Damon Lindelof on 'The Leftovers' Finale, Feeling Validated and Season Three

"If we get to do more, I’m going to try not to f— it up," says the showrunner.
Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers' Season 2 Finale  Van Redin/HBO

Damon Lindelof is done apologizing.

Or at least he’s trying to stop the Mea culpas — a goal made more feasible by the deluge of critics fawning over his HBO series The Leftovers, which concluded its second season Sunday night. For Lindelof, who has spent the half-decade since Lost went off the air explaining, defending and, often, apologizing for his work, the latest reception has been both thrilling and validating.  

“For me, the first season of The Leftovers was an intense, emotional struggle,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter, nodding to both the Lost aftermath and the pressures surrounding his follow-up. “In the second season of The Leftovers, I really feel like it kind of broke through and became its own thing. I stopped dwelling on the past and allowed myself to be in the present.”

Now the ever-candid writer/producer awaits word on a third season, a decision that's been complicated by the drama’s ratings, which are almost as bleak as the show itself. Viewership for the second-season drama, adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel, has plummeted nearly 60 percent from season one, with the series averaging 670k viewers this year.

“If the show had been on par with season one, I think we would definitely be proceeding,” says Lindelof, while acknowledging that conversations are taking place with HBO. "There’s a sense of, 'Where did everybody from season one go? Are they going to binge it? Are they coming back?’ … There’s all sorts of spin that you can attribute to it, but there is this mystifying aspect of, 'Well, if everyone says that the second season was better, then where did everybody go?'”

Following the finale, THR caught up with the showrunner to discuss why he purposely didn’t end on a cliffhanger, the scene he most regrets leaving on the cutting room floor and his plans for a third season: “If we get to do more,” he says, “I’m going to try not to f— it up.”

Before we begin, congratulations on the show’s WGA nomination for “International Assassin.” That has to feel pretty good.

Thanks. If you had told me when we were breaking that episode in the writers room that we would one day get a Writers Guild nomination for it, I would have laughed and/or fainted. It was definitely different and there were many times during the process where we almost abandoned the idea [of Justin Theroux’s character dying temporarily and journeying to the other side], but I’m glad we didn’t. It turned out awesome. And I was very pleasantly surprised [when I heard about the nomination]. As you know, the show doesn’t have a lot of people watching it, and there are just so many amazing television shows on. Now when someone says it’s an honor to be nominated, they’re actually telling the truth versus what it was ten years ago, which was bullshit.

Season one was well received among critics and fans, but there was still a lot to prove with the second season. Is the fact that it surpassed expectations at all vindication for you?

It just feels awesome and amazing. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Oh, but you know it’s going to go away again.” That’s certainly one way of looking at it. I’m just really trying to enjoy it and be in the moment. The validation is great. It’s not like we were able to execute the plan we put out there and then there was a tremendous amount of high-fiving, like, “Wait until everybody gets a load of this.” You just never know. Up until the moment that the premiere aired, I thought, “There are going to be people who just hate the cave woman sequence and there are going to be people who hate the fact that 85 percent of the first episode doesn’t have any of the characters that we told them to care about in the first season — but we really like this. We think that this is compelling storytelling and Kevin Carroll’s awesome and Jovan’s awesome and Regina’s awesome.” The fact that people embraced it was surprising — not because we didn’t hope that they would; it’s just that you just never know. So, the very short answer to your question is that it feels great and I don’t want to get off the roller coaster.

If HBO orders a third season, how would you try to and draw in more viewers somehow? Or is one of the perks of being on premium cable that you don’t have to worry about ratings (season two averaged 0.67 million weekly viewers)?

Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, “Hey, if I like it then f— all of y’all.” Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people [to watch my show.] That said, I also understand that the subject matter is really asking for a big investment from the audience. One of the things that we can all acknowledge is that there’s so much great television out there. People who will evangelize the show, they’ll be like, “Oh my god, you’ve got to watch The Leftovers. I cried like a baby last night.” The person they’re saying that to might think, “I’m not entirely sure I want to cry like a baby?” The show does ask for an intense emotional investment, and I have to acknowledge that. And I want to keep writing that show. To HBO’s and Warner Bros.’s credit, no one is asking me how can we make the show more accessible to people. I don’t know how you would even do that. I guess one way would be, like, to cast Matthew McConaughey in the show. “McConaughey joins Leftovers season three!” But then there’s the people who love The Leftovers and have been watching it for two seasons who would probably go, “I don’t know, man. I love Matthew McConaughey, but I don’t know. That feels exploitative. It feels like a ratings grab.” So, I wouldn’t know how to begin to make the show more accessible. If you have any ideas, I’m open to good ones. I’m whorish that way.

