Damon Lindelof on 'The Leftovers': 'I'm fighting for the life of the show'
HBO's "The Leftovers" just concluded an incredible second season. (Here's my review of the finale.) As a bookend to the long and candid conversation we had two months ago, I spoke with the series' co-creator Damon Lindelof about many of the big decisions going into the finale, about all the hard work and tough choices required for a season this good, and his thoughts about the show's precarious future, coming up just as soon as a temple closes on Christmas...
Let's start with a meta question: why are we doing this interview? A year ago, you didn't want to do any post-mortems. You wanted to let the show speak for itself. You did a bunch at the start of this season, you talked to Mo Ryan last week, and are doing a few like this for the finale. Why did you decide to be a little bit more out there this year?
Damon Lindelof: Interesting choice of words. I think what it all boils down to is I have to be as transparent and as honest as possible, which is, now I'm fighting for the life of the show. I think that if I were in a different scenario, I could be more precious about how much I talked about the show. But we live in a media climate where buzz is a very real thing, and if me giving an interview creates clicks or press or buzz in any way, then if the show doesn't come back, I have to be in a position where I can say I did everything I could to propagate the life of the show. And that includes saying yes a little bit more often. I still want to try to limit the explanation aspect of the interviews: Explain this, explain that, what did you mean by? But just shutting the door and saying, "I'm not accessible and I'm not willing to talk about the show" is ultimately going to do more damage to the show.
That's what I'm telling myself. The short answer might just be I have a huge ego and need to talk more.
So let's talk about the future. Where do things stand, as far as you know, and what has to happen for a season 3 to exist?
Damon Lindelof: I don't know what the answer to the last part is. I can guess at what those things are, but no one has told me what the rules are. I know that HBO is really happy with the creative of the show; they've been immensely supportive of what we wanted to do, and they've been highly collaborative and pleased with the results. That said, all of us have to take a pragmatic look at the numbers. HBO is not Netflix or Amazon. The numbers of the show are known, and the truth of the matter is that the ratings are down from season 1. If the show was always an underperformer, the little engine that could, and the trajectory was flat, or up or down a little bit, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now. The reality is, everybody felt that the show was ascending a bit, creatively and ratings-wise, towards the end of the season, and in the interim between the two seasons, we lost a lot of the audience coming into this year. That's the situation that we're in. The critical buzz, the critical response, and the fan response, has been much more positive this year than it was last year. And that matters; that's important. But I think what would be great is if there were some kind of bump in the finale ratings. We actually saw an uptick in the ratings for episode 9, which I was surprised by, considering we were up against "The Walking Dead" mid-season finale and an incredible football game that I was watching and rooting for the Broncos. It would be great if that trajectory continued. It would probably be bad if we lost viewership from episode 9 to the finale. Any case that can be made for a show that is picking up momentum would be huge. But the reality is, I'm talking to HBO. We're going to sit down before the holidays and get a sense of where everybody's head is at. I certainly want to make more episodes of "The Leftovers." That's kind of how things sit.
Technically, when do the actors' options lapse? That tends to be the drop-dead date for these kinds of decisions.
Damon Lindelof: I don't know the specific answer to that question, but my understanding of it is that it's somewhere in the February window. But my sense of it is — and I don't want to put words in HBO's mouth —that they don't want to drag this out. I have a sense that we'll have real clarity right around the new year, either before or shortly after. Obviously, the actors would want to take other projects, the writing staff, my own mental head space. And HBO, everything they'll need to know, they'll know by the new year.
Let's get back to the ratings for a minute. Do you have any theories? Everybody seems to think the show is better this year than last year, so why are the numbers down?
Damon Lindelof: We were a summer show last season, now we came on in the fall, Sunday nights are perhaps more competitive all-around in terms of original programming. That said, and I'm not playing dumb, I'm not entirely aware of how we've cumed across all platforms. But if you ask me what my glass half-full assessment is, it's that the way people watch television has radically changed, and I know many many people who want to watch it all in one sitting, or at least watch it at their own leisure. They will wait for the entire run of episodes to be done, and then watch it. My hope is, a few months from now, all the people who liked "The Leftovers" at the end of the first season actually just binged it at the end of the second season, and we'll be able to account for almost all of them.
My glass half-empty approach is that we started talking about what the show was going to be this year, that the show was moving, and maybe some people who liked the show last year, or were on the fence, didn't respond to that idea and didn't watch. That's another possible explanation.
You care very deeply about what people think about your work. Has it been gratifying that the response has been as positive as it is? That you were able to turn Andy Greenwald to your cause, among other people?
Damon Lindelof: It feels great. I also have a perspective of where I am on the parabola, and what's on either side of me. There is no part of my psyche that will ever drop the mic. I will be clutching the mic always. I don't feel validated, I don't feel "Todlja so!" I feel like we did really good work last year, we struggled to find the heart of the show, and we did even better work this year, just on every level. So many things clicked in. So the idea of converting people who were maybe a little bit dubious about the show feels good. But — and I'm not just saying this because I'm on the phone with you; it's the truth, and anyone who knows me will back this up — it's immensely validating that the people who liked the show last year still like the show. That's the bigger deal for me: the idea that we didn't really have to change its DNA in order to win people over. I'm sure that every garage band is basically like, "The sweetest fan to see is the one who sat in the garage with you and was into you before you started playing major coliseums." And "The Leftovers" is never going to play major coliseums. It's always going to be kind of a standing room only bar show, in all likelihood. But the idea that the people who liked the show last year still like it, that's the most immensely gratifying.
