You Had Me at Departure: Damon Lindelof Talks Love, Evolution and Feminism in The LeftoversBen King/HBO TV Features The Leftovers
Far too often, both in fiction and in real life, people arrive at what they believe is love before they’ve earned it. That’s unfortunate, because the earning—well, that’s where all of the interesting stuff happens. In our society, love may be a mere romantic notion, but I’d argue that the act(s) of earning love consist of few of those things we associate with the emotion. Ask any mother: Love is dirty, busy, exhausting and devastating. Ask Frank Ocean: It’s a bad religion, often a one-man cult. Ask any character on The Leftovers: It could take a lifetime, or several, before you truly earn the love you think you deserve. Far too often, love is presented, instead, as that thing invented by men like Don Draper to sell nylons to women. So if you’d asked me to describe The Leftovers before its third and final season, the last thing that would come to mind is love, of the romantic sort. The whole time we were watching, thinking about religion and grief and loss, The Leftovers was crafting one of the greatest “love” stories of all time—and co-creator Damon Lindelof (pictured above left, with Tom Perrotta) isn’t ashamed to admit it.
“There’s a lot of other things going on, about beliefs and apocalypses, but I think when you boil it down, great storytelling—even the great religious texts, including the Old and New Testaments, or the Quran—leans very heavily on the idea of love,” he says. Lindelof knows that when I describe the show as a “love story” (particularly after bearing witness to that glorious series finale), I don’t mean it in the reductive way that the word, unfortunately, might signify. I mean it in the complex way that The Leftovers means it; I mean it in that way where love remains indefinable, as difficult to pin down and interpret as scripture. I mean it in that Toni Morrison way, where love is “divine only and difficult always,” where “love is never any better than the lover”—and, in fact, the notion of people loving only as they are, and never being able to love better than that, is perfectly captured in the relationship between Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst and Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey.
As Lindelof explains, love isn’t a word that has an empirical meaning. Thus, “Two people [like Nora and Kevin] saying ‘I love you’ to each other aren’t necessarily saying the same thing.” In a show that’s already concerned with grand questions of interpretation, because an unimaginably devastating event has taken place and (according to most of our characters) either God, or man, or nature, or none of the above are responsible (but either way it must mean something), the interpretation of love becomes just as fascinating as the interpretation of God’s word. The Leftovers leaves behind many legacies in its wake as one of the greatest dramas of all time, but it’s no small thing to say that the series has changed the very notion of a love story for both TV and film. Because the show gave its characters the space and time often necessary to earn love, and because we watched Nora and Kevin do the immense work of earning each other (by becoming themselves first), The Leftovers itself earned what was, for all intents and purposes, its own happily ever after.
”[Executive producer] Tom Spezialy called the finale a rom-com,” Lindelof says. He thought his producing partner was joking at first, but then it became clear that they were indeed working with the bones of almost every romantic comedy made: Kevin is looking for love (or, he goes to see about a girl), and so has to pretend to be something he’s not. There’s a wedding, there’s a romantic dance, there’s a misunderstanding. We even have Nora calling Amy Brenneman’s Laurie (the “best friend” type) for advice about the boy.
“The more he talked about it,” Lindelof says, “the more I kinda started to lean into it. That was the show telling us what it wanted to be.”
Lindelof’s ability to lean into an idea that initially seemed laughable is not unlike his ability to step away from his own material. Just as he was willing to let the show tell him what it wanted to be, he prides himself on taking a hands-off approach with his cast. And the results have been astounding.
“The greatest managerial tactic I employ working with all the actors, but specifically Justin and Carrie, was to be kinda laissez faire about it.” We talk about one of the most memorable lines in the penultimate episode, where Kevin (the most powerful man in the world) and Kevin (his identical twin brother) stare deep into each other’s eyes before one of them declares, “We fucked up with Nora.” The declaration sounds as important as a dying prophet’s final words on the cross. And Lindelof says it might not have sounded that way, if he’d been more involved.
