The Leftovers’ series finale is sparking plenty of discussion. We thought it was a fitting conclusion to a complex and provocative show. Deadline‘s Dominic Patten interviewed co-creator Damon Lindelof and star Justin Theroux to get some answers.
DEADLINE: Justin, what do you think people will take away from the finale of The Leftovers?
THEROUX: There’ll probably be a smattering of a lot of opinions, but, as Damon has said before, if everyone’s feeling the same thing maybe we all haven’t done our job. So I hope that they’ve enjoyed sort of the arc of the overall series, but I’m sure people have questions, but that’s the kind of healthy lobby talk that I would hope would happen after a season finale–especially for The Leftovers.
DEADLINE: In the end, it all ended rather powerfully but quietly, with just Kevin and Nora finding what had departed them in this world…
THEROUX: Yes, it hung down to this wonderful love story after all the noise and the cacophony of all the different things that takes place in our show. In the end, it sort of all fits on the head-of-a-pin kind of writing in this love story between Nora and Kevin.
DEADLINE: Damon, was this always how you and Tom saw the series ending?
LINDELOF: Well, the show is called The Leftovers, it’s not The Gone Aways. So the emotional and narrative focus has always been on the people who are left to sort of waddle through and meander through and search in many ways for the meaning of all this. And then ultimately and hopefully coming to the same revelation that the audience does, which is that the best meaning that they can derive from their experience is who they’re going through it with.
This show is not some sort of grand treatise on religion, it is about family and connection. I think that’s ultimately the emotional effects of an event that basically breaks families apart and isolates people and creates a fear and anxiety about losing the people who are closest to one another.
DEADLINE: Justin, how did you see that fear and anxiety playing out in the Kevin we meet in the series finale? Here’s a man who has been search for years for the woman he loves, a man who at first played a role when he finally found her in the Australian outback after all that time Nora had been away, and, as we discovered, really away.
THEROUX: I think it’s that intermittent time period and all the time that he spent looking for Nora, I think he’s become in her absence a more realized person. In the finale Carrie’s confronted with her own stuff and has gone through the process that she’s gone through, you know, she’s become sort of this hermit. So when they finally have this initial strange reaction, the flirtation that Kevin provides for her is not, you know, ‘let’s have dinner, let’s have a date night,’ it’s he essentially approaches her at the wedding by talking about his family and how well they’re doing or her husband had troubles. I think that he was trying to draw her to water in saying, and eventually of course in the end by just telling her he loved her. And it was sort of as simple as that all along for him.
LINDELOF: It’s a long, hard-fought journey. I think that the show is really about suffering in a lot of ways. But in the finale, it was really important for us to demonstrate that there is grace at the end of suffering and that they find that grace through each other.
Like in past seasons and now in the end, this guy has literally been rolling the boulder up the hill to just track Nora down so he can show her how sorry he is. He also wants to show her that he is now available for this relationship. I think that his presence there and the narrative that he builds for her is finally able to shift her towards where she needs to come so that those two people can be together.
DEADLINE: But that broken binary has been the internal dilemma of The Leftovers from almost the beginning, trying to find a way forward and go back at the same time, even at the end of the world, literally and figuratively…
LINDELOF: We’ve watched these people now for three seasons go on very individualized journeys but if there is an answer it’s that at least we care about I think as storytellers and certainly I think that the actors echo this is, is finding meaning in the relationships that we have with one another. That’s the only way to achieve any kind of fundamental true grace and that points to where it all ends up. It’s let’s stop being away some place, let’s be here. It’s, let’s be in this.
You know, every season has basically ended with a very simple line that hopefully has great meaning. At the end of Season 1, Nora says, “Look what I found?” At the end of Season 2 she says, “You’re home,” and at the end of Season 3 Kevin says, “You’re’ here,” and then she affirms that statement and says, “I’m here,” which is kind of the moral of the story – stop going away, be here.
DEADLINE: To have that type of sturdy conclusion is a lot different than how we saw Lost end back in 2010, which saw you and Carlton (Cuse) receive no small amount of backlash, in fact still does – how much was that on your mind as you went into this last season of The Leftovers?
LINDELOF: Honestly, we sat down at the very beginning of Season 3, all the writers, and basically said, ‘We’re talking about the last scene. What is the last scene of the series? Who’s in it and what are they saying to one another?’ And that conversation lasted for almost two weeks before we landed on the scene that you just saw. Then the entire writing process for the third season was getting to and earning that scene and infusing that scene with some degree of emotional meaning. It was also getting the big pyrotechnic idea out of the way, you know. Because if the entire season is built around the idea of the world is going to end or something’s going to happen on the seven-year anniversary of the departure, we wanted to resolve that question by the end of the penultimate episode so the audience would be able to come into the final episode no longer concerned or worried about whether the world was going to end or not.
