Why Sunday Night’s Episode of The Leftovers Was Inspired by Matt Zoller Seitz

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Photo: Ben King/HBO

It’s no secret that Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s HBO series The Leftovers, which is ending its run this year, is one of my favorite dramas. I put it on my list of the best shows of the year in 2015, and I’ve written at some length about particular episodes and character arcs. I was not surprised to learn that Lindelof read my writing, but I was surprised to learn it had affected the show itself. He recently told me that episode five of the series was a response to my writing, and that, beyond that, some aspects of it were drawn from my life or what he imagined my life to be, particularly in the years that followed my wife Jennifer’s 2006 death from a previously undiagnosed heart problem. When I saw the episode, I had a complicated reaction. I was moved. Maybe flattered in some vague way. But also confused and maybe a bit dumbfounded. Frankly, I had just never had anything like this happen to me before. So, I reached out to Damon Lindelof, and here he is.

We were talking about the show last month, and as we were emailing, you told me that this particular episode had something to do with me and — well, maybe you should just tell it.
We spoke the last time about how you wrote a piece after the second season had finished saying there should be another season of The Leftovers, and you made a very compelling argument as to why. And that very day the show got picked up for a third season. I got a call from [former HBO president of programming] Michael Lombardo. And I was very tempted to say to Mike, “Did you read the Vulture piece?” But I was just so grateful that he had picked us up that I didn’t want to push my luck.

You look for signs and moments in your life, and you connect them whether they’re meant to be connected or not, and so the idea that I read this piece you had written, which made an impassioned case for the show coming back, and then right on the heels of that I got the phone call — it was very hard for me not to feel this emotional gratitude toward you. And not just you obviously. A number of other critics stuck their necks out and championed the show, and I think that there was critical mass. But the timing there was very specific.

In addition to that, you had also written about episode five of season two, the Matt Jamison episode, “No Room at the Inn,” where he is desperately trying to get back into Miracle when he is beaten up by the side of the road and his wristband gets taken and he’s just found out that his wife, Mary, is pregnant, and he believes that if he can get her back into Miracle that will protect the life of the child inside her and perhaps it will wake her up from her coma. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember you really, deeply connecting to that episode, and maybe even saying it was your favorite of the season.

It was. I make a list of the best individual episodes every year, and that was my No. 1 for that year.
And obviously when “International Assassin” aired there was just massive consensus that “Oh my god, that’s my favorite episode,” and you can draw all sorts of conclusions about that, but I think that even after you’d seen “International Assassin,” you doubled down and you were like, “Okay, ‘International Assassin’ is great or good,” but you were still sticking to your guns on episode five.

So, coming into the third season of the show, we obviously knew that we were going to do another Matt Jamison episode, and I definitely had it in my head that you were connected to that character. I was like, I have to do Matt Seitz proud on this Matt episode. I can’t set the bar at it’s got to be better than the last one, but at the very least it has to demonstrate new colors for Matt Jamison. It’s going to hit the same thematic drumbeat, but there has to be a couple of new instruments mixed in there. And at the same time I’m not writing it solely for you, but I had it in the back of my head.

I think you wrote a piece about Jen, your wife, in like the spring of 2016.

It was, that was the tenth anniversary of her death, actually. April 27 of last year.
And you and I have never had a conversation about your loss.

No, not until this very moment.
First off, I want to say my deepest condolences. As someone who has been incredibly happily married with the woman that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with, I can’t even put into words how devastating that loss would be. And the fact that you write about her and particularly that piece — which I think may be the first time that I learned that you had suffered that loss, but again I’m not entirely sure. And there are things that jump out, that I remember very specifically from that piece. One was you kind of went on a bender and you regained consciousness in a hotel with no memory of how you got there. And that connected to the way we use hotels on the show with a great degree of specificity, as these places that don’t have character but feel like intermediary, purgatorial spaces. The other thing, also relating to hotels, that I remember about that piece is that you were reflecting on some memory you had with Jen where you guys had gotten in a massive fight and you were walking back to your hotel room and there was a fork sitting in the middle of the hallway?

That was actually an ex-girlfriend. But that was in the section of it about how I always get my back up when I hear a complaint about a movie or a television show or a novel that dialogue was too on-the-nose, that symbolism was too on-the-nose, and so forth. Dreams are on-the-nose and life is on-the-nose. And that was just one example of that. Like, here we were about to break up, it was pretty clear to us that we were going to break up that night –
Put a fork in it.

Exactly. Well, that, too — but also the idea of a fork in the road. There was literally a fork in the road on the way to the hotel room! It was a symbolically resonant image, so much so that my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, who also was a writer, took a picture of it.
Of the fork?

