Damon Lindelof on 'The Leftovers' Final Season and the World Ending

"People are disappointed when the world doesn’t end on their watch," says the HBO drama's showrunner, who along with series co-creator Tom Perrotta talks with THR about this season's prominent theme.
Courtesy of HBO
Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon in HBO's 'The Leftovers'

Note: The following article contains spoilers from episode one of The Leftovers' third season. Proceed with caution.

When The Leftovers returned Sunday night for its final outing, it did so in familiar fashion.

The third season's debut episode kicked off with a standalone sequence, similar to how the HBO drama began its previous season. But in lieu of a cavewoman, this year's opening bit centered on a 19th Century Millerite (think: Quaker, which many would later become).

Viewers are quickly introduced to a woman who belongs to a religion that preaches that the second coming of Jesus Christ will take place on a very specific date in the 1800s. Each night, she climbs up to a rooftop and waits for her savior to come take her away. When night after night there's no sign of him, her family gives up hope. But she holds on, her faith unwavered. The sequence is all put into perspective when the camera pans from the woman — clad in white  — to the Guilty Remnant, a modern-day equivalent of sorts.

The scene hints at where the drama from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta is headed in its final eight-episode run. If last year's cavewoman sequence foreshadowed an emphasis on the meaning of geography and holy places (i.e. Miracle, Texas) in season two, expect an exploration of messianic figures — including ideas of belief, scripture and deliverance — in the third and final season.

"We just isolated this theme of, 'What is it about humans that make us want the world to end?'" says Lindelof of the beginning scene and direction of the season, which will entail a move from Texas to Australia. "Every subsequent generation has the audacity and the narcissism to believe the world is going to end while we’re alive. It’s happening right now! And then people are disappointed when the world doesn’t end on their watch."

Along with executive producer Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the first season of the series is based, Lindelof talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how the opening sequence ties in with the show's themes, what's ahead in the coming episodes and why we're all obsessed with the world ending on our watch.

Once again, you started off this season with a standalone sequence before you jumped back in with the characters in Miracle, Texas. What was your intent with that opening scene?

LINDELOF: We always try to step outside the show as storytellers and say, “What does the audience expect?” After what we did in season two, we thought that they’re probably going to expect something a little bit off the mark for the way that we start season three. But we can’t do the same thing again in terms of making it about geography. So what is it that we want to talk about this time? We just isolated this theme of, "What is it about humans that make us want the world to end?" Another thing that Reza told us about was when Jesus Christ died, in the time of Christ, everybody who was an early follower of Christ thought that the world was going to end in their lifetime. So this idea that Revelations wasn’t something that was going to happen 2,000 years later. It was going to happen while they’re alive. And then every subsequent generation has the audacity and the narcissism to believe the world is going to end while we’re alive. It’s happening right now! We’re actually like, “The world is going to end while I’m alive.” Oh, this 80-year period in recorded history is when the world is going to end? Congratulations. And then people are disappointed when the world doesn’t end on their watch.

PERROTTA: We read about the Millerites. It was the second great awakening in U.S. in the early 19th Century at this time of Shakers and Quakers and Mormons…

LINDELOF: …oh my!

PERROTTA: Yes, all sorts of religious activities happening. And one of them was a preacher named William Miller, who did all these elaborate biblical calculations and decided that on this day in 1844, the world is going to end. It really swept through what they call the burned-over district in upstate New York.

LINDELOF: And it spread to Adelaide, Australia.

PERROTTA: So it worked for us in a couple different ways. This was our version of an actual historical event where people gave away all their belongings and basically expressed their faith by expecting the rapture will happen now.

LINDELOF: And when the world didn’t end, he changed the date and they still went up on the roof tops. And so on, and so forth.

PERROTTA: And it still didn’t end and they became the Seventh-day Adventists. They did not give up their beliefs that the world was going to end.

How did you decide to tie it into the modern-day story you're telling about the Guilty Remnant?

LINDELOF: They all dressed in white and we started to realize that it’s not quite the origin of the Guilty Remnant but it’s the origin of the idea behind the Guilty Remnant — which is this whole idea of the world has ended, why bother? I’m giving away everything, I’m disconnecting. We wanted to tell a story about someone disconnecting from their family and what the effect of that is because I think that’s the overall narrative of the show. The same thing we did with the cavewoman was, how do we use this mythological construct to talk about family? This woman giving birth and then another woman basically taking that baby. As long as we were able to connect it back to that idea, and then we pivoted right off the Millerites to the sleeping forms of the Guilty Remnant — people who have just basically abandoned their families and then they suffer the consequences. They look up to the sky and they get deliverance. They get what they were waiting for. Just a matter of time before it bites your f—ing face off.

PERROTTA: We start with here are these people who thought they knew that the world was going to end and it didn’t and it’s heartbreaking. And then we go to our characters and there’s Matt Jamison [Christopher Eccleston] going, “You know, I don’t know if the world’s going to end or not but it just might.” And someone is writing, “13 Days To Go,” in the sky and you feel like, “Wow, we haven’t changed at all.” And the cavewoman thing was like that, too. That was another version of the Departure — she was left behind. There is something about The Leftovers that’s saying — contrary to our sense that we’re incredibly involved scientific beings who now know how to control the world — we are the cave woman, we are the Millerites.

