On Sunday, HBO aired the series finale of The Leftovers. The show, created by Damon Lindelof and based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same name, examined the social, psychological, and spiritual effects of an event, called the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the world’s population simply vanished without any explanation. The finale made clear that even though the series presented itself as a grand metaphysical mystery, it also was at its heart a love story between its two main characters, Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst.
There are already many pieces out there focusing on the finale (including mine), discussing what it all meant, so I wanted ask Reza Aslan, a consulting producer on the show, and a religious scholar, who helped shape the religious themes in the series, not only about the finale, but about the unique approach the show took on faith and religion in general. We talked about The Leftovers being not only a show about religion, but also a religious show, religion as narrative, and Australian aboriginal religion. In the interview we also briefly talked about his CNN show Believer and the risks of being a public figure (including having to teach with a police officer at the door of his classroom).
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. The Leftovers images are courtesy of HBO.
If you need to catch up before reading about the finale, you can also read my recaps for The Book of Kevin (Ep 1), Don’t Be Ridiculous (Ep 2), Crazy Whitefella Thinking (Ep 3), “G’Day Melbourne,” (Ep. 4), “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” (Ep. 5), “Certified”(Ep. 6), and “The most powerful man in the world (and his identical twin brother” (Ep. 7), and The Book of Nora (Ep. 8).
The Leftovers and Religion on TV
ML: Sunday HBO aired the finale of The Leftovers. Lindelof himself has been very open and candid about the things that we should take at face value (the finale happens in the world in which the rest of the series took place, so no “LADR world” or purgatory or heaven), and about the things that are opened to interpretation (if Nora did or did not visit the land of the departed). Here I want to focus on the religious themes of the show, since this is an area where you had a lot of influence. There are many TV shows out there dealing with religion right now, there is The Young Pope, Hulu’s The Path, American Gods and, to a certain extent, Handmaid’s Tale. What do you think is unique and different about what The Leftovers has to say about faith and religion?
RA: The difference between The Leftovers and those other shows is that those other shows are about a specific religion and the way those religions are enacted in the lives of individuals or in their society. The Leftovers is about what religion means, what religion is, how religion is defined in individuals, and how it gives them meaning and purpose in all of its many manifestations. So those other shows are about religion. The Leftovers is a religious show. And I think that is a huge difference in that unlike those other shows, I think people have gravitated toward The Leftovers almost in a religious way. The fan base of the leftovers, we sometimes joke, is kind of a personal cult, because I think that the issues about the human condition, and the role that faith plays in that condition, are ones that people gravitate toward. There aren’t any other shows that do that. And I think that that’s that’s precisely why it’s a critical success, but it’s also why people like you are drawn to it and write about it, because there is a recognition that Damon and Tom have created something utterly unique
ML: Now that you say that, one of the things that I love about the show, and that’s why I have been personally obsessed about it, and writing about it, and I even teach it in my own class in Religion in Popular Culture, is because of that almost religious nature of the show itself. As you just said, it is not a show about religion, but it is a religious show. This to me became quite clear this season with the idea of the Book of Kevin, this new gospel that Matt and others are writing in order to make sense of the post-departure world and Kevin Messiah-like abilities, in the context of this larger biblical narrative. But to me, the Book of Kevin also operated as a metaphor for the show itself, meaning The Leftovers itself operated as a scripture that was trying to make sense of the world around us, and it was also demanding to be interpreted. Do you think that was the intention?
RA: That’s absolutely right. It’s absolutely correct that the Book of Kevin was a grand metaphor for the show itself. I think the advantage that we have in dealing with the post-departure world is that we get to start over again. We get to create new metaphors and new ways of thinking about the spiritual questions that go beyond the metaphors and symbols that we are familiar with. Even when it came to the last season and playing with the concept of the tribulation, and the rapture, we still did it in our own terms it was still true wholly new symbols and metaphors and so unquestionably the show itself presents its themes its ideas as a new kind of religious way of thinking. But, and again this is the sort of you know the cynical genius of Damon whose own spirituality becomes the template for the show spirituality, is that in the end, this enormous effort that was put towards creating this new scripture, this new gospel that is based on this unexplainable supernatural experience that Kevin had, is left to just simply burn in ashes in a hotel room sink in the middle of a fight between a husband and wife. Because in the end that’s all that matters. In the end, it’s about the relationships that we build around us, the love that we have, the family that we create, the home that we built, that’s all that matters. And so yes you’re right, it is a metaphor for the show as long as you take it all the way to the end, including the flippant destruction of the gospel.
