Damon Lindelof Explains 'The Leftovers' Opening Scene

What does it all mean? And who are these new people? Lindelof breaks down the HBO drama's season two premiere.
Photo by Annie I. Bang /Invision/AP
Damon Lindelof

[Warning: This article contains spoilers from "Axis Mundi," the first episode of the second season of The Leftovers.]

The Leftovers made its season two debut Sunday — and with few familiar faces in tow.

In fact, the opening scene of the HBO drama, which examines a world in which two percent of the population has mysteriously vanished in a Rapture-like event, featured actors and a storyline likely never to be revisited in the series. The ten-minute sequence played like a short film ahead of the episode, and centered on a nomadic woman in prehistoric times who suffers a fatal snake bite by way of protecting her newborn baby. When the child is later rescued by a fellow female hunter-gatherer, viewers are left to assume that the cycle only continues.

If kicking off the second season of the series in such a foreign and unexpected way wasn't enough of a risk, the show then transitioned into its usual narrative — but with none of its regular characters at play. Instead, the episode stars an unknown family, the Murphys, who are introduced in a new city (Jarden, Texas, a "miracle" town that was spared from the "Sudden Departure"). The Garveys — a newly formed unit comprised of leading man Justin Theroux, his new onscreen lover, Carrie Coon, and daughter, Margaret Qualley — don't appear until the final minutes of the installment.

But all the narrative gambles were part of a carefully designed plan, masterminded by co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, intended to establish the themes of the series moving forward, with Lindelof likening it to an orchestral overture. The hourlong opener also marked the first episode not taken from the pages of Perrotta's novel, which served as the source material for season one. It's a bold move for a showrunner as openly anxious about disappointing his audience as Lindelof is, and the former Lost creator acknowledges that it might not please everyone.

"The way that I'm wired is I come up with an idea that is immensely exciting to me, and then I spend a lot of time trying to convince others that it’s exciting," Lindelof told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of season two's launch, admitting that he spends the next several months hoping that viewers will validate his opinion and love the idea as much as he does. "But then the same thing happens every time, which is that some people love it and some people hate it — and then I spend a tremendous amount of time being depressed and anxious about why the people that hated it, hated it... and then I do it all over again."

Below is the second part of THR's candid sit-down with Lindelof, where he discusses whether or not the Garveys will become supporting castmembers, why he has no plans to get back on Twitter any time soon and the rationale behind that cold open ("I love the idea of doing stuff that will make people say, 'I hate this, those pretentious f—s.'") 

What was your thought process behind that opening scene with that pregnant tribal woman?

I’m now going to talk about why I don’t want to talk about it. We talked about a number of different ways to start the second season of the show, but we talked a lot about thematically, what we wanted the season to be about. But also, what did we want the series to be about? We talked a lot about geography and a lot about meaning. We have this guy, Reza Aslan, who is a religious scholar and has written a number of amazing books on the origins of religions, consulting on the show. He was talking about these things called axis mundi, which is actually the title of the first episode, and then we started getting really pregnant (pardon the intentional pun) with this idea, [as if we] were basically tasked with creating a sort of overture to the season — like, this is what it sounds like when the orchestra is warming up and you’re getting a sense of all the things they’re going to play later but without entirely going for it. We thought, “What if there wasn’t a word of dialogue and the audience basically just has to affix meaning to it? Like, why did they put this here? What does it mean? Why is she pregnant? What’s up with the bird that she’s following? What’s that feather around her neck? Why earthquakes? What is their intention here?” It all started to connect into the story that we wanted to tell because I think it’s really interesting when people attach meaning to something.

What other examples of people affixing meaning to certain things were you inspired by?

