The last time Damon Lindelof ended a drama he had co-created, the polarizing and often vitriolic reaction to the Lost finale was so overwhelming, it eventually drove him off of Twitter. (Though his Instagram is fun.) With The Leftovers, the audience is much smaller, the passion among those remaining to watch more consistent, that even if people didn’t love tonight’s series finale — which I found to be, like so much of this series, truly extraordinary — they are far less likely to hurl profane demands at Lindelof for a refund on the last few years of their lives.
With a series, and an ending, as ambiguous as The Leftovers has always been, there’s a lot to talk about — far more than Lindelof and I could cover even in a 90-minute interview on Thursday afternoon — including (spoilers) the story Nora tells Kevin in the show’s final moments, the revelation that Laurie did not drown herself at the end of this season’s sixth episode, how the Perfect Strangers episode was actually Lindelof’s gift to me, and a whole lot more. In some cases, Lindelof is willing to explain in depth what really happened; in many others, he deliberately invites me and the rest of the audience to draw our own conclusions. That’s all coming up just as soon as they let you keep my fossil…
(This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity; a few exchanges took place as email follow-ups after the interview ended.)
It’s a few days before the finale. How do you feel?
I don’t think there’s a word in the emotional spectrum for how I feel. I feel less anxious than I did a week ago, so it would seem my anxiety is on a downward trend as we approach the actual airing. Then it will uptick again. I anticipate Saturday and Sunday are going to be very rough days of what it feels like for it to be out there. In the meantime, the cast has started seeing it, and I had a great conversation with Justin, and that was really great, and I haven’t been spending much time with him since the show ended, so it’s been nice reconnecting with everybody. I guess I’m in a space of simultaneous celebration and dread, but I can’t quite articulate what the dread is about yet.
How much does it tie to the end of the last show? Or does it? Are the feelings at all the same?
No, they feel very distinctive. We basically finished shooting Lost three weeks before it aired. We finished shooting The Leftovers in September of last year, and the episodes airing has been so separate from the process of making it, so it’s been a much different thing.
The other thing is, the expectation on Lost, I’ve spoken ad nauseam about what it was and that it was a mystery box show, etc, but it went for 121 episodes. The Leftovers is 28, and I just feel like, when you just talk about the relative distances between, it’s like a 10k to a marathon in terms of how long it lasted, but also in terms of the scale at which how many people are watching it. Not a lot of my dread or anxiety is attached to this perceived idea of sticking the landing, because the reality is I have come to embrace the idea that there was a process by which a really good episode of The Leftovers was generated by writers, directors, actors, editors, and at the end of it my gut would either say, like, this one’s good, or this one’s not that good, and the audience has usually been relatively in sync with us on that. I’m hoping the same is true of the finale.
When and how did the idea to end the show this way come to you?
It didn’t come to me, it came to us. We got together right after New Years of ’16 and it was just the writers who were coming back from season 2, because we were still hiring writers for season 3: Patrick Somerville, Nick Cuse, Tom Spezialy, Tom Perrotta, and myself. We said, “We have to figure out what the last scene of the series is going to be, because now we know there’s going to be an ending.” There were really just two through lines that we had at that point. Through line number one was The Book of Kevin, that Matt had written this gospel without Kevin knowing about it, and that Kevin wasn’t going to be happy about it when he found out. The second narrative was the LADR narrative, which is, Nora was going to get pitched the idea of this device. Right on the heels of that, we asked what are the conclusions of those two stories? Well, we want Kevin and Nora to be together. They’re going to break up, they’re going to have a pyrotechnic knock-down drag-out horrific fight where horrible but honest things get said to one another, and they’re going to be apart. Then we want to bring them back together. That basically became the problem that we were trying to solve for.
The second problem that we were trying to solve for is, if Nora gets told about this device that can supposedly reunite her with her loved ones, what’s the culmination of that journey? Is it real? Is it a scam, is it a hoax, is it something that the GR is perpetrating? Is it just, as she suspects, an incinerator, or does it work? If it’s not just an episode construct like the guy who shows up in “Lens,” if it’s a whole season, there’s going to be some expectation that we answer that. A, is the LADR even real? B, does the LADR work? On the heels of that conversation, we said, “Oh, that’s going to be the ending of the season: Nora gets into this thing and she actually goes through it and she has this incredible experience. Wouldn’t that be amazing, because we’ve been telling people all along that we’re never going to answer where all the departed people went?” It’ll be sort of like a reverse Lost, where you got an answer that you weren’t expecting, vs you didn’t get an answer that you were.
