‘The Leftovers’ Finale: Damon Lindelof on Whether Nora Is Telling the Truth
Did what Nora said happened really happen? We talk to the ‘Leftovers’ co-creator about Sunday night’s shocking, romantic, provocative finale—and the ‘truth,’ whatever it means.
The official synopsis for Sunday night’s series finale of The Leftovers, titled “The Book of Nora,” may have been triggering for fans of the HBO drama: “Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.”
It turns out, that’s exactly what happened—and it was extremely satisfying.
The series ends with a flash-forward that was teased in the season premiere, to Australia decades into the future where Nora (Carrie Coon, in convincing old age makeup) is living in self-inflicted exile. It turns out that Kevin (Justin Theroux, still impossibly handsome with the old age treatment) is there too, and has been for two weeks each year since the last time he and Nora saw each other, searching for his true love.
The episode begins with Nora—at least seemingly—going through with the procedure that would remove her from this earth and transport her to the other side to reunite with her children and husband, who had departed seven years earlier. But before we can see what happens to her, the episode skips in time to older Nora in Australia. And that’s when Kevin finds her.
First he tries to pretend that their shared, unpleasant past never happened, so that they can start anew. When she doesn’t buy it, he tells her about his annual trips to find her. Nora, in turn, tells him that the procedure actually worked. She did go to the other side, an alternate universe where everyone who departed was living. “Over here, we lost some of them. Over there, they lost all of us.”
She explains that she found her family, but they had moved on and even seemed happy. “In a world full of orphans, they still had each other,” she said. “And I was a ghost. I was a ghost who had no place there. And that, Kevin, is when I changed my mind.” So she tracked down the scientist who built the machine that transported her there, and then had him build one to transport her back.
Is Nora telling the truth?
We sat down with Damon Lindelof, the LOST alum who co-created the series with Tom Perrotta and co-wrote the final episode, to find out just that. We had a sprawling conversation about the finale and the series, including the fact that he first had the idea of the alternate universe where the departed live while shooting the show’s pilot.
But as for whether we should take her story as the truth, Lindelof says he had a definite intention while writing it but—fascinatingly—never even shared that intention with Coon. And beyond that, well, he’d rather just let the mystery be.
Here’s our (long) conversation. But if you watched The Leftovers as obsessively as most fans, we think you’ll enjoy it.
When I watched the finale I thought, “Oh, a happy ending!” But the more I sat with it I wondered if it really was.
Oh man. I think I feel the same way that you do, which is both things are true. I think that we know what the difference is between a happy ending and a sad ending. The ending of Seven is not a happy ending. That’s empirically not good. But I think the ending of The Leftovers series hopefully feels the same way that the ending of the seasons did, which was these characters are much better off than in the place where we left them. Kevin and Nora are going to go on living beyond the ending of this finale, but hopefully now we’re no longer worried about whether or not they’re going to be able to be together.
At the same time, there is a certain sadness to the world that they’re living in that feels authentic to the world we’re living in. I don’t get along with people who don’t want to experience sadness or suffering in their lives, or reject those ideas because that’s just part of the human experience. You can’t have happiness if you have nothing to compare it to. So to me, I feel it’s as happy of an ending as The Leftovers is capable of.
They’re together, but Nora never actually reunited with her kids.
There’s a number of different ways of looking at that. One potential interpretation is that that didn’t happen at all. That she chickened out and got out of the voice and put herself in self-induced exile and made the story up because it was the story that she needed to tell herself and the story that Kevin needed to hear for them to be together. That’s a cynical interpretation, but it’s one that I’ve heard.
Yes, I’m sure there will be a lot of people who think she made it all up.
Another interpretation is that when she saw her children and they were happy that she suddenly realized, “Who am I to come jamming into their happiness after seven years. There’s not a place for me in this unit anymore.” Not to mention that her husband has been cheating on her and he’s with another woman and her children have learned to be without her. So she must learn, too.
But if you take her story at face value, there’s nobility in her gesture. I think Nora is an incredibly brave and stoic character, and the idea that she went all the way to the top of Everest and then just didn’t plant her flag there. She realized, “Oh. Why did I need to climb Everest again? I think it’s time for me to go back down to the mountain and reevaluate things.” I think there’s nobility in that, too.
Kevin says he believes her. Does he?
Should we believe her?