Sometimes the Virgin Mary shows up on a piece of toast. We all laugh at that and say, “Well sooner or later, something like the Virgin Mary is going to show up on a piece of toast because there’s a lot of toast out there being made.” But it’s not a joke to the person who’s got the toast. Then, lo and behold, people start showing up at that person’s house and they are making pilgrimages to the toast, and now the toast in incased in lucite and people are paying money to see the toast. Then they’re wondering, “Why did the toast pop out of this toaster in this house? Why does the Virgin Mary want us to come here?” This is actually happening in the world. All of that stuff was basically swirling around in the opening of the show.

What other factors go into deciding to make a bold cold opening like that?

Even though it hurts when they say it, I love the idea of doing stuff that will make people say, “I hate this, those pretentious f—s. I’m turning off the TV right now and I’m done with The Leftovers.” I never want it to feel like it’s a gimmick, but the stuff that tends to make us excited as storytellers tends to sometimes be a little bit risky — and we didn’t do it for riskiness’ sake. Like I said, we talked about a number of different ways to open the season, and this was the way that was the most exciting to us. It also was executed with a large degree of intentionality. We understood going in that it was going to be difficult to pull off. I feel like we did, but I’m sure that the audience is going to have an entirely different opinion. Also, what’s the weight that they give to the first eight or nine minutes of the show versus the show as a whole? Because to me, it’s almost like the riskier idea was doing a season premiere where the stars of the previous season are only in it for six minutes. But if people are talking about the opening of the show more than they’re talking about that, then maybe we unintentionally and successfully Trojan-horsed the riskier idea.

How’d you pitch season two to HBO network execs?

When we went in and talked to Michael Lombardo, Michael Ellenberg and Francesca Orsi, and we pitched a version of the premiere episode. We said, “We’re going to start in this new place from the point of view of a family we’ve never met before. Oh and just so you know, the Garveys are barely going to be in it.” That was the scariest version [we could pitch them]. That was us walking into the room completely naked. But why hide it? If they’re interested in that, then they’re probably going to be interested in what we want to do this year — and if they’re not, we get that. One of my favorite shows is The Wire, and in its second season it did something very similar, which is, “Whatever you liked or didn’t like about the first season of this show, we’re going to be on the docks this year.”

Obviously, HBO took the bait, but surely they had a few questions.

They asked us if the Garveys were still going to be central to the show, or if they would become supporting characters. Like, “Is this episode you’re pitching indicative of what the show’s going to be now?” They actually said they were fine with it either way. I will say this about HBO: what everyone says about them is true. They will kick the tires of any idea that you have. They want to test how sure you are that your gut says that’s the thing to do, but they never say, “Don’t do this.” They say, “We’re just asking the question here. Explain this to us. Talk us through it.” But they were very responsive to the idea in general. And we did tell them, “Look, the world is expanding a little bit. It’s growing a little bit, and this is the kind of story we want to tell about family. This is what the Murphys represent.” We think that they’re really interesting characters, but the season is really going to be about how these two families relate to one another, versus two families that live next door to each other but don’t really have any affect on each others’ lives. They become intimately entwined. By the end of the first two episodes, I think you understand how entwined they’re going to be.

So, how much will the season focus on each family?

The design is that the season is really about the Garveys and the Murphys. In a lot of ways, it’s not about centrality. I think we still do view the show largely as an ensemble, but you could argue that we spent two hours of the ten hours of the first season of the show — that’s significant, that’s 20% of the show — focused on characters who are not Garveys (i.e. the Matt Jamison [Christopher Eccleston] episode and the Nora Durst [Carrie Coon] episode.) And they weren’t any less compelling. It’s all about how those characters connect into the larger story. I said to HBO, “It’s important for you guys to know that the Murphys are not there to service the Garveys. It’s almost the other way around, and Patti [Ann Dowd] actually has a line in the second episode, where she says to Kevin, “I’m not sure whether they’re a part of your story or you’re a part of theirs.” That’s as meta as the show will ever get. I kind of articulated a similar idea to HBO. By the season’s end, you’re not going to go, “The Garveys were the central figure, or the Murphys were the central figure.” You’re going to go, “These two families are both hugely important in terms of the second season of this show.”

