Messiah Complexes: Talking to Damon Lindelof About The Leftovers Finale

The show’s co-creator discusses the writing of the third season, its relationship with religion, and the Wizard of Oz.

Co-creator Damon Lindelof and director Mimi Leder on the set of The Leftovers. (HBO )

This post contains spoilers about the ending of The Leftovers.

The series finale of The Leftovers, which aired Sunday night on HBO offered the same mind-bending, format-breaking, emotionally resonant delights the show has excelled at throughout its run. It made a huge time jump, offered a typically open-ended answer to what exactly happened to the people lost in the rapture-like Great Departure, and tied up the epic romantic arc of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber discussed the finale in detail here, but we also sat down with the show’s co-creator Damon Lindelof to flesh out his journey on the show, his thoughts on religion and messiah complexes, and how his work on TV shows like Lost and films like Prometheus informed his writing. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

David Sims: Opening the season with Nora, old Nora, did you start with that image? Is that where the idea for the season began? Or did that come later as you were breaking the story?

Damon Lindelof: Well, coming out of Season 2, we didn’t know if there was going to be a Season 3. But there was one idea that I felt we owed coming out of Season 2, which was, “What is the consequence for Kevin dying and coming back to life? You can’t just do it and have there be no consequence. I thought there should be an emotional consequence for this guy, then Season 2 ended and people said, “I’m actually okay with it ending here.” Which is good to know for the future in terms of what I think we owe and what we actually owe. But, when we got a third season, the Book of Kevin was looming large. I already knew that I was passionate about this idea of doing the reluctant messiah story. But the other thing that I felt was so unresolved at the end of the second season was, just because Nora is smiling and saying “you’re home,” this woman’s journey … she’s not okay yet. We have to bring these two characters through one final ring of hell and end their suffering.

Sims: Spoken like a true TV showrunner.

Lindelof: Yeah, of course! So when we got to the third season, it was, “What’s the final scene of the third season going to be?” And it was Nora telling this story [of her journey to the world of the Departure]. I think that from when we first pitched it, to how it evolved over time, we were unsure of who she was telling the story to. But it became very clear that it had to be Kevin. I wanted to take away some of the anxiety from the audience of where the show was going to end, and when it was going to end. So let’s just tell them that at the end of the first episode, as opposed to just keeping doing flash-forwards. We’re telling the audience that these characters are going to break up, that she’s conflicted about that, and then, hopefully they know that’s the beginning of the end. We kept using the words “bookends,” that we would bookend Season 3 with the Book of Kevin and the Book of Nora.

Sims: Watching the finale, I briefly wondered if we were in another “place,” because of course you’ve introduced that element into the show. When I saw Laurie (Amy Brenneman) on the phone with Nora, who I had already said my goodbyes to—I had closed the book, and figured she had died when she went deep-sea diving [in the episode “Certified”]—I wondered if this was a new reality we had entered into. Part of the fun was knitting together those missing years.

Lindelof: Right, that there’s just one reality. You have an intention when you write a script, and then you watch the episodes and it’s interpreted by the actors and directors and becomes this other thing. We were kind of divided as writers as to what Laurie’s fate ultimately was, and then we watched the episode in the editing room for the first time before we actually wrote the finale—the scenes Laurie had with people, where she was letting Nora go, letting Kevin go, and then her kids call her. That scene on the cliffs, when she says “same time, next week” to Nora, that felt like a promise of something to come and I loved the idea that these two women of Kevin’s life came together in this very significant way. We started talking about the final episode following a romantic comedy structure, and one of the things in a rom-com is a person pretending to be something they’re not [as Kevin is], there’s people who’ve broken up that are coming back together, there’s a wedding, there’s a goat! And another element of a rom-com is the best friend, and who’s Nora’s best friend if she’s in isolation? There were two options, Erica (Regina King) or Laurie, and after seeing that episode, with [Laurie’s] line “You are now my patient,” we were like, that just feels right to us.

Sims: I was very happy about it, especially after the phone call Laurie had with her kids, where you feel like there’s a lot more to her than what we’ve seen this season.

Lindelof: It would have been completely and totally okay to say that not all of our characters make it, and in fact, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) doesn’t. But for a character to commit suicide, I think of all the things that they talk about in the van in terms of, it’s a selfish act, and Laurie is just not a selfish character. The more interesting question is, Why did she go scuba diving, when did she decide [not to kill herself]? Did she want to get under the water as an affirmation of life? The fact of the matter is, she came back to the surface. That’s what the series has been about—the characters look down into the abyss, Kevin actually steps off the cliff and bounces back up like Wile E. Coyote. But sometimes you have to look all the way down into the abyss to say, “I’m going to stay alive.”