You have always worked very hard to maintain a level of ambiguity on the show as to which things are magical and which things are not. Playing devil's advocate here, it did feel to me like there was a lot happening in this finale that seemed to be landing pretty definitively on the side of magic. Was that your intention going into things? To say, "This thing is definitely real, this thing is definitely real, this thing is definitely real"?
Damon Lindelof: The answer to your question is no. There was no intentionality in the finale of, "We're going to go full-bore magical." The magical thinking aspect of the show is for me, a very interesting conversation because the Departure happened. So the rules that govern this world inherently have to accept that the Departure happened. So if you're talking about a show like "Lost" that is inherently supernatural/magical in its DNA — although we had to do a certain tap dance in the first season of that show and say, "No, no, it's Michael Crichton. Don't worry; the show's not going to get too weird," for a variety of reasons where I wish I could have been more honest at that point, but there's always a game to be played — there's no game to be played, the show is what it is. It's interesting to me that people watch "The Leftovers" and they don't want it to be magical. They want the Departure to have happened and everything else to be entirely grounded in reality. I embrace that presentation. But I also feel like, the rule that we've set for ourselves as storytellers, more or less, is that if 2 percent of the world's population disappeared, 2 percent of the show should be magical, and the other 98 percent should be grounded. That said, the story that was Kevin's primary story, his arc over the entire course of the season, was that he was being haunted by Patti Levin. The question became, for us as writers, is she real or is she a figment of Kevin's imagination? Is he having a psychotic break, as Laurie describes? Is there any truth to this? Is that the actual Patti, or is that Kevin's psyche? We had to decide as writers. It would be bullshit for me to say to you, (idiot voice) "Well, uh, there's different, uh, potential interpretations of that." We know. We have intentionality, but I am not going to say in an interview, "This is what it was." That's really the way that I feel about the show whole cloth.
I'd be very curious to wonder what you think those areas of an out-and-out, absolute 100 percent, "We're in a magical realm now" are. I could probably case by case go, talk about the discussions we had in the writers room about how some of those things could have happened: how Kevin could have survived getting shot by John Murphy. As opposed to what didn't happen in the room, "Well, you can't kill Kevin Garvey now, because he's the third coming of Jesus Christ." That didn't happen. One person's magical thinking is another person's cynicism. There are some people, yourself included, who believe that Isaac's ability to determine that Meg's mom had walnuts in her final meal is proof of the supernatural, and I am here to tell you I strongly disagree. That isn't to say that Isaac isn't legit. The writers room has made a clear determination on that as well. But that's like saying David Copperfield can walk through the Great Wall of China because we all saw it happen. It's a really good trick.
Do you want to go through them one at a time?
Damon Lindelof: No. I suspect I know what they were. I don't want to end up in a conversation with you where you go, "This is magic," and I go, "Here's how it couldn't have been magic."
That's fine. Let's move on to a different kind of ambiguity. The Matt episode leaves a question open as to whether Matt raped Mary, or Mary woke up. And that is answered in the finale. Early episodes of the season set up things like the goat man, and the woman in the wedding dress, and the man on the pillar. And by the end of the season, you pretty much explained all of them. How did you decide that you didn't just want them to be bizarre details, or in the case of the Matt/Mary thing, that you didn't want the audience wondering if he raped his comatose wife.
Damon Lindelof: I think those are two entirely different categories. I can speak to them separately. The little details of the show, some of which I think there is still some ambiguity surrounding Pillar Man or Jerry the Goat Man about who they were, what their backstory was, but when it's like, "Why is Michael riding by this crack with plexiglass over it? Why is that woman watering her lawn in a wedding dress? Why is Erika digging up birds in the woods? Why are the girls behaving the way that they're behaving?" To me, I felt like we had answers to those questions. It's not about withholding those answers; the answers in and of themselves are going to drive the story this season. We're not going to necessarily present them as mysteries that must be solved, but when we talked about the season and were building out these characters, it was like, why hide it just for hiding it's sake? When I enter into a new world — for example, I'm binging "The Man in the High Castle" right now, and not to spoil that show, but what's exciting is I just get dropped into that world. There's not some big opening crawl that says, "This is how the Nazis and the Japanese actually won the war and what it's like to live in the United States right now." I have to watch the show in order to get those pieces. When I get them, it feels like they're happening in a very organic, non-expository way. For us, it was like, "So this guy kills goats. Why?" And then, "We have the answer to that question. When do we want to reveal it?" And "Let's reveal it in the episode that's going to be focused on Erika Murphy, and how is that information going to come out?" Here's a natural way for it to come out: Jill Garvey would say in episode 2 or episode 1, "Hey, we saw this guy walking a goat around? What's up with him?" And Michael Murphy would go, "Oh, back on October 14, he killed a goat, and a lot of people in the town think he spared us." That's the least interesting way, because it has no impact whatsoever on character or emotion or any of the stock in trade of the show. So it really becomes a question of how do we maximize the answer to those questions. Sometimes, it's a throwaway, and sometimes it's immensely impactful.