We wanted to make sure that we designed a delivery system that made the audience realize this isn’t going to be about twists and turns, head scratching, theorizing, all the things that Lost was, and I’m so proud that it was. If it hadn’t been all those things it wouldn’t be something that we’re still talking about seven years after it went off the air.
DEADLINE: So, I’ll take that as the end of Lost was on your mind a fair bit going into the end of The Leftovers?
LINDELOF: Of course it was and it wasn’t just Tom and I, it would be unconscionable for me to present it otherwise. I think that once I said to HBO we want to definitely end the show after the third season, I knew that we’d be working towards another series finale. I think to compare the two shows is only natural. Of course I’m the only common thread between the two and there are tremendous amount of artists who had nothing to do with Lost this time around, and I leaned on them for support.
Also, there is a difference of scale as we did 28 episodes of The Leftovers, that’s approximately three more than the first season of Lost. And I do think that the longer something goes on the harder it is to end it well. If you look at some of the greatest series of all time, The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, none of them even made it past 90 episodes. Lost made it to 121 and so I felt like I had a lot more control over this particular narrative.
DEADLINE: How so?
LINDELOF: I wanted The Leftovers to be assessed on its own merits and I’ve been pretty transparent about what The Leftovers was and wasn’t. The Leftovers has been chasing I think an entirely different emotional idea and hopefully that became pretty clear to the audience while they were watching it. Sure, there’s a kind of overlap in the themes, certainly in the mystery and the ambiguity, but Lost was very much set up to be a show that promised, in fact, some level of resolution and satisfaction and therefore left a lot of space for a lack of resolution and dissatisfaction.
DEADLINE: Which truly is very different than how you guys constructed The Leftovers finale – where there really is no running away…
LINDELOF: I’ll add this, the reason that we called the first episode of Season 3 “The Book of Kevin” and the last episode “The Book of Nora” was that we wanted to book end the season and the series with that fundamental idea of the connections between these two people. Even though the other characters are often present in the finales, we’ve always ended the seasons on a moment of deep and profound emotional connection between Kevin and Nora, and this time was no different.
DEADLINE: Yet, this last season blew the rulebook away, from the drone strike on the Guilty Remnant cult, the end of the world expectation, other realities with a President Kevin and sexual organ security systems, the shift to Australia and more. On a textual level, it put almost all the core characters in their own spotlight to take us to Nora and Kevin’s moment, so to speak.
LINDELOF: Well, yes, in order to get there it felt like every single major character on the show needed their own curtain call. I think obviously largely because we had eight episodes this year as opposed to ten, but also because it felt like characters like Jill and Tom and Erika Murphy had actually kind of completed their arcs. They were in a place where they were already healed. The third season wanted to focus on the people who were still the most fucked up. And Kevin and Nora, even though Laurie’s the one who joined a cult, Kevin and Nora were definitely the most fucked up and the only way for them to stop being fucked up was to be fucked up together.
DEADLINE: Would that ultimately be the takeaway for The Leftovers, that we should just be fucked up together?
LINDELOF: (laughs) Yeah, that was the operating title for the finale before we changed it to “Book of Nora.”
THEROUX: I don’t know about that but I would also add, just one thing quickly to what Damon said, which is by isolating those episodes with different characters, it paid in dividends later on. So when Kevin is explaining to Nora basically where everyone is and also that Matt Jamison had died and he wanted to see her at the funeral, you immediately have very clear and broad reference points that have I would argue much more emotional impact than if Matt had stayed a tangential character. That carries weight only because we’ve spent the time with Matt to see his own struggles.
DEADLINE: Justin, as an actor but also as a writer yourself, The Leftovers was the first time you and Damon had worked together but it was so much a process for the two of you with Kevin as the center point of this world of the Departed. I know this puts you in a bit of a spot with him here, but what was that relationship and its development like?
THEROUX: It’s been fabulous, you know? I mean, I think there’s always that initial kind of dance when anyone’s thinking of sort of interlocking going like okay, let’s do this thing together where you don’t entirely trust me and thinks that I don’t entirely trust him. But I had a body of work of his to look at that told me I could trust him. And I’m not saying this because he’s here, but the material he kept serving up was so intimate and wonderful that within a very few episodes I became very comfortable knowing I was in safe hands.
