Who knew that the greatest mystery of The Leftovers was hidden in a Rihanna song this whole time?
Since it premiered in 2014, the stunning HBO series has thrillingly explored themes of death, grief, mental illness, family, and religion. But The Leftovers series finale tonight revealed that, most of all, the show was about love, about reaching out into the darkness to touch something, someone. It was about finding love, one might say, in a hopeless place.
And that’s exactly what Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst (brought to life with devastating precision by Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon), do in the show’s deeply moving final episode. The world did not end, grand riddles were not solved. But in the aftermath of the almost-apocalypse, two people realized that the one thing they truly wanted was each other. It just took a lot of chaos and suffering to figure that out.
Damon Lindelof, the showrunner of this insane (and insanely beautiful) TV creation, talked to Quartz about the finale’s message, its ultimate legacy, and why it’s so hard to just “Let the Mystery Be.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How many people have you heard back from who have already seen the finale?
Outside of the envelope of people who work at HBO?
Yeah. Friends, journalists…
You are the fourth. But everybody’s been cagey about it. I understand you’re a professional, but I’m always going to be like, “What’d you think? Did you like it?” And it’s sort of like, I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position, but it feels like, people are asking really good questions. It doesn’t feel like they’re confused about what we were trying to do or they’re dissatisfied where we left things. But nobody’s been like, “I hated it,” or, “I loved it.”
Well then I won’t start. I thought it was really interesting. I’ve seen it twice now and I plan to watch it at least a few more times. It does seem like a lot to digest after just one viewing. Did you design it to be something that could live on and change with each viewing of it?
Yeah for sure. I think it’s arrogant, bordering on punishing, to say that in order to understand or appreciate The Leftovers, you can’t just watch it once. I do want people to have a visceral, emotional response to it the first time they see it. But the reality is, the show is very dense. And I acknowledge that, and I really like dense, rich storytelling. It shouldn’t be designed so that you need to watch it a couple of times to “get” it, but you should be rewarded for watching multiple times. You’re relieved of the anxiety of what’s going to happen the second time you see it.
But I also feel like there are nuances and lines of dialogue that aren’t left exactly as “Easter eggs,” but they are sort of like guides. I’m now re-reading all the Harry Potter books to my son that I read more or less a decade ago, and there are all these things that J.K. Rowling set up in the early books that I just didn’t appreciate at the time because I didn’t know how it ended yet. But I hope is that, not just with the finale, but that a re-watch of all The Leftovers is rewarding rather than punishing.
Speaking of re-watches, I’m re-watching Lost, and The Leftovers finale reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Lost, which was Locke telling Jack in the “White Rabbit” episode, “A leader can’t lead until he knows where he’s going.” And that got me thinking about Kevin’s journey in The Leftovers assassin Wonderland, and how he needed to find himself before he could really find what he was looking for. What I thought was so cool about the finale was that it almost subverted that theme. It’s Nora’s “White Rabbit” journey, and if you take what she tells Kevin at face value, that she went through the machine and found exactly what she thought she wanted—her departed children—she realizes they’re not exactly what she needed to find.
In many ways, the meta narrative of the series writ large, but certainly the third season, and the reason we opened the season the way that we did with the Millerites, is this idea of you’re not going to get what you think you want. And once you don’t get it, now what?
I’ve been talking a lot about The Wizard of Oz in the last couple of days, because it was imprinted on me in a real significant way in my childhood, but also because the ending should be so unsatisfying. Everything that the characters want, they’re told they had all along. And not only that, the person who’s supposedly the wizard, the “God” character, is a hoax. And then Dorothy wakes up and maybe it was all a dream. But nobody ever gives The Wizard of Oz a hard time for having a bad ending. It’s an amazing ending. So there must be some real authenticity to that idea.
It always sounds like a copout when someone says to you, “It’s about the journey, it’s not about the destination.” Bullshit. It’s about both. If the destination is lame, that definitely undercuts the journey that it took to get there. But the idea is that the characters have things that they think that they want, and then when they have an opportunity to get it, they realize, “Oh, now that I actually am on the cusp of achieving this thing that I wanted, I’m realizing, perhaps, it was camouflaging something else that I want.” So for Kevin and Nora, it’s been camouflaging that what they want is one another. But these other things have been inhibiting them from being together. Because they’re afraid, vulnerable, and attached to things that are no longer there.