The reality is, when Matt says to Mary, "Do you remember the last time you woke up?," he already knows that it happened, or believes that it happened. There's certainly an episode where she could be asked that on the stand in a trial, or be asked by John Murphy, where we would question whether or not she was covering for Matt when she said it. We wanted to present it in a way that it was very clear to the audience and to Matt that, no, she remembers, and he was right. His entire point of view back in episode 5 was a completely and totally legitimate point of view. It felt like that was important. To withhold that piece of information would have been cruel. But more important, it would have severely damaged the relationship between Matt and Mary moving forwards. Which we've already begun to discuss.
Let's talk about the afterlife, or the psychotic break, or whatever you want to call it; let's talk about the hotel. When it came time to write "International Assassin," and you knew the episode was going to be what it was, and you wanted to leave it ambiguous as to what was really happening to Kevin, how did you settle on it being at a hotel, and he was going to be an assassin trying to murder Patti as a presidential candidate?
Damon Lindelof: This is a great question that I really want to answer, but I also feel like, in answering it, I completely and totally shorthand the process. Let me just say that we knew, immediately on the heels of Kevin drinking the poison that Virgil gave him, that we would do an episode of Kevin in, whether you want to define it as the afterlife or whatever, his journey back out of the ground. And what is that going to look and feel like? As you might imagine, the first idea that was pitched was not this one. There was a lot of fumbling around and talking about things we had seen that we loved and felt did it right, and how could we rip those things off and make it feel like an homage as opposed to a steal, and things where we thought they did it wrong. I had an email exchange with ("Mr. Robot" creator) Sam Esmail, who was kind of enough to write me this great email after he saw episode 8, and I said, "Dude, we were all inspired by your fourth episode," in which Elliot is detoxing and has a bit of a vision quest. What was impressive about the way they did that was it had real emotional stakes. It wasn't just out there. I felt we were learning about the character, but it was visually within the language of the show, but at the same time, completely and totally compelling and riveting and grounded. So we had a lot of those conversations about how do you do it right and how do you do it wrong. Then in the earliest iterations of the story, Kevin's search to find and kill Patti, we always knew was going to be the thrust of the episode. But as we started to talk about that stuff, it was all feeling super pretentious, artsy fartsy, ethereal. It didn't feel like it had any narrative stakes, it felt a little more episodic than that it had real narrative drive. At some point, the word "assassinate" just got floated out there. And as soon as I heard it, I was like, "Well, what if he literally has to assassinate Patti? What if the entire episode bends to the construct of 'Three Days of the Condor' or 'All the President's Men'?" We already had it in the back of our heads. Steven Williams, who did an amazing job playing Virgil, aside from "Jump Street," my initial impression of him as an actor was from "X-Files." He was the next Deep Throat. And I thought, "Ohmigod, we're going to do the parking lot scene!" All those tropes started falling into place. The critical decision would be that Kevin would be completely and totally aware. He wouldn't be walking about as if in a dream. He would remember with striking clarity, "I drank this thing, I fell on the ground, and then I woke up in this tub, what the hell am I doing here?" So he would be having the same experience as the audience, and feeling what they were. And the moment where Kevin started rolling with this, hopefully the audience would, too. It was really fun to break. I think there were multiple points where we would crack each other up and go, "Are we really going to do this?" We just decided that we would. There was a lot of anxiety on my part when we pitched it to HBO, but they got on board instantly. That's when I was like, "I think we're going to get away with this." But until the night that we aired, I was very unsure that we weren't engaging in an epic shark jump.
What would have happened in that episode if Kevin had chosen one of the other outfits from the wardrobe? We see in the finale that he chooses the cop uniform and winds up at the karaoke bar. Is that what would have happened in "International Assassin"? And how would things have gone with one of the other two?
Damon Lindelof: We didn't ever do the "Choose Your Own Adventure" in "International Assassin" because we had the assassin idea before we engineered the opening of the closet and the choosing of the outfit. We did think at the time, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if he came back to this place and had to pick another outfit?" and that idea ended up bearing fruit very shortly after that. But because his mission was very specific in that hotel, whatever uniform — if he had put on the cop uniform — he still would have had to kill Patti Levin. The same was true of the priest's vestments, and the Guilty Remnant outfit. We didn't break those episodes, because the assassin one was so much more interesting and engaging to us on an emotional level and a story level. But when he returns to the hotel in the finale and he chooses the police uniform, there's a reason for us emotionally that he chooses the police uniform this time. But also his mission this time is much less specific, because he did not choose to die. He's just in the space now. So his objective now is just, "I need to get out." In the finale, we again didn't discuss what happens if he chooses the GR outfit? Because why would he? Why would he choose the priest's vestments? What happens if he chooses the assassin's suit again? He wouldn't. Why would he go through that again? He would only choose the police uniform this time.
