Last week, HBO aired the finale of The Leftovers. For three seasons, the show, 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 series was an exploration of loss and grief, but also of the role that religion plays in trying to make sense of the world around us. Last Wednesday I was able to talk to Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the show, about his thoughts on the show now that it’s over, his ideas about the nature of religion and the role that it plays in our lives, and about “laundering” ideas, (you’ll have to read the interview to know what he means by that).
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 interview has been slightly edited for clarity purposes.
Manuel Lopez (ML): The week after the finale there were a lot of pieces trying to make sense of the final episode in particular and the series in general (Alan Sepinwall wrote a great piece in Uproxx, and you can also read mine here). You have also been quite open in many interviews about what your intentions were with that last episode, and have offered many clues about how to interpret it. (see his interview with Sepinwall here), so I do not really want to go over that again. Instead, I would like to ask you about the role that religion plays in The Leftovers. There are many TV shows out there dealing with religion right now, there is The Young Pope, Hulu’s The Path, Handmaid’s Tale, and American Gods, among others. What do you think is unique and different about what The Leftovers has to say about faith and religion?
Damon Lindelof (DL): I think that probably The Leftovers is more interested in belief, which is obviously a huge component of religion. It wants to look at the idea of religion and religious beliefs as an emotional thing versus a cerebral thing, hopefully in a non-judgmental way. I think in the wake of the tragedy we can draw a straight line to something like 9/11 or more widespread horrific acts of man like the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or the Armenian Genocide, and try to make sense of such things, but the wonderful thing about Tom [Perrotta]’s book is that it’s just a supernatural event, and it sort of demolishes the atheist construct of “I understand the world, and I can explain what is, I know what a tsunami is and what causes it, I understand why human beings kill each other in an act of violence both in war and and just randomly.” But an atheist would not be able to understand the departure. And so it forces even atheists and agnostics to question their own belief systems and then hopefully search out others. I think that there is an emotional process in grieving, or trying to understand tragic circumstances and loss, you know, coping mechanisms that religion overlaps with. And so if you can find purpose and understanding even in the greatest tragedies that can give you some kind of peace. That’s the lens through which I read Tom’s book and something that I wanted to try to bring to the screen as we adapted it over the course of the last three years.
ML: I also talked to Reza Aslan about the show, and we also talked about the point that you just made about the world of The Leftovers being one in which even atheists would be confronted with something that cannot be explained. One of the things that made the show particularly compelling to me was that it moved the conversation about religion beyond the simple question of “Does God exist?” For an atheist, since we do not have scientific evidence of God, it does not exist, and therefore religion is just a lie. But an atheist also misses the point that religion is not only about facts, t’s also about meaning, and facts do not give us meaning, stories, narratives and, in particular, religion do, and I thought The Leftovers made a very compelling argument for looking at spirituality and religion in a more sophisticated way.
DL: Yeah. You know thanks for saying that, and thanks for talking to Reza. It was really important to have access to someone like him who is not just a scholar with a tremendous amount of insight into the world’s major religions. Obviously, The Leftovers focuses on a Judeo Christian parable, because the characters are American, but I think [Reza’s] knowledge of the Koran and, more importantly, primitive religions [was very important for us to understand issues such as] how did religion begin, what are the anthropological clues that allow us to surmise where these ideas and systems began, and as we went into the third and final season, [it helped us understand] the indigenous peoples of Australia, their creation myths, but also looking at religion through a spectrum of vast cultural influences, trying to find the overlap. But [in the end,] you end up zeroing in on [questions such as] what made me, how was I created, what is my purpose, what happens when I die… asking those questions is what it is to be human.
ML: Yes, and also to me was interesting to see Nora, particularly in the finale, as standing for the viewer. If we were watching the show only looking for facts and answers, you were going to be disappointed, we as viewers (just as Nora as a character) had to understand that what matter were the stories that the characters were trying to tell about themselves and the world around them
DL: [Nora] is struggling more than anybody else’s because can’t accept more magical thinking, even though she’s clearly living in a magical world.
ML: 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 the almost religious nature of the show itself. 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. Was that the intention?
