In a tremendous second season, HBO's The Leftovers shot for the moon. It sent a man into the afterlife (seemingly). It watched as a former cult member ran over current cult members with her car. It put a man of God through tests that would have destroyed Job. And that was all just a warmup for the season finale, which aired Sunday, December 6. (The show has been renewed for a third and final season.)
At the center of the season has been the relentless, restless imagination of Damon Lindelof, the show's co-creator, showrunner, and chief lightning rod for controversy. Yet if anything, season two of the show was a resounding argument in favor of Lindelof's love for telling stories where the only answer is that there may not be an answer. Occasionally hopeful, often brutal, and always mysterious, The Leftovers has become like no other show on TV.
I sat down with Lindelof once again in the wake of watching the finale to ask him what he's learned about writing from working on the show, how he and the writers constructed this season, and whether there's a chance of a third season. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On themes: "If you came to believe something, there's an origin story there"
You're drawn to stories about rational people who are thrown into situations where they gradually come to believe the supernatural is real, whether or not it is within the show. What interests you about that?
To me, the most impressive version of belief is belief that you adopt versus belief that is forced upon you. If you came to believe something, there's an origin story there. A lot of people, they simplify Dana Scully [of The X-Files fame] as saying she's the skeptic, the non-believer, but that show went out of its way to explain why she is that way emotionally, and a lot of it was tied to her Christian faith. The supernatural that Mulder was presenting was in direct conflict with that system.
This idea that you have to sort of shed belief system one in order to accept belief system two, that's just an amazing story. If there is any great story in the history of storytelling, it's transformation. That's why we always simplify movies by saying, "What's the arc of the hero? How did they change?" Watching someone stagnate, that isn't an interesting story. We want to watch people change.
Certainly though, the spiritual lens that you mentioned is, like, "I'm 42 years old and I'm trying to figure this shit out. I want to believe in God, but the world keeps giving me reasons not to."
Season one was pretty divisive, while season two has been met with more or less huge critical acclaim. How do you react to that sort of shift? Do you think you changed the right things, or do you feel it's more or less random?
I put a lot of value in the critical community. I'm not just saying that because that's a smart thing to say politically, but anyone who knows me knows that if I weren't writing for a living, I would be reading recaps and critics' assessments, because that's what I do. That's what I'm interested in. Even critics I disagree with, but whose writing I respect, I read what they write about all shows, because I think it's more provocative and interesting. When a critic that you read is writing about your work positively, there's nothing better in the world, and when they're shitting on it, there's nothing worse. The door swings both ways.
I'm really proud of the work we all did on the second season, and it would be immensely upsetting and confusing if the critical community didn't agree. I always feel like the zeitgeist is traditionally just always right about this stuff. If everybody is kind of up on a season of television, it turns out to be sort of empirically true. We can all decry the percentage of [Rotten Tomatoes] and say, "You can't reduce art to a percentage." But at the same time, if the Tomatometer says 93 percent of people loved Creed, guess what? I went and saw Creed, and I loved Creed. There is something to it all.
I know the pendulum swings both ways. It's not that now the critical community is going to turn on me because they must. If a show can maintain consistent quality, the critical community will never bash it. I know now I have to put my head down and do the work and not fall under the spell of everything I do is brilliant and if you disagree with that, please read what Emily Nussbaum said about me in the New Yorker. When I read good reviews, the first thing that happens is I get chills and then right on the heels of the chills is complete and total abject fear.
Most writers can identify with the idea they are going to find out the emperor has no clothes. I've actually had that experience a number of times in my career, and I know the only thing that is going to keep me clothed is hard work.
If this is the last we ever see of The Leftovers, what have you learned from it that will inform your writing going forward?
It's a different version of the same lesson I learn over and over again. You have to trust your gut. And on the heels of trusting your gut, you have to acknowledge that you're going to make mistakes. Then what do you do when the mistake is made? What I'm learning as a writer, but also as a human being, is you acknowledge the mistake, you do your best to fix the mistake, and then you go back to trusting your gut. There's no way that I am going to never make shitty episodes or movies again in my life. The only way to do it would be to quit, which would probably make some people happy, but it would make me very unhappy.
The stuff that I find immensely interesting as a storyteller happens to piss people off in this unique and very befuddling way. I like to tell myself it's because I'm interested in this area of storytelling that evokes very strong reactions from people — mystery and the resolution of mystery and unsatisfying resolution of mystery or living in a world of ambiguity. Those are immensely frustrating things. When I do it well, there's no greater feeling in the world, because I feel like the degree of difficulty is very high, and when I do it not so well, people get pissed off.