She just started laughing and said, “I have to get a picture of this.”
Here’s what’s amazing to me about the story, or at least what occurred to me when I read it was, like, somebody put their room-service tray out in the hallway, and room service came and picked it up and the fork fell off. That’s the story. And all of a sudden this fork now has meaning. Isn’t that just religion writ large? Like, isn’t that the whole ball of wax right there, something completely and totally devoid of meaning can suddenly have meaning if you put it in the proper context. That jumped out at me, too.

And so, I had you on the brain, right around the time that we were starting to talk about episode five, which we decided to title, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” because we wanted it to have that 1960s caper energy. It’s not like I wrote it for you; that’s too weird. There are certain things we’ve done for very specific critics — famously Andy Greenwald, we designed the entire opening of the second season, the cavewoman opening, just to piss him off, and were successful in doing so.

That’s even higher praise, I think.
You probably shouldn’t pick specific critics like that, but I always think of the movie The Natural and the relationship between Robert Redford and Duvall in that movie as the relationship that I have with some critics, where at least in the script that I’m writing in my head, there is a tremendous amount of mutual admiration, but there’s also a tremendous amount of danger. Because, if you stop hitting the ball, if you start slumping, they’ll be your fiercest [detractor], they’ll turn on you lickety-split. And so, it’s a very dangerous dance.

There are certain pieces of critical writing that have just impacted me hugely; you’ve done some of it, Sepinwall has done some of it; Emily Nussbaum has had a tremendous effect on me emotionally. Heather Havrilesky wrote a piece about the Lost finale that I was dangerously obsessed with for almost a year.

I have to say that I felt understood by this show in a very deep way and that’s one of the reasons why I like it so much. Does it mean that I may inflate its quality for personal reasons? Who the hell knows? But I don’t really care. It’s very rare that you find a TV show that speaks to your specific circumstance, even though nothing that’s happening on this show, per se, has anything really to do with anything that I have experienced or probably will experience.

And I’m not just talking about the departure. I mean the family configurations, the traveling, where they live, how they live, all that stuff. I don’t have any tangible connection to any of that. I just know there’s something about the feeling of the show that returns me to that place that I was in in the months and years immediately following my wife’s death. And I like it.

Roger Ebert talks about movies as a machine that generates empathy. I think they can also generate other emotions, but I like the idea of this show being this machine or chamber that I can enter once a week, and it will return me to the emotional or mental space that I was in, and I don’t have to approximate it. It’s actually how I felt.
I hear everything that you’re saying, and obviously it’s no secret that The Leftovers is not a meditation on grief. But it is a show about different coping mechanisms that people employ for inexplicable loss, and the closest analog that we have in the real world is death.

And I do think that, if I’m dedicating the show to you, or writing to someone who’s suffered that sort of loss, it is a very universal idea — it’s not like you have to have lost someone that you care deeply about in order to understand The Leftovers, but I feel like once you hit 40, odds are you’ve lost someone really close to you. That’s unfortunately the world we live in. It is more abnormal when you’ve lost someone close to you who is your age or your peer. That’s not supposed to happen. There’s an unnatural quality to that, and it’s shocking and it’s sudden, as it was in your case, versus a long protracted battle with illness.

In 2002, when I was either 27 or 28, I was just working on a TV show called Crossing Jordan. I was just in the writers room, we were breaking an episode, and the office PA came in and said, “There’s a phone call for you, Damon,” and they called the main line, which was really weird. I just felt something in my body go on alert. I answered the phone and it was my dad’s cleaning lady, who had found him collapsed on his bathroom floor. In the space of 30 seconds, my entire life had changed and I would never speak to my father again. It was a week of very unpleasant medical decisions, but he was not conscious. And then he died.

And so there are just no words to describe the shift, in the lifting of the veil of illusion that we’re all safe and that everything’s going to be okay, when something like that happens. And when I read Tom Perrotta’s book, the departure was a big, grandiose, supernatural slash sci-fi mythological idea that completely and totally tapped that feeling in a way I’d never seen on the page before. I was like, “I’m sticking a faucet in that tree and I’m getting that sap out.” Like, “That’s what I want to write about.”

I guess my question, what I’m most curious, talking to you is, why Matt? Are you a religious guy? What is it about Matt Jamison that you connect to?

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Photo: Ben King/HBO

Holy shit. Let me think about that.
He hasn’t lost anyone. In fact, he got his life back.

Well, he got his life back, but not really. One of the reasons why I responded so strongly to that Matt Jamison episode in season two is because it reminded me of two things, neither of which you could know about because I don’t believe we’d even actually spoken at that time. And I don’t think very many people know this who are even close to me — my wife’s father has, since 1983, been caring for my mother-in-law, who had a stroke, and she’s paralyzed, mostly paralyzed down half of her body, and she’s in a wheelchair. And he is a dutiful, kind, gracious man with the patience of a saint. I mean, it’s unbelievable. And that entire relationship reminded me of them — reminded me of my first wife’s parents.

