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The Leftovers Is Damon Lindelof's Definitive Work

Closure remained intentionally, tantalizingly out of reach in the post-apocalyptic drama.
  • Justin Theroux in The Leftovers (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Justin Theroux in The Leftovers (Photo: Everett Collection)

    While promoting The Leftovers ahead of its premiere in 2014, series co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta hit on one theme particularly hard: There would be no answers about the nature of the Departure, in which 2% of the world’s population disappeared without a trace. Much like the tortured characters, the audience would never learn where all those people went, nor what happened to them or why. It wasn’t hard to see this as a reaction to the infamously divisive finale of Lost — which was still getting Lindelof so much hate he left Twitter — but it was also a necessary scene setting. 

    Compared to Lindelof’s previous show or even blockbusters like Prometheus, The Leftovers is something of a cult fascination, eking out three seasons on HBO in the midst of peak TV. And yet, it marked a creative rejuvenation for Lindelof as it grew steadily into one of the defining achievements of the last decade of television. 

    Those seeds are evident even in the first season (which received mixed reviews but had its early defenders), following the plot of Perotta’s novel as it floats between the members of a family who didn’t lose anyone in The Departure but nonetheless have split: Mapleton police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and son Tommy (Chris Zylka). Perhaps its best choice was expanding two characters and giving them standalone episodes: Matt Jamieson (Christopher Eccleston) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), the latter of whom would eventually become a co-lead and give one of the best performances of the last decade. 

    Whereas Lost dabbled in mysteries like a hatch and a polar bear, The Leftovers trafficked in weirdness with the likes of the Guilty Remnant, a cult of chain-smoking mutes dressed in all white and led by Patti (Ann Dowd), antagonizing people into remembering that everyone left. Admittedly, that first season can be a bit of a rough watch. Lindelof has said he was heavily depressed during the writing of it, and that comes across in the level of grieving and searching for meaning throughout. But the weirdness still shines through, like when Nora, a woman who lost her husband and kids in the Departure, hires a sex worker to come and fire a pistol at her while she wears a bulletproof vest. 

    It’s the second and third seasons that feel truly free. In an even bolder gambit from Lost’s many openings, both start with lengthy prologues following completely disconnected characters from far-flung times before segueing into the main narrative. There’s no overt attempt to bridge the gaps between these moments, simply thematic resonance of apocalyptic occurrences and lost faith. One could get the sense that Lindelof and co. were still a tad apprehensive about whether an audience would really, as the Leftovers theme song went, let the mystery be. The reasons and mechanics of the Departure had ceased mattering to viewers, but the characters would never get away from them so easily, even if they moved halfway across the country. 

    The Leftovers fully embraced the supernatural and spiritual elements that floated throughout the first season but crucially left some room for ambiguity. Answers would be given, some more plausible than others (e.g., Nora does not appear to be a manifestation of the demon Azazel). But the answers were more often than not irrelevant; what mattered was what one took away from the show and where they decided to go from there.

    Lindelof’s later works would embrace this further by throwing in small weird bits of world-building and offering viewers the chance to dive in deeper if they so wanted. Sure, you could learn the identity of the Lube Man in Watchmen by looking through Peteypedia, but his scene functions just as well as a funny non sequitur. In that way, Lindelof’s post-Lost work shows a sort of playfulness, some might call it silliness even, which fully came through once he overcame the bout of depression that figured heavily into Season 1. 

    The Leftovers can also be seen as the start of a period of atonement for Lindelof. Mauren Ryan’s Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, an excerpt of which was published in Vanity Fair in 2023, detailed his behavior during his time on Lost, including the claim that Harold Perrineau was fired because he “called [Lindelof] racist.” With The Leftovers, Lindelof seemed to acknowledge he needed a more diverse crew of writers and directors, so he recruited Nicole Kassell, Lila Byock, Mimi Leder, and Carl Franklin, some of whom would go on to write and direct on Watchmen. But it wasn’t until he examined his behavior on the set of Lost with Ryan at length that Lindelof realized how bad it was. 

    Lindelof cited inexperience as one of the causes for his behavior and expressed regret for how things turned out. Taken in concert with Watchmen’s focus on the insidiousness of white supremacy and Black people’s reclamation of their history in the U.S., The Leftovers’ recurring motifs of guilt, atonement, and regret — which were likely shaped by Lindelof’s collaborators – come into sharp relief. Although he features heavily in the writing credits on many of his shows, it is perhaps notable that his only solo credit to date is the premiere episode of Watchmen; television is a medium of collaboration, after all. At the very least, The Leftovers made a greater attempt to give the people of color in the show proper send-offs, while ensuring that they remained integral to the whole of the final season (as seen by John Murphy and Laurie getting together). 
    Moreso than even Lost, The Leftovers provides a lodestone for a lot of Lindelof’s pet themes. There’s faith and spirituality, of course. The puzzles introduced that may or may not have a solution and if they do, the solutions end up not mattering. Most of all, there’s the enduring power of true love to persist and carry on despite all manner of tragic circumstances and rifts. 

    The Leftovers is an often stunning achievement of television, for both Lindelof and the broader medium, bolstered by career-best performances from much of the cast (not to mention the launching pad for Carrie Coon, Margaret Qualley, and Jasmin Savoy-Brown, among others). Others shows might make a running gag out of Perfect Strangers star Mark Linn-Baker faking his own departure; precious few would think to turn that into one of the most devastating moments on a series brimming with them. 

    Freed from the need to explain, Lindelof and co. were able to explore all the messy facets of human behavior and connection. Most of all, the show dug into the impossibility of existing in the face of such overwhelming grief; everyone seeking closure for their gaping wounds and learning to live with the idea that they may never get it. One could easily imagine it being a blueprint for Lindelof’s future work; Mrs. Davis dove headfirst into mocking his habit of puzzle boxes and disappointing answers, as well as his focus on religion, while being truly one of the most whacked-out things anyone’s ever put on television.  

    Above all, The Leftovers feels like a show that will only grow in relevance as the years pass. After all, we’ll never stop grieving; there will always be another tragedy to shake our faith in God or the universe, closure we can never quite reach. But the one thing that is certain is the overwhelming power of love in all its forms: familial, romantic, and platonic. We may not ever solve anything, but perhaps we can learn to live with it. 

    Devan Suber is a writer living in Philadelphia.

    TOPICS: The Leftovers