Collective grief can be healing, and if the ATX TV Festival panel for “The Leftovers” was any indication, the show’s fans — and even the producers — are still processing their feelings about the end of the gorgeously emotional drama, which just ended its three season run on HBO. Variety‘s chief TV critic Maureen Ryan moderated the panel with executive producer/showrunner Damon Lindelof, and executive producers Tom Perrotta and Mimi Leder, who directed the series finale.
As the far-ranging conversation began, Ryan asked the panel how they felt about the critical and audience reactions to the finale. Leder said, “I was humbled by the reactions. It feels like mourning when we should be celebrating. It’s cathartic.” Perrotta said, “We got to witness the story in microcosm: everyone who believed in our story joined a religion.” Lindelof got a huge laugh when he said, “I’m just relieved no one asked if they were dead all the time.”
Lindelof confessed he was overwhelmed by all the heartfelt praise the finale received (including Ryan’s personal post). “It’s easier to take in hatred than all the love. That’s the way we’re built.”
The panel took a look back at how the complicated drama evolved over three seasons. Lindelof observed, “I became less risk-averse going into season two. We doubled down. We decided we were going to stay at the table and keep pushing our chips over and over again.” Perrotta added, “The show changed course. It moved from Mapleton to Miracle and the tone of the show changed in season two. It became something new.” Lindelof reiterated his original description of “The Leftovers”: “It’s a show-er, not a grower.”
There was one surprise guest at the panel: Jasmin Savoy Brown, who played Edie. She even held up a handheld note saying “You understand,” playing on her role as one of the Guilty Remnant.
Tone meetings were key to working with outside directors. Lindelof revealed he wasn’t on set much as he prefers to work in the writer’s room. Leder outlined the process, “You talk to new directors about the actors and their strengths and where you can take them. You want each director to bring their own artistry to the show, and they do.” Lindelof credited Leder with shooting the show’s many monologue scenes with particular care “She thinks about who is giving – and listening to – the monologue. That person is the audience’s proxy.” Leder said she tried to mirror the images in all the monologues such as shooting near a wall of windows.
Lindelof said, “In season three, all the characters were trying to find a unified narrative they could be part of. This idea of belief was something we were really chasing – that’s why the final words of the series reflect that.”
When talk turned to the Tasmanian sex boat episode, Lindelof shared that the episode was put together by all the show’s writers. The idea for Frasier the lion (Lindelof sported a Frasier t-shirt at the ATX panel) came from the Bible. Lindelof explained, “We knew we wanted to do the story of Job, where Matt confronts Old Testament God, who’s a dick. We thought it should feel more biblical, and what’s more biblical than people having sex all the time? Then we wanted to kill God and end Matt’s fixation with it. We wanted it to feel vaguely comedic about how God gets killed. Nick had the idea that a lion eats God. I googled “sex lion” and found the story Laurie told about Frasier. We just followed our laughter. The attacking and appropriation of other’s people faith; to have Frasier kill God was too good.” Leder added, “Someone on set had a book of sex positions and we’d choose from that” while shooting the episode’s more salacious scenes.
As for surprises they encountered while making on the series, Lindelof said he’d find unexpected moments of greatness when he went to edit episodes, such as the super close-ups of Regina King and Carrie Coon in the “Lens” episode. Perrotta said, “We had no idea of the power Ann Dowd [Patti] would have in that role. She had such force. It really put a stamp on the show.” The trio also agreed that Coon’s tour de force performance as Nora elevated the show. Lindelof posited, “HBO was male anti-heroes. How do we defuse that trope? What if this show is as much about Nora as it is about Kevin? Nora has the last line in ‘The Leftovers’ book when she finds the baby on their porch and says, ‘Look what I found.’ Once Carrie auditioned, we were all in.” Perrotta elaborated, “In the book, Nora is locked into her grief. Her routine gets her through the day. Damon said we had to get Nora out in to the world and show her with people in the same situation and she’s the skeptic.” That’s how Nora’s job as a fraud inspector became a major story point.
Crafting the final chapter of “The Leftovers” had its challenges. Lindelof said, “It feels epic. We knew the end of the world wasn’t going to happen – we called it Chekhov’s Apocalypse. We’re going to signal to you that nothing’s going to happen and then how do we create the space for the final episode to be ‘Now what?’ We wanted to show how complex love can be, how people feel undeserving and we decided to tell the story through Kevin and Nora.” Perrotta added, “In a world marked by loss, can we leave them in a moment of restoration and connection?” Leder pointed to Nora’s compelling monologue in front of the window of her house in Australia, talking to Kevin about her experience after she “went through” to the place where the departed had gone. “It doesn’t really matter if it was true or not,” she said. “All that matters is that he believes her.”