The biggest mistake that I could make is [to say to myself], "Maybe I should stop exploring this particular territory and go and write a Transformers movie." This isn't to say anything against the Transformers movies. They're just not dealing with the same thematic ideas that I'm interested in. It's ironic, considering I just did a whole soliloquy about transformation.
On building season two: "We all kind of laughed and then we said, 'Is that a great idea? Or is that the worst idea ever?'"
When I talked to you back at the start of season two, you said Tom Perrotta [the show's co-creator, who wrote the novel it's based on] had come up with the craziest idea of the season, and you were going to do it in the finale. So was it afterlife karaoke?
Yes, that's exactly what it is.
I think the genesis of that idea was, while we were breaking "International Assassin" [the season's eighth episode], we were also fully aware that the only satisfying payoff for John Murphy getting the handprint match was that he would shoot Kevin. We've all seen the trope where one character wants to kill another, and then that character talks their way out of it, and you're like, "Whoa that was a close one." It would be much better if Kevin couldn't talk his way out of it, which means he's going to get killed again, after being alive for eight hours. He should come back to this hotel, wouldn't that be a great idea? We all kind of laughed and then we said, "Is that a great idea? Or is that the worst idea ever?" As so many of the ideas in Leftovers begin and sometimes end.
There was such specificity to "International Assassin," in terms of what his mission was and getting rid of Patti. This time, his mission is much more amorphous: How do I get back to life? How do I return to my family? If we dedicated an entire episode to how Kevin gets to come back to life, how do you do that in five minutes or less? Then Perrotta pitched more or less the entire thing: There should be some drunk people down at the bar singing karaoke, and Kevin should have to sing his way out.
It just immediately struck me as, I can't believe Perrotta just pitched this! He's normally the normal guy who's trying to talk me out of those sorts of insane ideas.
The season was hugely splintered, with characters scattered all over the map — and thus some characters would be absent from the show for several episodes at a time, while you focused on others' stories. How do you tell actors that, hey, we're only going to use you in a couple of episodes this year?
The show was always going to be divisive on some level just by the nature of what it is, but if there was any kind of unanimous accord as to what episodes of the show were the ones that rose to the top, they were the ones that had a more singular point of view, like three [which focused on Matt] and six [which focused on Nora].
Between seasons, I started messaging to the actors: We're going to be doing this more in season two. You may feel like you're not getting a lot to do in any given episode, but rest assured, there will be an episode coming up where it's going to be wall-to-wall you, and that show, you're going to make a huge impression.
If you watch the first season of the show and think about what a huge impression Carrie [Coon] made as an actress, and how integral to the plot Nora felt — Nora's in one scene in the pilot, she's in three scenes of episode two, she's in one scene of episode three, she's in one scene of episode four, I think she's in one scene of episode five, and then in episode six, every scene is Nora. She's not in a lot, but because of that impact of that sixth episode, you actually felt like she was a huge presence in the show.
The same thing can be said with season two with Laurie. I love that character, and I think that as an actress Amy Brenneman is amazing, but because episode three happened early in the season and she did such amazing work and it was such a lasting impression, it doesn't feel like we didn't get enough of Laurie.
I choose to look at it more through the lens of the sports metaphor. The more rest you give your pitchers, the better of a game they'll pitch, and the more excited the fans are to see them come out.
How did you as writers approach the question of making all of the season's many pieces fit together? The season feels so well-structured, but you obviously had to wing a few things.
There has to be an organic process to television writing. Our media culture, and I get this, wants to assign some level of auteurship to the shows that we love. You listen to what the Vince Gilligans and the Matt Weiners are saying, which is we have these amazing writing staffs, and we craft these things together. That is absolutely true on The Leftovers. When we can reach consensus in the writers' room about something that we all get super jazzed about, that's the idea that we go with.
We structured this season in a macro way, saying, "What is the story of the season on a plot level? These three girls disappear. Are we going to resolve that? Are we going to answer where they went and why? Yes. Now let's talk about how it will be resolved, and when will it be resolved. Now let's talk about, emotionally, how is that going to impact the characters?"
You build all that stuff first, and then themes begin to become very, very evident in terms of both the continued themes from the first season and new things that start cropping up. One of the reasons season two worked so well is it was just much more specific than season one was. I think season one was a little more like, these are people living their lives. There wasn't any real degree of narrative specificity.