It’s interesting that you attribute the low ratings at least partially to the weighty subject matter of the show. Do you think most people just want feel-good TV?

The premise of the show is that two percent of the population of the world vanishes, and as opposed to saying we’re interested in solving that mystery and exploring that alt-history version of where those people went and why, the bread and butter of the show is: what is it like to be kind of left behind? How does it feel to be abandoned or left out? It’s in the title, even. (And I’m not taking credit for this — it’s in the DNA of Tom’s amazing novel.) Most of the people I know all identify with the kid who was picked last for the kickball team. It sort of taps into that idea. How was it that all of us were picked last? Maybe I’m only talking to writers who were not athletically endowed, but I think everybody feels like that. Recreating that feeling is just not something people want to dwell on. We have enough feelings of abandonment in our actual lives, so why would we want to watch a television show that’s about that when we could watch shows about people solving crimes and winning and being heroic and having fun and all the stuff that we like in TV.

Then why make a show as emotionally taxing as the The Leftovers?

A lot of the shows I’m drawn to ask a lot of me. They ask a lot of me emotionally and intellectually, and sometimes the characters do bad things that make me feel icky. For example, I’m rooting for Walter White. It’s kind of sick. I want him to lie to his wife because she’s going to ruin the show. It’s like, “Wait, that is f—ked up.” And then a show can basically balance itself with other parts that eventually suck you in, especially for the binge experience. But even with a show like The Leftovers, everyone I’ve talked to is like, “I tried to binge your show. I did two episodes back to back and I wanted to die, so I stopped.” I take that as a compliment. I don’t think that our show is a show that you should watch over the course of a weekend — not because I’m pretentious and precious about it; I just feel like that would be a very intense and emotional experience.

Do you feel like most shows are best consumed on a week-to-week basis? Are there instances where the binging model makes more sense?

There are some shows that I love to binge and there are some shows that I love to watch live because they are part of the cultural conversation. With a show like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, I watch them on Sunday — and Fargo on Monday — because with a lot of the media that I consume and the websites that I visit, I’m going to get spoiled unless I watch. And I really like engaging in the recappery of it all, whatever the debate is. I want to be a part of and privy to it, so I like watching the shows in that way. But the Netflix shows don’t give me any other choice but to binge them. I do like to watch them at my own pace, which tends to be, “I need the next one now.” My wife and I watched Kimmy Schmidt over the course of a week and a half because it was like, “Let’s just watch another one, just one.” I’m watching The Man in the High Castle that way now. I started it about five days ago and I’ll finish it at some point before the weekend. And Jessica Jones, same thing. It’s so tempting when the next one is right in front of you to not watch it.

Would you ever consider making a show for a platform that releases all episodes at once, like a Netflix or an Amazon?

I never say never to anything. For me, it’s become less about, “This is an Amazon show, this is a Netflix show, this is a Hulu show.” I love Transparent, I love Bloodline, I love Kimmy Schmidt. It doesn’t matter where it is. But I do think the sort of television storytelling that I like to do is episodic. I feel like that’s one of the things that allows, say, the scene between Nora (Carrie Coon) and Erika (Regina King) to be executed at such an amazingly high level. Episode six was designed to be a story about them — and at the end, Nora has this amazing conversation with Kevin (Justin Theroux). If right when that episode ends you immediately start watching the seventh episode, it doesn’t get the chance to breath at all. There is an artsy fartsy precious part of me that’s would prefer that these episodes breath a little. I just binged the first season of The Knick. There are episodes of that show that are very specifically episodes. There was one that essentially ended with this great moment where Clive Owen is learning how to ride a bike. When it finished, I was basically like, “I don’t want to watch the next one. I just want to be with that for a couple of days. What a beautiful ending for an episode.” But that’s just me. I’m not a doctor; I don’t get to prescribe what levels of The Leftovers are toxic for someone. But I like the old fashion way. I like to make episodes, and I think the anticipation and excitement surrounding them — the “I can’t watch the next one next,” the, “Let me talk to my friends about what I think is going to happen next,” and the, “Let’s all crowd source what we think the Yellow King means” — you can’t do that on a season of House of Cards or Bloodline. We’re not allowed. Imagine if Bloodline had aired week-to-week what the theories would have been about what happened to Danny. That would have been really exciting. That show lent itself to that sort of dissection.

Sure, and The Leftovers benefits from that sort of weekly analysis as well.