One of the things that's interesting in "International Assassin" is the details evoking the other outfits. He winds up in an elevator with a priest wearing vestments similar to the ones in the wardrobe, and at one point we see him walk past a man wearing what looks like the Mapleton PD uniform, and with a hood over his head. It felt like there were these alternate versions of Kevin floating around in the hotel through the course of that episode.
Damon Lindelof: Certainly one interpretation is that they're alternate versions of Kevin. Another is that this space is not only accessible to Kevin. If you're looking at this through the magical prism as opposed to the psychological prism, we see a few times this Latina woman who appears to be dressed in scrubs, and if you listen carefully to what she's saying, that may give an indication of an alternate theory. Not to mention, to my knowledge as a writer of the show, Kevin doesn't speak Spanish, and so how would he be having a head trip where somebody was speaking it fluently? So all those little touches were not only intentional, but followed a significant amount of conversation and tire-kicking. Many ideas did not end up in the show, because we couldn't justify them, or there was no intention behind them. They were just cute details. The ones that did end up in the show were ones we felt we could justify.
Do you want to clarify the backstory between Virgil, Erika, John, and Michael? There was some confusion among some of the audience, and it's not until there's a line of dialogue in the finale that we know that Virgil was Erika's father and not John's.
Damon Lindelof: I think clarifying it is kind of unfair. This is not meant to be some huge epic mystery, but in terms of the timing of it all, there's a possibility, fingers crossed, of telling more stories with the Murphys, and I'm not concealing the information for the sake of concealing it. But the degree of specificity in the show is the specificity that we offered. A lot of people started assuming Virgil was John's father, so I'm really glad there's that line of dialogue in the finale that makes it clear he is, indeed, Erika's father, but that's the only plot point where I would want there to be significant clarity. In terms of the chronology, I think it's pretty obvious that Virgil is the person that John shot, but the specific series of events that led to John shooting Virgil, I don't think it's fair for me to say in an interview with you, "Well, here's what happened."
In hindsight, the girls riding silently in the car makes perfect sense: they're in the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant does not, however, tend to run naked through the woods.
Damon Lindelof: That we know of.
At the time, both of those scenes were clues that something else was going on with the girls, but in hindsight, only one of them ties into them being with the GR. Do you want to talk at all about the naked sprint?
Damon Lindelof: I want to talk about it but I'm not going to talk about it. All I will say is there's a significant amount of intentionality in what we did. All I'll say is, (Tom) Perrotta and I spoke a lot about this, and Reza Aslan, our resident religious expert, spent a lot of time talking about what I'm about to say, which is that the observance of religion, particularly when it is first forming, in its nascent state, there's all sorts of things happening and shifting and calcifying, and people raising their hands and saying, "Well, what if we did this? Could we do this?" We see some of that in episode 9 when Meg asks, "Why can't we talk? Why can't we be violent? I thought our function as a religion was to remind people the Departure happened, and I'm going to do it my way if that's okay." All I'll say is that teenagers are the most likely to deviate from, or significantly amend what would be perceived as religious practice, and what could be done under that headline. That is the very hazy way of me answering your question. We all have a very specific idea of what the Guilty Remnant does and how the Guilty Remnant behaves based solely on our observation of the Mapleton chapter. All I'll say is the Guilty Remnant isn't even a religion yet; it's like Occupy Wall Street. There's no rulebook, no Talmud, no Torah, no Koran, there's nothing. There's just individuals deciding what to do when they wake up in the morning.
You mentioned Meg. There was some set-up last year suggesting this was a very violent and angry person who was less committed to the cause than she was to using the Guilty Remnant as a tool to lash out at the world. When did you decide that A)Meg would be the big bad of season 2, and B)you would keep the big bad off stage for almost the whole season?
Damon Lindelof: The first thing that I'll say is that I was in New York when we shot the scene of Liv (Tyler) chopping down the tree at the end of the second episode of the show. And when I saw her making the choice that shew as making in that scene, that's when I was like, "This person is very disturbed." I'm seeing Liv Tyler do something that I've never seen Liv Tyler do before, in at least my exposure to her. She's really angry and potentially dangerous, and the idea of Liv Tyler being angry and dangerous are not two adjectives, where, if you asked me to give five adjectives to describe Liv Tyler and the characters she's portrayed, "angry" and "dangerous" are not going to come up. But I was seeing those things and I decided to start writing to them because they were interesting. Obviously, that manifested itself at times in the first season, notably when she attacks Matt in the eighth episode and argues with Laurie over whether the Guilty Remnant should be violent, and more notably in the finale, when Matt and Kevin find her beaten and tied up to this post after the town has rioted, and she writes down, "We made them remember," there was just this cold, dead-eyed stare that she gives them that I was like, "This person is a force to be reckoned with." As we started talking about all the characters in the second season of the show, it felt like Meg was going to be radicalized. The idea that she was already pushing against some of the doctrines of the Guilty Remnant that she identified as "stupid and useless," it just so happened that Meg was in agreement with a large portion of the audience. So it was interesting that she could be voicing those ideas. But at the same time, we're more interested in characters who double down than abandon. Matt Jameson, after the Departure happened, he could have abandoned Christianity because this doesn't make sense inside his doctrine. Instead, he fixates on Job and says, "I'm going to double down on my religion." What if Meg did the same thing? I'm not saying "Leftovers" is a ripped from the headlines show, but in a world we're living in with radical Islam and ISIL and ISIS, it felt like that was a story worth telling and wouldn't it be cool if we were telling that story with Liv Tyler? Get the animal crackers out of her belly button and have her talking about plastic explosives! Ohmigod, this idea terrifies me as much as it excites me. And when something terrifies me as much as it excites me, then it's an idea that goes into "The Leftovers," if we can get it out of the jury room.