I don't think The Leftovers is ever going to be a "plot-driven show," but if you look at the idea, how much time did we really commit to the plot of the three girls having disappeared? You have one episode where they're going down into the crevice in the watering hole, and people are doing the Gone Girl [searching], and there's some dogs out there. Other than that, we invested zero time at all in "looking for the girls," but there was an emotional investment in that idea that impacted and empowered almost every single episode. Minus the idea that the first episode ends with the disappearance of Evie and her friends, there would have been no specificity. That was the key element integrating the plot into the grander themes.
Then you, as you say, wing it. The flashlight will really only illuminate two or three steps in front of you, and you have to keep moving forward in order to have it illuminate the next steps. I do feel like we really did not start writing the premiere until we knew what the last scene of the season was going to be. Did that last scene that we envisioned end up being the actual last scene of the season? I'm not going to speak to that, but you have to know in order to move forward.
On finding a home: "The bread and butter of The Leftovers is always going to be in 'corny' ideas of family and home"
Season two was so interested in ideas of place and in the idea of finding a home. What drove that idea?
Reza Aslan, the religious scholar, came in and gave us a couple of seminars about the history of religion, disorganized and organized, but also pagan religion and indigenous religion, before books started getting written. The one thing they had in common was there are these mystical places that were literally imbued with power. What imbued those places with power was interesting to us — when you talk about a geographical place, and you're focusing on characters who call that place home, and then you say there are other people from outside who want to make that place their home. I don't want to get geopolitical with you, but if you think about Israel and the West Bank, people will live and die and murder and commit suicide and sacrifice over these places.
On a more metaphysical level, home is where the heart is. You can knock my house down. As long as my family is fine, that's where my home is. Yet we really kind of sentimentalize these structures that we consider to be home. I think that that's where the bread and butter of The Leftovers is always going to be, in "corny" ideas of family and home. I won't say you default to those ideas because they are corny and cheap and easy and overly sentimentalized, but you default to them because that's what your characters want. A story can be as simple as a character wants to go home.
The season ended up being accidentally politically resonant, as well. The encampment outside of Jarden isn't quite the same as refugees looking for a new home, but it's in the same neighborhood.
Politically, there's a difference between refugees and the encampment because refugees haven't really made a choice to leave. They'll settle down wherever they can live free of tyranny. The people in the encampment have chosen to come there for a reason. There's something they want to be in proximity to. There's also this disorganized nature to the encampment. There isn't a leader, and there isn't a structure. If you went around with a microphone and asked people, "Why are you here?" you'd get a dozen different answers.
But in a world where the things that are happening now are happening and religion and belief are a part of those ongoing conversations, it's impossible to write a show like this and not be sensitive to or influenced by those ideas. Those ideas are so relevant in our real life that it's almost impossible to disguise them.
We were writing episode nine, and the things that were coming out of Meg's mouth, and some of which she was already starting to present last year, when she was challenging Laurie on why the Guilty Remnant can't be violent, and Laurie says, "Violence is weakness" — Meg doesn't entirely subscribe to that theory, and this is a concept that is not unique to ISIS in terms of radicalizing. But the minute that we start to say, "Oh the GR is a metaphor for ISIS," is the moment that The Leftovers becomes something different than we intend it to be. It's not our intention to make a great social commentary, but when that happens naturally there's no getting around it.
The season also asks questions about safety and security that are really relevant in the world today, through the people of Jarden, who were kept safe from the Sudden Departure but don't entirely know why. How do you tell a story about people searching for a sense of security that might never come back?
Once you put a stamp on something and brand it as safe or as exceptional, that's going to bring a whole other dimension to it. It creates all sorts of different and fascinating emotional ideas, especially when you bring religious belief into the equation.
The faith system in which I was raised was Judaism, and inherent in Judaism is that you're the chosen ones. God chose the Jews, but on the flip side of that, God is constantly this very frightening and punishing force. Every time the Jews displease him, he has them wander through the desert for 40 years, or he floods the entire planet. If you are exceptional, there is an expectation upon you to remain exceptional, and if you are not told what made you exceptional in the first place, you're flying in the dark, or, to use a more apt metaphor, you're burying birds in the wood. You're trying to figure out how the Greatest American Hero suit works because you don't have the instruction manual. There's potential for interesting storytelling when people are given a tremendous power but they're not given the instruction manual on how to use it.
