The drama is returning April 16 for an eight-episode run that surpasses what’s come before in terms of imagination and oddity. Co-created by Lindelof (previously showrunner of Lost) and novelist Tom Perrotta (on whose book it’s based), the show takes place in a world in which two percent of the world’s population has mysteriously vanished. The series has moved through its own stages of grief, from the relentless grimness of the first season to a third and final season, largely set in Australia, that’s increasingly light on its feet.
The new season begins with a wordless sequence in which a woman, in the 1840s, stands on a roof isolated in her faith in a coming rapture. In its present-day storyline, characters are as committed to their belief that, after years of tribulation, the world’s about to end once and for all, and act out their preparations in every direction imaginable.
Its twists aren’t revealed in a conversation with Lindelof—they’re worth discovering at the show’s own pace. But the writer told TIME about how the show’s evolved, mistakes he made early on and how the show has changed his perspective on faith.
TIME: Does your work on a show about cataclysmic events feel more urgent to you than when you started the show, for any reason?
Lindelof: We convened the writers’ room for season 3 in January of 2016 and concluded in August and we were very optimistic about the future. Our assessment of the end of the world was meant to be purely fictional and we didn’t anticipate it getting perceived as a dark commentary on our times.
That said, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that every generation has the narcissism to believe that the world is going to end on our watch. Ever since recorded history, certainly Biblical history—Reza Aslan, who is a consultant, he would talk about eschatology and the end of the world, and when he said the New Testament was first written, all the Christians thought the world was going to end in their lifetime, and only after it didn’t end did they start pushing back the proverbial release date. For a show that’s about an unconventional apocalypse, it felt like the most apropos ending for the series would be the perceived arrival of a literal apocalypse.
The Leftovers isn’t quite post-apocalyptic; years have passed since the Departure and the characters we’ve met continue to muddle on, even if they’re metabolizing the trauma poorly. There seems to be some hope in that, at least.
This may sound like a joke, given what the show’s reputation is, but for the people who watch it, I feel like every season ends with that glimmer of hope that you describe. Most religions are built around the idea of a lot of suffering, but the reward for suffering is some level of enlightenment, if not release from that suffering. I think about it in much simpler terms, which is, it’s about grace. It’s about the human fundamental of grace. And I think that if you are a believer in some sort of organized religion, or disorganized religion, you want that grace to be given to you by a deity or some other power. But for the rest of us, who aren’t members of major religions, the grace can only really be given by people close to you, the ones that you love, or by yourself. And I think the show’s much more interested in the latter than the former.
Has working on this show changed your perspective on matters of the spiritual world?
I think that my perspective is kind of evolving. Before I began the process of working on The Leftovers, it started for me with reading Tom’s book. And Tom’s book felt profoundly beautiful and profoundly sad to me. And I wanted to conjure up that same energy in the show. As we’ve gone along, what I think I’ve found is that I want to feel that there’s an end in sight. How can that be achieved? I think I had a lot of disdain for bulls–t, for fairy stories, for pretend, in terms of finding release from that pain. But I’ve become somewhat enamored of those stories, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for believers, even if I disagree with the system of belief that they’re engaging in. If they’re not hurting anyone, particularly if that belief system is creating a tremendous amount of empathy and philanthropy in the world, it can be a beautiful thing too. I started on a parabola of, “Oh my God, how can you believe that ridiculous thing?,” and now I’m at a place of, “Hey, if believing that makes you feel better and makes you a better person, Vaya con dios.” I think that’s pretty cool.
The opening scene of season 3 calls to mind—fairly explicitly, I think—the Great Disappointment, the 1844 incident in which members of a religious movement were let down by a predicted rapture not happening. Like followers of the religious leader Harold Camping several years back, they prompt a feeling of superiority from nonbelievers, because they don’t know all we know—and yet the Millerite woman you depict is so movingly enriched by her lonely belief.
I think that there’s something deeply moving, noble, and admirable about people who keep doubling down. Matt Jamison is the demonstrable force on the show. As a man of God, the Departure gave him every reason to defrock himself [and say], “There is no God,” but he doubled down over and over again. I do have admiration for that. The other way of looking at it is, how many times do you have to get up on the roof before you quit, and to what end. That’s what faith is. I do think there’s something lovely and poetic about it. Mimi Leder, who directed the first episode and basically runs the production in Texas and Australia, has spent as much time preparing for that opening sequence as she did for the rest of the episode combined, just because she wanted to get everything exactly right. For us, the storytelling on The Leftovers is always the theological, the philosophical—but at its core, it’s, can we get them to care about a character that they’ve only known for three minutes? And that person will never speak a word, and there’s kind of cheesy music playing underneath. Can you pivot off of, “Oh my God, what an idiot,” to, “I feel profoundly sorry for this individual.” And that was the intention and hopefully people will go down that path.