I can’t tell you what to believe and what not to believe in a show that is based on people telling insane stories. I think that Kevin does believe her and he is the audience’s proxy. Nora is surprised. She’s like, “You do?” Because the story is so incredible, if you really sit and listen to what she says happened to her and, more importantly, how she says she got back. But hopefully it becomes, over time, less and less important whether it is literally true and more and more important that it was emotionally true. I’ve learned the hard way not to tell the audience what to believe and what to think and what to feel.
I’m still yelling into the sky, “They weren’t dead the whole time!” about LOST. People are like, “Yeah they were.” I’m like, I made the show! Isn’t my word worth anything? They’re like, well, we have our interpretations. So I’m letting go of what I want people to believe and feel. We’ve presented our best version of the show. We had very clear intention as writers writing it. But then Carrie and I never talked about Nora’s story.
You and Carrie never talked about whether Nora is telling the truth before she played that scene?
No! And we still haven’t. She just played it. [Director] Mimi Leder and I, we talked about the scene, but Mimi didn’t say, “Is this the truth?” It was really just, “This is how I want to shoot this,” and then Perata were standing in Australia when we shot and Carrie just did it. All I can tell you is that as a human being, I stopped being like “I wrote this scene and this is what I wanted Carrie to do in this scene” and I just listened to her play it. It became this other thing. I’m not entirely sure whether or not I believe her. I just know what my intention was, which I’m of course not going to tell you.
And that’s exactly what everyone wants to know: what your intention was, if it was the truth.
Well. My intention was for Nora’s story to be the bridge that brought her and Kevin back together, and its truthfulness is irrelevant. That was the intention.
Anyone who’s watched these three seasons is constantly wondering what happened to this people who departed. Whether or not it’s true, Nora presents a version of what happened to them. How did you come up with the scenario that Nora presents?
When we were shooting the pilot, we were doing this scene that opens the pilot where the mother loses her baby from the back seat. Pete Berg was directing the pilot and I said to him, I don’t know if HBO is going to pick up the pilot. So if we just want to construct an hour-long version of The Leftovers that felt like it was complete, wouldn’t it be cool if the last scene—and this wasn’t in the script at all—we return to the scene from the point of the view of the baby.
The baby is crying and crying. We hear the mom on the phone and then the mom just cuts off. Then the camera tilts to the front of the car and the mom is gone. Then you hear a guy out with a shopping cart calling for his son. You realize that we just flipped it. From their point of view, 98 percent of the world disappeared. Why don’t we just shoot that? Pete Berg said we don’t have time in our schedule. But that was the first time that idea occurred to me, that it could be a possible explanation.
That’s interesting. Because the book doesn’t say what happened to them, right?
Perrotta [who wrote the book the show is based on], when he and I first met, I said I know you’re never going to tell, but do you know where everybody went? He said, “I’m going to be honest with you: I just really haven’t even thought about it.” That was fascinating. I was like, I don’t know if I can write this show if I don’t at least have an idea of maybe where they went. I’m totally comfortable with maybe never answering the question, but I need to know they went somewhere. Where that place is I don’t think we ever need to define, but I don’t want to think they blipped out of existence. And he was like, “Do whatever you need to do, buddy.” So that idea goes all the way back to the beginning. Again, I’m not saying that is where they went. I’m saying that is the story Nora tells.
The season opens with a Millerite woman in the 1800s doubling down on her faith over and over again, eventually isolating herself from everyone. What context does the finale give to that opening sequence, or vice versa: what context does that sequence give to the finale?
That’s a great question. I’ve done a lot of press about the finale and you’re the first person to ask it. The cop-out would be, “What do you think it means?” I can tell you what our intention was, which is there is a price for that level of devotion. There’s something to respect about the loyalty of that belief and to say no matter how ludicrous the belief I’m going to keep going up on that roof and over and over again. But how many times do you have to go up on that roof before you realize it ain’t going to happen for you?
But to answer your question more directly: What is the price of that level of devotion? Well, you lose the people that you love. This woman had to make a choice between her husband and her son, and going up on the roof. She chose going up on the roof and she basically lost them as a result.
It’s faith, but at what cost.
Through the lens of that idea as it relates to this finale, Nora and Kevin create a very specific belief system so that they can be together. Belief systems usually push people apart. In this case, Kevin created a new belief system—or tried to—which is, “Hey, all those unpleasant things that happened to us never happened. Let’s start over. Want to go to a dance with me?”
