As the third and final season of “The Leftovers” opens, it’s three years after Miracle, Texas was overrun by the Guilty Remnant, and Kevin Garvey (Theroux) has returned to his role as chief of police. Although he seems to have moved past the incredible events surrounding his “resurrection,” the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure is two weeks away — and many believe another apocalyptic event may come with it, including some of the series’ core characters. Eventually, their search for answers will take them to Australia, but the reasons why — well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
What were the biggest challenges to crafting the endgame of the show?
Lindelof: The biggest challenge was that a good ending reveals what the show is about all along, what the audience is supposed to care about and I think the key was what is a really simple ending? I think so many endings just get bigger and bigger and bigger and I’ve experienced this myself, the bigger an ending is, the more moving parts it has, the trickier it is, the harder it is to zero in on what the fundamental emotional idea is, and so we had to basically clear away all the brambles and say “what has this entire thing been about from the word go?” We’re in episode 28 now, how do we want to feel when this over? Who’s in the last scene? What are we supposed to care about?
How did you know eight episodes was the right number?
Lindelof: Because that’s all HBO would let us do. (Laughs.) We’re not in what I’d call a traditionally strong negotiating position. This show doesn’t get gargantuan ratings and we were starting to wrap our brains around the notion that we weren’t going to get any more episodes after the second season and then, mostly because of the critical response and the audience that stuck through it was so pleased at how the second season turned out, HBO said “Do you want to do more?” and we said “Only if the show is ending.” Because we feel closer to the end of the show than the beginning and we want to end the show. They had a window for eight episodes based on their scheduling matrix.
I know we’re years out from “Lost” – does that pressure about endings still weigh on you?
Lindelof: Sure. I mean, I have a slightly different narrative for the ending of “Lost” than the zeitgeist does. There was a short term narrative and a legacy narrative. I knew “The Leftovers” was going to be compared to “Lost” because I worked on both shows. I tried my best, though it came up emotionally and psychologically, to treat “The Leftovers” as its own entity and say this has nothing to do with the way “Lost” ended. I’ve grown and matured as a human being. I had a different set of writers and a different showrunning partner on “Lost.” Tom and I and the other Tom [Spezialy] are the head writers on “The Leftovers” and we have an entirely different group of talented writers. This is its own thing. If the narrative around the “Lost” ending was “it’s the greatest ending ever” that would’ve been terrifying because there’s no way to live up to it. I want “The Leftovers” ending to be evaluated on its own merits and not in comparison to “Lost.”
Did it change your approach?
Lindelof asks Perrotta what he thinks.
Perrotta: I don’t know if it changed Damon’s approach. I think we were trying to deal with the show on our own terms which were very different terms. Damon often talks about this. I think we put ourselves in an interesting position by basically telling viewers over and over again “don’t expect to get this big question answered. Understand that this show is about something else.” And it really was a winnowing strategy. If you look at comments when a trailer gets posted, there’s still some idiot going “They’re never gonna tell us what happened!” And people go, “Hey idiot! They’re never gonna tell us what happened!”
Were there any questions you wanted answered in the final run, and did you answer them all?
Lindelof: That’s a much better question.
Perrotta: You asked before what the biggest challenge was, and I was thinking we had to decide who our essential characters were and what those essential questions would be and that was a challenge. You’ll see as the season goes, there are characters who were historically important to the show and their stories aren’t fleshed out and some other characters are. We created this big ensemble with a lot of characters and incredible actors. We didn’t have a kind of ability to follow everybody everywhere.
Did you answer the questions you wanted to answer?
Perrotta and Lindelof: Absolutely.
Lindelof: I think you can never anticipate what the audience’s bar for satisfaction is. One of the things we learned from the first season was the way that season ended was satisfying even though we hadn’t answered some of the larger mysteries: did Holy Wayne really have powers? Was it a coincidence that he died in the bathroom when Kevin saw him? What’s the origin of the GR? We didn’t answer any of those questions but at the end of the first season, the audience was like “We’re satisfied.” At the end of the second season, there were still major questions we didn’t answer: what was the series of events that led Evie and her friends to join the GR? And again, the larger mysteries of the show: is Kevin a mythical figure? How is it that he was buried in the ground and came up out of the ground? Season two ended and people were like, “I’m good” and many said they were good if the show had ended right there. So our feeling was like, if they were good where season two ended, everything we do in season three is gravy. But it’s probably the wrong approach to take. This show is just not about answering mysteries, “Lost” was and it was reasonable for the audience to expect answers to those mysteries because the construct of “Lost” episodes was a mystery construct. I just don’t think “The Leftovers” is about mysteries and if you’re watching it for the resolution of mysteries…
Actually, I’m not.
