Spoilers ahead for The Leftovers season-three premiere.
The final surprise in The Leftovers’ season-three opener raises more questions than it answers: A solitary woman in late middle age bikes through hill and dale, pulling along a cage full of doves, which she delivers to a nun, who asks her, “Does the name Kevin mean anything to you?” The woman says, “No,” as we see her face for the first time: Nora Durst, aged about ten years from the way she looks in “present day” Texas. The final scene doesn’t last very long, but it seems to matter a lot. It plays masterfully on audience expectations, and it would never have worked without both careful planning and the flexibility to throw careful plans out the window.
Even Carrie Coon, who plays Nora, was initially taken by surprise. Showrunner Damon Lindelof tends to dole out information about script twists on a need-to-know basis, and Coon had no idea why she was called in for extensive “makeup tests” in early days on set. “Nobody would tell me, and I don’t think anyone else knew either,” she says. “I knew some of the clothing I had on looked postapocalyptic, so my imagination was running wild.”
Both the makeup and the Big Reveal were adjusted constantly to dial the subtlety up or down. That early makeup test, using a silicone prosthetic, was too heavy — more useful when actors are aged 20 years or more. “The directive for the makeup was not to make it look like old-age makeup,” says Lindelof. Instead, they used a thick liquid that can be molded to add wrinkles and reduce youthful elasticity. Coon’s wig was made out of virgin (untreated) 60-year-old hair. And then on set, after all that simplifying, Lindelof had the makeup team apply 50 percent more. Coon still isn’t sure Nora’s age difference is clear enough in her body. “It helps to sell your makeup if you squint a little bit,” she says, but “seeing the way I’m moving” in the finished episode, “I wish I had adjusted more. I think she might have a little bit more wear and tear.”
The reveal, too, was recalibrated on the fly. For Lindelof and episode director Mimi Leder, the worry was never that you could recognize her, but that the surprise wouldn’t register. At the moment when we first see Nora’s face, Leder had blocked out a 180-degree camera turn to Coon’s right as she turned her head (picture Coon’s head and the camera making two 180-degree turns, forming a full circle). But Nora is lying when she says her final word, “No” — we know very well that the name “Kevin” means a lot to her. Coon thought Nora, the show’s truth-teller, would never lie to a nun’s face. The other problem was aesthetic. “You’ve very aware of the camera. It was trying too hard,” Leder says. “I felt it needed to be more organic, simple. It didn’t need any tricks.” So Leder changed the plan. Now Coon takes her cap off (to show her face better), and the camera simply pans up on her face, turned away from the nun — whom we still see over Coon’s shoulder.
But now Lindelof felt the final moment was too natural. “It was all hanging on Carrie’s makeup,” he says, “and the scene was moving so fast. I just wanted to clarify that we actually had to retard that moment. Mimi’s inclination is never to do the telenovela thing” — the melodramatic pause — “but in this case, it was exactly what we needed. It’s the last moment of the premiere.”
What was Coon thinking as they prodded her this way and that? “I was so worried about going up that hill with those pigeons, and I was trying not to hurt them and not to show my face. And then, before you know it, you’re just saying ‘No.’ I don’t remember why they made the decision to do it the way they did. I’m just impressed that they managed to hold that pause on the word ‘No.’” At least, by that point, she knew what it all meant.