So that in and of itself is a wonderful feeling and you feel very, for lack of a better word, held in that respect, and for Damon to write such vulnerable material obviously speaks to sort of his heart and his mind and his intellect when it comes to writing for my character, and every other character for that matter because every character has this deeply sympathetic bent to them.
So between us, I can’t think of a time where we really butted heads on anything creatively and when we can both sort of sing the same song, it feels fantastic.
LINDELOF: I just need to be in the emotional reality of what Justin just said and accept it for a second before I start blathering on because it’s been a very emotional week for me and will continue to be so. I guess what I’d say is this is a very strange experience, television, because when you do a movie it’s finite. You come together, you work for ten months shooting the thing, you hug at the premier, and then that’s that.
Television, you don’t know how long it’s going to last and it functions as an arranged marriage. So in the case of our relationship, we were complete and total strangers and within the space of a couple of meetings that maybe lasted an hour or two, we both agreed that we were going to spend an undefined period of time together. I tried to define it as saying I didn’t think it would go longer than three or four years, this wasn’t going to be a seven-year odyssey or whatever, but you just never know when it begins. And the more than I got to know Justin, and I don’t think it’s a shock to say to anyone who’s ever met him, that he’s a very deep, caring, emotional being who is incredibly intelligent and is a true artist in every way, shape, and form, not just as an actor but as a writer and a director and as an appreciator of art.
So I’ve always felt like there’s an incredibly high bar for me to clear and that’s not because Justin is an asshole or he throws the script in my face and says do better, but he inspires me to clear that bar every time. And I’ve no shame in admitting I think that we live in a world where a male heterosexual artist has female muses. I have no shame in admitting that Justin has been my muse and I would say that if I were on the phone with Carrie right now or Amy and they wouldn’t be nodding their head because they would know it to be true.
DEADLINE: In that, among the many things about The Leftovers is that I was struck from early on how evergreen it was and remained…especially in these final episodes, with how much the tectonic plates have shifted politically, how much was maintaining that out of time ethos important to you and Tom?
LINDELOF: Well, firstly I really appreciate you saying that and I hope it’s true. I’m obviously chasing that idea of giving The Leftovers real staying power. The show, while it never generated a tremendous viewership, the way that people talked to me about the show and the emotional reactions that they have to the show were very powerful to me. Because the show is basically dealing in the space that we all deal with as humans, we are walking around sometimes as if in a daze or a level of shock as we try to understand how crazy the world is around us. That we’re constantly put into scenarios where in an instant, whether it was the election of November 8 or 9/11 or any of the tragedies that unfold when some crazy person detonates a bomb, that this illusion of safety and comfort is punctured. Then you suddenly feel very disjointed and scared and fearful, that those are the ideas, they’re unpleasant ideas that the show has basically mined its energy from and I have no regrets about that whatsoever. Because I do feel like it’s also a mechanism for release.
These are very toxic things to keep inside and yet, there are so many TV shows out there, so why can’t we have more TV shows about grieving or about belief and religion and atonement and suffering? So I wanted to explore a space that hadn’t really been explored and I think that with 500 television shows on the air nowadays that the ambition had to be we want to make a TV show that doesn’t feel like any other TV shows. That we wanted to make something that lasts, that feels unique and different and is challenging and hard. Look, challenging and hard is tough but The Leftovers certainly was meant to be that from my standpoint.
DEADLINE: So, in the end, to paraphrase The Replacements, are you satisfied with it?
LINDELOF: This is to take nothing away from anything else I’ve done but this is the proudest I’ve ever been of anything I’ve been a part of, creatively. And that’s just as much a part of the work that I did as it was the work that this incredibly incredible team of collaborators I had did, like Justin, like Carrie, like Tom, like Mimi Leder, we can’t sing her praises highly enough.
I’m trying to focus as much on the here and now as possible. To live my life in a way that the humans that I know here on the planet Earth feel like they’ve been treated with respect by me, whether they’re people that I’m very close to or the audience who’s watching my work. I hope The Leftovers achieved some of that, truly.
THEROUX: I also wanted to add to that, even though, and it just be the evergreen quality about it, one of the things I enjoyed so much just as a reader of the show and eventually a viewer of the show is that the themes that are discussed throughout are these ancient long-held belief systems. Even though this is essentially a small-town family drama if you really wanted to just be simple about it, The Leftovers is asking the questions of where we go when we die, is life worth living? These are all really massive ideas that I think Damon, Tom and all the writers just did an incredible job of really dissecting and doing it all through just essentially every man and every woman. I think it’s a very identifiable feeling that just echoes and that’s a lot of The Leftovers to me.