Again, I don’t want to be a snob and tell anybody how they should consume The Leftovers. I’m just relaying conversationally what people say to me who have. I get that it’s not a show that has a, “I can’t way to see what’s going to happen next” engine. Although, with the finale, I guess there’s a little bit of that energy of like, “How are they going to wrap this all up?” But it’s just not a show that ends with [cliffhangers.] Episode seven ending with Kevin’s death, that was as close to a cliffhanger as we’re going to come.

The season’s final scene was anything but a cliffhanger. When did you know that was how you wanted to wrap up season two and how exactly did you map out the arc of the season to make sure that you’d end up there?

When we first sat down and started talking about the second season — without openly stating it as directly as I’m about to — we were like, “Tom, if you were to write another novel that was the sequel to The Leftovers, how would you go about doing that? Because I want the second season to feel like another novel as opposed to the middle of a trilogy. What would the ending be?” We all started talking about the idea of one of the overriding themes of the season being, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And obviously Jill (Margaret Qualley) verbalizes that in the show, but shouldn’t the finale be like, we ran away from Mapleton, but then the exact same thing happened, like almost the exact same thing? We’ll dramatize what happened to the Garveys through the story of the Murphys. The whole idea that this place where no one departed is just as f—ed up as everywhere else, and that energy is basically that wall of Jericho breaking down. It’s not like the Garveys brought the Guilty Remnant to Jarden. In fact, we very clearly illustrate that Meg (Liv Tyler) and that story was in motion before the Garveys decided to move. But the Garveys get to bear witness to the same exact energies. We’ll change up some things — we don’t want the audience to feel like it’s redundant — but we do want to go out of our way to say that there’s a very purposeful mimicry in terms of the way that we’re designing this. It’s going to really feel and look the same — Kevin staggering through this town and coming home — but this time it’s broader. And I will give credit where credit is due: Tom pitched that scene. [He said,] “If we can design the finale so that Kevin basically comes home and we’re not sure if anybody’s going to be there this time but they’re all there and the moment that he has with Nora is exponentially larger than it was because last year it was Nora, Jill, and Kevin and the dog and now it’s everyone — if we can design things to earn that, then there will be a feeling of completeness.”

It almost felt like it could have been the end of the series. Fair?

I know a lot of showrunners or writers in my position will basically say that we had to design the season as if there weren’t going to be anymore. I want there to be more Leftovers, don’t get me wrong — but I want each season to feel like the seasons of The Wire, which felt complete. You told me this story about Amsterdam and it’s complete. You told me this story about the schools and it’s complete. I think that that’s the way seasons of The Leftovers are always going to feel. They’re never going to end on cliffhangers; they’re always going to end on some feeling like, “Yeah, I’m curious as to what happens next in Miracle or what happens next to the Garveys, but it does feel like we finished that story.”

Despite the risks you took in terms of revamping the show in season two, it managed to catch on in an entirely new way. Do you think you’d follow a similar model in season three and develop an entirely new story (albeit with familiar threads running through) or would you stick with the world you’ve created in Jarden?

Well, I have thought about where we would go in the third season, but just the very beginnings of ideas. Some of them we had to discuss in order to make the moves that we made in the finale in terms of not wanting to put our backs on the wall. We had to think about the ramifications of this thing or that thing, or even just Mary waking up, which is something that we knew we were going to do and we talked to Janel (Moloney) and Chris (Eccleston) about in terms of giving him specificity in terms of like, “I need to know, as Matt Jamison, do I believe that Mary woke up? When I get challenged on this idea, will I…?” Those sorts of things had to have real specificity about and once you do them, there’s going to be a lasting effect. If we did a third season of the show, I wouldn’t want it to feel gimmicky. And now the audience is like, “Oh, are they going to start the third season in the prehistoric times again or are we going to start with another family that again?” Whatever we do, I don’t want it to be gimmicky. That said, the sky’s the limit. The way we built the second season was Tom and myself went into a room with a bunch of incredibly talented writers and we started to bounce ideas off the wall and we started to get excited about some of them. I want to do the same thing again, but that hasn’t happened yet — it can’t happen until HBO says we want more.

I’m assuming those conversations have been happening, yes?

HBO has been immensely supportive about the creative, and all I can say is that we’re all talking. We all have to acknowledge the ratings. If the show had been on par with season one, I think we would definitely be proceeding. But I think there’s a sense of, “Where did everybody from season one go? Are they going to binge it. Are they coming back?” Because the ratings went down, there’s all sorts of spin that you can attribute to it, but there is this mystifying aspect of, “Well, if everyone says that the second season was better, then where did everybody go?”