“You just trust each other,” he says, speaking of both his relationship to the actors, and with director and executive producer Mimi Leder. “I’m not a writer/producer who wants to be on set. I want to have the same level of surprise that you do, when it comes back into the editing room. So I had almost the same reaction as you when Kevin said what he said, and I knew it was coming. I think it’s because I didn’t try to control the material. I allowed Justin to interpret it in a way that was meaningful for Justin, and then he brings Kevin to life.”
Lindelof can’t say enough about the countless times members of his cast have impressed him with their interpretations of the script, and he heaps praise upon Amy Brenneman, who gave brilliant turns in this season’s “Certified,” and Season Two’s “Off Ramp.”
Brenneman is, of course, not alone in her capabilities. Many of us have been obsessed with Nora Durst since Season One’s “Guest,” (lest we forget the most romantic pick-up line in all of TV: “Oh, fuck your daughter!”), and the decision to end the series with “The Book of Nora” felt like another one of those divinely inspired choices on the part of Lindelof and his team. Then again, it also made sense because who else but Nora could take us over to the other side—from a place where we lost some of them to the place where they lost all of us?
“She’s a character built on the foundation of, she hates bullshit,” Lindelof says. “She needs to live in a place where things are true and honest. For her to tell the story of where the Departed people went, she’s gained a reputation for real voracity at this point. We did want people to believe the story—more importantly, we wanted Kevin to believe the story. If he doesn’t say, ‘I believe you,’ and it’s not authentic, and the audience doesn’t believe him, then all is lost.”
Lindelof adds that, in that final scene, it doesn’t technically matter whether the audience believes Nora made it to the other side or not: “They need to believe that Kevin does—or they need to believe that Kevin needs to believe it, so much that he doesn’t care whether it’s true or not, because her story is a way for them to be together.”
What seems to have shocked Lindelof the most is that Coon never once asked him about Nora’s story.
“Carrie and I never had the conversation that the audience is now having: ‘Is it even true?’ You would think that the actor might ask that question, right?! The actors are, almost, in many ways, channeling an entirely different show from the one I’m writing, and that allows me to be a fan of it. Normally, I hate everything that I write, and they’ve allowed me the ability to love it again, because of their interpretation of the material.”
And perhaps these multiple interpretations are the reason The Leftovers can feel like several different shows at once. This season brought on an episode I never knew I wanted—a buddy comedy that took place in a van, starring Nora and Laurie (with Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison in a great guest spot). Not only did it give us some incredibly funny and powerful scenes, it highlighted the show’s distinctive ability to present female characters as creatures who are as complex, intense and compulsively watchable as their male counterparts.
“We went out of our way in episode six to try to pass the Bechdel test with them,” Lindelof explains. “And then in their one conversation in the finale, we were like, ‘It’s gonna fail the Bechdel test in almost every single line of dialogue,’ because all they’re talking about is Kevin. But let’s make Kevin a construct, and use him as a proxy for them to talk about all these other things.”
Nora and Laurie’s phone call reflects the rest of the finale, both embracing and subverting the rom-com it wants to be. Yes, Nora is technically calling to ask if she should go to the dance with Kevin; but she’s also, really, asking if she’s allowed to let her Mapleton/Jarden past become apart of this new life she’s built for herself in Australia. She’s asking if she’s allowed to be happy in a way that she thought she’d firmly decided not to be.
“Laurie is a therapist, she’s a fixer at this point. So we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an episode like In Treatment where Laurie Garvey has two sessions—primarily Nora and Kevin?’ And instead of saying to both of them, ‘You two should be together, you two should make up,’ she actually allows them to go down their respective and separate paths. And that allowance—Laurie’s generousness—is what ultimately puts them in a position to be together, many, many, many years later.”
Nora and Laurie’s is indeed a beautiful, odd relationship, but feminist TV doesn’t have to be about bonding and healing. The Guilty Remnant, in fact, may represent feminist TV at its finest (and, perhaps, most terrifying). They are the “villains,” they haunt, they steal, they make people remember (and one of them is even a rapist). And I’m not ashamed to say that it meant the world to me when Evie joined them in Season Two—so rarely do I get to see a black girl play one of the bad guys. Lindelof knows that such a great balance wouldn’t have been possible, if there weren’t women running the show, behind the camera.
