Damon Lindelof, Mimi Leder and Tom Perrotta reflect on 'The Leftovers' and its ambiguous finale
AUSTIN, Texas — HBO's The Leftovers concluded its three-season run on June 4 with one of the greatest series finales ever made. (I stand by my opinion that it may be the best series finale ever made, which caused a minor stir with my editor.) As the finale's cheekily vague synopsis intoned, it answers nothing and everything at the same time — and then it ends.
To give the series — whose mantra from season two onward was, effectively, "let the mystery be" — some credit, it didn't leave fans completely in the dark. We learn that Laurie didn't kill herself earlier in the season, and you could infer that a fortuitous phone call from her daughter Jill may have swayed that decision. Matt's cancer does end up killing him, and his funeral service drew roughly 400 people. Kevin Garvey Sr. is still kicking at 91, though hopefully not attempting to appropriate other cultures. But as promised, The Leftovers finale didn't explain what exactly happened with the Sudden Departure, which saw 2% of Earth's population vanish into thin air.
Or did it? The final monologue of the finale sees Nora telling Kevin about her trip to another world — one inhabited by the 2% who disappeared, and missing the other 98% of the populace — so she could see her children. She says that in this other world, which is filled with parentless children and broken families, her family is ultimately among the lucky. It's a moving story, and one that Kevin assures her he believes, hopefully giving them a happy-ever-after ending. But take a closer look at Nora's story, and you'll find some holes — there's some foreshadowing in the finale about Nora's prowess for lying, and the logistics of leaving that other world and returning to her original one are iffy. How the viewer interprets Nora's story is just one of the ways The Leftovers confounds and defies narrative conventions. It's an overused phrase, but the series truly was unlike anything else on television.
In an interview with Mic following their panel at the ATX Television Festival, co-creator Damon Lindelof, director and executive producer Mimi Leder and co-creator Tom Perrotta discussed the reception to the series finale, Leder's imprint on the show and the ambiguity of Nora's story. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: We’ve had a bit of time for the finale to gestate, so I was wondering what the reception has been like on your guys' end — not so much from critics, but from fans of the show.
Damon Lindelof: You know, I’m not on Twitter anymore, so unfortunately the primary way I engage for that is: How many emails do I get after an episode airs? Because I have friends and I have business acquaintances. Obviously, they know me, and so you have to look through the filter of that.
But I think that the way they were talking about the finale, and in particular the season writ large — I digress for a second, but it will circle back to my point, which is: My hope was that The Leftovers would be talked about as a series, and that the finale wasn’t going to be a huge part of that conversation. And I think for having gone through the experience of Lost or The Sopranos, those conversations are so dominated by just one hour of the show. It’s sort of like, "We’re really going to talk about The Sopranos, just the scene in the diner?" I think it’s so fundamentally unfair, it’s just not the way storytelling is going to work.
I started to feel that, although the response to the finale was positive, people were talking about the whole of the series and the finale in relationship to that. I found that to be really reassuring. And I hope that that’s the show’s legacy, because The Wire is the greatest television show ever. And I don’t even remember one thing that happened in the finale.
Tom Perrotta: I've been mostly traveling since it happened, I've been a bit removed from my real life…
DL: This is your real life.
TP: Right. I feel like what we really did was come up with a finale that felt like it represented the rest of the show. It does that thing that [Damon's] talking about, in that it works in itself, but it also makes people reflect back on the show without seeing it as an isolated storyline — to the extent that people are going, "Oh, The Leftovers is really about love rather than about solving a riddle." That’s been the case since the beginning, but a lot of people have been resisting that interpretation.
But I do think that the finale just cements this sense that this is what you’ve been watching: A story about people who have suffered and haven’t found a way to go on.
Damon, you've talked about how the show really changed, in a good way, once Mimi was brought on halfway through the first season.
DL: We call it AM-PM: ante-Mimi and post-Mimi.
Naturally. And once you get to the Gladys episode, it does feel like The Leftovers has a very assured, confident vision. Do you think the perception of season one would’ve been different had Mimi been onboard from the get-go?
DL: All roads lead to the road that you’re on now, so I don’t like to time travel. But I would say I guarantee you the creative process, the struggle would’ve been less, had Mimi been on from the beginning. And that’s not to take anything away from [Peter Berg], who directed the pilot. But I think one of the institutional problems in our business is when a director comes in and basically directs the pilot with the understanding that they will then leave and never return again, even though very often they take an executive producer credit. And that’s just the way that it works.
It’s sort of the equivalent of me saying that I will impregnate you, and our child will have a lot of my DNA in it, but then I have no interest whatsoever in raising the child. The question is: How is that kid going to turn out? Is it better to have many parents? This isn’t to say that there isn’t a traditional mother or father role. I’m just as much the mom as Mimi is the dad. But there are parents. Tom’s a parent. Tom Spezialy is a parent. Gene Kelly became a parent. The more parents there are, the better the child is going to be. I felt a little bit — obviously, Tom is an incredible creative force, but he didn’t have any previous television experience. He was going back and forth between LA and Boston trying to help me as much as he could. But I was very...
TP: There were things I couldn’t help him with.
DL: Yeah, I was very isolated for the first five episodes of the show. And Mimi was the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel. We still had to sort some shit out. I think episodes five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10 — people don’t talk about nine enough, "The Garveys at Their Best." That’s one of the best episodes of this show that I think we ever did. And Mimi was producing, she basically directed [episode five] and immediately got hired, stayed on and helped Carl Franklin prep [episode six] "Guest" while they reshot episode four. And then we did seven, eight, nine and 10. She directed seven and 10.
