The following interview contains spoilers for Sunday’s series finale of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” Do not read if you haven’t watched the series finale.
“The Book of Nora” ended a stunning eight-episode final season of “The Leftovers” with a gripping, gorgeous finale that propels the story to an unknown number of years in the future after Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) steps into the mysterious LADR machine and waits to be transported to wherever her children went. It’s a fantastic ending to a series that has confounded and transcended expectations, beginning in a sleepy small town in New York and ending, with a bravura flair, in rural Australia. (My colleague Maureen Ryan will be posting her review of the finale as soon as it finishes airing.)
Showrunner and co-creator Damon Lindelof has navigated a series finale before — and that was a bad enough experience that he waited several years before entering the landscape of television again. But “Lost” isn’t “The Leftovers,” despite grappling with some of the same themes, and given the elegance of the ending, it seems Lindelof will not be facing a similar fan backlash. Still, “The Book of Nora” reveals some surprising choices and still-murky secrets, zeroing in on how Nora and Kevin (Justin Theroux) might make their peace with each other after individually facing unimaginable personal demons. The bravest girl in the world and the most powerful man in the world dance at a wedding in the series finale, but that’s only part of the story. Variety spoke to Lindelof about why Season 3 ended, as it did, with Nora and Kevin holding hands in a ramshackle Australian farmhouse.
I watched the finale a couple of hours ago and I think I’m still sort of wandering around in a state of euphoria.
Damon Lindelof: If you would’ve just stopped the sentence at “state of…” and then asked me to mad libs in the adjective, I wouldn’t have guessed “euphoria.” But it makes me very grateful.
What would you have guessed instead?
Oh, my god. “Confusion,” “shock,” “depression,” all of the above? It’s weird. It’s not a predictive thing because at least for me, speaking outside the wheelhouse of this show, when I watch the finale of something that I’m invested in or even just something that I have been watching for a number of years — but it isn’t like kind of an emotionally driven show but more of a plot- driven show — my feelings about it being the last one get very wrapped up in what it actually is, and it’s very rare we can separate the two. Let alone two hours afterwards! All this by way of saying, I will take “euphoria.” That is a beautiful thing to be experiencing.
The episode ends at a really beautiful moment. Surprisingly, what really hit me was Kevin telling Nora, “I believe you.” That sentence, in a show about belief, felt like such a period at the end of the sentence.
It’s really interesting you dialed into that. I completely agree. I think that “I believe you” is even a more powerful [phrase] than “I trust you.” It’s just like — I don’t know. They imply two entirely different ideas. I think that “believe” sometimes involves some level of magical thinking, or imaginative thinking. And “trust” is just this much more concrete idea — that you’re not going to do anything to hurt me, or I trust that you know what you’re doing. “I believe” seems to construe, like, there’s a faith-based element.
Sometimes we talk about these things ad nauseam in the room. And sometimes simple is better. I think Theroux’s performance … I mean [Coon] basically gives this incredible performance and talks for seven or eight minutes straight and then he gets to say two things. He just nailed it so hard.
Tell me a little bit about choosing what you did for the ending. You have eight episodes to finish the show and then you have Nora tell a story that is years long in the space of just a couple of minutes.
Well, it’s kind of where we started this year. I’ve talked, fairly ad nauseam, about when we were at the end of Season 2, not really knowing if we were going to get a third season, but at least kind of internally wanting one. I know that there were some people out there that were cool with ending it where it did. But I was sort of like, oh man, just because they’re smiling at each other in the house doesn’t mean that they’ve done the s—t they need to do yet to be okay.
