Post Mortems

The Leftovers Finale: Damon Lindelof Answers Almost All Of Our Burning Qs

The Leftovers Series Finale

The following story contains massive spoilers about this week’s Leftovers finale — proceed at your own peril

I’m a sucker for an unconventional, star-crossed romance, so when Justin Theroux’s unhinged Kevin and Carrie Coon’s damaged Nora began gravitating towards each other in Season 1 of The Leftovers, I was instantly smitten. While the HBO drama’s overriding themes of grief and healing resonated with me in a profound way, it was the love story between these two misfits that kept me coming back week in and week out. 

And, man, was my devotion rewarded in the series finale.

For Sunday’s deeply moving and satisfying sendoff (read the full recap here), exec producers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta gave Kevin and Nora the floor, devoting nearly the entire 75-minute running time to the couple. And the icing on the cake? Team Lindelotta gave the tormented pair the happy ending I was concerned would ultimately elude them. And me.

I kicked off my final Leftovers post mortem Q&A with Lindelof by gushing about the episode, before honing in on the dozen or so burning questions I had about the finale and the 27 episodes that preceded it.

TVLINE | I loved the finale. I loved its simplicity. And I love that I’m walking away from the series with the idea that it was essentially a love story between Nora and Kevin. Is that how you see it?
The short answer is, yes… We worked for almost three weeks on the last scene and the last episode and what it was going to feel like and [it essentially boiled down to] the two things that you articulated — it being simple and it being a love story. We wanted it to be very simple and not pyrotechnic. Not built on twists or surprises or subverting audience expectation, but more leaning into the bread and butter of what the show was. And when we went in to pitch HBO I had a three-page document and the first four words on the document were, “This is a love story.”

I don’t know if I want to say that the entire series was just about [Kevin and Nora]. I think that it was about family and the loss of family. But it was also about this idea of once you’ve lost your previous family is there a way to find a new one? And can you love again once you’ve lost love? And for Nora, having lost her family as a result of the Departure, and Kevin, who [basically] lost his family because he blew it up himself, to find some degree of consolation and a person that they could expose their deepest vulnerabilities to… that felt like, “Oh, that’s the way that we have to end.”

TVLINE | Was there a moment in Season 1 when you realized you had something special on your hands with Kevin and Nora? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, the original plan wasn’t for their relationship to be so integral to the series.
That’s absolutely accurate…. When we saw Carrie for the role of Nora, she read the Heroes Day speech that’s in the pilot. And we were like, “Oh my God, that’s Nora Durst!” But we had no idea whether or not she was going to have any chemistry with [Justin] Theroux. And, in fact, they don’t speak to each other at all until the fourth episode of the show when they have this little scene in the high school hallway at the Christmas Dance. [Initially] I was like, “I really hope that these characters have chemistry.” Because, if I’ve learned one thing from television writing, it’s that you can’t force that; it’s either there or it’s not. Lesli Linka Glatter directed that episode and she called me [in Los Angeles] that night and she said, “Wait until you see these dailies. We’re going to be OK.” And then I watched that scene in the hallway as they sort of awkwardly introduce each other and he talks about cheating on his wife and she kind of smiles at him and I was like, “Oh, we’re going to lean into this real hard.” These two incredible actors had this palpable, slightly atypical chemistry, which made it exciting for us to write to.

TVLINE | In interviews with me and other journalists, you have been very upfront from the beginning that this was not an “answers” type of show, like Lost. You let the audience know from the outset that the series was not going to be about solving the mystery of what happened to the Departed. Yet, in the finale, I feel like, through Nora, we were given a pretty clear explanation of what happened.
We’ve always said we were not going to explain where everybody went and why they went and what was the purpose behind it all. I think those things all still live in a highly interpretive space. Also, I have a very evolving and interesting read on the last scene of the series that has changed from when we discussed it as writers to when we wrote it to when Carrie performed it on the set to how it exists now in the show. There is, I wouldn’t say a cynical, but a slightly different read on Nora’s story, which is that it didn’t actually happen. That it’s not true. That she didn’t go through the [portal], but she’s telling the story to Kevin for other reasons. But when I sat there on the set and watched Carrie perform that final monologue I was like, “I’m satisfied with that answer.”

