In the making of HBO’s The Leftovers—which recently wrapped its third and final season—there wasn’t a detail that wasn’t scrutinized by creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Wrestling with and exploring every facet of issues including mystery, faith and loss, along with every possible permutation of how their story, with its high-concept roots, could transpire, the pair arrived at an end that was emotionally satisfying, answering a number of questions while leaving much more to the audience’s imagination.
Looking back on the series, Lindelof and Perrotta discuss the impetus for bits of historical prologue which open Seasons 2 and 3 and the fruitful evolution of their collaboration over several years’ time.
How long have you both known the direction the series would take in its final season?
Damon Lindelof: We never discussed what the ending of the series was going to be until we knew that we were ending the series. I think that when we came into the third season, the ideas on the table, which were very underdeveloped, were, Kevin is a reluctant messiah, and he’s kind of annoyed by the designation; and Norah, in her job as a fraud investigator, is presented with a device, both literal and figurative, that could potentially reunite her with her children.
Tom Perrotta: The idea of a flash-forward came early, too.
Lindelof: The end of the world was the other part—Since the series is ending, let’s tell the audience that the world might be ending, too, because they might believe that we’d be willing to do it.
We had all those things playing together: Should we end the world? What does the end of the world look like? Can we maybe openly deceive the audience? All of those conversations were simultaneous.
I think the idea that the show was going to end with an older version of Nora telling the story of what we promised from the word “Go” that we were never going to reveal, that was voltage through our bodies. It felt so dangerous and scary and right that then, it was really like, Okay, what does that look like? How do we earn it?
Perrotta: What we ended up telling is the story of people as survivors—what happens when the world doesn’t end. It always seems like it’s about to, and it never does, and then we’ve always got to figure it out. That version of the show is what we chose to write.
How has your collaboration evolved through three seasons?
Lindelof: I feel like our collaboration has always been built on authentic honesty and mutual admiration, and also a sense of debt. I feel a tremendous debt to Tom and have always looked at this show as one that he allows me to be a part of, and therefore his opinion holds probably a disproportionate creative value.
I’m sure there were many times where we were angry and frustrated with one another, but it always felt like when the whistle blew, we were hugging each other and saying, “Good game.”
Perrotta: I started this with this idea of collaboration and doing something different from adapting a book into a movie, which involves reducing it, in a way. In this sense, it was so much beyond my sense of what a collaboration could reveal about the material.
It’s not an easy transfer of power—it’s like I own The Leftovers as a book, and then I share it with Damon, and he opens it up in a way that I never could have imagined, a way that was thrilling, and sometimes difficult. But I actually value that now. There’s no point in collaborating with somebody who’s going to validate all your impulses.
There’s so much real estate to service in so few episodes of The Leftovers—from a narrative perspective, how did you approach the series’ jumps in time?
Lindelof: Tom’s book made the single greatest creative choice that one could in approaching this particular premise. The natural impulse is to write a story about the Sudden Departure and the immediate aftermath.
He was like, “No, the book starts three years after it happened,” and the book will cycle back and say, “Here’s where certain people were”—particularly Laurie, at the moment of the Departure. But almost in passing.
I felt like, Oh my god, that’s brilliant, because you actually can’t tell a story in any authentic way in that heightened space of “What the f*ck just happened?” You have to jump to three years later, especially for a narrative where people are trying to put the pieces back together.
At the point that this narrative begins, they have the hubris to believe that they’ve already put it back together so you can watch without the narrative dramatics of everybody standing in Times Square, the President coming on, and all those tropes. He just skipped past it, and that became a teachable moment for the way that the show could work.
Perrotta: Questions get answered, they just don’t get answered when you think they’re going to get answered because there is a lot of jumbled time. For instance, in the beginning of Episode 7 this season, we find out why Kevin grew his beard. That was a mystery that people didn’t even realize was a mystery.
There were many moments like that—like, Lily is not around in Episode 1 of this season. What we get is Jill saying, “Does [Nora] ever talk about Lily?” And maybe that’s the first time a lot of people even thought, “Hey, where is Lily?” Because babies on TV shows, nobody really worries too much about them. But I think to even withhold that well into Episode 2 and have the explanation come the way it did was extremely powerful.
Lindelof: You just have to sit on these things that often can kind of distance the audience from character, and basically say, “We have to deploy it only when it matters to that character.”