As corny as it sounds, the truth is this has always been a story about connections. And on its most profound level, it’s about a love connection. The most profound connection you can have with someone else is not someone who’s part of your family. You’re born with that, you have no choice. But rather it’s someone that you choose. From that first moment [in the show’s first episode] when Nora gives her speech to the Heroes Day crowd and Kevin sort of takes her in, he realizes there’s something about this woman that’s going to help him need to get to where he needs to get. And it’s the same for her. But they both have a lot of work to do on themselves before they can be together.
I also watched Interstellar again a few weeks ago, and its central theme is essentially that love can transcend time and space. That’s not exactly what’s happening in The Leftovers, but my reading of the ending, when Kevin tells Nora that he just had this “feeling” that she was still alive, out there somewhere to be found, was that maybe he’s in denial because he fucked up with her and doesn’t want to admit that she’s out of his reach, but maybe he really does have some kind of cosmic connection with her that defies our understanding.
It’s a very romantic notion that he still felt like she was out there even though everyone told him that she was gone. He kept searching for her. Through a romantic lens, that’s a beautiful, wonderful, committed thing to do. But through another lens, it can be seen as obsessive or stalkerish. This idea that you can’t let go of someone.
What’s even more interesting is the way that Justin [Theroux] decided to play it. Technically speaking, you can give a speech like that on a bended knee with a ring box in your hand. Like, “I never gave up on us.” But he’s so angry. Even after he’s been the sweetest guy for the majority of the episode. So he’s like, “I just wanted to erase all this stuff but you wouldn’t let me erase it so, fine, you want to know how I actually found you?” There’s a justifiable anger there, especially at the end of his road of all this suffering, but all it takes is for her to invite him in for tea and it’s all gone.
It’s vastly complicated, this idea of love. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love is basically a part of a larger spectrum of emotions. Anyone who’s ever really experienced love understands that there’s also a lot of sadness and a lot of frustration. You have to take the package deal. It was important for us as storytellers from the writers to [director] Mimi Leder, who I think did an incredible job directing this finale, to the actors, to say that we have to show this whole spectrum. It can’t just be like, “everything’s going to be okay.” Hopefully the audience walks away from it thinking that these people are better off now than they were when we found them, but it’s still going to be tough. It’s not “and then they lived happily ever after.” I’m not sure that exists in the world of The Leftovers. Happily for awhile, maybe, and then sad for awhile, and then happily again. That’s more like it.
Their relationship makes me think a lot about the concept of “home,” which has been referenced on the show in myriad ways since the first season—in episode titles, in songs, in dialogue. What is your definition of “home”? Is it a place you go, is it a person you connect with, is it a feeling?
I think all of the above. For me, for the longest time, home was New Jersey, where I was raised. And then I moved out to Los Angeles and home still felt like it was New Jersey for like five years and then I started referring to LA as home when the majority of the people that I loved were living out there. But I’d still say, “I’m going home to Jersey.” So really I had multiple homes. I think it’s a feeling in your gut, like you’re the pin-drop, where you’re no longer searching externally. You’re fixed internally. That’s my idea of home, “I am where I belong now.” And when I’m feeling antsy or displaced or dissatisfied or needing to go searching for shit, that’s when I’m on vacation. Every once in awhile “home” gets shaken up by an earthquake, but hopefully it’s something you can always return to.
Do you think Kevin and Nora are finally “home” when the show ends?
Yes, absolutely. If we hadn’t used “You’re home” at the end of season two, we could have just as easily used it now. But I think that “You’re here” and “I’m here” [the last dialogue of the series] is an even more direct manifestation of home. Because “here” is both a geographic and an emotional place.
Was that scene written before the rest of the season? I read that you had first thought of the show’s final image, and then figured out how to get to that point.
When the writers first sat down before we even started writing any of the season, we were like, “Where’s it going to end?” And we knew that it was going to end with Nora 10 to 12 years older than she is now, maybe 15 years, maybe even 20 years, telling her story [about entering the machine] to someone. Eventually it was like, “duh,” she has to be telling that story to Kevin.
Once we had that, then we started writing the season, and we put at the end of the first episode of the season an indication to the audience that this is where we’re headed. We’re going to come back to this. So we knew that was the math that the entire season was designed on. But [writer Tom] Perrotta and I didn’t actually write the scene until we had written the other seven episodes.