TVLINE | I believed every word she said. It didn’t even dawn on me that she could’ve been making the whole thing up.
And she certainly seems to believe it. And, what’s most important, is that Kevin believes it.

TVLINE | But, ultimately, for me anyway, the show and the series was not about getting that answer. 
And there will be those [viewers] who migrate to the belief system that they didn’t get an answer. But [hopefully they] got answers to the most important questions, which were, “How did all the characters that I care about turn out? Did I leave them in a better place than in which I found them? Does it feel like they completed a journey through suffering and, at the end of the suffering, [found] grace?”

TVLINE | I found it interesting that while Nora was recounting her epic journey to The Other Side, you didn’t show us glimpses of what that world looked like. Did you intentionally do that because you wanted to leave open the possibility or the interpretation that maybe she made this up?
Not in a cutesy, “Whatever you think the answer is — it’s all in the eye of the beholder!” way. When we first all came together and talked about the scene we, of course, [asked ourselves], “Should we see all that stuff?” And it was [series cocreator Tom] Perrotta, primarily, who said we shouldn’t see it. She should just tell it. And not to leave it open to interpretation, but more because there’s a tradition [on The Leftovers] that we really nailed down in the third season of characters just telling stories to one another.

Whether it’s Grace telling her story to Senior at the end of Episode 3 or Mark Linn-Baker telling his story to Nora or Laurie telling Matt the story of Frasier The Sensuous Lion on the deck of the boat. We sort of were like, “Oh, let these people tell these stories,” many of which kind of sound ridiculous to the ear and sometimes are being told by someone who doesn’t even believe it [themselves]. But in the telling of the story you evoke an entirely different emotional energy, which is like, “Do I want to believe this or not?” And I think that had we gone and showed Nora’s journey, it actually would have diminished the power of Carrie’s performance but also what Nora was saying.

TVLINE | I have to wonder though if the show ran for four or five seasons instead of just three would one of those seasons have focused on Nora’s journey in the alt universe?
I suppose it could have been. It’s always been a very delicate dance for this show in terms of how much it actually demonstrates what I would call like the supernatural. One of the things that we were nervous about coming into the last [season] was the idea of the LADR device that Nora was going to get into [feeling too] sci-fi than the language of The Leftovers traditionally has been. The rule has always been, “OK, two percent of the world’s population disappears, so the show should be two percent supernatural.” But what’s been really interesting to explore is that space where you’re like, “I’m not sure whether this is supernatural or not. Can this guy really give hugs that heal people? Is Kevin really messianic?”

When my gut [tells me] we’re in dangerous territory, I try to pull back and focus on the book that Perrotta wrote, which is amazing. He wrote this crazy genre premise, right? But he hates genre. I mean not that he didn’t like Lost or anything like that. But he just has an allergy to the supernatural. And I would say to him, “But you wrote this book. Two percent of the [population], like, blinked out of existence!” And he’s like, “Yes, and that’s the only supernatural [element] that ever happened. And by the time we got into Season 2, he’s pitching “International Assassin.” So we were able to brainwash him and flip him over to the other side. [Laughs] But it was always good to have the anchor [of the original source material] tethering us to the real world, as it were.

TVLINE | One element of Nora’s story that did give me a little pause was the idea that she would go to such great lengths to find her children and then leave without giving them so much as a hug.

TVLINE | Part of me was like, “Maybe go say hello to them and see how they really are before you jump back in the LADR and go home.”
Nora’s story is designed with great specificity. And we kicked the tires on almost every single line of dialogue that she uttered. And you’re basically scratching at the most emotionally challenging pill to swallow in the story, which is, “What did she do in the moment when she saw her kids?” She’s been away from her family for so long and then she finally tracks them down and she sees that they’re happy. She sees that they have basically found some level of comfort. And she suddenly feels like an interloper. Like she didn’t belong. Like she was a ghost. That just felt very true to the character. It may not make logical sense but, for her, it made emotional sense.

TVLINE | Kevin Garvey is a very good actor. I also believed that he had forgotten his entire relationship with Nora. And, then, of course we find out he was lying.
I love that scene with [Kevin] when he first shows up at the door and Nora’s just looking at him like, “What the f–k are you talking about?!”