That was just delightful and we started talking about what Nora’s experience was, and then it was Perrotta who said, “We cannot show Nora going through and having this experience with her kids, but she should tell it because our show is about people telling stories. Then we have to embrace that there will be some fundamental ambiguity about whether or not she’s telling the truth. Then the question becomes, who is she telling it to? The first version, when we were having those early January conversations, was that Nora was going to be telling this story to a grown up version of Lily, her previously adopted daughter who’s now tracked down this woman who was her adoptive mother for a short period of time. But the more we talked about the Lily idea, the stupider it sounded, and the more we were ignoring the obvious, which is, she should be telling that story to Kevin. Now, why is she telling that story to Kevin? What’s the emotional context of that story, what’s happened to them prior to telling that story, what’s happened to him? That will be all the work that we now have to do as we build the third season, but we had that construct pretty early on.
A lot of big things happen in this season. Matt Jamison meets God. God is devoured by a lion…
In quotation marks. Not “lion,” but “God.” That’s a real lion.
…a version of reality is destroyed by nuclear weapons, etc. Last week’s episode was about as big as you could possibly go. The finale is two people at a wedding having a conversation, and a dance and then enjoying some tea. It’s a very small ending. How did you feel about that?
It was completely intentional. All the writers and Mimi (Leder) and the actors agreed that the big challenge of the season was going to be, we’re selling it on the basic idea of, “It’s the seven-year anniversary of the Departure, and something big is going to happen, and in its final summation, nothing happens, and how are you going to make that satisfying? How are you going to make that feel like it’s not just a big cop-out or us not even wanting to deal with it?” That was actually the birth of the Millerite sequence: let’s just tell the audience that that’s exactly what we’re doing, that this season is about this part of the human experience that seems to be fixated on the world ending. What does that mean emotionally? It just means that’s a fantasy that we have so that we don’t have to deal with our shit, or it gives us an escape clause, or we don’t have to actually be vulnerable to people and form any kind of lasting attachment if we think that the world is going to end. That fundamental idea became the center of everything that we wanted to do.
We know that nothing’s going to happen on the seven-year anniversary. It’s not even like people are gathered in Times Square waiting for the world to end. If you actually watch the season again, more people are like the Gary Busey guys, or the Australian weatherman, than they are like Matt Jamison. He’s picked sort of an arbitrary number that some people may be taking fairly seriously, but it’s not like the world writ large is — it’s not like it was Y2k. Just these characters. What we owe the audience is, how do they feel when the world doesn’t end, and does it transform them? Those are the stories that we’re going to tell this year. All the pyrotechnics quite literally happen in the penultimate episode of the season. We resolve the answer of the world hasn’t ended, oh shit, I guess we’re still here, we’ve got to deal with our stuff after all, and what’s the thing that we most care about in the final episode and how can that thing symbolize the larger thing?
The larger thing is, can people be okay? The question that I think that Tom’s book asked is, if the Departure happened, would it ever be possible to be attached to anyone ever again knowing they could be gone in a second? You want the answer to that to be yes, and I think that the answer at the end of Tom’s novel is yes. There’s Nora, she’s just written Kevin this letter saying, “I’m leaving, I love you Kevin but I can’t be with you because I’m broken,” and then she finds this baby on the doorstep and she picks it up and she says, “Look what I found.” That’s Tom’s novel saying yes, people can be okay again, if they find the right surrogate. I just wanted to restate that same idea over and over again in every finale.
There’s this very telling line during the conversation at the end where she asks if people still call Jarden “Miracle,” and he says not so much anymore. That says to me that however many years past Departure Day this is, the world has moved on. Even something this huge and this cosmic, people are able to get past.
I hope that’s true, and it’s true theoretically about The Departure, right? Just imagine twenty years from that October 15th, whatever that Ground Zero is, has it worn off, but I think there are analogs in our own history and our own contemporary history. Not just with 9/11, but looking at something like Vietnam, or the Holocaust. Some people call it resilience, others call it denial, but once you are one generation removed, by the time that Nora and Kevin are the age that they are in the finale, Jill now has kids, and those kids don’t give a shit about the Departure, because it happened before they were born. My son Van, who’s 10 years old, I have to show him a video of 9/11 and be like, “This is what happened,” and he’s like, “Oh, those buildings fell down, that’s scary,” and you go, “You have no idea how scary it was.” Not if you weren’t alive and experienced it when it happened.