Particularly Nora. I feel like Season 2 was really about Kevin’s journey. While “Lens” was a great episode for Nora, when she gets to the end of “Lens” after putting Erika Murphy (Regina King) on full blast, I’m not really like, oh now Nora is better. So, in many ways, what we sort of talking about for the third season is what does Kevin still need to do and what does Nora still need to do so that they can be together? Although that’s sort of a love-story construct, we wanted to make sure that it was really earned. And it very quickly evolved to the obvious — which was in order for Nora to be okay, she really had to directly confront this idea of letting go of her kids. Like, how do we build the story construct by which she can accomplish that? Before we answer that question, what’s the final scene of the series going to be for both of them?
For her, it felt like [the scene] was her basically telling the story of how she let go of her kids. We just started there, with that very simple idea, and then once we felt like, oh that is exactly what we’re going to do. There was some debate as to who she was initially telling the story to. Would it be too ominous if she was telling to Kevin? Should she be telling it to something else? But we very quickly evolved around to the idea that it should be him. And it felt like it was going to be in the future. Not the distant, distant future. But like, years had gone by. So that it felt like it was a saga or an odyssey of sorts.
Then there was a lot of conversation about whether or not to show her journey. We very unanimously settled in the idea of, we shouldn’t show it. She should just tell it. This season in particular has been about characters telling stories, to get back to the whole belief idea — kind of unbelievable stories. The story that Kevin, Sr. tells us is actually true. All those things happened. But his takeaway — the moral of the story — is, I’ve got to sing a song to stop the world from ending in a biblical flood. He’s just derived the wrong moral from this particular fable that he’s telling.
And it was like: We’ve got Carrie Coon. You have an actor of that caliber: Why in God’s name would you ever leave her face as she tells the story? So we understood that in making the series of decisions, that there may be some ambiguity about whether or not her story is true, because we’re not showing it. To be completely honest with you, there are certain elements of her story that are just completely and totally absurd and ridiculous. Like tracking down Dr. Van Eeghan [the unseen inventor of the LADR] and talking him into building a new machine.
So it’s sort of like: Is anyone going to believe this? Well Kevin is. Kevin is going to believe it. Whether he believes it believes it, or he knows that he needs to believe it because this is a construct by which they can be together — those two things are completely and totally inseparable and irrelevant. He does believe it. Once we locked in on that, then the entire season became basically a delivery mechanism to earn that scene.
How did wrapping up Laurie (Amy Brenneman)’s story, and Matt (Christopher Eccleston)’s story, tie in to that scene?
They certainly didn’t feel tangential. Particularly, I think, with the eight episodes. I’ll say, one of the lessons of “Lost” — not that — it really is apples and oranges in many ways, because they’re wildly different shows. One of them went for 121 hours, the other one for 28. The distance of the diving board is so high; it raises for every episode that you make in terms of the difficulty of the dive. That said, the “Lost” finale had to service like 18 characters. So it’s like, we’re going to end on Jack, but we’ve got to deal with Claire and Sawyer and Kate and Lapidus and Ben and Hurley and Locke and Desmond and Penny. Even characters who were dead already come back to be dealt with.
[With “The Leftovers,”] it was sort of like, every episode should be kind of a curtain call for the majority of these characters. So that the time we get to the end, we can really just focus on the last two actors on the stage. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be brief appearances. But when Matt and Laurie appear in the finale — and they’re the only series regulars who do — they’ve already taken their curtain call. Their stories are already complete. So as beautiful as Eccleston’s performance is in the beginning of the finale, it’s really in service of Nora. He’s getting a moment to talk about himself, of course. But his character has now shifted out of, this is the thing that I need to do for Matt Jamison. And now he’s basically like — when Nora says, “What are you going to tell people about what happened here?” His response is, “Whatever you want me to.” That’s a very evolved version of Matt.
Our hope was that all the characters are in a place, by the end of the season, where the audience feels like they changed, they shifted, they’re better. Sometimes that’s going to be a little bit messy, as life often is. It was important to us that when Matt’s leukemia comes back, that it was like he maybe a casualty of all this. His mortality may be the thing that finally gives him some real perspective.