TVLINE | How did you arrive at the decision for Kevin to re-enter Nora’s life under false pretenses?
That was an idea that Patrick Somerville, one of the writers, had. We had this problem in the story process, which is we knew what the last scene of the series was going to be, and we were like, “But Kevin gets to her before then and [how do we avoid] immediately jumping back to the most unpleasant encounter of their entire relationship: the horrific fight in the hotel room. And so we started talking about people that you run into after many years have passed and [we determined] that the thing that you never do when you first encounter them is pick up where you left off, because that place is so radioactive. It’s the thing that caused the schism. So you have to kind of go back to the point where things were most pleasant. And Somerville just said, “What if Kevin literally does that? What if he just erases all of the things that basically led up to them splitting up and he just wants to just start over?” It [felt like a] great culmination of Kevin’s arc for him to, as Laurie describes, be un-Kevin like and smile and be happy and go, “I’m inviting you to a dance.” It would completely and totally put Nora on her heels, because she’s a pragmatist. She’s a truth teller. She needs to be in a very factually-based space. And Tom Spezialy, one of the other executive producers on the show, said, “That feels like a rom-com to me.” And I just sort of like fell in love with the idea of the finale of The Leftovers [being] a rom-com?

And I think people forget that Theroux is really funny. He’s a comedic actor. And letting him be a little bit funny and a little bit charming just felt so unexpected and so right. We did not heads-up him on that and so we sent him the [finale] script and he texted me as soon as he read it and he was like, “I can totally do this. I want to do this.”

TVLINE | As you probably recall, I saw you several months ago after I initially watched the Laurie-specific “Certified” episode — and before I had seen the finale — and I expressed extreme skepticism at what the ending of the episode suggested, which was that Laurie committed suicide. I didn’t buy it. 
And I agreed with you.

TVLINE | This is my way of saying I’m really glad she turned up alive in the finale. I’m curious though — did Laurie set out on the boat with the intention to kill herself? And then changed her mind?
This is one of those spaces where the material changes after you write it. When we wrote that script for “Certified,” we were, like, 90 percent sure that she did, in fact, kill herself. But there was this kind of dangling unease with all of the writers that, exactly as you said, it hadn’t been earned. And then we started to answer the question that you just asked, which is, “What was her intention at any given time?” And when I watched the episode for the first time in the editing room… and I watched her scene with John, and her scene with Nora, I was with you. I was like, “I am not buying that this is a woman who wants to kill herself.” So my feeling right now is that Laurie goes scuba diving to basically affirm her life. When she goes flippers up, she’s not entirely 100 percent sure what she’s going to do when she’s under the water. But when I watched Amy’s performance, there was confidence and grace to it that made me believe she is doing this almost a f–k you to the universe. As an affirmation of life as opposed to, I’m going to kill myself.”

TVLINE | What did Kevin’s carrier pigeon love note say?
I’m not going to tell you. That’s for him to know and some lonely Eskimo to find out.

TVLINE | The big apocalypse that was supposed to happen on the seventh anniversary, did Kevin stop it in “The Most Powerful Man in the World?” 
I don’t think so. That’s my own personal opinion… The show was much more centered on people’s personal apocalypses. The end of the world is actually when you die. That’s the end of your world, and so I think that by dying and coming back to life Kevin averted his own personal apocalypse. More importantly, he emerged from that experience with the understanding that he could never escape to that place again. I think he averted an apocalypse just not the apocalypse.

TVLINE | Where did “The Most Powerful Man in the World” take place? Was it just in Kevin’s imagination? Was it an out of body experience? Or was it this whole other plane of existence?
I don’t want to take that one on definitively. I’ll just say I, as a fan of the show or as a viewer of the show, would be dissatisfied with the answer it was all in Kevin’s head.

TVLINE | At the end of the day, was Senior just nuts? Or was there something supernatural going on with him?
The answer to that one is both. I think that Senior is both crazy and that there may be some sort of mythological magical significance. Is he 98 percent crazy and two percent sane? I’m not going to give you the exact balance. But I think that the answer to your question is he’s both.

TVLINE | Final question. And it’s a big one.
Oh, boy.

TVLINE | What did Grace’s kids do with their shoes?
Oh, man. I’m not giving you that answer. [Laughs]

TVLINE | Oh, come on.
That’s the whole point: she’s not going to get that answer. I’m sorry!

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