You have to be okay with people saying, “I don’t understand why so-and-so is behaving that way.” Which is life, by the way. You’re like, Why is this guy being such a dick today? He doesn’t say to you, “I’m sorry if I was an asshole today, but my mom just got diagnosed with cancer.” He never tells you. So you go through your life just thinking that guy’s a dick. It’s not people’s nature for them to reveal these kinds of fundamental truths.
With all the questions that are still being asked about the show, I’ve been surprised by one question that I haven’t seen asked—what happened with Laurie, who seemingly went out scuba diving to end her life, but is back in the finale?
Lindelof: The Leftovers deals in three primary spaces. Space number one is the “here” space; one of those spaces is wherever Kevin goes when he dies. He refers to it as, “When I went there.” The other space is the space that Nora Durst refers to in the final scene of the series—“Over there.” Those are two spaces, one of which we’ve seen, the other one we hear about.
What’s most important to us as storytellers is that those characters end up in the “here” space, and they’re now going to stay there. I would say that Laurie was basically flirting with going to a “there” space, and all that matters to us as storytellers is now, she’s here.
Perrotta: We’ve seen Kevin with the bag over his head—basically, he’s saying, “I want to go as far as I can go, and then come back.” Because every time you come back, that is the most fundamental affirmation of your commitment to the “here” that you can have. I think the actual story of this season was not suicide, but the refusal of suicide.
Of course, the series strongly implies that Laurie’s headed in the direction of suicide, in that scene with Nora.
Perrotta: It certainly did, and there were some people who took it as a mathematical problem.
Lindelof: Because Nora said what she said, it almost feels like she incepted Laurie with the idea to kill herself, and then you abandon everything you’ve ever known about Laurie Garvey.
We’d be lying to say that it didn’t ever occur to us as writers that Laurie didn’t come up from under that water. It was a consideration that we took very seriously, and we went on the same journey that Laurie did—we walked right up to the brink of the cliff, we jumped off, and as we were plummeting down toward the hard ground, we suddenly realized there may have been a f*cking bungee cord attached to us all along.
The second and third seasons begin with bits of historical prologue. What was the impetus behind that choice?
Lindelof: We have a religious expert and scholar named Reza Aslan who came in on Season 2. The question we posed to him was, “What’s the origin of religion from an anthropological standpoint?”
He talked about the Neanderthal, or whatever iteration of Homo Erectus emerged after Neanderthal—he was like, “They were the first religious beings, and for them, a hawk in the sky would be God. They would have feathers around their necks, and they would worship that hawk, even before they had fundamental language.”
I think what I said was, “Let’s just do an entire episode in cave times—Let’s just do Quest for Fire.” And wisely, thank God, it ended up getting whittled down. It was a cool way to introduce the idea of Miracle, both as a geographic and an emotional place.
Ultimately, this was the story of a woman whose entire tribe is wiped out by an earthquake. It mimics the Departure, so it was a way of refreshing the text of the show. She has to give birth all on her own, she gets bit by a snake protecting her child, and then she dies, and someone else takes the baby.
The joke in the room was, “Previously, on Earth.” I felt like it was both radically pretentious, but completely and totally on point for the show
Perrotta: Even Season 1 had that preamble, that was much more close in time to the story.
Lindelof: All three preambles are the same thing, which is “Woman loses child,” all in different contexts.
Perrotta: So important to the show is the idea that the Departure has, in a sense, wiped out religious traditions, and our characters are in the position that people were, say, in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. We are creating religions; we’re not inheriting religions.
One of the things the show keeps saying is, though we might think of ourselves as modern, scientific, rational people, we are the cavewoman whose whole clan just got wiped out in an earthquake—and, for Season 3, we, like these Millerites, are all expecting to see the end of the world. This is just another human impulse that’s been around forever, this idea that the ending brings closure, brings meaning, saves us from suspense.
A guy I went to high school with literally sold his business in the same way that the Millerites did, because this minister was like, “I got it figured out, I did the math, it’s right here in this brown paper bag, and this date three months from now is the Second Coming.”
Lindelof: The most interesting part of Tom’s story that will always stay with me is that these two things are both true. Number one is this event in the Millerites’ history was referred to as “The Great Disappointment”—the idea that the world didn’t end is considered the great disappointment.
The more fascinating thing is that that wasn’t the end of the religion. That was the beginning of the Seventh-day Adventists. From the ashes of wrongheadedness and disappointment, here we are 150 years later, and they’re thriving. I was like, Oh, that level of cognitive dissonance is just so human, and we have to write about that.