discusses the final scene and Nora's trip to the other side.