ML: One of the main arguments of the show is that, to an extent, religion can be seen as a narrative, as a story that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the world around us. Do you think that we lose something by reducing or equating religion to a narrative? And I am saying this because, even though I see the appeal of it, every time a character in the show has that revelation, the religious narrative that they have embraced, loses its power. We saw this with Grace this season, and her discovery that her kids did not depart but died in the desert, and also with Matt, who in his episode this season, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” also seems to lose his faith when confronted with God and the fact that the story he believed his whole life was just that, a story.
RA: Well let me put it this way. In an unofficial poll of people who watched the final episode, and I think this came as a surprise to me, and I know this came as a surprise to Damon, the the vast majority of viewers believed Nora’s story. When we finished watching the last episode, I turned to my wife and I said, “Do you believe that that’s what happened?” And she said, “well, of course, why would I not believe that?” And I think that, in The Leftovers, we’re not saying that stories are not true. We’re saying that the truth of a story has less to do with the fact that it exhibits far more to do with a different kind of truth. Nora’s response to the story that’s constructed by the death of the Pillar Man, is that of an skeptic, an atheist if you will, the one that says no, none of that matters because that’s not what happened. And yet, here she is at the end of the story doing what other people did before her, telling the story. Now we, of course, you’ll never hear anyone on The leftovers staff saying that that story is true or false, we will never say that. We know what the answer is, we know in the room, we’ve talked about it, but the magic for us comes from letting the audience themselves decide whether it’s true or not ,and I think that decision is going to be based on the belief systems of the audience itself. And by the way, that’s always been the case. You don’t know if that was Kevin really just sleepwalking, or if he was having some out-of-body experience in season one. And in season 2, was he really seeing Patti, or was it just a psychic you know break down?
ML: And I think sometimes people watching a TV show like The Leftovers are expecting answers from the show that are not expecting in real life. Why would you expect a final outcome on TV, when you cannot find it in our own world?
RA: You know why, because they are just used to bad storytelling. And I think that when someone comes along and dares to defy those storytelling techniques, dares to say “hey the mystery is more fun, the question is more fun than the answer,” I think some people get really turned off, and people like you and me can’t get enough of it.
ML: I agree, to me it’s exciting, it does not have to be always about the answer, like in a traditional procedural, where you always know who did it at the end. One of the things that I found very compelling about the show is that it became this very poetic vehicle to ask this profound metaphysical questions, while grounded in real human emotions. And the show became this journey, in which the answers were not really that important, at least not to me, but what mattered was the way in which all of these different characters were trying to make sense of their world around them. And that’s what was exciting to me. Let me move on onto a slightly different topic regarding the way The Leftovers explored religion. You have famously had arguments with the New Atheist movement and some of its main representatives, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. From their perspective, God does not exist. There is no scientific evidence about it and, therefore, God and religion are basically a lie. One of the things that I loved about The Leftovers is that it offered a more nuanced argument about religion, that religion is not simply about facts, about proving or not the existence of God. That sort of misses the point, because religion is not simply about facts, but it is about meaning.
RA: That’s perfectly said. I mean look Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are not atheists, they are anti-theists. An atheists believe that there is no such thing as God, and so there’s no real reason for religion to exist. An anti-atheist believes that religion is an insidious evil that has to be forcibly removed from society. That’s what Dawkins and Harris believe, and so they are extremists and they don’t represent atheists. And in many ways, unfortunately, they are the loudest voices like most extremists, and so they often get confused for everyday atheists. But you’re absolutely right, what that view misses is a sophisticated nuanced understanding of what religion actually is. And I think that’s what I meant when I said that The Leftovers is a religious show and I agree with that.
ML: I also thought Norah, especially in the finale, has that sort of New Atheist perspective. She sees the world through this binary lens of truth vs. lie, and it is constantly telling characters, like Kevin in the finale that what he is telling her is a lie. She also wields the truth as a hammer to destroy all of the narratives around her because these narratives are not factually true, and she just can’t stand that. I mean she is is constantly aggravated right until the end in the finale …
RA: Until she becomes a primary storyteller, right until the finale. The last episode is called The Book of Nora. Yeah. It’s the story that she has constructed that becomes her salvation. And more importantly it becomes Kevin salvation. She is the Savior.