DL: Yeah, it certainly was intentional. I think that on a metal level Tom wrote a book, and we’re writing a television series, and so we’re creating the text. But the show has always flirted with the idea of storytelling both, in the verbal tradition and then in the written tradition. Laurie writes a book in the second season that doesn’t go particularly well, but I think that this idea (particularly the Gospels Matthew Mark Luke and John) that we need to write this down because the written word is going to be the way to spread the story that we are currently bearing witness to. That’s a huge part of religion and particularly in the Judeo-Christian perspective. There is a line in the season premiere by Mary Jamison saying that the New Testament was getting old. In a culture that’s obsessed with sequels and prequels and what’s coming next, we were very cognitive that you can’t build a new religion unless it’s built on the foundation of an old religion. And that’s why I think that Christianity probably was able to take off to the level that it was, because it didn’t disavow the Old Testament, it said that [all that is written in the Old Testament] happened. You know the creation story and Abraham and Isaac, and Moses, and Daniel in the lion’s den, all of that happened. But now we’re going to tell you a new story about Jesus Christ. I think that when religions basically disavow the religion that preceded them, they’re harder to swallow that when they’re building on preexisting concepts and ideas and sound foundations. And so the idea that the book of Kevin was actually being written by someone who was still a self-professed Christian. It wasn’t like he was divorcing his own faith to remarry a new one. It was more like he was upgrading or expanding his existing faith. So to answer your question yes, it was all intentional.
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 really see religion as a form of narrative, or is there something different about it?
DL: I make a clear distinction at least in my own psyche about what is fiction and what is not. I draw a line between a narrative that I build for the concept of the world in terms of what my belief system is and what I believe about preexisting religious systems and the exploration in my own mind in terms of how was I created what am I here, what happens when I die, etc. That is a separate exploration from the fictional creation of narratives that is more about people struggling and suffering and then sometimes finding grace as they try to answer the same questions for themselves. But there is a very clear distinction psychologically for me between my own personal [faith] and the narrative that I’m building for myself which is a constantly evolving narrative and a shift that seismically changes multiple times over the course of my live, and that’s the one that I’m trying to dramatize through my writing.
ML: In the episode “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” we see Matt Jamison finally meeting “God,” and I use quotation marks since it is not clear that the character David Burton is actually God, but in terms of the episode, and in terms of what Matt believes, it does function that way. What was your intention in portraying that encounter? To a certain extent, it was a natural conclusion to Matt’s Job-like journey, but I also watched as a metaphor for the show as a whole, in which Matt stood for the viewer and the writers stood as God. If you were demanding meaning from the show you were basically going to be disappointed.
DL: That wasn’t the intention, and I actually have a lot more compassion for those viewers in the Reddit threads than I think God has for Matt Jamison. There’s a reading of that God that seems to have compassion for Matt, but I think he’s dismissive and uses violence, and he’s obnoxious and judgmental. And I wouldn’t describe myself or any of the writers that way. But I do feel compassion for the audience who struggles for a specific meaning, especially when Tom [Perrotta] was very transparent when he wrote the book. And then Tom and I have been very open with the fans… the reason that I’m having this conversation with you now and the reason that we do a lot of press around the show and we make ourselves accessible to people who want to engage with the show is to basically as clearly as possible establish what the show is not about. It’s not a puzzle box show. It’s not about neat and clean answers it is not about solving a mystery. And we’ve been really out in front of that. And that doesn’t mean that I have disdain or anger towards people who just choose to ignore those disclaimers and search for some sort of universal idea behind the show. To give some kind of concrete unified theory of “here’s why everything happened and these people were right and these people were wrong on the show,” The Leftovers is not about those things. So you know I hope that the fan base finds the same level of calm acceptance that Matt Jamison did. But I wouldn’t equate the writers to God. We actually think that he’s kind of a dick. Not not the actual one, but David Burton being “God” with quotation marks as you as you refer to him.
