There’s something you should know before you start watching the second season of The Leftovers: You’re not going find out what actually happened on October 14. The mysterious event that raptured away 140 million people from Earth, which set the premise for both the book and the TV series, will not be explained. Why not? Because, as the show’s creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta say, the answer is irrelevant. Regardless of what happened to The Departed, what matters to those left behind—literally, the leftovers—is that their loved ones are gone, and now it’s time to heal or scream or join a cult or kill a dog or try to fall in love again. Lindelof and Perrotta recently caught up with The A.V. Club to discuss the second season of their acclaimed series.
The A.V. Club: Damon, what was it about Perrotta’s story that made you want to turn it into a TV series?
Damon Lindelof: There were a couple things. Even before I started reading the book, just the premise I thought was incredibly engaging. The idea of a non-rapture rapture. It functioned in this religious-spiritual place that didn’t seem to have any explanation. I’m very driven by mystery in the stuff I watch and read and write. When I actually read the book, I felt like true brilliance of the storytelling—in addition to creating a world of characters that I cared about—was that it’s very explicitly stated that this isn’t about resolving a central mystery. It’s about living in a world with mystery, and how frustrating and upsetting that can be, and how it can unhinge people, and drive people to join cults.
We have no interest in populating this world with characters going to try to solve that mystery because that’s not going to happen. That’s so liberating for me, having finished up Lost, in particular, where I always felt that whip on my back: Answer questions. Resolve mysteries. Make those answers intensely satisfying. Tom’s unapologetic approach is saying, “This is not what I’m interested in” was just a breath of fresh air to me.
AVC: Tom, what made you trust Damon with your story?
Tom Perrotta: What I loved the most about Lost were the flashbacks. They felt really literary to me. They seemed to give the show a novelistic quality that was really exciting to me. It turned out that we haven’t had so many flashbacks in Leftovers, but what we have done is created single character episodes that feel very novelistic, and that allowed the show to go deep in a way that a lot of good TV doesn’t always do. I think there was literary quality to Damon’s work that he doesn’t always get credit for.
DL: Thanks, Tom!
AVC: Do you two ever disagree about a story point? Is there ever tension?
DL: Of course there’s disagreement, but it doesn’t feel like tension to me. If Tom doesn’t like an idea that I feel passionate about, that gives me tremendous pause. I cannot sleep at night if we are not in agreement—but of course we’re not always in agreement.
Both of us care very much about this world. In a lot of ways, the functioning metaphor is parenting. You have the mother and father and child. The child actually has a mind of its own, and is going to surprise both parents. Each parent can sometimes project what they want child to be, but ultimately I know—I know—what’s best for the child is that it is co-parented.
Tom is the mom: He gave birth to this child, this child was in his body for nine months, this child nursed at his breast as I stood there and did nothing. Now I’m like, how can I be more involved? I really care about the kid’s education. I wanna throw a ball and play dolls with the kid. I have ideas about what’s best for the kid.
I’ll say this, too, and it’s not lip service: Tom is an integral and present part of the creative process of this show. He doesn’t just live in Massachusetts and read lines and give thoughts—he’s in the writers’ room. We’ll have penned three of the 10 scripts this season, and Tom has been actively engaged in the editorial of every single episode of the show. If he was not, the show would be significantly lesser.
TP: The lesson you have to learn as novelist is how to be collaborative, and how to say, “I don’t get to dictate this.” If we do have a disagreement, we really have to talk through that disagreement. I have to be willing sometimes to say, “Huh, that’s a better idea than my idea,” or maybe I say something that sparks an idea in Damon’s mind. You got to get away as much as you can from the idea that somebody owns the story. I don’t own this story anymore, but I do want to be part of telling the story.
You also learn to trust each other more over time. Like, in the first season sometimes—well, Damon has wilder ideas than me. Sometimes I’d say, “That’s too wild for me.” I’ve tried this year to not start at that place. “Okay. Let’s see where that wild idea goes.” This year, some of the cooler stuff on the show has happened over my initial objection that something was too wild or too crazy. I’m learning to be a little crazier.