You can suggest a rational explanation for everything that happens this season if you really want to, but it does seem to push further into the realm of the supernatural, to the degree that Kevin seems to be resurrected twice. Did you ever have concerns about veering further away from a sense of realism and introducing more ambiguity?
It's all in the presentation, right? If I were making an impassioned argument that Kevin Garvey didn't come back from the dead — and I'm not making that argument — I'd say there's significant scientific precedence for people who have ingested substances that could have been hallucinogenic substances, who were buried in 6 inches of dirt and survived for many, many, hours. Then I would say when John shoots him, the bullet goes through and through, and by some biological anomaly he did not bleed out. There's scientific evidence for people who have been shot and survived.
I think Kevin would probably need medical attention following the events of the finale, but the idea that he died is our subjective analysis based on the fact that Kevin visits the hotel. It's not my place as the storyteller to say, "We're telling you definitively what it is." If we wanted it to be definite we would have told the story in a different way. That said, the show has a wildly supernatural premise. It's not like we're doing this in an episode of The Blacklist.
If you've made it through two seasons of The Leftovers, you do understand that the Sudden Departure is in and of itself supernatural. We want to continue to tell grounded stories, emotionally relatable stories, and we want to show how the scientific community struggles to explain this idea. But in the most scientific episode we did in the second season, [a scientist] and his partner believe Nora is possessed by a demon.
The whole world is asking the same question you are, which is, "Is this magic, or isn't it?" If you crunch the numbers, and we have, the odds of 9,261 people, there not being a single departure in that community — it's literally statistically impossible. You're in the quadrillions. If you accept the premise that Miracle exists and has been verified, then you have to accept that you're living in a quasi-magical realm.
The questions the show is asking thematically are, "Is Holy Wayne real? Are the hugs real? Is Isaac real? Is the water imbued with power? Is the Pillar Man able to see Patti Levin too?" If you can't ask those questions and have a dual answer that it could be real, then the show isn't as interesting to me as a writer.
On Easter eggs and possible renewals: "If people are excited about there being more, they should let their voices be heard"
You allude to the larger world of The Leftovers without directly showing it, whether it's the carousel no one departed from in Germany or Kevin's dad going to Australia. How do you build in those Easter eggs?
Given what I have learned and given what I feel like the audience's association with my former work is [Lindelof co-created Lost and wrote in part the scripts for many films], I have to be very responsible when it comes to that kind of stuff. If we're dropping in references on television to Australia and even the selection of specific Jeopardy clues or National Geographic magazines, that stuff has to be curated very carefully because I know what happens when you don't. The audience is going to read into some stuff that you didn't intend them to, but you don't get to say I didn't intend you to take that seriously when you hear something on a television, and it's the only thing you hear in the scene. There'd better be intentionality behind it.
All I'm willing to say about that is, if we do get to do more episodes of The Leftovers, the stuff that we did in the first and second seasons that you might call Easter eggs, there was intentionality. We were sowing seeds that will hopefully grow and blossom.
How did you decide to make Patti such an important part of this season? And is this the last we've seen of her?
When we wrote episode eight last season, we knew if the predicament that Kevin was in was that Patti was not going to let him leave that cabin without killing her or his life explodes, Kevin is going to say, "You know what? I'm going to go explode my life." And then she's like, "No actually I'm going to take [option] A [and kill myself]." That felt like it was the most surprising thing to do.
On the heels of knowing that that was the fair outcome of the story, there was this sense of, Ann Dowd is one of the greatest actors that I've ever had the pleasure of writing for, and I'm an idiot if she's not on the show anymore. How do I reconcile these two ideas? The answer is I'm going to do my best to have my cake and eat it too. Although I acknowledge that it's a trope, whether it's a Shakespearean ghost or an actual ghost, I would rather suffer the slings and arrows of being guilty of using the trope than not write for Ann anymore.
By the time that we wrote the finale of season one, we knew we were going to do it. We set it up so that Kevin has this very vivid dream where Matt drives him to a mental institution and Kevin is put in a rubber room and brought to talk to his dad and then Patti appears and informs him that they are going to be traveling companions. I had already messaged Ann if there is a second season of the show we're laying the groundwork to do this story.
