‘The Leftovers’ Is the Best Show on Television Because It’s Breaking the First Rule of Storytelling

Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and Mimi Leder explain how breaking a cardinal rule of TV writing led to some of the best scenes in Season 3.
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“Wouldn’t it be great to have a scene where a character who claimed to be God was in the episode, but [a man of the cloth named] Matt is like, ‘You’re in my story. God is in my story.’ And God is basically like, ‘No, no, no. Everybody’s in my story.'”

“Meanwhile, there’s an orgy going on.”

If the battle between an egomaniacal reverend and God Himself doesn’t appeal to you, then the orgy has to, right? One would hope so, but the conversation described by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta above is an intense disagreement between two people. They’re in conflict over who’s in control. Their desires shift over the course of the conversation, but the conflict remains.

And, yes, there’s an orgy in the background.

Heated dialogue is a regular source of drama in television, given it’s a character-based medium and characters need to generate tension (not to mention the lower production costs and smaller screen than cinema). And they often lead to great scenes, like the one described above.

But what if there wasn’t an argument? What if the scenes lacked an external conflict, and focused instead on the internal? What if, instead of fighting over whose story they were in, the characters just told stories?

Convention tells us that would make for boring, visually uninteresting entertainment. Or, as Lindelof puts it, “Ultimately, on a narrative level, ‘play it, don’t say it’ is the fundamental rule.”

But in reality, it would look like your favorite scenes from “The Leftovers” Season 3, and some of the best scenes on television this year.

The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 4 Justin Theroux

Telling Stories

For as jovial and outlandish as the above conversation between co-creators sounds, it actually starts to address those other scenes — the rule-breaking, multiple-page, storytelling monologues.

“We knew the season was about storytelling, but more importantly, it was about appropriation,” Lindelof said. “How can I take your story and make it my story?”

And there are a lot of stories changing hands in “The Leftovers.” Aside from the above example, there are stories about tattoos, suicide, missing children, and beach balls, just to name a few. Yet what’s shocking about these tales is that most of them weren’t shown. Unlike Matt’s debate with God, we merely watched and listened to characters who reflected upon a story that already happened. We didn’t watch the stories take place. We just heard about them.

So how does “The Leftovers” not only get away with it, but use scenes of characters recounting past events as intensely satisfying, climactic, visual moments?

Let’s look at the other stories, the real stories — the climaxes of Episode 2, “Don’t Be Ridiculous” (written by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta), Episode 3, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking” (written by Lindelof and Tom Spezialy, and directed by Mimi Leder), and Episode 6, “Certified” (written by Patrick Somerville and Carly Wray).

Carrie Coon gif The Leftovers Season 3

“Don’t Be Ridiculous”

The Story: After a taxing business trip, Nora (Carrie Coon) stops by Erika’s (Regina King) house and breaks down while explaining why she got a mysterious new tattoo of the Wu-Tang Clan symbol — and why she broke her arm because of it.

Why It Works: The short answer is “Carrie Coon.” For the long answer, we go to the master of long answers, Mr. Lindelof.

“When you have actors on the level that we do, the telling of the story becomes more compelling in many ways than just showing it,” Lindelof said. “We write these episodes highly collaboratively. Before the writers go off to write their drafts, we are in a room surrounded by white boards and […] you just build it in the room. You understand that in the editing room, you’re going to lose a chunk that felt essential on the page, but the performance now elevates the writing to the point that we don’t need [it].”

From directing standpoint, Mimi Leder knows just how to balance the emotion of a scene like this.

“If the actors became too emotional, it would almost take you out of it a little bit,” executive producer Mimi Leder said. “So bringing an actor in and sitting on the emotion is often much more fulfilling than letting it all out.”

When asked about the scene, Coon provided a three-step process to reaching that tricky middle-ground.

“First, you have to be very solidly off-book,” Coon said. “You have to be as memorized as you can be so you’re not thinking about the lines. The second thing is that you have an actor like Regina King across from you, who you know is going to be present and listening. Speaking into listening is so much easier. The third thing, I guess, is breathing. You just have to stay present to what’s right in front of you.”

“With those three things, you can relax into your body and then let your imagination do the work for you — I guess,” Coon said, with a laugh. “The process is mysterious.”

Less mysterious is the motivation behind the story.

“People are telling stories for a reason,” Perrotta said. “There are dramatic stakes within the storytelling. For Nora, we’ve been watching her under huge pressure, and that’s the moment when she breaks — telling that story to Erika. So, in that sense, the stories are anti-dramatic in the sense that we’re not showing, we’re telling, but they’re in contexts that are dramatic.”