AVC: Damon, there’s significant thematic overlap between Leftovers and Lost, particularly with their explorations of religion. For example, the Christian Bible verse John 3:16 comes up in both series. Could you talk about your interests in religion, both personally and cinematically?
DL: I’m going to err on the side of being a little bit vague about it, other than to say: I was raised by a Jewish mother and an atheist father. My dad was raised Lutheran. Both of his parents were active in church, but by the time I came into the picture, he was at war with Christianity. So I heard a lot about it, but it was in a negative and scary context. Then when I met wife—my dad died that same summer—she was a practicing Catholic at the time, and she had a very positive relationship with Christianity. And so I was very curious about what this thing was. That was right around the same time the first season of Lost was happening. So my exploration and my interests in Christianity were both academic—in terms of here’s this thing that exists and is real—but also spiritual—in terms of, Christianity brings such great comfort and love and hopefulness to so many people, but then you see the Westboro Baptist Church out there. So there are two sides to it. That duality—kind of the Oppenheimer effect—is very interesting.
I also felt like certain Bible passages have risen out of this book, and I’m fascinated by the idea of, why these words? John 3:16 is one of them. That was certainly a big deal for Mr. Eko in Lost.
So from going through years of my life and having no functional awareness of Christianity beyond the nativity and crucifixion and resurrection—I’m just very fascinated by these ideas. And clearly because we do have a Christian reverend in the show, it speaks a certain level of needing to reference that stuff, both directly and indirectly.
Sorry to talk around the question, but I don’t want to say, “Here’s my intention, here’s what it means, and any interpretation you have is dead wrong.” When you’re dealing with religious texts like that, we’re all dipping into same well here. Your interpretation of Leftovers may be different than our intention. But because you’re dealing with religious texts, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. In fact, some critics’ writing about the show, I will read it and go, “Wow, this guy is onto something. I wish we were this smart! I don’t think this was our intention—but maybe it was?”
AVC: One of the things I find myself doing is studying every single literary or artistic reference the show makes.
DL: We go down the rabbit hole, too. Sometimes we’ll pick a song or have a line of dialogue that for us is infused with a tremendous amount of meaning, and there’s layers and layers and layers to it, and then it goes right by the audience. In other cases, we’ll do the same thing with really not a lot of forethought or intentionality behind it. The Yeats poem, for example: That was born out of a conversation with Ann Dowd, actually, in talking about that episode and Patti’s intentionality and what it was she wanted Kevin to do, and why she joined the Guilty Remnant. All of that built around revelations with that character that are actually coming in the second season, in terms of who she was before she joined the GR, etc. If you’re going to use a Yeats poem, do not do so irresponsibly, because you are inviting that level of engagement.
TP: I don’t know whether any individual cultural reference we make is a key. I don’t look at narratives or texts as something that can be unlocked. I see it more as—we’re creating this space where all sorts of different cultural references, products, objects can become charged by the context of the show. That’s what’s been really interesting, that the show has been able to accommodate Yeats poems and crappy pop songs, that we can kind of pick and choose objects from culture and see what they look like in this charged context.
AVC: The 1972 issue of National Geographic that comes up in the first season seems to have a lot of resonance within the context of the show. There’s been a lot of fan discussion about the magazine, and why it might have been introduced into the mythology of the show. Can you talk about that?
DL: I think what Tom just said is really ultimately our intention: Can you take something that is mundane or seemingly ordinary, like an issue of National Geographic, and infuse it with spiritual power? One of things that I had seen at the time we first started talking about The Leftovers was Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Book Of Mormon. It’s amazing! I was really affected by their ability to both illuminate the ridiculousness of that belief system without insulting it. They were able to say, “this actually does something for people.” When we chose that issue of National Geographic, we did the same thing. Of course we did the same thing you’ve done, and read it cover to cover. There are image systems and ideas encased in that issue that carry through the first and into the second season. Just to throw something out as a generality: There’s a big piece on Yellowstone National Park—it’s the cover story. Miracle is a national park in the second season of Leftovers. If you look, you will find other things in that issue popping up visually and audibly. But what you derive from those things—again, we want to put that in the eye of the beholder.