So, if you believe Nora, this episode offers up the clearest idea of the mechanics of the Departure. I saw that Tom Perrotta also worked on this episode. Did you both develop this vision of what happened on October 14 before this episode?
Have you read the novel by any chance? It’s almost like the novel has a disclaimer, although it doesn’t literally, but it’s like very clear once you’re like 25 or 30 pages in — that it’s not going to answer where everybody went. It’s sort of like, this is a family drama and it’s three years later. It ends with Nora with the baby in her arms saying the same exact line and dialogue [that ends Season 1]: “Look what I found.” I felt both immensely emotionally satisfied and moved by [the novel,] but still surprised that even though I knew that it wasn’t telling me anything about the departure that he was still … it was an act of bravura to just never even address or to deal with it.
I met with Perrotta for the first time when he was interviewing writers. HBO bought the book, and myself and a couple of other showrunners were all vying to partner with Tom and do the show, so he was interviewing us. In my meeting with him, I said, I know you’ve been asked this a billion times, I’m sure — and he’s like, you want to know why the Guilty Remnant smokes. I was like, no, no, that makes complete sense to me! I want to know why — like if you know, don’t tell me — I just need to know if you know where everybody went and why. He said in the most kind and generous and authentically honest way: I got to be honest with you, man, I’ve never even thought about it. I’m just like, wow. If we do the show together, get prepared to ask that same question 11,000 times. He said, we’ll just tell people in the beginning that we’re never going to answer it. I said, yeah, but then they’ll ask like two weeks later: Are you sure? It’s a continuing TV series, not a novel that just ends. As long as there’s an episode that is coming up, there’s always the potential.
So that conversation happened, and he hired me anyway.
The second thing that happened while were shooting the pilot — Peter Berg was shooting the pilot, and we were in Nyack, N.Y., and it was on the fourth and fifth day of principal photography. My wife and son were actually visiting the set that day.
We were shooting the scene where the young mother — played by this actress, Natalie Gold, who just came back in episode six of this year as Laurie’s patient — where the baby disappears out of the back of her backseat, and then you see a little kid in a rolling shopping cart screaming for his dad. We were shooting that scene, and while we were shooting it — Perrotta wasn’t on the set at that moment in time — I said to Berg, hey I just had a really interesting idea. We’re only making the pilot. They haven’t picked it up for series yet. I ask, What if you just shot exactly the same scene from the baby’s point of view? So instead of drifting of the baby and going on to the mother, and then drifting back and seeing the car seat empty, we hold on the baby crying, and it keeps crying, and then we hear the mother’s cellphone conversation just abruptly cut off. And then you throw to the front of the car and she’s gone. Then we hear a man basically calling out for his son. Pete said, What does that mean? I said, It’s flipped. It’s just like, it just flipped. They’re occupying the same space but not with each other.
He was like, We don’t have time to do that. We’re losing light. But thanks for pitching that. [Laughs.] That was kind of the end of it. It wasn’t until we revisited the ending the series, when we brought in some fantastic new writers for Season 3, and I share this idea with Perrotta. Of course he was like, well I’m glad you didn’t do that, because we wouldn’t have used it. Once we started talking about Nora’s story — then I reminded Tom and told all the other writers what I just told you and they were like, I’d buy that. So that was the genesis of it.
I don’t know how intentional this was, but at the beginning of the episode when Nora calls Laurie, I thought that she was maybe, I don’t know, in heaven. I was sure Laurie had killed herself.
To be completely and totally transparent, when we wrote the episode — when Patrick [Somerville] and Carly [Wray] wrote episode six — Laurie was dead. The decision was, she is committing suicide, and when Amy Brenneman reached out and was like, Is she killing herself down there? My response to her was, I have to leave space for the possibility that she doesn’t but I’m 90 percent sure that she does.