With the entire production now in the rear-view, do you feel happy with the decisions you made early on, even knowing you may have alienated some potential viewers in favor of a more dedicated base viewership?
If I’d known then what I know now, I would have done things differently, for sure. Essentially, I wanted the world to be one thing, in a world where the Departure happened and 140 million people disappeared, there could only be darkness and despair and intensity. There were many people around me—the writers, the directors, the actors—and I started listening more and enforcing my own will less and the show became a much better thing as a result of it.
But I also think if I hadn’t made those mistakes, I never would have learned. You have to be able to fail in order to achieve anything great. I don’t regret the first season of the show. Of course, I wish when people were talking about The Leftovers, they didn’t say, “Well, the first season was unrelentingly bleak, but if you can get through that, it’s worth it. It’d be great for people to say, “It’s amazing from the word ‘go.’” But having had the reverse experience on Lost—where it burst out of the gate and everybody loved it, before the only parabola that remained, and this is not me saying there weren’t qualitative dips along the way, we all know there were—the precipice was so high that it was all the farther to fall. The good thing about The Leftovers not necessarily knowing itself out of the gate and finding itself along the way is that it does build in intensity and I think it was exciting for the audience to see it find itself and start to key in.
A premium-cable outlet like HBO will allow far more creative freedom than a broadcast network. Were certain issues with the first season a result of simply having more toys to play with?
There were a lot of factors, obviously. Emotionally, where my headspace was when I was making the first season of The Leftovers, I was very much in that space of Lost had ended, and the way that it had ended, and sort of processing all that and still being interested in the same themes and dynamics as always but wanting to figure out a new way to tell that story and also just figuring out the collaboration with Tom Perrotta and an entirely new group of writers—the growing pains were to be expected. I think I was in a dark place when I was writing the first season of the show, and the show really reflected that, and as I started to come out of the darkness, so did the show. I still think even the second season deals with some very intense stuff, but I think there’s more of a spectrum of the rainbow, so it’s not just all the dark colors. There’s a little bit of yellow and orange in there as well, which is important. My eyes were not attuned to picking up those particular frequencies of light at that point in time.
The novel The Leftovers never explains where the disappeared people went. While it’s not worth asking whether the show will, do you know where they went?
That is a very clever way of presenting that question. We talked rather extensively about this as the show premiered, in its first season, because we didn’t want the audience to have an expectation that the show wasn’t interested in delivering upon. And what I will say is that the first two seasons, none of the characters on the show were particularly preoccupied with the answer to that question. They were just sort of dealing with the fallout and the repercussions of the departure. None of them were asking that question, and therefore it didn’t become relevant to us. If you are like Mulder and Scully, your job is to solve the X-Files. That’s why there’s no one on the show whose job it is to solve the sudden departure.
What I would say is, if in the third season the characters were incentivized to begin wondering where those people went and why them, if something were to happen like the end of the world was approaching and suddenly that answer became relevant to them, then that’s a question the show has to take on. That’s a story we’ve withheld until now, but now that we’re in the final chapter, we would be neglecting a very obvious thing people would be thinking and doing in the final days, potentially, of their lives on earth, if they were not contemplating where everybody went.
Maybe it’s the social-media age, but it does seem as though the pressure on shows to find a perfect ending has increased even since Lost left the air. Finales have to be both incredibly artful and quite explanatory. Did you find yourself needing to check boxes when planning the show?
Well, I think that there is an aspect of the show that is meant to be highly interpretive. But it always annoys me, as a fan of shows, when people are like, “That’s up to you to figure out.” When you’re writing from a place of confidence and saying “I know what the answer is here,” the audience can feel that, and an episode like “International Assassin” [the surreal season 2 episode in which Justin Theroux’s character seems to fantasize a scenario in which he’s tasked to kill a senator] airs and the audience doesn’t really want explanation. When the audience as a whole is demanding explanation, that usually means you’ve built your story on a shoddy foundation—at least that’s what I tell myself when I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
It’s interesting that there’s not, to my knowledge, a massive culture of forecasting and interpreting around The Leftovers the way there is with other shows.
The itch you’re scratching at is the mystery itch. There’s a difference between “Who killed Laura Palmer?,” which is a mystery the show owes us, and requires an explanation, and then, “What is the meaning of life and why is this character behaving the way they are?,” The more you explain, the more ridiculous it seems, because everybody behaves in ridiculous ways that don’t make any sense. There are great paradoxes and I think that speaking as a liberal in this day and age since the election, the whole idea of “This doesn’t make any sense to me and there’s no amount of explaining that makes it make sense,” it’s about living and struggling to make sense of things that don’t necessarily follow the rules that you subscribe to. All in all, particularly for a show like The Leftovers, which deals with mystery in an entirely different way than Lost did, I think that we have a lot more latitude to experiment, when the audience doesn’t require a chapter-and-verse explanation of unpacking all the weird things we do. It either makes sense to them, or it doesn’t.