It’s funny. Before sitting down to talk with showrunner Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta about “The Leftovers,” I’d never thought of the HBO drama as a series about the post-apocalypse. But that idea was just brushing the surface of the revelations that came out of our conversation about the show, which begins its second season this Sunday.
Set in the aftermath of a Rapture-like event, “The Leftovers” is ostensibly focused on Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his family, which has fallen apart after 2 percent of the world’s population abruptly vanished. But the scope of the series is much bigger than that, and only gets bigger with Season 2. Following the events of Season 1, everyone’s looking for something better. Whether that means confronting the malevolent presence of the cult-like Guilty Remnant, or moving across the country in search of a new life, it’s a season loaded with potential mysteries — and maybe some real hope.
Below, Lindelof and Perrotta reveal why they think some viewers find the show so troubling, the origin behind the creation of Jarden, TX (AKA Miracle), where things stand when it comes to a potential Season 3 and, while the show will never reveal the answer to its biggest question, “The Leftovers” will always include characters who are asking questions.
In all the discussion about the show, what’s clear is that while some people think it has a lot of optimism and hope to it, some people do find it really hard to watch. For you guys, did you come at it from a sort of tabula rasa point of view?
DAMON LINDELOF: I don’t remember any conversations we had that were like, “This is what we want the emotional effect of the show to be.” I think that, obviously, Tom’s book… I almost never cry during movies or when reading a book, but I cried when I read Tom’s book. There was something, for me, that was profoundly sad about it. It felt like it was tapping into this idea of grief and ambiguity and not understanding this thirst for spiritual connection and not being able to satiate that. That’s the sort of thing I dialed into and what the first season ended up being about. I think the assessment and criticism of saying the show is bleak and depressing is fair.
TOM PERROTTA: It’s almost some kind of achievement to say you made a post-apocalyptic show that was too bleak! [laughs] It’s far less bleak than “The Walking Dead” or “The Road” or something like that. I think that was what troubled people: It was in some middle ground between here and there.
It’s far easier to imagine yourself in that world, than it is with the world of “The Walking Dead.”
LINDELOF: I think that one of the many pieces of brilliant writing that Tom was able to execute in “The Leftovers” was that it was post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t represent as such. If you’re watching “The Leftovers,” it doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of post-apocalyptic storytelling, where there’s a mushroom cloud or radiation or zombies or widespread destruction. It’s all about what’s not there. It’s an emotional apocalypse. I think the idea of saying, “This is a show about sadness and grief and depression”; I don’t think “The Leftovers” is about those things. If you say that the premise of the show is that 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared and we’re going to treat this emotionally, versus this is a show about the FBI agent who’s tasked with determining where they all went, I don’t know how to do it any other way. The show is about, “Oh my God, my dad is gone! Oh my God, my daughter’s gone! Oh my God, my next door neighbor’s gone! Why that asshole and not me?” It just opened itself up to all these unpleasant feelings.
PERROTTA: Also, I think the feeling of recognition is that if you’re grieving, if you’re missing somebody, a lot of what people normally do — the workday or this particular interaction with some other person — seems kind of meaningless. If everybody is feeling this, there’s kind of a social breakdown that occurs with this. What we’re doing feels empty. Then what happens? How do you create the sense of meaning? That’s really what the show is about and I think what troubles people is they all go through moments like that.
Something I don’t think I triggered on before, is the fact that calling the event “The Departure” makes it about who left, instead of something like the Rapture, which is a much bigger concept, conceptually. “The Departure” just means these people left. That means that the search for what’s lost is so profound.
LINDELOF: There’s the premise of the show, that on October 14th, the sudden Departure occurred and 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared. But also, Laurie Garvey left her family, and that departure is even more significant — in terms of the storytelling — than the ghosts who we’ve openly said, “You’re not going to be seeing those people again.” Nora’s kids are off the grid. They’re missing Legos that have no replacement, and they’re not going to turn up in the bottom of your couch. If you’re going to watch the show and that’s why you’re watching it, watch another show. There are people on the show who are still departing, Kevin admits to Matt in the finale that he was on the verge of leaving his family. Tom has basically, completely and totally bounced. Jill is saying, “Come back into the fold! The family is here for you!” and Tom can’t do that. The idea that we’re dealing with the aftermath of, “How can I ever form emotional bonds with people again, knowing that this thing could happen to me?” was really interesting to us. But it is sad!
The universe that you guys have created is something that feels very unsafe on a fundamental level. Is that something you aim for deliberately, the idea that anything can happen, that everyone is unsafe?
LINDELOF: I think that that can be exciting and equally very nerve-wracking to watch. The idea that any given week a character could die certainly does exist in “The Leftovers,” but it doesn’t spin on the same story fuel [as “Game of Thrones”].