The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 3 Lindsay Duncan

“Crazy Whitefella Thinking”

The Story: Kevin Garvey Senior (Scott Glenn) wakes up to meet Grace (Lindsay Duncan), a grieving mother who thought she lost her family during the Sudden Departure, but later found her children’s bodies in the Outback. Years later, she discovered Senior, near death, resting on their grave and clutching a piece of paper that tells of a police chief named Kevin who could communicate with the dead. So, obviously, she killed a local officer named Kevin thinking he could help her talk to her children, soon realized her mistake, and she’s now ready to turn herself in — until Senior stops her.

Why It Works: While Lindelof, Perrotta, and director Mimi Leder were quick to point to Duncan for the same reasons they pointed to Coon in Episode 2, here is when we need to loop back to the theme of appropriation.

“How can I take your story and make it my story?” Lindelof said. “So Grace is telling the story about what happened to her, and Senior’s like, ‘Oh no, no. Actually, you’re a part of my flood story.’ She wants to throw it out, and he’s like, ‘No. That actually works for me because Matt didn’t want me in his story, so now Matt’s book has somehow justified itself in my flood narrative. So I see people building an arc out there. This all works. Gung-ho — we’re on my story now.'”

Senior is doing what Senior does best: taking a story that has nothing to do with him and making it all about himself. At the start of the episode, Senior was upset that Matt wrote a gospel about Senior’s son, Kevin (Justin Theroux), and didn’t include him, the father.

“The primary narrative of the season is that someone is telling a story about Kevin that is not untrue, but he’s not a willing participant of,” Lindelof said. “So the question is, ‘Who’s telling the story and to what end are they telling it?'”

Kevin’s father is using his son’s story to motivate his own life, and the twist at the end of Grace’s long monologue — that her story is actually part of Senior’s — sets the stage for the rest of the season.

And yet even with the dramatic use of theme and a terrific performance from Grace, one might still wonder why we didn’t witness her story in flashback instead of listen to it via a lengthy speech. Lindelof used flashbacks to outstanding effect in his previous drama series, “Lost,” and “The Leftovers” has utilized them as well in prior seasons. (An entire episode, “The Garveys at Their Best,” is told in flashback.)

But Season 3 has relied more on flash-forwards. The writers play with timelines effectively, but only traveled to the recent past once (to kick off Episode 6.)

“Some of the storytelling comes from the fact that these episodes are so packed with story,” Perrotta said. “We can’t show everything. The most efficient way to get that backstory is to have them tell it.”

Leder, who said the entire crew was “sobbing on set” when Duncan finished her story, agreed that a flashback would have been the wrong way to go.

“Showing it in flashback would take you out of the scene. Having the actors tell the story from the inner most crevices of their heart, of their souls, in a simple way, allowed us to feel it so much.”

The Leftovers Christopher Eccleston Carrie Coon Season 3 Episode 6


The Story: After Nora finally found the physicists she argued were tricking people into incinerating themselves, she turns around and tells her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), and her friend Laurie (Amy Brenneman), a story about an usher who crushed a kid’s beach ball at a baseball game. “Why would he want to do that job?” Nora asks, conveying that she no longer wants to play the role of ball crusher. She wants to believe in something, even something crazy, and Laurie and Matt let her.

Why It Works: Everything we’ve talked about above applies: The great acting, the dramatic context, the practicality, and even a slight appropriation from Nora, who’s making a story about her brother into a metaphor for her job at the DSD (and her life in general).

But it’s also about Nora feeling better, no matter how absurd (and dangerous) the solution. As has been illustrated all season, sometimes you just need the right story to justify that feeling.

“The title of Episode 2 is ‘Don’t Be Ridiculous.’ Grace’s story is just as ridiculous,” Lindelof said. “And Senior’s story that he tells to Christopher Sunday is absolutely absurd. The Book of Kevin, in and of itself, is absurd.”

“We wanted to make sure that this narrative idea of, ‘These are the stories that people need to tell themselves in order to feel better,’ became a fundamental thematic narrative as we neared the ending of the season, and it’s something that we lean on very heavily in the final episode,” Lindelof continued.

“You take the central character of the show, who’s arguably Kevin or Nora, and both of them are like, ‘I don’t believe the story that’s being told about me,'” Lindelof said. “[At the begging of the season,] Nora doesn’t believe in the ladder, Kevin doesn’t believe in The Book of Kevin, even though they’re both the subject of those narratives. But can you bring both those characters to where they’re like, ‘Eh, I guess if everyone else believes it, why not give it a shot?'”

“Or it may be, ‘Well, it’s the best story I’m being offered right now,'” Perrotta said.

Either way, “The Leftovers” is offering the best stories right now. And there’s no good reason not to give it a shot.

“The Leftovers” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Season 3 is streaming on HBO NOW.

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