Ann Dowd on ‘Leftovers’ Twist: ‘If Things Change for Him, They’ll Change for Her’

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 207 of “The Leftovers,” titled “A Most Powerful Adversary.”

Kevin Garvey is dead. Or is he? Abandoned by Nora, trapped by his own palm print — and tormented by his ever-more-prominent hallucinations of Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), Kevin agreed to Virgil’s “exorcism” plan. Except Virgil didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. Instead of reviving Kevin with the epinephrine shot after Kevin dosed himself with poison, Virgil shot himself in the head. That left Michael, his grandson, to drag Kevin’s body out of the trailer to points unknown. Tune in next week to find out how creator Damon Lindelof revives his leading man. (A hint, perhaps, in Erika Murphy’s story last week about the bird she buried?)

As much as the episode featured Kevin’s meltdown, it also offered new insight into Patti, revealing her side of that very unique relationship. Variety spoke with Kevin’s tormentor-in-chief, Ann Dowd, to get her take on the episode’s surprising twist. “It was a phenomenal script,” she tells Variety. “I wrote to Damon immediately. I feel that way about all the scripts, but I was so excited to jump into this one. I was beside myself.”

Did Patti know what Kevin was going to do?

I think she sensed something big, very big was about to happen and had very strong instincts to step in to protect him, but I don’t think she knew the outcome. That’s the thing that unnerves her that she can clearly see. The anxiety, the unrest — “Don’t get in that truck, Kevin.” She’s not a seer. Some things she gets, but other stuff she doesn’t, and that’s what really throws her.

It was interesting to learn that Patti doesn’t know why she’s there, either. “I’m just as f—ing lost as you are,” she tells him.

Damon’s extremely helpful. He will answer questions if you have them; if you don’t, he won’t interfere in any way. What does she really know? Is she there to protect? Is she there to aggravate? He was very helpful. She made a decision last season (to kill herself), and I don’t think there are stronger decisions in one’s life than that. And the next thing she knows, she’s back. With him. I don’t think she signed up for that. Patti doesn’t have a history of strong relationships. She doesn’t know how to do it. She didn’t know how in her life, and she doesn’t know how where she is now. But she has a very strong connection to Kevin. Some of it is the need to protect. What would happen if she separated from him?

She’s pretty mean to him. She lies to him. She hides the handcuff key from him.

Keeping him off balance regulates him in some way. I don’t think she can help it. She knew where the key was — she saw it on the chair, of course she did. She wants to be in control as much as she can. Part of that is about is unnerving him. When he’s sure of himself and clocking her, that’s unnerving to her. She’s more comfortable with him off-kilter. When she does that, it’s a way of saying, “You’re not in charge here. Don’t think you are for a minute.” I remember asking Damon, “Does she want that relationship to work out for Kevin and Nora?” And he said, “She doesn’t believe in relationships.” I thought, “Wow, that’s right.” She doesn’t have any history of any successful relationships. It’s just about trying to keep herself in a place where she can function. If that means throwing him off, that’s what she’s going to do to stay in charge as much as she can.

She taunted him to the point where he was driven to commit suicide. Where does that leave her? A ghost to a ghost? Wouldn’t she have a drive to self-preservation?

I don’t think she really knows. She doesn’t see where this was going. Sometimes she’s present for these acts of his. His decision to just end it and then take himself in there, going to the police — whoa, what are you doing? He’s being our hero, the soul of decency, trying to make the right decisions for his own life. She’s just trying to hang in there with him. There could be something else after that. I don’t know what it is. It could be worse. I don’t think she quite knows what’s going on or why she wants to do what she wants to do. But I think she wants to be understood by him. I think she wants to have an effect on his life. There’s a strong pull to get involved there.

What’s their connection? Why are they so connected?

When we shot that (suicide) scene last season, I was scared to death, because he wrote it like a play. It felt like a love scene. Something happened there. In her most intimate and powerful act of her life, she was with him. She wanted him to do it for her. It would have been a coup for the Guilty Remnant for him as a peace keeper to do the deed, but he refuses. The two of them started as adversaries, but something happened to them in that room, something that’s very unfamiliar for her. A real connection occurred. It comes in the strangest of places. In life that happens. You never know when it’s going to happen, but when it does, boy do you know it. And you cherish it. Even if you don’t know what it is. And it scares you. And it scares her. Intimacy is not her field. She learns that she has power. So it made complete sense the fact that she came back to him. There’s unfinished business both personal and in the world. There’s her own past to sort through. And who better to sort through it with than Kevin.

What’s your understanding of the rules of Patti’s existence: who can see her, who can’t?

When you have the tremendous privilege of working with someone like Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, with those minds and those imaginations, you lose the interest of can you describe who I am, what I am. Your goal and your desire is to figure it out. I wasn’t particularly obsessed with the question of who sees me and who doesn’t. I know who does because it’s in the text and I can put two and two together. I know that I am a presence in his life that is palpable, that he feels stronger than the other relationships in his life. That’s what I’m doing here. When it includes Virgil and Michael, it all made sense. That’s a scary area for her, with Virgil. This could be dangerous. You shouldn’t be going in there. If things change for him, they’re going to change for her, too. For better for worse, she’s attached to him.

Laurie (Amy Brenneman) had what amounts to an intervention with Kevin, where she told him Patti was just a figment of his imagination. What’s your take on that?

It reminds me of the relationship that Patti had with Laurie. Laurie sees the world in the same way she has always seen the world — meaning, it can’t be something other. There has to be an explanation if he’s seeing the presence of and knowing someone is with him. That’s a very accepted way of understanding it. You’re having a breakdown. You need to get help. This cannot be anything other than you losing it. But the world is bigger than that. And Patti’s presence in his life is bigger than that and cannot be explained by saying you’re having a breakdown. That’s like telling Patti, the reason you’re having all this anxiety is you haven’t dealt with your terrible husband. No, it wasn’t. She knew that something huge was about to happen, and in fact it did.

That’s the world of “The Leftovers” — somewhere in the middle.

That’s what I love about it. It doesn’t just let you say, “Oh, it’s sci-fi.” No, it’s not. And it’s not just “Oh, it’s life and we can see it and touch it and tie up all the loose ends.” No it’s not that, either. It fits in a very intriguing, compelling way. To just question how we view the world. How we question our existence. How we view life, our existence, how we’re doing, why we’re here, for that matter.

Last season she didn’t have a voice. She’s certainly found her voice this season.

Has she ever! That’s what I so love and respect about Damon and Tom and the writers. All that follows makes complete sense to me. When you don’t know a person speaks and then there’s a lot of talking, it feels completely right. It’s a triumph. Not one wrong chord here, not one wrong note. It made all the sense in the world to me.

Any hints about what’s to come? There are only three episodes left.

Just hang on. It’s extraordinary. It’s a mind-blower.

Will Patti be around?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I believe in her, let me tell you that.

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