“We basically designed a matriarchal system for how the show is made and produced. [Director and executive producer] Mimi Leder, and half of our writers room, all three years, we’ve had a good 50/50 gender balance.
The Guilty Remnant is a matriarchal society. In Season One, it’s run by Patti Levin [Ann Dowd], Laurie is her number two and steps into the vacuum when Patti dies, and then Meg [Liv Tyler] is this sort of rising force of chaotic terrorism who basically wants to spin out her own movement.”
If you watch the show, it always made sense—it seemed natural, in fact—that the GR consisted of so many women in positions of power. But Lindelof points out how rare it is to see such characters portrayed by women.
“Traditionally, the big bad, or the terrorist organization, or the people who are trying to kill James Bond are always dudes with accents. It always made sense to me that the GR was led by women, because it would be scarier for women to say, ‘There is no family,’ than for men to say it. At least as it’s depicted in literature, and stage and screen, men already have one foot out the door anyway. So many people said about Tom [Perotta]’s book, ‘I don’t understand how Laurie could leave her family.’ And nobody would have been saying that if she was a man. That was an idea that I really wanted to unpack and explore—and to have women and men come into complex conversations about the Departure.”
And of course, those conversations between characters on the show have informed our own conversations as critics and fans. I doubt we’ll ever stop talking about The Leftovers, in part because, as many questions were answered in the finale, so many of the greater mysteries remained in place.
“For me, one of the most profound moments in all three seasons,” Lindelof says, “is when John Murphy, exquisitely played by Kevin Carroll, says to Kevin Garvey, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening.’ He said it in this way that was existential. When I saw Kevin’s performance I wept for like 45 minutes, because I don’t understand what’s happening either. That is humanity, That is what The Leftovers is—all these characters are pretending they know what’s happening, but no one knows.”
But Lindelof also says there’s one thing we can all be clear about as we continue to wrestle with the great themes of the show: The Guilty Remnant (badass as they were, and Lindelof does refer to them as “our Gus Fring”) lost.
“For us, it was about demonstrating that, at the end of the day, reconnecting in the face of unspeakable loss, both existential and otherwise, could best be personified by this idea of love. Love is almost unavoidable in a show that wants to take on empathy, compassion and vulnerability.
It’s overly simplistic to say love conquers all. That said, doesn’t it?”
He laughs, but I know that he means it. And after everything that happened, The Leftovers deserves to say “love conquers all” more than other drama ever has. But there’s a lesson here, and it’s that a happy ending doesn’t signify the end of questions, or the end of growth. These characters we’ve come to love, loathe, fear and admire have taught us that multiple lives can be lived in a single existence (hi, Matt Jamison). And Lindelof, as a creator and storyteller, is happy to admit that he still doesn’t know what it all means. Like the rest of us, he’s still unpacking what it means to be a fan of The Leftovers.
“I’ve made certain discoveries about myself through exploring Kevin. The journey that we traveled with him from, not just the pilot, but in episode nine, which flashes back to the day before the departure—he’s a guy who isn’t here. He isn’t present, he’s wandering, he’s questioning. I’m trying to be more present. I’m trying to listen more. That’s the lesson that Matt Jamison learned. I’m trying not to occupy myself too much with searching for answers, and just let life wash over me.
You know a lot of my writing has been trying to pack the mystery, and at this moment in time I haven’t solved any of the mysteries. But I’m more comfortable with not solving them than ever before, and I think that will hopefully unlock a different facet of my storytelling as I move into whatever the next phase is.”
Take your time, Lindelof. We’re all still over here trying to figure out what happened on June 4, 2017, and how we cynical Leftovers fans could be craving the one thing we thought we’d given up on long ago: a real, live, “you had me at hello” love story.
So, no. I’m not crying because a bunch of birds trained to fly home finally flew home at the exact moment when two long lost lovers reconnected, one having told an epic tale of adventure and self-discovery, and the other promising never to abandon her in a hotel room again, and what about when Nora saved the goat bearing all our sins and took the beads from around his neck to carry the burden? I’m not crying at all that. You are.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.