Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode eight of season two of “The Leftovers,” titled “International Assassin.”
The last time we saw Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), he was being dragged out of Virgil’s trailer by Michael, seemingly dead from a poison overdose. And this week, “The Leftovers” picked right back up where we left off. Creator Damon Lindelof had joked on “Talking Dead” that he had “no tolerance for ambiguity” — and indeed, “International Assassin” (penned by Lindelof and Nick Cuse) dove straight into solving the mystery of our leading man’s fate.
Kevin woke to find himself in a hotel that serves as a purgatory — where Virgil is the concierge and Patti Levin’s husband, Neil, is a hotel guest. (So, too, is Mary Jamison, whom Kevin glimpses in a long hallway shot as she’s getting a bouquet of balloons.) In this netherworld, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) is running for President, Gladys is her chief of staff, Holy Wayne works for the Secret Service — and Kevin’s only hope of escape is to assassinate her. He gets these instructions in a clandestine meeting with Virgil — who also warns him not to drink the water, lest he be trapped in Hotel Hell(ish) forever — as well as an exchange transmitted over the TV with his father, Kevin Sr., who tells him to “take her to the well.”
Our titular assassin succeeds at his first “Godfather”-inspired effort (the gun was hidden in the bathroom), but when he’s still trapped in Hotel Not-Quite-Hell, he realizes he has to follow his father’s plan. Turns out Patti — make that the inner child version of her, as Kevin sees her — is still roaming the halls with Neil, so Kevin takes her to Miracle’s famous well. (“It’s a conduit between the living and the spirit world,” reads the brochure, where visitors go to throw in “whatever they want to unburden themselves of.”)
But first he must pass yet another hurdle: a face-off with “The Leftovers'” version of the mythological ferryman Charon, ever at his post by the river Styx — the barrier between the dead and the living. “None of this real,” says Kevin, as he struggles to fight him off. Valid thought, indeed.
And then he has two heartbreaking exchanges: first with the child Patti, who asks if “she talks too much,” and then with the now-adult Patti, broken at the bottom of the well, who recounts her winning tour on “Jeopardy!” She’d gone on the game show in an effort to earn enough money to leave Neil — but ultimately lost her courage. “I’m scared, Kevin,” she confesses. Kevin kisses her, then holds her down in the water. Cue earthquake.
To quote Michael, who watches Kevin emerge from his grave back in modern-day Jarden: “Holy s–t.”
Was it all “real”? Or just another glimpse into Kevin’s fractured psyche? And did Kevin succeed in finally banishing his hallucinations of Patti? Variety talked with the episode’s director, Craig Zobel, about the challenges in reviving Kevin, Lindelof’s approach to the afterlife (“Lost”) and what’s next.
“The Leftovers” is the first time you’ve ever directed episodic television, and Lindelof hands you two pivotal episodes: “Lens” with that fantastic scene with Carrie Coon and Regina King, and tonight’s game-changer. Were you worried at all?
To some degree — especially with episode 8. With episode 6, I feel lucky because I was really proud of the episode. What we were trying to do was really cool. I wasn’t scared about that episode at all. It felt like in the universe of things I was confident in. But episode 8 is a pretty unique thing. It was definitely a little bit more of a, “Let’s take our time and make sure we get this right.”
How did you approach the script with Damon?
He was actively writing episode 8 when I was shooting 6. The general shape of the episode never changed, but I get in the sense in the writing room there were a lot of drafts, a lot of different ideas on how to handle this afterlife world. It was the third or fourth attempt at it by the time I even saw anything. I know it was important for him to get it right — (his attitude was) I know it’s going to be kind of scary, but we’re going to figure out how to make it great. That’s why I like Damon. He’s able to articulate what the show is about in a good way. It’s a show about loss, but really about the emotions that surround loss and how they’re different for different people and how that comes out differently. And he would get me more fired up. There were a lot of conversations about where we do need to hold the audience’s hand, where are they going to be ahead of us, where is it important to give more information. We had many conversations about understanding what would be the wrong way to do it, assuming the audience knew this, assuming they would understand this when they wouldn’t.
What was the most challenging part for you as the director?
For me, it was a struggle of, people will have just seen him die. At the beginning of this episode, they’re going to be trying to be figure out, is it all in his head? How much do we want everyone to know? I loved the idea of it’s going to be like a Bourne movie. No one’s ever asked me to do that before, but I can shoot one of those really well, and thank you for giving me that opportunity. Now, how we do make sure we hold that up so people aren’t like what is this and they’re on board with it? Damon had a really good sense of what he wanted and didn’t want to have happen. I kept referencing the Tom Twyker movie, “The International,” because it had a lot of glass and shooting up and down. And then at the end it changes and there’s this whole other series of events that are even more fantastical. I wanted to make sure that didn’t feel too jarring or weird.
It was also a standalone episode, working on an entirely new set.
It had a feeling of a one-off indie movie. It woke everyone up in a way. I thought everyone was invigorated and having a blast, including all the actors. Ann Dowd had a ton of fun getting to be essentially three different characters over the course of the episode: She’s the Patti that we’ve all known, she’s Patti the politician who’s running for President, and for a few brief moments, she’s the woman who is the double from south Boston. And Justin was having fun going between being Kevin Harvey and Kevin Garvey.
So let’s talk about the turn it takes at the end, and the blunt reference to Greek mythology as Kevin and Patti must cross the River Styx.
Really bluntly, with a real blunt mallet — but in a fun way. Yes, we’re going to cross the bridge again. There’s something in the script that said “cans of fire” and I said to Damon, “Should we just go 100% for that idea?” He said yes. I hope it plays and feels part of the same universe. By the end, we’re doing some weird stuff in that well, so we had to have some transition. I hope it works.
How was he able to leave the hotel? He seemed trapped there until that point.
I would wonder if he could have gotten in a car and done that until he knew he could that. You are trapped in the hotel until you decide to leave the hotel, and then you’re not trapped. There is some sense of him knowing that he had a purpose, and that purpose was leaving the hotel and to go and do something outside of it. Then the world opens up.
Is it also tied to not drinking the water? Other people seemed perfectly content to stay in the hotel.
It has to do with how long they’re there and whether or not they drank the water, and if they’ve assimilated to the universe of that world. He’s at a place where he was not prepared at all to be there. Everybody comes in realizing they’re in a strange place. If they drink water from that place, it will erase their memory of the real world. That’s how we handled Gladys and what happens with Virgil. The rules are malleable. I can’t tell you whether it’s real or whether something Kevin made up it in its head. It’s all part of a larger mythos.
And the bird made a comeback! At least, for a little while.
That was so great, especially coming out of episode 6. The bird had started in the beginning in the season, which I think had a lot of people had forgotten because it’s so bizarre and out of place — the fact that Regina goes back and digs up the bird box again. In episode 6, she tells the whole story about the bird. I thought that was the end of it. So it was fun to have this one tangent of that story that I got to deal with in episode 8. There’s some implication of maybe something more going on there.
We also got to see a glimpse of Mary Jamison in this world. That was telling.
That was a blast — Kevin seeing the guy delivering balloons to her. It felt like a political thriller. And it was fun to get work with Holy Wayne and Gladys, characters I love from season one, characters I assumed would never come back. They had a blast playing these other roles. Paterson (Joseph) was hilarious on set being Holy Wayne, a Secret Service agent.
Will we get to find out what the guy at the river whispered to Kevin?