Do you have any theories?

It’s like The Leftovers itself, maybe we’ll never know. It’s a little more than two percent unfortunately. [Laughs.] I think maybe the glass half-full take is that people are waiting to binge it — they want to watch it but they want to do so all in one chunk. The glass half empty is like, “I loved the first season but I just can’t take any more of that show. I just can’t take any more.”

Since you constructed most of the episodes this season from either an individual or group of characters’ distinct perspective(s). What kind of conversations did you have with each of the actors about that structure and what it’d mean for them? Particularly Liv Tyler, considering she was absent for most of the season.

Specific to Liv, everything actually worked out amazing because she had a baby this year. Her due date was right around the time we were going to start production. When she told me, she said, “Hey, I’m pregnant,” and I said, “Look, that’s actually going to make this conversation a lot easier because we’re not going to see Meg until the third episode of the show and she’s really only going to be in one big scene. It’s really going to make quite an impression and then we’re not going to see her again until the final couple episodes of the season.” We had been talking after the first season, and she was like, “Are you going to do for Meg what you’ve done for everybody else? Are we going to get some sense of what makes her tick?” And I was like, “That’s coming, and it’s going to be in the back half of the second season, so get ready for it.” I’m probably horribly wrong about this because I’m infamously bad at math, but if you basically did some measurement of screen time, I think Liv essentially got as much screen time as Margaret Qualley did this season but all fifty-five minutes of her screen time was concentrated in episode nine. And I also think we did Margaret a disservice — she’s an amazing actress and we didn’t get to do the great Jill episode this season. I did say to the actors on an ongoing basis, “Guys, one of my deepest regrets is that you get benched for a certain number of episodes.” But it’s all by design and I really feel like the reason we get to do episodes like “International Assassin” or “Lens” is because the audience is so ready and so hungry for a Justin episode or a Nora episode. Would you rather have three scenes of Nora in every episode or would you rather have a Nora episode? I just feel like the storytelling that works best for this show is the latter, and the actors do, too. Plus, they get to have lives. Once they have settled into the fact that that’s the way that this show works, I think they’re all on board with it.

What about the cutting room floor: were there major scenes you shot this season that never made it to air?

Other than just trimming some stuff down for time, the only thing that I really regret losing is a scene in episode seven, which was the episode where Kevin drinks the poison. There was probably close to ten minutes of footage that we shot of Jill. After she leaves the church where she has the fight with Michael (Jovan Adepo), she goes on a little adventure through Miracle. Margaret did amazing work, but the episode ended up being 74 minutes long. Also, every time we cut to Jill, it made Kevin’s psychological journey less fraught because we were able to take a breath from it. So when he eventually drank the poison, it was like, “I’m not entirely sure I’m feeling the anxiety that I want to be feeling because I felt relief every time I cut away from him.” It was again the show’s way of staying with one person, but we also really felt like we’d been neglecting Jill as a character and Margaret as an actress, so it was really excruciating to cut that, but we did. That’s the only thing that went away.

You’ve now had two different songs for the opening title music, with the Max Richter score in season one and Iris DeMent's "Let the Mystery Be" in season two. Would you consider changing the opener again in season three?

Everything is on the table. But then, is that the thing that we do now? The only reason we changed it this year was it felt like the opening title wasn’t accomplishing everything that we wanted it to. I kind of feel like the new opening does. I’m really in love with the title sequence and Iris’s music, but I also feel like the answer to your question is, first of all, can we afford it? Every time you change the opening title sequence, it’s costly. The other thing is don’t just do it to do it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I liked the title sequence the first year, but the minute that I said I wonder if we should change the title sequence, everyone said, “You should, you should.”

I love that Weeds basically did different cover versions of the same “Little Boxes” every year, and The Wire did the same thing where it was the same song but kind of like a different presentation of the song or a different artist. But any time that I feel like there’s an expectation, my default position is that I must subvert it. If now there’s an expectation that there’s going to be a new title sequence in season three, then I’m like, “No, we’re sticking with what we’ve got.” [Laughs.] But then ultimately, who knows? That would be like the greatest problem to have: what should we do about the title sequence in season three? Should there even be a title sequence? My two favorite title sequence are Fargo’s and Mr. Robot’s, and they don’t even have title sequences. Mr. Robot is like, “Where is the perfect placement for the Mr. Robot card?” You know, for the USA presents. And Fargo every week does that typewriter thing — “This is a true story, blah blah blah,” — and then but you don’t see any of the actor’s names or even who directed the episode. It’s much more cinematic. I think that that idea of what we think a title sequence is interesting. There’s a lot of experimentation happening now and that’s really exciting to me.