ML: That’s actually a very nice way to put it that subverts that narrative of Kevin as the savior. In this case is Nora who saves herself and Kevin at the same time thanks to that narrative. One of the ways I thought and wrote about it is that in order for them to be together, they need to escape the narratives that are imposed onto them by others and write their own, only then they will be able to be together, and only then they will be able to weave their separate narratives onto a new one. Let me move on onto a different topic. The show has relied heavily on Judeo-Christian themes and ideas, but this final season, particularly in the first few episodes, Australian Aboriginal religion played a very important role (such as Crazy Whitefella Thinking). Whose idea was that, and what role do you think it played in the overall religious narrative of the show?
RA: Well it was mostly Tom Spezialy’s idea to move the show in the third season to Australia. But if you watch the show, in Season 1and in Season 2, there are these constant hints about Australia. Now, it’s not that at any point during that time Damon thought “oh eventually we’ll leave the show to Australia.” It’s just not how it works. Lindelof creates these mysteries, and they tend to just kind of unravel for themselves. So when the third season came around it was clear that we were going to go to Australia. Now, once we were going to Australia, that’s where I came in and that’s where I have to say OK, this is the way in which all the mythology that we have created on this show can align with this mythology of Australia, and its profoundly diverse Aboriginal culture. I have a little bit of an expertise in the traditions of oral cultures and oral peoples, and particularly when it comes to Australia, so we started there, we started talking about songlines and about the notion of maintaining creation and existence through the reciting of these ancient songs and the fact that the songs are dying because the Aboriginals are dying off, but also because the younger generation is following in the footsteps of their elders. And so you know I basically get a week long seminar on Aboriginal spirituality and apocalypticism, and then from there you know Damon’s mind it just took over and he created this entire complex web of interconnections that became the mythology for the third season.
ML: And I would say that the incorporation of this completely different religious worldview was also very refreshing. The show is so heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian culture, which makes sense, since it is the underlying vocabulary of a great deal of Western culture, so if you are going to create what is essentially an American show, you need to use the language and ideas and symbols of Judeo-Christian culture, but to me, it was refreshing to open up the landscape to other religious views, which, by the way, also have very similar concerns: the origins of the universe with the dreamtime, the end of times, the myth of the flood, etc. But I wanted to ask about your actual role in the writers room and how you helped shape the religious themes of the show? Do the writers come up with ideas, and then you help them translate those ideas using specific religious references or themes? I am thinking for example of the goat ritual in the finale, or the idea of Jesus Twin brother.
RA: The little things like “hey, we need a ritual” or “hey, we need a song,” Those are there, but those are small aspects that are scattered like, you know, Damon will just send me an email. What I do is usually in the first 8 to 10 weeks of the writers room, before we are breaking individual episodes, when we are basically breaking the entire season and the arc of the season, what happens this season, where new characters start, where do they and what are the major issues. How is this divided into ten or eight chapters. I’m there in the room for those meetings and for those discussions. I’m not a consultant, I’m a consulting producer, I’m there to help shape the narrative. And in this case the narrative is steeped in mysticism and religiosity, and so that’s primarily what I’m focusing on in our in our larger conversations, and then the truth is is that after those 10 weeks I pretty much leave them alone. I see all the scripts obviously, and I make comments on the scripts, or they will simply call me and say “Hey quick question about this,” but after those first 10 weeks, I leave them alone and they actually start writing. They do the writing, my job is sort of to be there for the larger crafting of the seasonal arc and all the meanings, and symbols, and ideas, and stories that are involved in that. But once the actual sitting down and writing individual scripts or breaking individual episodes starts, my job is more or less done.
ML: To end with The Leftovers, I am also an academic who makes a living studying and teaching religion, and I was throughout the three seasons constantly impressed about how the show managed to talk about religion with such depth, and power, and insight. It was a show that made me think, and it made me question things on a weekly basis. It just got the tone right about what a conversation about religion could and should be.
RA: You know, it’s something I’m enormously proud to be a part of. I really think it’s one of the best television shows ever. I really do. An especially that second season, to me is the best sustained season of television ever made. And you know the fact that I have I got an opportunity to play some role in that is something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. No question.
CNN Believer and the risks of being a public intellectual
ML: Let me ask you a couple of question about your CNN show Believer. I personally did like the show, and even though I am someone who studies religion for a living, I also took it for what I thought it was, an entertaining way to present to a large audience the richness and variety of religion beyond what they may be familiar with. But there has been some criticism to it, particularly from religious scholars, and I particularly remember a piece in The New Yorker. Does that frustrate you, or you think that their criticism has some merit? Are you ok with paying that price in order to achieve your ultimate goal, which seems to be to talk familiarize people with other religious traditions different from their own?