I will tell you, Sonia, that that feeling when we made that decision — that didn’t feel good. It’s okay that it didn’t feel good, because — and it feels like a little precious because they’re fictional characters — but if the audience is having an emotional reaction to fictional characters dying, and particularly ones in tragic circumstances like suicide, the writers do too, because it was really upsetting. But then once we moved through the phase of upset that Laurie was gone, there was something that just didn’t feel right about it.
Then we got the dailies. Carl Franklin directed the episode of Brenneman going out on that ship kind of looking heroic and courageous and amazing. And then she did her side of the phone call when Tom and Jill called. And we kind of were like — if Laurie’s intention is to kill herself via scuba diving and make it look like an accident, why doesn’t she tell her kids that she’s in Australia about to go scuba diving? They’re going to hear that she died in a scuba diving accident minutes after they called her on the phone. Then it’s going to completely and totally undo the “elegance” — I’m putting quotation marks around “elegance” — of Nora’s pitch.
Then we just watched Amy’s performance. And it started to feel like when she went into the water, she didn’t know whether she was going to kill herself yet or not. Once she was in the water, it was a baptism of sorts. Laurie Garvey is just too courageous, and not selfish enough, to do it. Then once we actually started contemplating, what if she came up? What if she came up out of the water? then that feeling that we were all feeling, of something being not right, completely and totally lifted. And was replaced by a new feeling, which was — are people going to feel manipulated? Are they going to feel it’s a cop out? Are they going to have that feeling like but we should the car basically drive over the cliff with their hero in it, but at the beginning of the next episode, you see him jump out of the car, and you’re like oh, come on!
So we had all those conversations. But they were happening simultaneous to the idea that Nora needed to have a tether to the outside world for two reason — this is future Nora. Reason number one is when Kevin comes and does his shtick — when he knocks on the door and he’s like, you and I were never together. We met that one time in the hallway and I wished that I had asked you out — she needs to communicate to someone that that story makes no sense to her, or the audience is going to think all the things that you were thinking. And that was by design. Like, are we in some sort of alternate reality? Is it a dream space? We also wanted the audience to be going on the same journey as Nora, which is: She’s confused. She’s confused by Kevin’s behavior.
More importantly, then we got the other dailies in from episode six — where Nora gives the beach ball speech and then she hires Laurie to be her therapist. Brenneman just says “Same time next week.” I was like, Laurie has to be in future Nora’s strength. That just feels right. These two characters have basically formed this kind of bond. And as painful as it may be for Kevin, Laurie has not broken the confidentiality. She’s been helping Nora along this certain path, whatever that may be.
Then (executive producer) Tom Spezialy was like, look, I don’t want to diminish the finale, but it kind of has a rom-com structure — which is, someone is pretending to be something that they’re not, and then by the end of it they have to reveal their true self. Then there’s the big fight and then the people come together. But part of the rom com is there’s a best friend that they confide in. And it was like, that should be Laurie Garvey. All of that felt right to us. [The disorientation] is intentional, because you’re kind of not entirely sure what the f—k is going on — because when you cut from the LADR filling with water to the bird’s landing, your brain is saying, there’s two different possibilities here. One is we’re on the other side of wherever Nora went. Or we’re in the real world. We don’t know which, and now there’s a nun basically going to ask her if the name Kevin means anything to her. So does that mean Kevin came through the LADR after her, or does that mean she chickened out and never got into the LADR, or does that mean she went through the LADR and came back? I really don’t have my bearings. When Kevin shows up and he starts telling his story, which is leaving out key parts of their past, Nora is saying “What are you doing?” She’s just completely and totally at a loss.
Considering that, I would say, that the finale lacks a certain narrative drive — the intuition in doing all these beats for the first 15 minutes of old Nora is to get your heart racing, and to throw you for a loop, and to make you feel spinny — because those are all the emotions that Nora is experiencing. If we can get the audience to feel what Nora is feeling, then they’re going to go on the journey with her.
I was thinking, when the dance turned out to be a wedding, that classical comedies end with a wedding. Of course, with the torturous journey and the scapegoat, it’s about as comedic as “The Leftovers” could manage.
