The season finale of “The Leftovers” airs Dec. 6, and as the HBO drama heads into the home stretch, executive producer and co-creator Damon Lindelof spoke to Variety about guiding and refining the 2015 incarnation of the show. In part one of the conversation, he spoke about the challenges of writing for television in the crowd-sourcing age and the 1975 film that inspired a big season two arc, as well as some of the changes he and his fellow writers enacted in the show’s second year.
In part two of the conversation, which is below, Lindelof talked about some of his television likes and dislikes, the attention-getting sequence that opened season two, the spiritual roots of “The Leftovers,” and what it’s like to be free of the demands of social media. Update: Lindelof addressed elements of the season two finale of “The Leftovers” in part three of the interview.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed about this season is that each episode feels like a different episode of TV. It doesn’t seem like 10 episodes of the same thing.
I’ll tell you, I’m watching “Jessica Jones” right now and loving it. I feel like everybody’s at different places in that book, so to speak. But more importantly, what you just said is the biggest issue, which is the episodes are indistinct. I’ve been watching season one of “The Knick” too, and there’s that episode “Get the Rope” — that amazing episode with the race riots. When that episode ended I was like, “I need to stop and take a couple of days off before I watch the next one.” That was an episode. From start to finish, that was an episode of TV.
You know, we call these things episodes for a reason. And not just because of structure. When someone has a mental-illness incident, we call it “an episode.” That’s the word that we use for those. The idea is that you can give each episode its own internal flavor and character. The way that we’ve obviously chosen to do that is by individuating the characters.
This is something that Noah Hawley does incredibly well [on “Fargo”], and “Walking Dead” has done it [at times] — the single character’s [point of view episode]. “Game of Thrones” is probably my favorite show on the air right now, but just give me a damn Tyrion episode. Give me just one that’s wall-to-wall Tyrion. The emotional impact that I would get when that episode ended [would be different], as opposed to [cutting to] “Meanwhile, over in Meereen.” I think it’s amazing what they do, but when [George R. R. Martin] wrote those books, each chapter is just called “Tyrion” or “Arya,” etc.
You’re in their head.
Right. You’re in their very clean point of view. So I was like, “I want to do that.” Obviously our most successful episodes in the first season did. Premieres and finales have a slightly different set of rules because you’ve got a lot to unpack. But we’ll see.
When you filmed that initial sequence that started season two — the scenes of the woman from thousands of years ago — did you know that you would have Kevin ending up with Patti at that well, in the spot where the cavewoman died, in episode eight? Did you just want to do that cavewoman sequence and then it just happened to tie in to episode eight later? Or did you know that those springs and that well were going to come up again?
I don’t want to completely and totally demystify the what, where, when of those stories. Suffice to say that once the scene with the cavewoman [Sara Tomko] was on the table and we were really talking about doing it, that emerged from [ideas explored with consulting producer] Reza Aslan, who wrote this amazing book called “Zealot.” It’s kind of about the historical Jesus Christ. He is an expert on world religions. He’s a practicing Muslim, and he knows a tremendous amount about Christianity and Judaism but also proto-religions. We asked him on the first day of work [on season two], how did religion start? What do we know? What’s the first religion?
He started talking about people living in caves and looking at birds flying in the sky. And I was like, “We’re doing that.” He said, “What?” I was like, “We’re going back [to that time].”
We had been identifying Kevin as suffering from the prophet’s dilemma, which is [mentioned in “Guest” in season one]. In a post-Departure world, if you have a weird dream, you wake up wondering, “Is God talking to me?” Reza said, “Oh, Kevin’s not a prophet. He’s a shaman.” He talked about what a shaman is and how a shaman can commune between the world of the living and the world of the dead. And the way that he does this is he has to find an Axis Mundi. All of these ideas that Reza was putting on us informed the storytelling of the entire season and most particularly that first episode, and the introduction of Jarden as an Axis Mundi.
The well in episode eight became sort of this physical [manifestation of an Axis Mundi]. Wells are very much attached to these shamanic ideas, and also to the Well of Souls from Judaism. So all of those ideas are swirling around, and then it just became a matter of, when are we going to use them and how are we going to implement them.
The way that the season ends, the way the finale ends — the last scene of the finale very purposely and unambiguously refers back to the cavewoman. Not in a story way, but in a character, emotional, thematic way. I hope that once the audience sees the finale they’ll say, “Oh, that’s why they did that.”
To me, what that cavewoman scene was drawing on was the idea that there’s great pain and suffering in life, but there is beauty as well. Obviously her story is sad, but you can also view it as noble and hopeful, because she saves her child and life goes on.
Is Jarden special because those kinds of events or situations are more focused or more intense?
I don’t think it’s fair for me to say, “This was our intention.” I think that by the nature of the fact that nobody departed from Jarden — that is a fact. That is a statistical aberration. To me, you asking that question about the fictional town of Jarden, Texas, is the same as you asking the question, “Is Jerusalem special?” or “Is Mecca special?” They are special by virtue of what happened there.
Now, if you’re asking me did it become special because that cavewoman died and that’s why you showed it to me, or did it become special because nobody departed? I would say, “If the cavewomen dying there isn’t important, then why did they show me that?” That’s the more important question. I lean more toward — we have an intention. Our intention is sort of emotional and theological, versus story-driven. This is not a “put the clues together and you will get the meaning of life” show. But there are thematic reasons and story reasons we reference, and hopefully somewhere in between you will form your opinion.