Lindelof: The nine people still watching “The Leftovers” are like “Hey, whatever I get, I’m cool with that.”
This show speaks to people on a personal level, especially when it comes to loss. There’s lot of extraordinary stuff for women in the show: Ann Dowd, Carrie Coon.
Lindelof: We have amazing women behind the camera, too – half our writers room is women. (Director) Mimi Leder is astonishing. Her praises are to be sung – she’s part of the heart and soul of the show. She’s a brilliant director. We wouldn’t be here without her, for sure.
How did you go about choosing the songs you used over the opening titles in season 3?
Lindelof: We have this idea – essentially, Tom and I loved the opening titles for season one but nobody else did. That was the dirge.
Perrotta: It was an extra layer of cheese on the pizza. You don’t need a dark opening for this show.
Lindelof: What we learned by the end of the first season was that this show functions best when it’s pretentious with a wink, and it’s not just pretentious. “Let the Mystery Be” was pretentious with a wink. The song was like “hey, this is almost like the disclaimer at the end of a car ad or a drug ad, like, it may make your bladder explode.” It had a wink. Coming into the third season, the audience is going to expect us to change up the opening titles again. We don’t have enough money to get a new sequence so what if every episode there’s just an overture? So we use the same image system but a new song. The “Perfect Strangers” song was the beginning of that idea of course. Those songs needed to be a bit of a wink, without being pretentious. By the time we got to the fifth episode (of season 3) we thought, does it have to be a song? Can it just be something else audibly? We have this French guy and when people figure out what he’s saying, it’ll give some context to the episode. And then so on and so forth. We started thinking about that song – it should be an overture. When you sit down in your seats, before the curtains part, what’s the thing that’s giving you a sense of the theme of the episode? The song we play, the Ray LaMontagne in episode four tells you this love is over, so you’re about to watch the collapse of a relationship. “Personal Jesus” is the third episode, which is obviously the way Senior sees himself but it’s much jazzier version of it.
How has writing this show changed you personally?
Perrotta: For me, I came into this an avowed realist. My writing here was like Balzac. To work with Damon, who completely expanded my sense of narrative possibilities, it’s been really great. In the middle of what’s become my longish writing career, I felt like I got my mind opened.
Lindelof: Other than the fact that I just feel like I’m older and potentially wiser, I feel like what’s transformed me is that I’ve gotten much better at listening. I tend to be intractable in my own head when I get passionate about something but as a result of surrounding myself with incredible partners and collaborators and just trusting, I don’t need to be on the set because Mimi’s got it. I don’t need to rewrite every scene because the writers have got it. I used to hear a great idea and think how can I reverse engineer this idea so I can think it was my idea? And now I can just be less dictatorial. The writers room starting functioning more like a jury room and less like a dictatorship. So many great ideas came from people other than me and my ego isn’t in the way anymore. When someone says “I love this,” I love to say “That was Tamara’s idea!” or “Ohmigod, Carly did that!” or “The final episode is all Perrotta.” I feel like I’m bragging about my kids. It’s all true.
Perrotta: The final episode was the best group effort. Everybody put a brick in that building.
Lindelof: I get that there’s an obsession with endings. Endings are important. Like “Breaking Bad” – nobody really talks about the finale. Everybody loves it. We talk about the show. Or like “The Wire” – we talk about the show. “The Sopranos” – all people talk about is the ending. The ending overwhelms the journey of getting there. “The Wire” –I remember there was a wait for McNulty, who was still alive. But I don’t remember anything else in that episode and “The Wire” is my favorite show ever. If you stick the landing on the ending like “Six Feet Under” did, it actually improves the legacy of the show, because it’s a great show and oh that finale. I just think for us, we had to put aside a little bit of the pressure that this was Game Seven and we have to win, and we just have to do something honest and authentic that feels “Leftovers.” I can say this: I don’t think people are going to expect what we do in the final episode but once they start watching it, it will feel inevitable. I feel like this is the right ending.
Perrotta: The aesthetic principle we applied was not to be predictable – the essence of “The Leftovers” is to be unpredictable.
Lindelof: I think what we can say is it takes place entirely in space. We shot it in zero gravity. (Perrotta laughs.) OK, we can’t say that. It’s not true.