Sims: Which is what it feels like is happening in the scene, which I found tough to watch, where Nora goes into the water chamber. Which felt almost medical, like having an MRI, an unsettling experience where nothing hostile is happening.

Lindelof: The sound design was all MRI noises. Clicking and buzzing and you never see the X-ray, you just know you’re getting radiation blasted at you.

Sims: Season 3 felt a little medical like that at times, where a lot of characters were suffering and needed healing, and explored how that links to the spiritual world and how it doesn’t.

Lindelof: Yeah! For a show that I never wanted to feel sci-fi, at the same time, in the pilot there’s this Denziger Commission that comes together and says, “We don’t have a scientific explanation for what happened.” The idea that the scientific community never gives up, and over the course of the seven years since the Departure and beyond, will keep trying to come up with stuff. I wanted to be sure that science would still be represented, especially if Kevin’s journey is the crazy pseudo-spiritual path that he himself doesn’t necessarily subscribe to. His dad (Scott Glenn) is basically appropriating Aboriginal religion, Matt Jamison is appropriating Judeo-Christian thought, and Nora Durst follows a much more scientific path, even though her goal is to debunk it. If you knew that machine she goes into existed, could you resist getting into it? Which is the $64,000 question, still. Just like Laurie, she had to go underwater before she decided to come above.

Sims: Regarding Kevin, TV has a lot of messiahs—was that on your mind when you were starting this show, and especially once you were working on the Book of Kevin stuff?

Lindelof: It’s not just TV, it’s all mythic storytelling. We’re reading the Harry Potter books, with my son, and they have this “chosen one” idea. So I was thinking, is there a way to troll that idea? Is there a way for the “chosen one” to say, “This is stupid. Why do you need me to be this? Leave me out of it!”

Sims: There’s another version of the show where Kevin goes to the afterlife, the hotel, comes back, and thinks, “I’m special!” And why wouldn’t he think that, he had this otherworldly experience. And that becomes the show.

Lindelof: Reza Aslan, who we brought on as a religious consultant at the beginning of Season 2, was saying that stories like the cave woman [from the beginning of Season 2] and the Book of Kevin, were from the origins of religion. He wrote this book called Zealot about the historical Jesus Christ, and said at the time of Christ, there were 1,500 guys walking around, all guys of course, saying “I’m the messiah.” And his was the story that stuck, because people wrote about it. But the first gospel Matthew doesn’t have the nativity or the resurrection. It just starts with Jesus as an adult, and ends with the crucifixion. Then Mark comes along and says, “This needs a prequel and a sequel.” And he introduces the idea of the nativity, the chosen one, the three wise men, the immaculate conception, all those things come in, and then the resurrection. And now it’s a story—it just needed a second pass. So, in the world of The Leftovers, there’s probably 50,000 people walking around having messianic things attributed to them, including Kevin Sr.

Sims: I feel like this is a constant running through your work. The scene of Matt talking to Bill Camp the lion god [in Season 3, Episode 5] reminded me of Ben talking to Jacob in Lost, it reminded me of David the robot talking to the Engineer in Prometheus, all these scenes where people meet their maker, and get nothing or very little in response. Is that a dynamic you find interesting, the unknowability of God?

Lindelof: Two things imprinted on me between the ages of cognitive awareness and 10 years old. The first was Star Wars, and the second was The Wizard of Oz. One of those things attributed its religious construct to an unseeable, unknowable, non-gendered thing called The Force, and I was like, “That feels right.” Something that binds us all, but you can’t go and talk to it. Then the other thing was the Wizard, who’s just a dude from Kansas. Glinda is infinitely more powerful than he ever was, he’s just a normal dude, and I was like, “That also feels right.” He’s a god that we made—and I think The Wizard of Oz is very close to Kevin Garvey, where he’s like, “I guess I’ll go with this for a while, but I actually don’t have any of these powers.” So there was an episode of Lost we called “The Man Behind the Curtain,” because I’ve always been interested in that idea of God. I was raised Jewish, and Old Testament God is just a dick. “I’m gonna get you out of Egypt, but then I’ll make you wander for 40 years just to really drill home that you shouldn’t be worshipping this calf,” or, in the case of the show, this lion.

Sims: There were a lot of animals this year on The Leftovers.

Lindelof: Always, though! It was dogs in the beginning, but that’s the other thing about religion, particularly proto-religion: They believed in spirit guides and gods on earth, and ways animals needed to be treated. We really liked the idea of attaching religious significance or emotions to animals, because they’re a great lens. They don’t have any say in it. We take something like a goat, which traditionally symbolizes the devil, but Lila Byock, one of our amazing writers, said “Do you know what the origin of the term ‘scapegoat’ is?” And she told us that story that’s told at the wedding in the finale, and we thought that was cool—that it was something people would just put all their sins on, and then cast out. There’s some nobility in that, the way we’ve used goats as sacrificial animals. So we wondered, could we get the audience to care about the goat? Could we get Nora to unburden to a goat? It doesn’t matter to the goat! But is this an incredibly emotional moment for her?