So those conversations started in the space between seasons 1 and 2. Obviously, we knew that, as we designed the story arc of the season, that we were going to bring everybody together in Jarden, because of the idea that this place was an axis mundi that was going to attract everyone to it. But we wanted to Trojan Horse the idea of the Guilty Remnant and say, "They're still out there. We're going to show you them and Meg in episode 3." But the Guilty Remnant can't get a purchase in Jarden. They would have no efficacy there, because their stock in trade is getting people to remember the Departure, but that didn't happen there, plus their access to Jarden would be extremely limited, because it's expensive to buy property there, and they probably wouldn't be tolerated. So it's a bit of a long con as far as Meg is concerned. I don't want to say, "And then we talked about this and thought about that, etc., etc." I kind of said to Mo Ryan that that's as explicit as I want to be about the creative decision making that went into how we figured this all out and how it came together, but tying the Guilty Remnant and Meg's arc into the disappearance of the girls was mandatory, because we wanted the season to have cohesion. It's not all about tying every thread up in a clean white bow, but I've done it the other way when there's not narrative cohesion, and we all know that that's not good.
Meg is not in most of the season, and doesn't appear between episode 3 and episode 9, and suddenly she has this enormous plot utility for the end of the season. Did that give you any pause? Did that have you questioning the whole POV structure to begin with, or wondering if you could wedge another Laurie and Tommy episode into the middle of the season, just so that Meg would be around a bit more?
Damon Lindelof: Yes, we questioned everything, ad nauseum. In trying to balance all of that stuff out, if we had any concern coming into the back half of the season, it was that we weren't servicing Kevin and Nora. Suddenly, it was like, "Ohmigod, we've introduced these new characters, and we care about them, and we have Laurie and Tommy on the East Coast, and we care about them from season 1, and we've got Jill, and we're not servicing her enough." So we had a lot of conversations about what episodes 6-10 were going to be and whose POV we'd be in and who we were neglecting. But then we basically found that constant anxiety over the road not taken is not going to offer any clarity of the road we must take. We really have to look at this on an episode by episode basis and ask ourselves, "Is this emotional, and are we advancing the story? Does it feel like everything is coming together? Or does it feel like a tangent?" That was really the only hurdle that we could clear. But the reality was, Liv Tyler is a regular on the show. She's only going to be in 3 of the 10 episodes? It just feels like we have a great pitcher, and they're benched. And she's only coming in to pitch one inning in episode 3, and we're asking her to pitch a complete game in episode 9. When you start thinking of it that way, you just get tied up in fear, and it's non-productive.
Yes, we talked about it a lot, yes we were fearful, yes there were times where we were like, "Man, I wish we had 13 episodes instead of 10," but there were also times, Alan, where we wished we had 8 episodes instead of 10, where the story isn't coming and you're just like "Uch, this is fucking so boring and dumb. Why do we have to tap dance? Let's just get to what we need to get to." So all of it happens when you're working on a TV show, and you just have to put your best foot forward and hope for the best. You also have to acknowledge that you're going to make mistakes. There's no such thing as a perfect season of television, let alone a perfect episode of television. If you're constantly hamstrung by worry that people aren't going to like it, you can't do your job. And me, as a fan of "The Leftovers," outside of the body of the show as a writer? I'd say one of my primary criticisms of the second season would be not enough Nora, not enough Nora and Kevin as a relationship, not enough Jill, not enough Laurie? Ohmigod, we spent all this time getting her to Jarden, and we were only able to do those two scenes in the finale? What a waste! All my criticisms are, "I wish we had done more with..."
From a pragmatic rather than a storytelling standpoint, you not only are in charge of the writing of the show, but have to manage a stable of actors, some of whom are being used a lot, some of whom are barely being used at all in this structure. Did that require more playing politician than you had to do last year?