Since you’re so in tune with what people are writing about the show, have there been any specific criticisms of this season that have really irked you?

Truth be told, the criticism has really been curated for me. There’s a rabbit hole. I know that if I do a Google search on The Leftovers that that is not going to yield a positive result for me. That’s the reason I got off Twitter; I had a very destructive habit of seeking out what people were saying to balance the amazing life that I’m leading and it was just toxic. So now if someone says something nice about the show, one of the writers from the show will send me a link, or [my assistant] Kyle will say, “Do you know that this just happened?” I’ve been kept completely and totally safe.

And you prefer being insulated that way?

I feel like we, as writers, are feeling trepidation in terms of the risks that the show is taking. For example, an episode like “International Assassin” or even the one after that just being Meg-focused. We understand that there have to be people out there that are like, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” If you are taking risks repeatedly, sometimes those risks are going to work and sometimes they aren’t — and I have to be ok with that. I think every “criticism” that I’ve read of the show is like, “I’m not sure you handled Meg and Tom’s sexual relationship as well as I wish you had.” That’s fair, but the reality is that I’m glad we tried because when we first started talking about it, I was like, “You know, let’s not even get into this. This is just dangerous territory right now. Our show shouldn’t be dealing with that at all.” But then it’s like, “Let’s try it anyway. We understand that we’re not going to get it right for everyone, but there’s something interesting happening here. Let’s do it.” And I don’t ever want to shy away from getting out on the tightrope. There’s nothing that anyone could say to me about my work at this point that hasn’t been said. Once you call me a hack and say that I’ve ruined six years of your life and that I should have all writing implements taken away from me and that I’m as dangerous as a hacker and that hackers shouldn’t be allowed to have computers and I shouldn’t be allowed to use them, it’s all been said. It’s like, I’m a writer; I tell stories. I’m not a guy who’s ever committed mass genocide or has a reputation as being a misogynist or abuses animals — I’m just a writer. The vitriol though. I’m basically like, “What more can you say about my writing?” I’m not going anywhere.

You’ve also apologized publicly probably more than any other writer ever has. Vulture even wrote an entire article comparing you to Toby from The Office for that very reason. Do you agree with that characterization of yourself?

What’s hysterical about that piece is A) I just love the tone of it. But more importantly — and you can ask my wife about this — when we would watch The Office, I would be like, “God, poor Toby. F—ing, this poor guy.” I just totally felt for him and I really identify with him. I definitely feel like if you were to say, “Who are you on The Office?” I would be like, “I’m definitely Toby.” The fact that my photo is next to Paul Lieberstein in any context is just the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. And the article itself was kind of very sweetly defending me. At the very least, it had empathy for my position. I was immensely flattered and touched by it. I can only imagine what the pitch to the editors was on that one.

With the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and fans this season, I take it you don’t have anything you’d like to apologize for at the moment, right?

Let’s give them time. We live in a stick-the-landing culture. And now there’s expectations. We came into the second season with almost no expectations. So the idea that the show surpassed people’s expectations for what it could be was great, and now we’re beginning to inherit that thing that you have where it’s like, “Alright Mr. Robot, you changed the f—ing way we watched television in season one, so you better continue to change it.” We’re on that rollercoaster again. Over six years of Lost, there were many, many, many peaks and valleys, but the valley that is the deepest is the one that’s between the finale and the premiere because that’s the time people are like, “There’s no new show to talk about so let’s incessantly pick on what we have.” So there’s no part of me that’s feeling vindicated. It’s just an ongoing process. I’m really proud of the work. Again, I attribute the success of the second season to the people who worked on it. I know that I am a divisive figure and that the media wants to attribute some degree of authorship to me but this is so mine and Perotta’s show. He wrote the original text and he continues to work on it. The writers on the show and writer-producers are so actively engaged in what this thing became — Mimi Leder and Eugene Kelly in Texas. The actors — Carrie Coon protects Nora Durst like it’s her own child. I know that as an exec producer and showrunner I have to say, “Oh my god, this cast is so amazing.” But the correspondence I have with them is personal. If I could show you the emails that have gone forth between Ann Dowd and myself — the level at which she approaches and unpacks Patti Levin — it would blow your mind. The fact that I get to work with someone like that, I’m just blessed. And, you know, if we get to do more, I’m going to try not to f— it up. 

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