LINDELOF: At least my dark read on Tom’s book and what we always try to infuse the show with is that the Departure makes sense to the world because they feel like they deserved it. I think that’s the core of any religion basically lapsing is, “You deserve this.” So this idea of, “Oh, I deserve what’s coming to me,” is why we all feel like the world is going to end — because we’re not good people and we deserve horrible things to happen to us. Every season is about exploring that idea and then releasing the characters from it temporarily. This season is no different, hopefully.

How would you tease the final season for viewers?

LINDELOF: Well, the flashpoint for the series has always been the Departure, the idea that two percent of the world’s population disappeared. The series starts three years after this event — but it felt like if that’s where the series started, it also feels like the series needs to end grappling with the same idea. When Tom did all this research about the Rapture, on which the Departure is based, he learned that there is supposedly a seven-year period of tribulation and judgment following the initial lifting, as it were. We thought it might be interesting to set the stage for the final season of the show in basically the two weeks leading up to the ending of this period of tribulation. So the seven-year anniversary is coming up, and it’s creating a lot of theorizing attention that potentially the world could be ending. We felt like we were in a unique scenario because the show is ending and normally if the characters are contemplating the end of the world in an Avengers movie, you know that the world is not going to end. I think that for The Leftovers, people are going to have the same level of anxiety as the characters because maybe we will end the world in the finale.

PERROTTA: The idea is the apocalypse could be produced by our desire for the apocalypse.

At what point did you know that this was how you’d end the series?

PERROTTA: It was really this year.

LINDELOF :We’ve approached the show one season at a time because we’re not exactly getting Game of Thrones numbers. [Laughs.] It was also that we had the novel in season one, so we knew exactly how season one was going to end. And we took a similar approach in season two: “Let’s just say we’re not going to get to make a season three. How do we make the story feel complete?” We designed it that way. There were things in season two where we were laying ground for the third season. I think we knew that if there was going to be a third season, we were going go to Australia and that we were going to be dealing with these kind of mythic ideas of potential messianic overtures. We also were like, “We might not get to do a season three.” The entire season two aired and then we still didn’t know. A couple of weeks went by and then HBO called and said we’d like there to be a third season, and we said, “Can this be the last one?”

Why did you want the third season to be the show’s last?

LINDELOF: It’s hard to go year-by-year. We thought, “Let’s do a definitive ending.” And HBO was like, “Sounds good to us.” So we got together in January of 2016 — me, Tom, Tom Spezialy, Patrick Somerville and Nick Cuse, just the holdovers from season two. We had a week of conversation about what the last scene was going to be. How do we want it to feel and what is it literally? We duped it out and then we finally arrived at something we thought was [really cool]. Then we started a full writers room and brought everybody up to speed, and they kind of kicked the tires of that and enhanced it even further. So we started with the ending and then we’re like, “Ok, let’s do the math. Now that we have what’s on the right side of the equal sign, let’s work on the math to earn it.”

What made you want to explore messianic themes?

PERROTTA: That came in pretty early but I think the thing about the show is it’s always operated on this big philosophical level and on this very earthbound personal level. What we were trying to figure out is what level do we want to end it on? Is there an ending that can serve both of those narrative levels of the show? We had also set the groundwork for the messianic part of it with Kevin [Justin Theroux].

LINDELOF: When we did [last year’s episode that saw Theroux’s character die and later come back to life] International Assassin, we were in a post-Jon Snow world at that point. We all watched Game of Thrones. We all knew that Jon Snow was going to come back to life. It was sort of like, “Are they even going talk about the fact that he’s been resurrected?” So I think we owe that because basically Kevin dies twice within the space of 24 hours and then the season ends. It’s sort of like we owe, what the ramifications of dying and coming back to life? Emotionally for him, but also the people around him. That’s just something that they’re not going to talk about. We were talking actively about how interesting it would be if in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, if Jerry was like, “Hey, Tom. Didn’t you just blow up?” The road runner says to the Coyote, “Didn’t you just fall off a cliff?” We knew we owed it so even coming out of season two, we were talking about Monty Python’s The Life of Brian — the idea that every prophet we hear about is like, “Hi, I’m a prophet! God is talking to me. Listen to me.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if that guy was like, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to be this.” And this idea of the reluctant messiah was also potentially as a source for comedy. I feel like International Assassin makes me laugh because of the way that Justin really doesn’t want to be in that episode and then he’s like, “Ok, now I’m in this episode.” He starts from this point of, “What is this? This is stupid,” to really emotional turmoil and having to push that little girl in the well. It was like, “That guy is going to really not want to be the messiah and so let’s play with that idea.”