RA: I have my entire career criticized by academics for trying to popularize religion, and that’s exactly what I do. People say “oh you’re oversimplifying it,” and my answer is “that’s correct.” Or “you’re focusing too much on entertainment and not enough on education.” That is actually what I am doing. That is what I have set out to do. That is my goal. It’s been my goal in my books. It’s been my goal in my public life whether as a commentator, or as a speaker, and it’s my goal in television, both in scripted with The Leftovers and other shows that I’m working on, as unscripted like Believe. So I never ever take the academic criticisms seriously. I don’t even listen to them because they really play no role. I mean, if an academic says “hey you’ve got the facts wrong” great, I will listen to that. I will respond and I will treat that with all the respect that it deserves. If an academic says that I should have spent more time discussing the various nuances of this particular belief system, my response to that is “do you know what a television show is?” I think that if that is what you want, you should take a class at a university, because that’s not what this is. This is for everybody else. And if you don’t get that, then there’s nothing for us to talk about.
ML: Are you going to do anything different in season 2?
RA: No, I will take the same approach, although this time, obviously, different religions, different locations. The goal has always been to make the unfamiliar more familiar, to make the exotic more comfortable, to show you that belief can be expressed in many different ways. I think people sometimes get upset because they’re like “well why don’t you just do more mainstream religions.” And my answer is why would I do that. What I want to do is to confront you with things that you don’t understand, or better yet, to confront you with things that you think you already know you don’t know. And so that’s the whole point of the show. I’m never going to do a show an episode on Catholicism. I may do an episode on a Catholic sect in Siberia as a way of thinking about what Catholicism means, and how it can be applied and made malleable. But I’m not going to do an episode on the Vatican. That was the principal argument about the principal sort of complaint from many Hindus to the Aghori episode, which was that it wasn’t an episode on Hinduism. And my answer is “Why would I do an episode on Hinduism?” First of all there’s no such thing as Hinduism. And secondly, the whole point is for me to find one group, one sect that has broken off from the main branch. To create something that may seem on first glance unusual even uncomfortable you know maybe even downright bizarre but which once you go through my experience suddenly you realize it’s a little bit more familiar than you actually thought. That’s the point of the show. That’s our thesis statement. So that’s that’s going to remain the same for four seasons. No question.
ML: It is pretty clear that, on a show like Believer, on your appearances on CNN, your constant activity on Twitter, that you are someone who is trying to be part of a more thoughtful conversation about religion even though, sometimes, that requires to insert yourself into what it looks more like an ideological fight than a conversation. What do you think about our current political times? Don’t you think it is becoming increasingly difficult to have that kind of conversation, that there is no real space for it?
RA: Right. No. Look, there is no question that it has become more difficult, and certainly it’s become much more hazardous. I mean, just kind of look at the enormous response to Believer. People either love the show, or they hate it. People either became almost like devoted to the show or they promised that they would find me and kill me. And that’s what it means to talk about religion in this day and age. You brought up the article in The New Yorker, I actually loved that article because you know he made see very clearly how difficult it is what I’m trying to do actually is, and certainly from the perspective of the author of that article, he was not sure if this is even possible. And all of my life that’s the kind of thing that excites me. I want to do something that people think can’t be done, and this is this is my attempt at doing it.
ML: I think that sometimes, academics forget how important it is to be part of the social conversation, we have a tendency to be very tribal, and to only speak to each other in conferences, or through specialized journals, and we are not trying to communicate with a larger audience, and that’s what you are trying to do, in fact, there should be more of that. But there is also a price to pay sometimes for doing it, particularly in this contentious political times. You are a tweet away from trouble.
RA: I mean this last year I had to have plainclothes policemen in my classrooms and in my classrooms as I taught, because of the death threats that I’ve got. When I teach seminars at my school I have to lock the doors, because of the death threats that I get ,so I understand what the stakes are here, but I am not going to stop. I’m not going to stop doing it. The thesis of my life and my career is simply this: I went to prestigious university and learned about religion because I found it fascinating. And I’m of the opinion that other people, if given the opportunity to learn the things that I learned, would also find it fascinating. And so my goal is to figure out a way to get that information to them in a way that’s accessible. Whether I’m writing a book, or whether I’m doing a TV show, it makes no difference to me. The criticisms of academics who think that I’m being too overly simplistic or too populist.. because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.