TP: It’s hard to go back and remember what a crisis mentality had developed at that point.
ML: Every show has its growing pains. If someone says they don’t, they’re lying. Like a child, there are growing pains. You’re growing taller and your legs ache.
DL: Unless you’re short like me and Tom.
TP: Then your heart aches.
On your end, Mimi, what do you think were you adding to the series — both as a director and directing executive producer — that Damon is alluding to?
ML: Well, I received this incredible script and I just directed it how I felt it needed to be directed. It spoke to me and I let it out. I opened it up. I just really honored the script, honestly.
TP: Just to interrupt, that’s one thing we noticed over the years, because there’s certain people that just got the show. And it wasn’t something that everybody got.
DL: We actually met with directors for season two, who had seen season one, and they were like, "I’m meeting with you because it’s the polite thing to do."
The awkward, one-time first date.
DL: That’s right. Like a friend set us up. Like, "I’m just telling you right out of the gate, this isn’t for me!"
ML: It’s interesting, 'cause the stoning scene was very difficult and challenging because there’s no film on stoning people. So that was really, at the onset, a physically challenging episode to direct in terms of not hurting your actor and having it be as powerful and painful as possible. But the most painful moment, the hardest moment, was when Gladys spoke for the first time in three years. That was the challenge of that scene, really. You have to always start at the point of the scene, for me, at the moment that matters the most.
Tom, you’ve had other novels adapted to the screen, with Election and Little Children. But The Leftovers show goes beyond your book and ventures into new territory in seasons two and three. What surprised you the most about expanding these characters and the universe you created?
TP: Damon and I have spoken about this over time: I always imagine The Leftovers — and we can discuss whether we’ve violated this rule — but I was like, "There’s one supernatural event, which is the Sudden Departure, and then we’re just back to the non-miraculous world." It almost, to me, seems like the model for religious narratives. There’s this thing that happens way in the past and the story develops around it, and we just inherit it and then we live our lives in a kind of non-miraculous world. So that was where I started, and Damon took the position of basically, "Yes, but once the Sudden Departure’s happened, anything is possible."
When Damon said, in season two, that he thinks Kevin should die — I remember you said it casually like, "I think Kevin should die and come back from the dead." I had worked with him enough to not say, “You’re crazy!” but it was more like I thought to myself, "Well, how are you going to do that?"
And, damn, when we were writing episode seven, where he dies, when he drinks the poison, and we got him so elegantly to Virgil’s trailer and I was like, "Goddammit, he did it."
DL: We did it, I talked you into it. And by season three, you were pitching that Nora dies and Kevin goes back into the realm of "International Assassin" to get her back. I was like, "That’s too crazy."
I was surprised to see that some fans — and even writers at some publications reviewing the show — took Nora's story about going to another world with the 2% who departed at face value. But you guys did a good job leaving it open to interpretation. Why do you think some viewers were so willing to accept Nora’s story?
DL: I think you’re asking a question about the way that humans are wired more than what our intention was as storytellers. But I will say this: We’ve now got the rare experience of watching a large number of people see the finale for the first time, twice. And in both cases, it was like, "Do you believe Nora’s story?" 90% said yes, and the other 10% were shocked that we were even asking the question.
If you just watch it in a vacuum, and you don’t go on the internet immediately or call a friend, your default position is just belief. And I think that there are multiple reasons for that, which are: We showed our work, we spent an entire season setting up the idea. Because we showed you the fossil, here’s the machine, these women seem capable. They denied Nora, so they’re doing all these things. Now the only question becomes: "Did Nora use it?" Not, "Does it work?"
Yeah, because the machine even fills up with this fluid, going all the way up to her mouth.
DL: Right. And then I think it’s a byproduct of Mimi’s direction and [Carrie Coon's] performance, but also [Justin Theroux's] performance. Because as she’s talking, he moves through an emotional range, just listening, of surprise, confusion, acceptance, profound sadness and then belief. And our job, as writers, was not to get the audience to believe Nora’s story, it was to get Kevin to believe Nora’s story.
The one thing I have not heard at all is: "I don’t buy that Kevin believes it." It isn’t to say it doesn’t matter whether Nora’s telling the truth or not. What mattered to us, as storytellers, was that Kevin believed her and he does. As Tom just said on our panel, he has to believe her in order for them to be together.
ML: It’s all about what you believe.
DL: When you first watched it, did you watch it as it was airing?
I got the screener, but I was saying that I loved the idea of her seeing this new world. But sitting on it, there was just something that feels off.
DL: Yeah, it’s a crazy story.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a bit of a skeptic and pessimist at heart. I wanted Nora to see her kids and get that closure, but ultimately I think it was something that she projected for herself.
DL: I’ll say this, though, and maybe that’s another thing that applies to you and maybe it doesn’t: Going into the finale, had you decided, emotionally, that you were OK with never getting an explanation for the departure?
Yeah, I was. You guys made that clear.
DL: OK, so you’re in the minority. And I find that most people that went into it actually being like, "I’m OK with it" actually had the reaction that you did. We'll call you the 10%. Which is: "I don’t buy it."
And the people who are like, "I’ll be honest with you. I understand they’re telling me that I’m not going to get an answer, but I still want one." They’re the 90%.