Was episode eight some weird head trip or did Kevin really have that experience on a spiritual plane? You can decide for yourself. As writers, we’re not like, “We want to have our cake and eat it too.” We had a very clear intention. I don’t want to talk about what our intention was, because it doesn’t feel fair for someone to be engaged in a debate about the show and then for someone to say, “Well, look at what Lindelof said in this interview.” I don’t want the show to be that. That said, the thematic takeaway, [the emotional import] that you just basically relayed about the cavewoman is much more relevant to me than than the story takeaway, which is, “Did her death somehow make this place magical?”
We’re doing a show about what it is like to lose your family, to lose everything that is special to you. You know, the fact that two people survive, a woman and her baby, from a cave that has 100 people in it, on the show where two percent of the world’s population disappeared — that’s the thematic tie. It’s not rocket science.
You know, it’s not that I totally disliked the first season. I just felt like it was kind of trying to get at something, and you actually got to that place in season two, if that makes any sense.
And that emotional theme is that it’s so painful to be alive sometimes but if you want to be a human being and if you want to be really alive, you have to go through the grief and really feel it and truly take on the things in your path — and along the way, you also experience these moments of tremendous…
And ultimately, you don’t even know what you’re capable of, for good or for ill.
I think one of the reasons that not a lot of people watch this show is that that’s the space that we’re dealing in.
You know, when I got the call that my dad had been found collapsed in his bathroom by his cleaning woman 3,000 miles away, my life changed in a second. It was never the same again. We’ve all had that same experience. It’s shocking and it’s very unnatural. And then you kind of have to fool yourself in order to get through it. It’s like, “This is the natural course of things. I knew that this is what happens when people age and get ill.” But it doesn’t feel natural. We grasp onto systems of belief and hope and prayer in an effort to kind of make sense of this horrible shock. This is very upsetting business. And then we find nobility in it.
In [co-creator Tom] Perrotta’s book, Matt Jamison defrocks himself. He leaves the faith after the Departure. When I met with Christopher Eccleston, I was like, “I want this guy to keep his faith, because he can’t abandon the one thing that gives him security and comfort even if it makes less sense than it did before. He should double down. He should keep spinning the wheel.” Eccleston said, “He should absolutely double down. He should hold on to it, and we shouldn’t make a mockery of religion.” [Part of the idea was to show] what it can do that’s positive.
This show feels as though it kind of unites the storytelling moves of “Lost” and yet it is more open-ended and free to go into these very challenging areas. Is that the sense you have writing it?
You know, “Lost,” by the very nature of what the premise was, you always had to be thinking about the future. Until we got the end date, we were in a very nebulous space in terms of how the show should be paced and how mysteries should be answered and how new characters should and should not be introduced. You had to be kind of talking about the long game, the entire game plan. For “The Leftovers” you can talk about it on a season by season basis the way Vince Gilligan talked about “Breaking Bad.” He would say, “Then we would have the scene where Walt opened up the trunk of his car and there’d be a gun in there and we had no idea what the payoff was going to be.” The audience would say, “Okay, we’re cool with that.”
I would read those interviews and I would be like, “Why aren’t they killing Vince Gilligan? How is he allowed to say that they’re making it up as they go along?” The answer to the question is, because Vince Gilligan’s not writing a mystery show. When you’re writing a mystery show, you have to know the answers to the mysteries that you are presenting to the audience. And if you don’t know the answers, they can smell it. That is the lesson that was learned. If you don’t know the answer to your mystery, the audience can smell it. They’re just way too smart.
Because this is not a mystery show, and because you’re not on Twitter, do you feel more at ease with the reception to the show? Do you not pay attention to the reaction?
The reaction still means a lot to me, and it’s curated for me. There are other writers who are on social media, and if somebody says something nice, they’ll send me a link. My wife Heidi is the first person to see an episode — the first person who hasn’t been part of the [writing or production] of that episode — and her reaction is usually very much in tune with how the audience is going to react. She’s very intelligent. She knows me very well. She understands my storytelling, so I usually get an early indication of how the episode is going to be received when she watches it. And that matters a lot.
I do think also the fact that I’m not on Twitter and Twitter knows that I’m not on it — people are just much nicer. They’re nastier to you when they know you’re listening. If I announced that I was going back on Twitter all the nastiness would return, independent of what I was doing. I really believe that. There’s no use saying horrible things about me if I’m not there to see them, or they’re not going to get to me. It’s like, what’s the purpose in it? So I think me not being on Twitter actually makes people behave in a much more civil way about my writing. That’s what I tell myself, whether it’s true or not.
But I also think that you freed yourself, in a way, because it feels like you decided with this show, “I’m going to make a show that’s not about answers, it’s not about building up or taking apart a mythology per se. There are elements of that, and the payoffs that are interesting and hopefully cool, but it’s not about that.”
Right. This is the area that I really want to mine. I do feel like this premise finds a way to talk about loss. To me, it’s not a Sept. 11 metaphor, it’s a death metaphor. When death happens, it’s shocking and it’s sudden and it’s permanent and you have no answers. You’re like, “Why did this happen to this person? Why did this happen to me? What am I supposed to do about it?”