PERROTTA: This was us in season three, understanding the show we had made. I do think there is some element of — it’s not just creating the show but it’s understanding the show you’ve created. The show is always based on this idea that the Departure is a fundamentally religious event and people respond to it in religious ways because they can’t understand that there’s no rational explanation for it. The Guilty Remnant was a version of a religion and Holy Wayne was a version of a religion and Miracle, Texas, is a version of a religion. But then you see in the first episode that people are starting to write scriptures. We were suddenly realizing that the show was much more literally about the birth of a religion involving our guy.

How much have you studied religion as research for the show?

LINDELOF: We have a consulting producer, Reza Aslan, who comes on at the beginning of every season and makes himself available for intricate Q&A’s. At the beginning of season two, he taught us about the birth of religion as in cave paintings. And we were like, “Let’s just do that!” This year, it was more about St. Paul and we talked a little bit about Muhammad and Islam. The Qaran story is much more interesting because when Muhammad first heard the words of Allah dictating the Qaran to him, he thought he was crazy — versus he just came down from the mountain and said, “Hey, I’m a prophet!” He went back up multiple times and there was nothing. That was a more rationale, human response. “I think I’m crazy.” But I think in season two we had already played Kevin questioning his sanity and that it would be much more interesting to kind of try something different this year. What Reza said that stuck the most was that at the time of Jesus Christ — because he wrote this book Zealot there were like 5,000 people on the planet climbing to be the Messiah but Jesus is the one who stuck. So we’re telling you Kevin Garvey’s story right now but there is, like, a million other people all over the earth right now who may be messianic — and we tell some of their stories later in the season because in the context of died-and-came-back-to-life-miracle, everybody is looking for meaning.

PERROTTA: And oddly, the character of Kevin come great lengths from the book where he’s just a nice guy who’s just trying to get everybody to go back to the way it was because it wasn’t so bad — you know, “Softball team!” — that actually, we’re back in that place in season three. He’s had this crazy experience and he’s like, “I’m a cop again, I really like my family. I want my normal life.” Except, there’s this draw of that other self that you see.

In the episode, we see Kevin put a plastic bag over his head — something we assume he does on regular basis. Is he dying and coming back to life each time or is he just coming as close as he can?

LINDELOF: That’s something that has context later in the season. Kevin is probably an atheist, or at the very least agnostic. But in a world where the sudden Departure happened, atheism doesn’t really work anymore. It’s this idea of, “I don’t believe in anything but then how do you explain how the Departure happened?” What he does know is that he had what amounts to a religious experience when he had this International Assassin experience and that he felt empowered and alive and emotionally connected and so I think that this idea that he’s flirting with — what you and I would say is suicidal behavior — is him wanting to visit that space again. Walk right up to the edge of it but then he maybe always chickens out. He’s engaging in activities in the first episode that would somewhat argue our suicidal behaviors. He’s told that a body of water has poison in it and he jumps right in. He puts a plastic bag over his head and goes right up to the point of unconsciousness. He doesn’t seem to be a guy who’s afraid of death. In fact, he is openly flirting with it. But if you asked him if he’s suicidal, he’d be like, “What? No, not at all. I’m fine.”

In all your research, have you talked to anyone who has had a near-death experience?

LINDELOF: We watched The OA. [Laughs.]

PERROTTA: I didn’t.

LINDELOF: I’ve never had a near-death experience, and we definitely did not research it beyond what’s out there. We talked about this movie Resurrection, this crazy Ellen Burstyn movie that they used to run on HBO on a loop about a woman who has this near-death experience. When she comes back, she has the ability to heal people. The Dead Zone is another from Stephen King. It tends to be: You die, you come back and now you have a second sight or a power. We talked in the sense that Kevin has no powers. We did talk about, what if Kevin can heal people? And we rejected it outright. His power is just that he has a beard now, which is not insignificant.

PERROTTA: Also, I think we weren’t so much thinking of it as a near-death experience as a shaman-like journey. One of the things Reza had talked about was almost universally in early religion, there’s this sense that certain people are empowered to move between the two worlds. A lot of times, that’s a very practical skill because the dead ancestors are full of wisdom so your job is to go over to the other side and get an answer.

LINDELOF: As we started, we did do a lot of research on the indigenous communities in Australia popularly known as the Aborigines. But that’s this idea of the dreamtime and creation myth. They make no differentiation in their cultural belief between the dreamtime and what we call the real world. The dreamtime is a space where the dead occupy but it’s not the land of the dead, so you can talk to your ancestors there, etc. So we were like, “That mythology feels perfectly right to basically be appropriated by a white man,” which [you’ll see more of in the] third episode. It’s all about what can I take that bolsters my belief system? And I’ll just reject everything that contradicts it.

PERROTTA: This again is like the two levels of The Leftovers. On the one hand, maybe Kevin’s involved in the shaman-like journey to the other side, or maybe he’s just having a Freudian, psychological battle where he’s got to get rid of Patti [Ann Dowd] and he’s got to exercise her ability to occupy his mind — that this whole thing is an elaborate dream narrative that he creates to allow him to psychologically move away from the insanity that’s Patti in his head. Its either a very personal instrumental thing or it’s some kind of cultural power that he’s achieved. Of course, it’s both. Its neither. But I think The Leftovers always works best when there’s two entirely different ways to interpret a story.

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