The idea that sudden and surprising and upsetting moments of violence can erupt anywhere on the show, and that that would feel very germane to this world, is a level of storytelling that we on occasion use in the first season of the show, and will probably be doing a little bit more in the second season of the show. The idea of presenting a world in some degree of decay or entropy, I think even in our world, where the Departure didn’t happen, you can go down that spiral. You’re listening to the news and they’re saying, “All these refugees are funneling into Greece, and Greece just had an economic collapse so now they’re going into Hungary, and the cops in Hungary are beating these people mercilessly, oh my God, the world is ending!” You just have to stop and say “I’m going to watch some tennis now.”
I get that people want some relief, but in the world of “The Leftovers,” the characters want the same thing. Everybody is trying to pursue a path of “I want to feel better. I want to find a way to make myself feel better.” I think Season 1 was about, “I’m depressed and everything sucks and I just want things to go back to the way that they were.” Season 2 is a little bit more about, “I acknowledge that I can’t go back to the way things were, so how do I create a life for myself where I feel better, where I feel more secure and I feel happy and I feel like I’m surrounded by people who love me?” At least, the characters are trying to get that for themselves.
PERROTTA: Once again, we’re talking about a middle ground. The American justice system — as we all know, and as this year has repeatedly proved — is not perfect, but we live in a kind of orderly world. There is a justice system that is there. In a lot of apocalyptic shows, there isn’t one. Here, it sort of exists, but the people who are running it are possibly going crazy [laughs], and redefining what it is. It’s a very unstable world. There might be situations where it feels very orderly, in a way. The police are trying to protect the protestors from the violent mob, or the police suddenly turns and is part of the mob. The fact that our main character is a psychologically-troubled lawman does get at that middle ground. It hasn’t completely fallen, but it’s looking pretty rickety.
What’s been the toughest part about having a central character whose relationship with reality is touch-and-go at this point?
LINDELOF: This show functions in a realm where there’s a very fine line between being crazy and opening one’s self up to the possibility of a world that has supernatural events in it. Patti Levin, prior to the Departure, seemed like she was paranoid and insane, but then when the Departure happens she suddenly seemed like the sanest person in the world. I think that’s the case with most religious leaders and political leaders.
I think there is a spirited debate going on right now as to whether or not Donald Trump is serious, or kind of having us all on for a lark. For Kevin Garvey, I know this is probably not true, I do not have a degree in psychology or psychiatry, but we write him from the place that crazy people do not have the ability to question their own sanity. They act crazy. The fact that Kevin is saying, “Am I going crazy?” like, “Why am I nailing my shirts to trees? Why am I seeing Patti Levin? Why am I sleepwalking?” His ability to question his own sanity is what humanizes him. As long as he continues to do so, he’ll continue to be an accessible character to us. The minute he starts saying, “I’m not crazy, I’m God,” then I probably wouldn’t want to write him anymore.
PERROTTA: The show is showing people moving in and out– It’s almost like bouts of craziness. You get that feeling with Nora, that she’s been in dark places and that at any moment, she’s just barely hanging on. I think there’s a sense that this is a state of just barely holding on. When people who are just people are just barely holding on, that creates the unstable atmosphere you’re talking about. I think the challenge for this show is making sure we don’t send our characters into a place where we no longer can relate to them as people somewhat like us.
LINDELOF: The audience’s understanding is that almost all of these people were completely and totally normal before the events of October 14th unfolded. Now, they’re all suffering some collective PTSD. Patti Levin being the exception to this rule, but Nora Durst, we saw her life before the Departure and we saw what happened and we saw what Kevin and Laurie’s lives were. Essentially, anybody is normal, but if you put an AK in their hands and send them off to Iraq for two years, you understand that they might be suffering from some degree of mental illness. I think that the Departure is a destabilizing and scary idea. If your husband and children disappeared from the breakfast table, you might just hire a prostitute to shoot you in the chest with a bulletproof vest. What’s amazing to me, is that the audience doesn’t think that Nora Durst is crazy! They’re like, “This does seem reasonable. At least she’s not drinking.” [all laugh]
The whole thing about looking for answers in this, is that there’s this meta layer, when watching the first season, of knowing we’re never going to get official answers. But we are still getting glimpses into how this society is looking to answer the question. What was important to you, in maintaining that element of the show?
LINDELOF: Tom and I acknowledged that we had to go on a publicity campaign on the meta layer of the show to say, “You’re not going to get the answer of where these people went on the Departure.” You just watch “The Leftovers” and you don’t go on the Internet and seek out those answers. You’re wondering if you’re ever going to get it.