Damon Lindelof: No. I think that all the actors knew exactly what the show was and exactly what was going to happen. I communicated exactly what it was going to mean when we went to Jarden. One of the most painful things that happened between the first and second was the losing of series regulars like Emily Meade, and the twins, and Amanda Warren, and Michael Gaston, all of whom were characters and actors who did an exemplary job but weren't going to come into the second. That was brutal. But what came with it was that every actor who continued on the show just felt a profound appreciation for still getting to be on the show. I communicated to them, "Look, this is the way it's going to work. We had great success last year with singular point of view episodes. So you may have a couple of weeks off, and then the next week it could be wall-to-wall you." I wish we'd been able to do that with everybody, but we weren't, and at least Austin's a really cool place to live in the meantime. I didn't get any pushback from any of the actors. Obviously, all of them want to do more, all of them are capable of doing more, but I think they understand that the story is bigger than just them. They were immensely understanding and cool and great and wonderful and collaborative. When their time came — Margaret Qualley, for instance, who is amazing, and who I wish we had given a full Jill episode, knowing that she was going to get only three scenes in the finale, stepped up in a big way. For those three scenes, she was amazing. If there is bad blood or disgruntlement, they kept it to themselves, which I am deeply appreciative of, and undeserving of.
The finale is not really POV, in that we're seeing so many different characters and events and perspectives. Why did you decide to go for such a global view at the end, having kept it so tight before that?
Damon Lindelof: The short answer is there would have been no way to do the finale in a singular POV, given everything that was happening in the finale. If we had said, "We're going to go back to the Murphys' exclusive point of view," it would have been so limiting in terms of all the things we needed to have happen, and so it became a matter of how can we transition and pivot between all these storylines and make it feel satisfying? Ultimately, whose point of view am I with in the scene, and let there be specificity there, and then we're going to hand off. So for example, we're going to pivot off the Laurie and Jill scene where they're obviously in great conflict, but Jill articulates to Laurie, "We should stay," and then Laurie goes and she lies in Mary's bed and goes up and down in the bed, which was (writer) Patrick Somerville's idea, which I really loved. And we go, "We'll cut to Mary, because Laurie is in Mary's bed. and then pan off of Mary and be in Nora's point of view for this entire scene, even though it's a scene about Mary waking up, and then Nora is going to bring Mary to Matt, and we're going to pivot onto Matt and Mary's point of view."
So we just went very micro with the specificity of who we were with in particular scenes. But we knew there was no way to relegate ourselves to just one individual's point of view, especially knowing we wanted to start the episode the way we wanted to start it with the three girls, specifically with Evie, and then immediately hand if off to Kevin, because that's where the audience most wanted to go. Where is the story taking us, whose point of view do we most want to be in, where is the emotion most intense? But then more importantly, we did want to know that we wanted to be in Kevin's defined point of view for probably the last 20 or 25 minutes of the episode. There's all these things we need to deal with before Kevin is back in the tub, but once he sits up out of the tub, we're going to be with him until we cut to black. So we'll be able some sense of what we did all season, but before we get to that, there are many many other things that need to be dealt with for this finale and have some sense of closure and finale-ness.
I don't want to re-tread too much of the ground you went over with Mo last week, because you and she covered it so thoroughly there, but I want to hit a few points about keeping the Evie secret. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being utterly peaceful, Zen-like calm, and 10 being you are terrified as Pennywise the Clown turns into the giant spider monster in front of you, to what number would you assign your weekly terror level that people were going to predict and popularize the theory that the girls joined the Guilty Remnant?
Damon Lindelof: It was very low at first, and then by the time episode 7 and 8 aired, it kind of got in the 7-8-9 range. Again, I'm not on Twitter, I'm not on Reddit, but several of the writers are monitoring that. And I'm checking in with, "Somerville told me that someone on Reddit guessed it after week 3." But it didn't gather any momentum. It was just one person on Reddit saying it. And this is, I think, the benefit of lower viewership. If we were "True Detective," where everyone is unpacking every detail of the Yellow King, and it's in the A-level zeitgeist, there's no way that people wouldn't have guessed it. And, again, we had to design the ninth episode in a way where, if people have guessed it, we wanted it to just be an "Ah-ha!" The episode had to work independent of the twist, but I was quite excited coming into the ninth episode that nobody had gotten it yet. A lot of that is because we kept the Guilty Remnant and Meg on the sidelines. It wasn't in the audience's consciousness that that's what we were moving towards.
I was hoping people wouldn't figure it out. That kind of thing you can only do once, so if there's another season of "The Leftovers" and there's another mystery like that, the audience is never going to watch the show the same way again. There was a legitimate possibility this season that we were never going to see the girls again. It would've been fair for us to do that. I think a lot of people would've been angry, but it would've been fair to say, "They departed. They went where everybody else went. And we're grandfathered in on that one. We're not telling you where those people went." So the show is not promising that you're going to get any answer at all. The fact that we had that as a backdoor gave the audience perhaps some degree of relief, so they're not going to try to figure it out too hard, because that's a possible answer, and if that's the answer, I don't want to waste my time on this show.
What's the worst incident of the audience getting ahead of you on "Lost," like when everybody realized that Claire and Jack were siblings?
Damon Lindelof: That's probably the one. But I wouldn't say that it annoyed me. It's just like, the audience gets so far ahead of the characters that the characters seem like nitwits, even though its' completely and totally reasonable that they're not nitwits. Do you watch "The Americans"? They do it so brilliantly, where the FBI is basically living across the street from the KGB, and the KGB knows that the FBI man is in the FBI, but he doesn't know they're KGB. But at the same time, you don't think he's an idiot! I don't know how they do that, but they do.