Sims: In Lost, as well, the Island served that purpose—people came to it hoping it would fix this or that. And the funny thing, of course, is that to a lot of viewers, that became true. They wanted to know what the formula of the Island was: If you put X in and Y comes out, then solve for X. Were you worried about endings in general after Lost, and how people reacted to that finale?

Lindelof: I think endings in general are difficult, because I do think that our brains, whether we’re actually biologically wired this way, or we’re just conditioned this way, know what the ending of a story feels like. So, you could read the first Harry Potter book and say what you think the ending is going to be—it’s probably going to be Harry kills Voldemort. And, spoiler alert, that’s what you get. A lot of times, endings are just about delivering the inevitable, but feeling like it was a worthwhile journey. When you try to avoid the obvious ending, that’s when you get into more dangerous, risky space. When it comes to a show like Lost, the longer it goes on … every episode, the diving board gets higher and higher. So the ending becomes a burden. Versus The Leftovers, where there were just 28 episodes. That’s just three hours longer than the first season of Lost. So this has a lot to do with what the ending owes. Was I deeply affected by the way Lost ended? Yeah, sure! But when I picked up Tom Perrotta’s book and read it for the first time, that’s why I was attracted to it. That the ending of this novel was so satisfying to me, and it didn’t answer the most profound mystery that it’s presenting, and was so unapologetic about it … that I would be unburdened by all the things Lost was burdened by. If people are coming into The Leftovers finale looking for resolution, or, as you say, to solve for X, I’m kind of like, “What show have you been watching?”

Sims: One thing I love about The Leftovers is how much you value the episode. I feel like TV has lost the art of the episode a little bit. I’m seeing a lot of great seasons, but do you think shows are losing the value of a great hour or half-hour of TV?

Lindelof: I think there has to be space for all forms. There are shows I love, like Stranger Things, where I can’t delineate the episodes; it functions as a season, in the Netflix model where all the episodes are available at once. At the same time, I just watched the second season of Master of None, and those episodes have such specifically designed feelings. Stranger Things and Master of None can both exist in the same space, Big Little Lies and The Young Pope can exist in the same space, and I love both. The kind of storytelling I’m still attracted to doing is the episodic construct. I feel like that’s the most satisfying way to tell stories for me, where in any given episode you have a beginning, middle, and end. Like, “This is the one where Matt goes on the boat and confronts God.” I just love telling stories like that. We tried to do it in Lost as well—that any given week, the real surprise was, Who is this episode going to be about? And that was just as exciting as what was going to happen.

Sims: It’s the X-Files model, the more ’90s-era TV model, where shows needed to get audiences to pay attention every week, rather than just being on Netflix to be enjoyed whenever.

Lindelof: There’s so much television, period, and so much great television, so how do you get the culture to say, “Did you see that episode?” One way is to kill a character off, but another way is to do an episode like Game of Thrones’ “Hardhome,” that’s undeniably an episode; it’s standalone, it has its own specialness, and it just stands out from the pack. The Americans did the episode with the Mail Robot, and that’s another episode I will never forget.

Sims: Do you think a Lost will happen again? A network TV show with that kind of zeitgeist appeal?

Lindelof: Certainly I think Game of Thrones has done that, I think The Walking Dead has done that, and I think Stranger Things Season 2—the approach to Halloween, that’s going to be a very big deal. In terms of the genre space, and the mystery, I think that show, and Game of Thrones, and Westworld, are in the same space Lost was in—the theorizing space, the Easter Egg space, where people are also invested in characters and their romantic entanglements.

Sims: Getting back to The Leftovers finale, [director] Mimi Leder’s involvement seemed crucial.

Lindelof: The problem with showrunner culture is this idea of making auteurs out of us. Vince Gilligan [of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul] will say over and over that he has amazing writers and directors around him. Mimi is a showrunner—I ran the show, with Mimi and Perrotta and [writer] Tom Spezialy. I understand that I’ve gotten to be the frontman, but I am not writing all the music and playing all the instruments. When Mimi came on midway through Season 1, and directed Episode 5 that started with that horrific stoning, immediately all the actors fell deeply in love with her, as did I. She supervised the next episodes, and then directed the finale of Season 1, so this whole idea that the show “found itself,” it’s no coincidence that it happened when Mimi came in. This finale, with the wedding and sequences like Nora going up the hill, and complexities like the actors being in the makeup—she did it in nine days! There were a lot of moving parts to execute in this finale. I can’t lavish enough praise upon her.