Twenty years from now, when someone’s watching “The Leftovers” on Netflix or HBO Go, it’s not like they’re going to put a warning on the front of it saying “Warning: this episode includes violence to dogs and it will never tell you where the people went.” Tom’s book, it felt like it made that explicit when I was reading it. It wasn’t interested in answering that question. It was all about the condition of living in that world, in the same way “The Walking Dead” is like, “We’re not interested in solving the zombie problem, there are always going to be zombies on ‘The Walking Dead.’ This is a survival show and it’s about the condition of living in a landscape that has zombies in it.” This is the same.
That being said, the people on the show don’t know that. There are going to be characters on the fringe of the story we’re telling who are very interested in explaining what the Departure is. That’s a reality. We didn’t want to populate our show with the characters who are tasked with making those discoveries, but we have started writing those characters and you will see them crashing into the world more often. Especially in a place like Jarden. That’s going to attract those people.
PERROTTA: One of the first things you see this year is a guy taking water samples from a place that may or may not be special. It might provide some clue as to why these people here didn’t go.
When you were writing the original novel, Tom, did you ever imagine that you’d one day be discussing a character, living in the world of “The Leftovers,” who’s collecting water samples?
PERROTTA: No, and that’s what’s been exciting to me about the show; that we just keep bringing out new facets that are there in the idea. I’m not one of these hugely prolific writers. I didn’t write a 10-book series about the world of “The Leftovers.” I just wrote about this one family dealing with the earthquakes in their lives three years after the Departure. It is an idea that is of global scope.
One of the things that’s been really great is seeing the show unearth entirely new ways of looking at this thing, fleshing out characters in new ways, telling stories I never would have told on my own, that are probably more exciting than stories I would have told on my own [laughs]. That’s everything I’d hoped for. Like everybody else, I’ve been living through this golden age of television and I thought, “Let’s get on that train, that’s a fun train!” You get so invested in your characters over time, you get to know them better as characters than a book you read in two weeks. That adventure, of living in this world over a period of time and telling more than a single story, has been really rewarding.
It seems like there’s been a snowball effect. You create a family of four but you send Tom off into the arms of Holy Wayne, and that creates a whole universe around them, and so on and so forth.
PERROTTA: Right, and the show connected Nora and Matt in a way they hadn’t been connected before and that allowed Matt to play a much bigger role in the lives of all our characters. One of the things Damon was really smart about in Season 1 was giving both Laurie and Nora jobs. They were actually stay-at-home moms in the book. In Episode 3, that really paid off, but also in Episode 9 Laurie’s a therapist, somebody who talks for a living. For her to have gone into the Guilty Remnant just added a layer of depth to the characters. Also Nora’s sense of, “I’m going to take this very rational, statistical view of this inexplicable event that happened to me”… Both of them have become more interesting characters as a result of the work that they’ve done.
In terms of talking about Season 1 versus Season 2, Miracle seems like the whole guiding idea of the season. Did that come first in developing Season 2, or was that something you kind of came across?
LINDELOF: There were two things that happened. The first was that in the course of world-building in the first season, while we wanted to stay insular, primarily in the viewpoint of the Garveys and the people around them, what are indications that we’re living in a post-Departure world? The things that don’t exist in our world. One of those things was, as we were plotting Tom and Christine’s path from Holy Wayne’s ranch all the way to Mapleton, what areas might they pass through?
We had this idea where there was this town where the claim was that nobody had departed. Would people take it seriously? Would it be like a tourist trap? What would it be? How would it feel? We liked that idea, but then we just didn’t really have time to do it or develop it. Do we want to do a town like that and just do three scenes there? That feels like it’s a really rich idea.
The second thing was that when Season 1 ended, it felt like all the characters were on a trajectory to leave town. Is Kevin going to still be a cop? Jill’s about to graduate high school, Nora wrote this very compelling letter saying “I can’t be here anymore because this place that I live in feels like I need to look at the space where the Twin Towers were every morning that I wake up. I lost everything there. I should probably leave Manhattan.” It felt like the characters were on an outward trajectory, and then we also had this idea of, “Why wouldn’t they go there?” It’s a place that’s going to have an entirely different emotional frequency than the place they’re in now because it’s untouched. It’s the bomb shelter. If they’re going to go somewhere, why not there? Those two ideas came crashing into one another and when HBO said they’d like there to be more “Leftovers,” when we opened up our fridge, that’s what was in the tupperware.
So you were able to say, “Funny, you should ask for a Season 2, cause here’s what it would be?”
LINDELOF: It wasn’t like that. They wanted a Season 2 and we were still working on the end of Season 1. We just had to finish that story, we didn’t want to leave dangling cliffhangers, we want this to feel complete. We had a little bit of time to catch our breaths, then we got together again. We finished working on the show around August of last year, and then we agreed we would try to figure out a second season and reconvened and started developing through. I certainly wasn’t interested in doing more of the same in Mapleton: “Oh, now the [Guilty Remnant] has moved to a different cul-de-sac!” It didn’t feel like it was going to sustain.