She rejected his belief system and then she told him a story that she thought would push him away but ended up bringing them back together again. I think through the lens of beliefs, storytelling as a way of bringing family back together as opposed to pushing them apart. Which is the way we tend to look at cults. They come in and they brainwash you. They steal you away. They cut you off from the people that you love. I think that the cult of Kevin and Nora is more powerful than the Millerites.
When Kevin says what he did, using his two weeks of vacation each year to travel to Australia to look for Nora, is such a huge, romantic gesture. What makes their relationship earn that huge gesture?
Wow. Um. I guess all along. I think from the moment that Kevin says that horrible thing to Nora in the hotel room, hopefully we knew as writers that he was going to have to atone for this. It may be true what he said and he may be dealing with his own pain but that’s a horrible thing that he said. What does atonement look like? You look not just to Judeo-Christian writings, which the show leans on heavily, where the Jews have to wander the desert for 40 years before they reach the promised land, but there’s a lot of punishment involved and self-imposed guilt.
Then there’s just, like, grand, sweeping romance stories, which we reference—if not inadvertently troll—when we say that Kevin has written a romance novel in this other world. It’s like Cold Mountain. What do these characters have to do in order to be together again? I think that idea of, “I’ve been looking for you all this time because I realized I made a huge mistake and once I found you my faith was validated, and now I have to build a construct in which I never made that mistake in the first place, because I don’t know how to say to you I’m sorry, or that I fucked up.” It’s very Leftovers-y.
And very Kevin.
I think at the end of the day, when we first talking about Kevin, Perrotta and I both agreed that the antihero thing had been done to death. I love Breaking Bad. I love Mad Men. I love The Sopranos. I love The Shield. But Kevin is a good guy. He’s a flawed guy. But he’s a real hero. What does a hero do when they make a mistake? They make the grand romantic gesture. Especially because he’s telling that story instead of us seeing it in a montage as music plays, the years of him showing the photograph everywhere.
What I love about Justin’s performance in that scene is that he’s saying the most romantic thing ever but he’s really angry while he’s saying it. He’s dropping F-bombs everywhere. It’s sort of like, wow, this is a really beautiful thing you did but you’re really pissed and bitter about it. That felt super Leftovers-y, too.
People talk about The Leftovers in these grand ideas of grief and faith and death. When you’re crafting a finale for show that people talk about not only in these big themes but also in their personal relationships to those themes and how they see that in the show, how do you think about that? Do you feel like you have to give something to those people who have such an intimate connection to those ideas?
I think the last part of what you said is probably the most important, which is that, yeah, people can talk about the show theologically or thematically or philosophically, and there are this big, grandiose religious ideas swirling around it. But most of the time they just talk about their feelings. The fact is that there are some shows that we watch—and it isn’t that they aren’t great shows—but it isn’t about feelings. It’s about plot or even attachment to characters. But when people engage with me on The Leftovers, they say, “This is the feeling it evoked.”
Even season one, which as you know was divisive at best, the glass half empty [point of view was]: it was unwatchable. The glass half full: It was hard to watch. The people were still saying, “I hated this show.” Or, “This show moved me.” They were using emotional language to describe it, and that’s the way they’ve always talked about The Leftovers. And that’s not necessarily the way I talk about a show like Breaking Bad, which I loved and certainly had a great emotional attachment to it, but it was thriving on a different energy.
There’s a different energy to people’s devotion to The Leftovers.
So I was like, The Leftovers finale just has to basically make people feel something that is organic to the world of The Leftovers. Like you said, I’d like it to be a happy ending, in the same way that the ending of season one was a happy ending and the ending of season two was a happy ending, which is that it’s a happy ending on The Leftovers’ terms. It doesn’t feel forced. It doesn’t feel cheated. It doesn’t feel too cute.
I definitely don’t want it to feel bleak. I want people to feel like these characters went on a journey, and they’re not back to the blank board. It’s not square one. They really evolved. But it’s still going to be a struggle, because if it’s not going to be a struggle then it’s not fair. Then we cheated.
So when your finale is basically chasing an energy… like, when I sat there in Australia and watched Carrie film that scene, I got emotional. I got really sad. People don’t want to be sad. I think that’s probably why only 11 people watched The Leftovers. On Sunday night do you want to be sad? Do you want to turn on the television show that will make you sad? I do. Sad is part of the game. So I wanted the finale to evoke strong feelings.
Finally, I want to thank you for reassuring us all that Justin Theroux is still impossibly attractive in old age.
He is. Goddamn it, there’s nothing we can do to that guy to make him unattractive. He’s gorgeous.