You've said you very much want the show to be back, which wasn't the feeling you were having at this time last year, when you had to go away and decide. If HBO gives you a renewal, do you have a story idea in mind yet, or do you just feel so invigorated by how this season has gone that you feel confident you'll be able to figure something out if the renewal comes?
Damon Lindelof: (laughs) Again, me feeling confident that I'll be able to figure it out, this isn't me being self-deprecating, it's just true: I don't have that confidence. I have confidence in the team I've assembled, that if I put those writers in a room, and if Mimi (Leder) is going to come back and direct, that we will be able to produce a high-quality third season of the show. That's kind of my feeling about it. But do I have a specific idea about what the third season of the show would be? Yes and no. Very undeveloped at this point. I think that's one of the things that allowed us to make the second season what it became: I wasn't distracted by worrying about where to go next, and was able to live in present time. That said, there are certain things that we did in the finale of the second season that required conversation beyond the finale itself. Like, if Kevin is going to survive getting shot at relative point blank range, what might that mean for him moving forward? We shouldn't just do it and not talk about. Some of those discussions led to what I would put under the heading of "third season story opportunities." In "Lost," every finale almost had to be the pilot for the following season, so you really had to talk about where you would go beyond the finale. We did not have to do that on "The Leftovers," and in fact didn't, so we could focus on what was right in front of us. There are lots of opportunities out there, but as I said to you, I think there characters who were underutilized that require a bit of shine to them moving into the new season who are very interesting to me.
This is a show that is about grief, loss, and families being broken up. And it's a show that's accused, not wrongly at times, of being intensely depressing. Yet both of your seasons have ended on relatively happy notes with families coming together, with a makeshift group last year, and this whole crazy extended family in the same living room this year. Can you talk about your thematic approach to that versus the other themes of the series?
Damon Lindelof: Tom's book is about a very big idea, what we would call a high-concept idea. And the brilliance of the book, in my opinion, is that it took a very low-concept approach to a high-concept idea, which is a huge thing happens, and if it were a Michael Crichton book, a helicopter would pick up the world's foremost experts, and you'd get Ian Malcolm and a bio-ethicist, and an expert on extraterrestrial races, and they'd sit around like "The Andromeda Strain" and try to figure out what happened. And Tom's book starts three years after that helicopter picked all those yo-yos up and they came to no conclusion, and it just focuses on a family. In the space after "Lost," I was watching "Friday Night Lights" and then "Parenthood," and I wanted to do a family show. Like, can we scale down and just do a family show? But I also like these big idea, high-concept shows. What's the question coming out of the Sudden Departure, the emotional idea of Tom's book, is, can we keep it together? Can we keep it together emotionally, psychologically, but also, can the family unit survive? Because we're meeting the Garvey family after it has already detonated. The mom has gone off and joined this crazy cult. Reading Tom's book, I wondered why she would do that but also kind of understood. Nora has lost her husband and her two children; can she incorporate herself into a new family? Tom is off following Holy Wayne, Jill can barely hold it together, can the family unit survive? That is the dramatic question of the series, and let's watch that happen. And the Guilty Remnant, if they're the big bad, the antagonist, they're trying to destroy it, and Kevin Garvey, our quote unquote "hero," is trying to preserve it, even though he's not entirely sure he disagrees with the Guilty Remnant.
And then I saw this movie called "Rabbit Hole," right before the time we were working on the pilot and probably right after Pete Berg and I visited Newtown. It's about a couple whose son has died in an accident, and it starts about six months after this event has occurred. And the movie is horrifically depressing and upsetting, and I though great, but is about this marriage coming apart. And as I was watching, I just wanted Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman's marriage to survive. That's what I was rooting for. I was like, "Their son's dead, and he's not coming back. I want their marriage to survive." I want to believe that if that kind of horrific loss happened to me, that our marriage would survive, that's what I was rooting for. And as that happened, I realized I'm going to be rooting for people to find love again, despite the fact that the Sudden Departure gave them a reason to not be attached, to detach, or to be completely and totally decimated by this event on the scale that it occurs. I'm rooting for them to attach, for them to be okay. And I'm going to write the show accordingly. The show's going to be brutal, it's going to be about suffering. I have to show the first hour and 55 minutes of "Rabbit Hole," but then my last five minutes of "Rabbit Hole" are going to be different. I want these characters to get out of the rabbit hole. That's kind of what happened in the finale of season 1, and what happened in the finale of season 2. I have to credit Perrotta, obviously in the book, we did verbatim to his ending of the novel, minus the fact that he's returning from the cul de sac burning and saving Jill, but Nora finding the baby and saying, "Look what I found" is the novel. And Perrotta again pitched the final scene of this season, which is, Kevin has to run this gauntlet in Jarden, which is very similar to the one he had to run in Mapleton. One negative perspective is that the Garveys infected Jarden, but let the storytelling show that that's not at all what happened, that the Garveys just bore witness to the same story happening in this place, which was not spared. In fact, if the Garveys had never moved Miracle, Meg still would have done what she did, because it was already in process before Nora and Kevin decided to move. So let's end the season on a larger scale than the first season, but with very similar visual language. Wouldn't it be great if Kevin staggered home, and his entire extended family, including the Jamisons, are all there waiting for him? Let's do that. He pitched it, and we were all like, "Fuck yeah!" And we backed into that ending accordingly.
