Damon Lindelof 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.”

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