Can you talk about the choice to use Pachelbel’s Canon over the end credits? I spoke to [music supervisor] Liza Richardson earlier in the season, and she said if you’re deciding between multiple songs to use, that you’ll often go with the boldest or most provocative choice. Not that Pachelbel’s Canon is necessarily a safe choice, but it doesn’t feel like the weird type of musical reach that The Leftovers usually goes for.
Well, we used Pachelbel’s Canon in the wedding scene. And the idea was that the DJ would have his iPod loaded up with cheesy wedding cues. Not to demystify the entire process of music selection, but we went so over budget on music in the finale because of all the Billie Holiday stuff and then the Otis Redding song that we literally had no money left for end credits. So the decision became, should we just keep [composer] Max Richter’s score going, or should we start something new? We decided to have that The Leftovers cue definitively end, as the birds are landing. We then looked at the credits dry, but that’s what we did at the end of the Laurie episode, with no music over the credits. So the editor just dropped Pachelbel’s canon in there again, and I was like, “Oh that’s sweet.” Nobody really watches the fucking end credits anyway, so we just went with it.
You’re the most transparent showrunner in television.
Other than Jill Soloway [creator of Amazon’s Transparent].
Touché. How do you defend the value of ambiguity to someone who craves neat resolution and completeness and is resistant to your type of storytelling?
I’ve found that there’s nothing you can say to them, and that it’s like trying to convince somebody whose favorite ice cream is chocolate of the virtues of vanilla. It’s just a matter of taste. It’s not good taste or bad taste. Some people just want a lot more security in the storytelling and some people are okay with it defying a certain level of narrative expectation. And they’re in the minority, I find. That’s been my personal experience. Most people will watch a Michael Haneke movie and be like, “Why would people behave in this way?” or “What did they mean by that?” People want it explained for them. There’s enough ambiguity in real life that we don’t also want it in our stories.
When I saw The Sopranos finale, I was like, “That is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life.” Carlton [Cuse, co-Lost showrunner] and I were at a conference in New York a couple days later, and Matt Roush, who was the chief critic for TV Guide at the time, was like, “How about all this divisiveness over The Sopranos finale?” This was in a pre-Twitter era. And I was like, “What? Divisiveness? What are you talking about?” And then I suddenly realized that people really needed to know whether or not Tony was shot or not or whatever. But they needed to know something.
We had already announced our [Lost] end date and I fundamentally realized, “We’re not going to get out of this without incurring some major wounding.” Lost wanted to live in both an ambiguous and definitive space and it couldn’t have it both ways. I don’t think you can make a case for ambiguity. I certainly tried, and I keep failing.
I don’t think you’re failing. I’d argue The Leftovers itself is a good argument in favor of ambiguity. I remember you said you were terrified the night before the Lost premiere ratings came in because your ideal scenario was that it’d end up being a one-hit wonder cult classic. And obviously it became something much bigger than that. But do you think that now, 13 years later, you’ve fulfilled that original dream with The Leftovers? You lasted three seasons, not one, but I think you may have now made that cult classic you wanted.
Yeah, it may be. If you had asked me at the beginning of The Leftovers, “What is your goal?” I don’t know if I would have known how to answer that question other than that I just wanted to have a show on HBO on Sunday night that was worthy of being on HBO on Sunday night. But I think that mostly you just want to write something that surprises you and and means something to people, and The Leftovers and Lost both accomplished that.
It’s like the old Buddhist maxim, the first death is the death of the body, and the second death is the last time anyone says your name. And so I like to think that The Leftovers will still be spoken of years from now, but you just don’t know. Every year that comes, there’s more and more excellent TV, and we’re not making any new The Leftovers. I also do find it immensely gratifying that the arc of Lost was that it premiered and was this massive phenomenon and had millions and millions of people watching it, and whatever the ending of that story was, people are still talking about Lost seven years after it went off the air, whether good or bad. It’s still alive in the Buddhist tradition. I hope the same is true of The Leftovers even though the viewership is one-tenth of the viewership of what Lost had.
That’s a good note to end on. My last question then is this: We got updates in the finale about Jill’s and Tommy’s lives, but what about the twins? What are they up to? Did they open up a ping pong dojo?
I think they run an animal rescue center. That’s my guess. It started with them burying a dog and saying “We’re all going to end up like these things.” But it turns out they go into the woods and rescue these poor animals and then they find homes for them.
Hopefully they can find a home for the goat.
That goat’s name was Rupert, and he was a sweetheart.