“I want to believe this story,” showrunner Damon Lindelof admits during our recent webcam chat about reactions to the finale of the critically acclaimed “The Leftovers” (watch the exclusive video above). The series finale, which aired two weeks ago, answered some of the show’s mysteries but left many wondering whether or not those answers were true. For Lindelof, that audiences believed the story was more important than whether it was true. It was a leap of faith that he says audiences were willing to make. “The fact that I believe it actually transcends my curiosity about whether or not it is true,” he explains.
In “The Leftovers,” two percent of the world’s population (140 million people) suddenly and inexplicably vanished into thin air during what is known on the show as the Sudden Departure. The series shifted locations from Texas to Australia this season, as the world anxiously awaited the seventh anniversary of that fateful day. Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) has traveled to Melbourne to follow a group claiming that they can assist people to depart and join their vanished loved ones. Although she appears hell bent on exposing their claim as an elaborate con, her determination hides a desire to go through with the “departure” in the hope, however unlikely, of reuniting with her family who all departed. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), still dealing with the aftereffects of his own traumatic journey to the afterlife, follows Nora to the other side of the world in the hope that he too will find the answers he so desperately needs.
The series finale takes place years later, as Nora explains to Kevin over a cup of tea in the Australian countryside that she did in fact go through with the departure, discovering that those that had vanished were in fact still alive in a parallel world where 98 percent of the world had disappeared. She did not belong in that world, so she devised a plan to return to this world, and went into hiding. It was an unexpectedly moving finale, stunningly delivered by Coon and Theroux, written by Lindelof, Tom Spezialy and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel on which the show is based) and directed by Emmy-winning helmer Mimi Leder. But the ending does not show the audience what happened. It merely closes in on Coon’s face as she tells her story. Audiences either take the leap of faith and believe her, or they don’t.
Whether or not Nora’s story in the last scene is the truth or not is perhaps beside the point, muses Lindelof. “How did you experience this in the moment it happened before someone even said to you but what if Nora wasn’t telling the truth,” he says. “What was your subjective emotional response to the story in the moment that it was being told?” Lindelof believes that most people seem to default to a position where they are prepared to accept Nora’s story, paraphrasing his collaborator Perrotta, who likens this reaction to a person’s faith. “Isn’t that religion, writ large? If it is a nicer story and you want to believe it, can’t you just stay in that space and not question its reality?”
“The Leftovers” also explored the grief and pain associated with death or loss like no other series on television has been able to do. “I wanted to make a show that replicated the feeling of grief so that people who have gone through it don’t feel so alone,” Lindelof admits. It is a theme that permeated his last project, the Emmy-winning “Lost” (which he oversaw from 2004 to 2010 with Carlton Cuse). “The goal was to evolve beyond “Lost,” which looked at grief in a more abstract way through the lens of identity and supernaturality. Maybe we have made it feel a little more real this time around.”
“Grief is not a feeling that anybody wants to be feeling, but it’s also a feeling that everyone who is human is going to feel at some point. Its unavoidable,” Lindelof reveals. “It’s a beautiful thing, I think, because we are wired to be empathetic, we are wired to care and connect, we are wired to form bonds with people even though we know the inevitability of that situation is that we’re going to lose them or they are going to lose us. There’s such a wide range of human emotions that are all packed into grief. It represents all of it. It’s denial and anger and bargaining and depression and acceptance.”
Although the TV academy overlooked “The Leftovers” for its first two seasons, the show garnered attention from the Critics’s Choice Awards, and was nominated twice by the Writers Guild of America in 2015 and last year. This season has arguably been the most critically acclaimed series on television this season, warranting a jaw-dropping 98 score at MetaCritic and 98% at Rotten Tomatoes. So there is some optimism that the TV academy will finally embrace its glorious final season. Lindelof remains hopeful, but in his typically self-effacing way, he shifts the spotlight to his cast and crew. “I have to say, to give Mimi Leder a nomination,” he says, “or to give Carrie or Justin or Ann [Dowd] or Christopher [Eccleston] or Amy [Brenneman] or anyone I have left out, that would be the dream because they’ve worked so hard in my subjective opinion and they just did extraordinary work.”
Be sure to make your Emmy predictions. Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our Emmy odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on July 13. And join in the fierce debate over the 2017 Emmys taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our TV forums.