Did it give you any pause, though? Obviously, there's a lot of story still to tell --
Damon Lindelof: Before you even finish this question, yes! Yes! Every time you start a question with, "Did it give you pause," the answer is yes!
An argument could be made that you've ended the emotional story of the show, or at least the central family of the show. Given that you want to keep the show going, did that aspect of it give you any pause, or do you feel like there are so many things you can still do with the Garveys and the Jamisons, never mind that we don't know exactly what the state of the Murphy family is at the end of the finale?
Damon Lindelof: Yeah. I would say that at the end of season 1, I have never felt a greater sense of, "We can be finished. I'm okay with leaving the show right there. There may be dangling threads, more stories to tell, but as far as completing the arc of the characters that we began with, we can end it right here." I am feeling the same thing at the end of season 2, but not as extremely. I would never want to continue the journey of these characters just for the sake of making them suffer even more. I'm not a sadist in that way, but I do feel there is more story to tell in this world, and that the characters who inhabit this world, there is more story to tell for some of them. There will never be a point in "The Leftovers" where the final episode of the final season of the show feels like, "Oh, that's the definitive ending." We're now living in a culture where endings can now be new beginnings.
I ☺LOVED☺ — in all-caps, bolded, with smiley emojis around it — the "Mad Men" finale. Don's revelation felt like it was the beginning of the next chapter of that guy's life, but I don't need to see it. I don't need to see Don striding into McCann and pitching the Coke ad. I feel like that series is over, because that is where Matt (Weiner) decided to end it. This is not me saying there are going to be more episodes of "The Leftovers." As I've said, that still has a big question mark above it. But we will design seasons of "The Leftovers," for however many seasons we get to make, with some degree of finality, because I think a good "Leftovers" season feels like a novel more than it does a book in a series of books. It has a beginning, middle, and end to it, and that's the way we're always going to design them. But like good novels, the characters exist beyond the ending of that novel. It's just, is there anything worth revisiting to justify the expansion of that? I don't need to see the sequel to "Great Expectations." It's just a great novel in and of itself. But "The Leftovers" is a TV series, it's now expanded beyond the novel and we've got our work cut out for us, if we do get to do more, in terms of making that story engaging and surprising and emotionally relevant. But most importantly, non-redundant. If I had any concern about the story arc of the finale this year, if you were to say to me, "Nobody's seen it but you or I, it's going to be on the air in four days, and I'm here to tell you, looking into my crystal ball, there is going to be a critical divide in terms of the way people respond to the finale, what would you anticipate that they like least about it," I would say it would be this idea of familiarity. It feels like, didn't we already do this? Which was totally intentional on our part. It was very purposeful in our storytelling. But it's possible that some of the audience might say, "You just did the same thing you did last year, dude."
(After we finished our conversation, I emailed Lindelof a few additional questions — some serious, some less so. Lindelof's responses were more or less in the same spirit.)
Given what you said about how you didn't put things into "International Assassin" just to be cute if you didn't know their meaning, am I correct in assuming you know what the man whispered to Kevin on the bridge? And was that something you considered having him reveal at some point, or is it meant to be like what Bill Murray whispers to ScarJo?
Damon Lindelof: Yes. You are correct. And for the record, what Bill Murray whispered is: “I’m sorry about Garfield."
Did you ever seriously consider having Meg's plan be more violent, with real explosives, or was it always meant to be like the dummy grenade on the school bus?
Damon Lindelof: No, we never considered an actual, literal explosion. I believe the exact phrase used the room was, “We can’t out-Homeland HOMELAND.”
What were some of the other songs pitched for Kevin's karaoke number before you hit on "Homeward Bound"? It's remarkable how well those lyrics fit what he's been going through. And did Theroux have any apprehension about singing?
Damon Lindelof: We tried to clear LIKE A PRAYER. Madonna said no. HOMEWARD BOUND was the next (and in my opinion, better) choice. Justin’s response to being told about the scene was some version of “Awesome. But just so you know, I can’t sing.”
In other music selection news, was "Never Gonna Give You Up" chosen because the title conveys how Kevin and Patti were, at that time, stuck together, or because you were Rick-rolling your audience?
Damon Lindelof: What is “Rick-rolling?”
Finally, the same season featured Darius McCrary from "Family Matters," Mark Linn-Baker from "Perfect Strangers," Brett Butler from "Grace Under Fire," and Bill Kirchenbauer from "Just the Ten of Us." Why are you so obsessed with ABC sitcoms of the 1990s, and why was Dave Coulier not involved?
Damon Lindelof: Who WASN’T obsessed with ABC sitcoms of the 1990s? Coulier was too busy trying to convince people that he’s the subject of “You Oughtta Know.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org