Then it was just a matter of, how do we do this story in a way that feels like it's interesting but, more importantly, finite? This is not going to be Sam Beckett and Al, where Patti is going to be an all-pervasive presence for Kevin, because he wouldn't tolerate it. So Kevin's entire arc this season is going to be, "How do I get rid of Patti?" Kevin has to decide whether or not he's crazy, or whether or not she's real. If he believes he's crazy, he's going to take what's behind door number one, which is what Laurie offers: medication, institutionalize himself, admit that he's crazy. If he believes Patti is real, he's going to take what's behind door number two, which is drink this poison and go do battle with her in the afterlife. I was like, "I know which episode I want to write!"
And I hope that's the episode the audience wants to see. We knew there was going to be an atypical exorcism that was going to result in Patti being gone. As much as I'm still feeling that I can't believe we're not going to have Ann be on the show anymore, I also feel like it would be a betrayal of everything that Kevin has gone through this season to just bring her back or attach her to another character. Patti Levin is not a communicable disease.
Justin [Theroux] has spoken to this much more beautifully and articulately than I have. His read was that in the end, the way that Kevin freed himself of Patti is that Kevin freed Patti from her own pain. The idea that she would no longer need to haunt him felt right. He freed her and himself. I feel like I would be doing the character of Patti a disservice by continuing to exploit her — although it's still awfully tempting.
You brought back the Guilty Remnant in a big way in season two's next-to-last episode, after they were so criticized in season one. What made you want to return to them, when you knew the potential for backlash was there?
The Guilty Remnant loomed so large over the first season of this show that the easy thing would be to say the Guilty Remnant was hard. Watching scenes with them was hard. It was hard to write. It was hard to watch. They're very cryptic and frustrating, for us as storytellers and also for the audience. Definitely interesting, but in terms of our presentation of them, just not as successful as other areas of the show.
The more challenging idea was how do we fix the Guilty Remnant? Is there a way to fix it onscreen, as opposed to offscreen? Can the characters themselves begin to articulate the frustration that the audience and we as writers were having with the GR, short of looking into the camera and winking? Let's write a story about how Laurie is trying to take down the GR and what her book is about. Can we further articulate the things that Meg is saying, like, "Why can't we talk? Why do we just smoke and watch people? Why can't we be violent? Why no kids? If our purpose is to remind people that the Departure happened, why can't we be more scary?"
That conversation got us excited, but we also had to figure out how to write it. We needed to get the audience comfortable with the move, the new version of the show. We were falling in love with these new characters, the Murphys. We want to spend more time with them. The idea of setting up and establishing this world that the GR was going to come in and destroy felt like it was a much better way to go.
We wanted the second season to really have symmetry with the first season. I didn't want the show to feel like it was a reboot or an apology. I wanted to own and take responsibility, and be proud of what we did in the first season, but also learn from it and improve upon it. The idea that there was going to be a direct line between the finale of season one and the finale of season two, that they were going to feel very similar, would ultimately kind of hark back to this pervading theme that was articulated quite literally by Joe. Wherever you go, there you are. If the Garveys were basically saying, "You know what the problem is? It's where we live. Let's just leave, and everything's going to be okay." The audience knows, oh, come on! It's like Poltergeist. They're going to follow you.
How do you articulate the inevitable, so that when the inevitable happens, you don't feel like it was forced but you feel like it was earned? Episode nine was the answer to that paradox, which is of course that the Guilty Remnant would want to come to Jarden. As Meg articulates to Matt at the end of the episode, the GR shouldn't work here, but also, why does Jarden get a pass? Everyone in Jarden is exactly the same as everyone else. They just don't know why they were spared.
Do you have a sense of whether there will be a season three? And do you know what it would be about?
I hope that there's a season three. HBO has really embraced everything that we've done this year. I'm a pragmatic person who understands that this is a business and that even in a subscriber-based world, ratings matter, and ours are not great. People have said how much great television there is out there, and that's true, but if The Leftovers can make a little bit of noise and people are excited about there being more, they should let their voices be heard. That stuff really matters. Hopefully we'll have some clarity in the coming months. I'm hoping for clarity by the holidays, but I think the show has to pop in a way that it hasn't been popping in order for that to happen.
If we do get to do a third season, just like over the course of the first season we already had the idea for Miracle, we've had similar ideas in the course of designing this second season — places the show could go that would be really interesting for us to explore. We haven't had the opportunity to unpack that stuff, because it would be so disheartening to get super excited about where we go next and then have the trip get canceled.
Both seasons of The Leftovers are available on HBO Go.