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Damon Lindelof on all the Leftovers episodes you didn’t get to see

The Leftovers co-creator joins the podcast to talk about the Pillar Man-centric episode that never was: “Let’s see the people that are traditionally unseen.”

The Leftovers
The Leftovers is over. Sniff.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Leftovers recently concluded its run after three seasons and 28 episodes. But before the series launched, co-creator Damon Lindelof had a slightly longer run in mind, one that he suggested to both co-creator Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel the HBO series is based on) and star Justin Theroux. Four seasons. Ten episodes each. Forty episodes in total.

“I was telling them, ‘I think that The Leftovers, its ideal length is 40 episodes.’ Forty is a nice biblical number,” Lindelof tells me on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. He joined me to talk about the finale of The Leftovers, but also his writing technique and the themes that have popped up on both Leftovers and his previous series, ABC’s Lost (which he’s discussed at length with Vox before).

Lindelof says that by the end of season two, he felt as if three seasons was the right length for the series, and he has said in other interviews that he asked HBO to make the third season the show’s final stretch of episodes right after the unexpected renewal. (Though beloved by its fiercely devoted audience, The Leftovers has never been a ratings barnburner.)

The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof (left) and Tom Perrotta on the set of the Leftovers finale.

And yet Lindelof pushed back against my question about whether he would have still wanted the show to end after three seasons, even if it were more successful.

“Had the show been more successful, I’m not entirely sure HBO would have let us end it,” he says. “There’s not really any precedent for a show that’s super successful ending after three seasons.”

Indeed, he has direct experience with this, when he attempted to get ABC to set an end date for Lost over the course of that series’ second and third seasons. The network eventually settled on ending the show after its sixth season — a genuinely historic decision in network television that still hasn’t really been replicated. (Generally, hit shows on the big broadcast networks run for as long as humanly possible.)

It wasn’t an easy agreement to come to, Lindelof explains:

It was a battle for two years to basically get them to end the show. They said to Carlton [Cuse, Lindelof’s co-showrunner on Lost] and I, “We’re not going to do it.”

We went all the way down the road of letting our contracts expire. We had a succession plan in place. Only midway through the third season, when finally the audience and the critical community started saying, “Good God, I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” ABC did a calculation where they were like, “How long do we think the show would survive without Cuse and Lindelof, and how long can we talk them into doing it?”

And their opening salvo, midway through season three, was, “We’re going to let you end the show” — huge relief — “after 10 years.” We’re like, “No. We want to end it after the fourth season.” They were like, “Nine years.” We were like, “Five years?” They were like, “Eight years!” So six years was a huge victory for us.

The Leftovers episodes that might have been in a final season with more time

The Leftovers
Would we have gotten more time with Erika Murphy in a slightly longer season three?

The first two seasons of The Leftovers were 10 episodes apiece, but the third was just eight episodes. And while it’s beautiful, heartrending television, I couldn’t help but wonder what a 10-episode version of the final season might have looked like.

In particular, I hoped that the show might have offered one last look at the lives of the Murphy family, who joined the show in season two and proved to be a major part of what sparked the series’ creative renaissance. (Season one is beloved by some — myself included — but much more of a niche thing.)

Lindelof said he had the same thought. “There were scheduling issues with Regina [King, who played Murphy matriarch Erika], because she was doing American Crime and also directing a number of episodes, but I think that had we asked her ... we would have figured out a way to do an episode in Texas that was very Murphy-centric one more time,” he says. “In a 10-episode final season of The Leftovers, that probably would have been episode four.”

He also felt that the relationship between Murphy son Michael and Jill, the teenage daughter of protagonist Kevin Garvey, might have gotten slightly more closure in a final season. The two had seemed flirtatious with each other on occasion, so, “What happened to those two now that they’re stepbrother and stepsister. [Michael’s father has married Jill’s mother]? Is that something interesting to explore? That’s definitely a road not taken.”

But his final Leftovers that might have been is a real curveball, not about one of the show’s regular characters at all. Instead, it’s about Pillar Man, the guy who stands atop a tall pillar throughout the second season, waiting for something miraculous to happen. (He dies in the second episode of season three.)

Says Lindelof:

In a 10-episode final season of The Leftovers, there would have been the X-factor episode, where we could have just gone down [some different path]. I always wanted to do that. It was like, “Let’s just do Pillar Man.” As opposed to him falling off that thing at the beginning of episode two, what if that’s the ending of episode two, and the whole episode is told from the point of view of this guy up there? Who is he? What is he doing up there? Let’s humanize this guy, who’s basically just a piece of background.

This isn’t me like, “Oh, I have a social conscience.” It’s actually more exploitative than that. Especially if you have a kid and you walk by homeless people, your kid goes, “Why was that guy talking to himself?” You suddenly go, “Oh, I don’t even pay attention to that guy anymore, because it’s too painful or too upsetting or it makes me too uncomfortable.” They’re literally invisible to me now, but my kid can see them. So now I try to see those people, and I see Pillar Man like that too. Let’s see the people that are traditionally unseen and do an episode like that.

We had always kind of flirted with the idea, so that entire gag just becomes, “Hey, this guy somehow maybe worked with killer whales at some point?” That’s the only taste you get of the episode that never was. I feel like that would have been a fun excursion.

There’s much more Leftovers and Lost goodness in the full episode, so download today! (And don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe on the podcast app of your choice.)

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.