The choices we’re making on a storytelling level, from the way we open the first episode of the second season, there’s a high degree of interpretation: What is this supposed to mean? What am I supposed to do with this? Is this mythic or mundane? Hopefully that puts the viewers in the same mindset of the characters in the show, which is, they don’t know the difference between the Bible and National Geographic. All they have are the words of a crazy person, who may in fact be hearing legitimate voices from other realms or dimensions, or may just have bipolar disorder. The show isn’t going to say. You have to decide whether you take that as your gospel, or whether it’s just another issue of National Geographic.
AVC: Unlike Lost, where figuring out the secret of the island was what many fans cared out most, The Leftovers seems to have figured out a way of raising supernatural questions without making the audience lose sight of what’s most important: the characters’ stories. How do you go about striking that balance?
DL: It is an effort. First off I’ll say thank God for Tom, because I’m programmed to go in pursuit of some of these things you’re talking about. That’s my natural desire. Ultimately I do feel what drew me to the book—I probably neglected to say I was a huge Perrotta fan, even before this—is that he’s tipping his toes into what I would call supernatural territory. You rarely see writers jump from genre to genre, particularly in the direction that Tom jumped. Sure, Stephen King will write The Body in Different Seasons, and a genre writer will often take on fiction and sometimes even nonfiction. And I love all King’s writing, whatever he does. But very rarely will you see someone who is a legitimate author, a real writer cross over into strange town. The fact that Tom did it and did it so effortlessly and delicately is something we need to continue to service.
I’d also say the real key is an issue of populating our show with characters who accept what you discussed. If Nora Durst, who lost her children and her husband, and Kevin Garvey can accept that they’re not going to get answers—there’s a version of Nora that’s obsessed with finding out where her family went. That’s the show. It’s watching Nora tracking them down, hunting down psychics, traveling through Egypt with a caravan of camels because she heard there’s this ancient ruin with a portal that’ll give her access to her family. There is that show—we don’t want to write that show.
So the key is populating The Leftovers with characters trying to heal and move on and accept they’re not going to get the answer, in the same way that we’re not going to get the answer to, “What is the meaning of life and what happens to us when we die?” Right? The three of us—despite where we are on the spiritual ladder, whether we call ourselves believers or nonbelievers, and if we are believers, what subset of beliefs we adhere to—I can tell you right now, the three of us do not know what happens to us when we die. We might believe we know, but we don’t know, and we live our lives accordingly; not just particularly in pursuit of the answer to the mystery of what happens when we die.
So we populate the show with characters who accept they’re not going to get the answer to a mystery. Versus Lost—just because you framed it this way—where John Locke is like, “I’m gonna find out what this island is, I believe we were all brought here for a reason, and I’m gonna find out what that reason is.” If he articulates that in the first season of Lost, then the audience—it’s completely and totally fair for them to assume they’re gonna get that.
TP: My thing is always to hold onto a fundamental sense of realism. We put characters in extraordinary contexts, in high-pressure contexts, but the show works for me when they behave like people that we know. What is cool about this show is it allows people to behave in extreme ways because they are living in an extreme moment. But they don’t function like cartoons. A lot of apocalyptic stories are survivalist, occupy types—I think we’ve managed to create a kind of domestic realism in an apocalyptic world. The show works for me when I understand the characters and why they’re doing what they’re doing even if they’re doing crazy things.
DL: Tom and I are fans of The Walking Dead—I’ve been a huge fan of the comic since [Robert] Kirkman started writing it—and we’d geek out and talk about it when we were first talking about The Leftovers. One of the things the show does incredibly well is, the characters are not interested in figuring out how the zombie apocalypse started. Because it’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is they need to restart society, they need to eat, they need to reproduce, they need to survive. The show is interesting enough just with that. It has no fundamental mystery element whatsoever, whereas that could easily be the line of storytelling. In the first season, obviously, they went to the CDC, but then it was sort of like, “we’ve now dispensed with that.” We asked a question, we got an answer, and the fact of the matter is, who gives a shit? Now we have to live our lives. The idea of not answering a question that is irrelevant to the storytelling is fairly inspired and we use it as a guide for ourselves. Are we that different from The Walking Dead just because we don’t have zombies?