The Murphys are introduced as your average American family, yet there's something peculiar about them. What ideas did you want to convey through the new additions to the cast?

We wanted to represent the idea of a town where nobody departed in a family that was seemingly idyllic. The show is making the statement: The Sudden Departure messed everything up. But in parenthesis to that is: Everything was messed up before the Sudden Departure. So we did an episode last season called ‘The Garveys at Their Best,’ which takes place in the days before the Sudden Departure, and things are very messed up. Then the Sudden Departure happens and it became an excuse to behave badly. So if there was a town where the Sudden Departure never happened, three-and-a-half years after it these people would still be kind of going through the motions, and/or maybe pretending.

What does “going through the motions” look like, at least in terms of the Murphys?

I think that every member of every family keeps secrets from each other. Sometimes they do that for malevolent reasons and sometimes they do it because they believe they’re protecting their family members, but there’s tragedy and there’s grief and there’s complications inherent in every family. The Murphys basically became a way of expressing this larger idea of, “Look at these people, they’re happy. They joke, they laugh — this is what it looks like in a place where the Departure never happened.” But then I think as the show goes on, you’re like, “Oh, they’re a family. They have all the same things that every family has,” even absent the larger supernatural constructs of a world where two percent of the population disappeared. I also felt like as we built the Murphys as characters who want something. You come away from the premiere thinking, “I don’t entirely understand why John [Kevin Carroll] is doing what he’s doing, but I do understand that he wants something,” and the same is true of Erika [Regina King] and the same is true of Michael [Jovan Adepo], the same is true of Evie [Jasmin Savoy Brown] even.

When you set out to cast the family, did you look for actors who weren’t as recognizable as say, a Justin Theroux?

Well, I love Kevin Carroll as an actor, and what I love most about him is when he came in and auditioned, I was like, “Who’s this?” Finding an actor who is 40 years old who you’ve never seen before that is super talented, that’s hard to do. Most actors come in and you’re inheriting all the characters that they’ve played before, but Kevin’s work was primarily stage-wise. I felt that way when I saw Carrie. It was basically like, “Who is this?! Oh my God, this woman is amazing.” If someone is going to be the best player in the NBA, you probably knew that when they were in high school. It’s not like this 30 year old comes off the bench and is suddenly changing the fundamental game of basketball. Acting can do that. While Regina has been acting professionally for quite some time, she first got on my radar on Southland. It was basically like, “Here is this amazing actress. I’d love to work with her some day.” But I am familiar with her, whereas Kevin, I am completely and totally unfamiliar with — and that is exciting.

You’d been vocal about your internal struggle in terms of dealing with criticism of your work. Have you been reading reviews of The Leftovers?

Absolutely — and not just the good ones. I don’t read reviews of nonprofessionals anymore. Going on Twitter and reading everybody’s [thoughts] is not helpful because if you read ten things and nine of them are positive and one of them is hateful, the hateful one stays. It’s like I was just seeking out bad blood. I can acknowledge that my storytelling is divisive, but there was just no upside, as much as I loved being on Twitter.

So, no plans to get back on Twitter anytime soon?

No — only because I’m not strong enough, not because I don’t miss it. I miss connecting with a lot of the people whose feeds I subscribed to. It was just an immensely harmful — it was like going out into the freezing cold without a coat. But if you are a professional, if somehow you have risen to a point where someone is paying you to write reviews, then I feel like what you have to say about my show is worthwhile, even if I disagree with you. I think it’s irresponsible (for me personally — I’m not condemning what other people do) to ask you to watch my show but then not hear what you have to say about it. And what you have to say about it may change my opinion and it may not, but I also know that I can’t please all the people all the time. The most terrifying thing to me would be to write a show where 98% of the people who watched it loved it because then I would be terrified of losing them. I’ve had that happen, too.

The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.