I’m curious what the Guilty Remnant means to you guys? It’s such a massive part of the show.
PERROTTA: Basically, the show is about what a contemporary American religious response to this massive, collective trauma would be. What I wanted to do in the book was– You know, there are what I think of as essential American religious responses. So one would be the charismatic response, and that’s Holy Wayne. We’ve given short shrift to the Barefoot People, who are essentially deadheads. But that’s the party tribe, the ones who say “carpe diem” and “Let’s get laid and let’s get high, everything else is darkness.” Then there’s this more ascetic, organized religious response.
As ridiculous as the Guilty Remnant are, I think they resemble many religions that have vows of silence and clothing regulations. I always thought that a symbol should be extremely simple — you can make a cross with your fingers — but that symbol should be powerful. There was obviously some satirical intent, but cigarettes are a powerful symbol and very divisive and very alluring. The act of smoking, it could just be, “I like to smoke,” or it could be “I want to hurt a person who doesn’t want me to smoke,” or “I’m trying to hurt myself and no longer believe in the future.” It seemed very rich.
I actually see them as a religion that is not fully formed. They don’t have scripture, their doctrine doesn’t make that much sense, but the first act of religion is to separate yourself and create a community. Someone will step up at some point and point and say, “Maybe we should talk,” or “Maybe we should wear rainbow clothing” and some people will say “Maybe that’s a good idea.” Three years in, they actually have a surprising coherent lifestyle, that would be the basis for a religion.
LINDELOF: I boil it down to a very simple idea that the show is really about the conflict of, “Can a family unit work? Is family a viable concept or is it not?” In the sudden Departure, at least from the Guilty Remnant perspective, whatever higher power may be responsible for this, it’s not our place to say, “That was God” or “That was aliens,” but family is not a viable concept because it broke families apart. This is an idea that the family unit — marrying someone and having children and staying cohesive — the Guilty Remnant stands in opposition to that. They say there is no family, that family makes no sense and that we are preying upon families. That’s a very insidious villain, but I also feel like a world that doesn’t have the Guilty Remnant, families are just imploding left and right all around us. The idea of a force out there that’s trying to destroy family– I think that organized religion seems to be very, very family-centric. Yet, there’s something like Catholicism that says, “We want our priests and our nuns to totally deny themselves family because that’s distracting.” That felt like it was a very interesting tentpole to build on because the show is ultimately a family show. It’s a show about a family, so the primary antagonist of that show should be a force that doesn’t even believe in the idea of family.
You talked about Season 1 having a complete arc to it. I imagine Season 2 is taking a similar approach, where, by the end of Season 2, you’ve told a complete story?
LINDELOF: Our feeling is that we’re designing these seasons to not have cliffhangers. If the show doesn’t continue beyond the second season, you’ll feel like you’re cool with us leaving it there. There are shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Walking Dead” that need to have more narrative drive in a season finale because that’s what propels those shows forward. Then there are shows like “Deadwood” or “Rectify,” where the season ends and you think, “If there were more I would watch it, but I don’t feel like the story is dangling.” We’re telling a story in the second season about this place, Miracle, and we feel like we are resolving that story to the degree that anything can be resolved on “The Leftovers.” But it’s not going to end with, “Oh my God! Kevin Garvey is falling over the edge of this waterfall, grappling with the ghost of Patti Levin! Which one will survive?” That’s not our bag.
Is Season 3 percolating in your mind at all?
LINDELOF: Not at all. I think that’s one of the huge reliefs for me, particularly after coming off a show like “Lost” which is serialized, where the finales had to be the pilots for the following seasons and you’re exhausted. The idea that I’m finishing this story, but I’m laying seed for the next one: You’re actually at your worst as a storyteller. You can make a mistake in the finale that you become beholden to for the entire length of the following season because there’s no time to question it, and you have to go with your gut and your gut alone.
For us, it’s the exact opposite. We’re going to finish writing this long novel, and then if people want there to be more, we get to get together and say, “Should there be more?” and then say, “Is there an idea worth exploring and is that any good?” HBO has been kind enough to let us do the storytelling that way and it worked the first time around. If there’s only 20 episodes of “The Leftovers,” then I’m going to be incredibly proud of those 20 episodes, and if there’s going to be more, they have to be good. But we don’t know what’s beyond the end of Season 2 because not knowing what’s beyond the end of Season 2 forces us to give Season 2 some sense of conclusion.
“The Leftovers” Season 2 premieres on Sunday at 9pm on HBO.