I had two reactions to "Axis Mundi," the second-season premiere of The Leftovers. The first was that the show felt revitalized (which I talked about here). The second was, "What the hell was that opening sequence?!"
That opening scene, which lasts almost 10 minutes, follows a pregnant cavewoman in the wake of an earthquake that kills everyone else in her tribe. She wanders the ancient Texas landscape, gives birth, then ultimately is bitten by a snake (while trying to protect her baby) and dies. And outside of her dying on the shores of a lake from which several characters seem to disappear late in the episode (seemingly sucked down into the earth through cracks from another earthquake), the story seems to have no connection to anything else that happens.
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to talk to co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel the series is based on) a couple of weeks before the season debuted. And they told me my feeling of pleased bafflement was very much intentional.
Their explanation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
"It was one of those ideas where when we first had it, it scared the shit out of everyone"
Damon Lindelof: We had a lot of conversations about how we wanted to start the second season. The first episode is called "Axis Mundi," and the second is called "A Matter of Geography." That idea of geography becomes integral to the storytelling this year. How does a place become mythologically relevant? Does it require a supernatural intervention, or can it be something else? That conversation was really driving us, and Reza Aslan, who's an amazing writer, is a consultant on the show, and we were talking about these ideas.
All we're willing to say about the way season two opens is that it was one of those ideas where when we first had it, it scared the shit out of everyone. But then it felt like a very interesting way to introduce the themes of the season. Our hope is that in the context of watching episode one that people will have more or less the reaction that you just had, which is: "What the hell is this? I don't know if I like it or if I don't like it, but what is it?"
By the end of the season, hopefully the debate won't be over whether it was necessary or not, but the debate will be what it meant. A theme we're really interested in exploring as storytellers is when you ascribe meaning to something. If you are at a red light and the light turns green, and you hesitate for a second, and a car just basically runs in through the intersection, your brain essentially says, "If I had gone, I'd be dead." Then, you go on with your day! But if you do get broadsided, you are lying there paralyzed for the rest of your life thinking that that moment had meaning.
The ascribing of importance to what we showed you at the beginning of season two, what does it mean? Why did we show it? What is the relevance of it? What does the earthquake mean? What does the baby mean? What does the woman mean? Is it metaphor? Is it literal or is it figurative? Is it where she died in proximity to this water hole, does this empower the water with some sort of magical ability?
We have intention. We talked a lot about [the film] A Serious Man when we came up with that sequence. I love the beginning of A Serious Man, but the Coen brothers are completely and totally unapologetic and unwilling to explain why they opened the movie that way. Every time I see it, I love it more. This isn't us doing that, but I do feel like, "Isn't it interesting to just throw in a piece of narrative that seemingly doesn't fit?
Tom Perrotta: We joked, too, that we could have put on it, "Previously on The Leftovers." One thing you can say is we're here because, improbably, over millennia people survived things like this and managed to keep going. In some funny way we're very far evolved from those cavepeople, and yet when she's in that moment she's like a character on our show, facing this inexplicable event.
Damon Lindelof: Any obvious extrapolation was intentional. An earthquake to a woman in that era is the same as the Sudden Departure is to us in ours. Absent explanation. It can only be perceived as an act of mythic reality, but who is to say that it wasn't? I've been in earthquakes, and they do feel like acts of God. That's the only word to describe it when it's happening around you and your entire world is shaking.