ML: One of the things that to me was interesting in the show is that it explored how religion has a tendency to create absolute narratives. You see these attitude with Matt who sometimes behaves like a zealot, and you also see it in the Guilty Remnant, with a form of nihilistic discourse based on silence that rejected any sort of explanation about the Sudden Departure, it just happened and we can only be witness to it and remember. And this is also part of the reality we live in, in which religious and political forms of discourse are very much present, you are a Christian or a Muslim, you are a Republican or a Democrat. And I was just wondering if you have something to say or The Leftovers had something to say about trying to engage with these forms of absolute discourses. How do we break through them and have meaningful conversations with people who only seem to reject other forms of believe and discourse?
DL: I have this, I’m sure I haven’t coined this phrase, and I’m sure I appropriated it from somewhere else, but I have this idea that I call “laundering.” You know it’s modeled after the idea of money laundering which is when you have some funds that perhaps you don’t want to talk about where you got them from, and you put them into a legitimate business in order to clean the money. I feel like that’s the way a lot of people feel about religion or spirituality, which is that they are they are born into one, and it’s something that they inherit from their parents or the cultural system that they’re born into. But they’re wrestling with it, and it doesn’t feel like it’s something that they’ve chosen, and feels like it’s something that’s been imposed upon them. And most people start to think and question, as opposed to fully embrace it. This isn’t the case for every human being alive, but it certainly has been the case for me and many of the writers that I look up to, and appreciate. And so how do you talk about this thing that you have a very conflicted opinion of, how do you launder it because you want it to be clean. You know you want it to feel good. You don’t want it to feel icky or bad or forced upon you. You want to create some level of content for yourself in terms of what your belief systems are. And the best way to do that is to create a legitimate business by which to start to have these conversations, and I think that’s what art can do. Any atheist can basically be interested in art, but when they stand in the Sistine Chapel and they look up at what Michelangelo painted there, you can talk about the art, and then slowly but surely you begin to realize that I am talking about religion. And then slowly but surely you begin to realize you’re talking about your own religion. And for me the greatest single accomplishment of The Leftovers is not anything that we did creatively or, like this episode was awesome, but some of the writing that I’ve seen about the show even from the critical community that’s supposed to maintain some fundamental objectivity or they’re supposed to keep themselves out of it. The level of engagement not just an emotional level but on a spiritual level where people are talking about their beliefs and they’re using The Leftovers as the legitimate business by which to launders their belief system. I think that’s been pretty incredible. And so the idea that we put this thing in the on the wall in the museum for people to talk about and it allows, love it or hate it, it allows them to sort of unpack a lot of uncomfortable and complicated feelings that they’re having, you know that’s been a really wonderful discovery and something that I am immensely humbled by.
“for me the greatest single accomplishment of The Leftovers is not anything that we did creatively or, like this episode was awesome, but some of the writing that I’ve seen about the show from the critical community that’s supposed to maintain some fundamental objectivity or they’re supposed to keep themselves out of it […] they’re using The Leftovers as the legitimate business by which to launders their belief system.“
ML: That’s a great way to put it, and I have to agree that, as you point out, many critics watching the show were engaging with it not only as a TV show, but almost as a form of scripture that allowed them to find their own meaning.And that was the way I also watched it every week, not just to see what happened to each of the character, or to see how the story was unfolding, but as a way to try to answer for myself the existential question that were presented by the show, and that’s why I watched it and wrote about it on a weekly basis.
DL: Well I agree wholeheartedly.
ML: Do you know what you are doing next? Can you talk about it?
DL: It’s not that I don’t want to talk about, it it’s just that I don’t know. I know that it will probably be television. I really like this medium, and I like the intimacy of it, and I like the ability to explore things on a larger canvas than in a movie. So you know that’s really all I know at this point, but I think I’m going to take some time just to get inspired and see what stories are left to tell so that I don’t tell the same ones over and over again.
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about, it it’s just that I don’t know. I know that it will probably be television. I really like this medium, and I like the intimacy of it, and I like the ability to explore things on a larger canvas than in a movie.”
ML: Well, I’m looking forward to see what would you do next. We live in a world in which we can entertain ourselves to death, so I really appreciate that you can create a show that it is not only entertaining, but also makes you think.
DL: Well that’s the highest compliment I can be paid so I appreciate it.