Maybe we’ll have a better chance at a Best Comedy Emmy, because drama is such a crowded field this year.
Yeah, you up against “Veep.”
Oh my god, and that show feels like a drama now, considering what the real world is.
“The Leftovers” has evolved a lot from the first season. It’s shifted and expanded. I know you’re waiting to see how people respond to the finale. But right now, looking back at these three seasons, how does it all feel?
The reality is, I’m super proud of where the show ended up. I think unlike my previous experience on “Lost,” which — I think it would have been irresponsible to work on that show without putting a tremendous amount of thought into where it was going to end or what we were headed towards or what the resolutions of various mysteries were going to be, all those things were built and baked into the premise. But for “The Leftovers” it was much more of a discovery process. I’ve heard other showrrunners — Vince Gilligan, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes say like, yeah, you know the show just reveals itself. It’s not for lack of planning. But that’s the fun part, is just discovering where the show itself wants to go, and taking its hand and guiding it there. “The Leftovers” felt much like that to me.
If you had told me … I think even at the end of Season 1, once we had exhausted the source material in Tom’s book. If you had said: The show is going to end in Australia, about 20 years in the future from where Season 1 ends, roughly, and like, you’re going to be doing an apocalypse that may or may not happen, and there’s going to be a boat from Tasmania to Melbourne where lots of people are having sex and a lion eats God. By the way, Kevin, your very sort of grounded cop character, is going to spend a fair amount of time both as an international assassin and the president of the United States. We’d done 10 episodes at that point. So like — that’s going to happen over the course of 18 episodes? I would have laughed in your face. No way.
Lo and behold, it did. I get to be the one who’s on the phone with you right now, and I get to be the one fortunate enough to have the title “showrunner” bestowed upon me, because we live in certainly a media culture and a fan culture that wants there to be an auteur, or some sort of specific vision. But the reality is — this is not just the way I feel and it’s not just for modesty, it’s just 1000 percent accurate — I am the coach of Team “Leftovers.” We have changed the players on that team over the course of the three years. Bringing Mimi Leder in, basically as our ace pitcher, midway through Season 1 kind of changed everything. Then over time Spezialy came on, between Seasons 1 and 2. Perrotta, who has been in the room very consistently throughout, had an enhanced creative role as time went on. And then we hired new writers in Season 2. We lost some of them because there was a layoff between seasons. And some even new writers on season three.
I feel like we were always getting fresh ideas and fresh perspectives. It’s good to always bring people into the writer’s room who haven’t been making the show — some people who have been watching the show. Because you’d say — we talk about the show and I’d be like, oh you’re watching an entirely different show than we thought that we were making, but I want to make your version of the show. Then you start to realize that the show has a much higher bandwidth for invention and surprise.
I was very depressed when we’re making the first season of the show. First seasons of television are really hard, but I was still really — I was missing Carlton [Cuse] who was my partner on [“Lost,”] and I was lonely and isolated. We were making a show about some very intense subject matter. I was just not in the happiest of places. But then as Seasons 2 and 3 came into existence, I started listening to those incredible collaborators around me. Started watching the amazing actors. And then the idea that the show had a capability of humor — I wouldn’t say, like, broad “Big Bang” style humor. but this sort of more absurdist, ridiculous humor that could make you kind of laugh out loud in one scene and choke back tears in the next. It actually made the emotional power of the show even stronger, because now it wasn’t just the same note over and over again.
So, it’s been an incredible journey. I just got back from New York. I was there with Tom and Mimi and Justin and Carrie and Amy and Scott Glenn. Perrotta and I essentially turned in our draft of the pilot, like, four years ago this month. It’s been an incredible experience… I’m so glad that it’s ending. People keep saying it must be bittersweet. And I’m like: Is it arrogant to say I’m not experiencing the bitter part at all? It just feels like it’s ending at exactly the right time.