And oddly, or not oddly, I got married again in February. And my wife is my late first wife’s sister.
Really?

Jen was her younger sister, yes.
Wow. Wow. That’s incredible.

So anyway, I’ll just call them my father-in-law and mother-in-law again! I felt like I was granted a window into their world: that daily ritual of things that have to get done no matter what. And the person who does it is the spouse, so that was one thing.

And the other thing was, about a week before my wife died, we were on the subway with my daughter who, at the time, was about 8 and my son, who was 2. I had a bunch of, like, backyard stuff for some reason, and I was carrying it up the steps, and my wife had the stroller with our son in it, and she got up the steps ahead of me because I was carrying all these lawn chairs for some cockamamie reason. I remember watching her walk ahead of me when she got up to the street with that stroller and I noticed that she favored her left leg in a way that reminded me of the way that her mother favored one side of her body.

And, I thought, “Is she going to have a stroke too? And is my life going to be like her father’s life with her mother? And, if so, what’s that going to feel like? Am I going to have the patience for it? Am I going to have the fortitude for it?” And I remember very clearly thinking, “Well, she’s my wife, I’ll deal with it, it’ll be fine.” And then, very shortly after that, she just died. So, that’s one of the reasons why the Matt Jamison stuff hit me so hard.

But there’s also another thing, which is that you have on this show a number of people who are trying to narrativize what happened to them. They’re looking for meaning, they’re looking for a reason, they’re looking for a story. They’re trying to uncover what they believe is a hidden narrative behind this unbelievably senseless thing that happened to them, and indeed to everyone on the Earth at the same time.

And what the conceit of Tom Perrotta’s novel does, which is so ingenious, is: One of the problems that you often have in grief and mourning is, you’re going through a loss, but other people around you may not be, and so they don’t have that ability to grieve with you in exactly the way that you’re grieving, because they aren’t in that zone. But then, like, a month from now or a year from now they might be, but you’ll be out of it.

So we’re always out of sync as we grieve, as a species. We’re always out of sync. We’re always different proximities from death.
Right, and it’s not a universal idea. People use the word grieve like they use the word love, so if you say “I love you” to someone and they say “I love you too,” your brain says they’re just reciprocating the exact same emotional thing that I sent their way, but it’s not like the color blue where it’s an empirical thing, it’s an emotion, so if you’re grieving and someone says to you, “Hey, I lost my so-and-so five years ago, it gets better,” you want to cut their head off. But then five years later, you’re saying to someone who just lost someone, “It gets better.” We’re all stuck in that pattern, because you do empathize and you do want to help them build whatever that narrative is that you described.

And so this novel creates a scenario where every single person on the Earth has some connection to this loss that happened at exactly the same instant. Right? So it kind of puts everybody on the same page with regard to that.

But then once they get beyond that, everybody is responding to it in their own way. But a lot of them are trying to narrativize it. The Guilty Remnant are trying to narrativize it. Matt Jamison starts out trying to narrativize it in the first season when he’s letting people know what the sins of some of the departed were. Right?
He just wants to clear up the misapprehension that only good people were taken. So he wants to make it clear, this is not the rapture, people, because a lot of assholes disappeared. And the subject there is, “And I’m still here.” If I’m still here, it wasn’t a rapture.

Exactly. So you’ve got the Guilty Remnant offering one narrative and Matt Jamison offering a counter-narrative. And then you’ve got people who moved to Jardin because that town has its own particular narrative, which is, supposedly, apart from the rapture. But then, like, towering above all of them, in my opinion, is Matt. Because Matt has actually gone to the trouble of writing a gospel to explain this inexplicable thing that happened to Kevin, that can’t even be rationally verified and he has constructed, I call it “the New and Improved Testament.”

And this is a guy who — and this is another thing that resonated with me — is obsessed with the anniversary. The seventh anniversary. The seventh anniversary, not the fifth, not the tenth. That’s interesting. It reminded me of something I had written about in that very piece you described, which is this feeling that when the first anniversary of Jen’s death rolled around, I had to be sitting in the chair where she was when she died because I thought I would feel her spirit. And nothing happened. And the entire time I was sitting in the room with the door closed, the bedroom/work-space where we shared our life together. And I heard my children kept saying, “Dad, come out here. We’re doing karaoke. Dad, come out here.” And I was like, “Goddammit, I’m trying to grieve in here.” Then finally I went outside and sang “The Bare Necessities” with my children, and it turns out that’s probably how I should have been honoring her anyway.

But this idea that you have to feel a particular way on the anniversary of your loved one’s death or on Christmas or on Easter Sunday or whatever, Hanukkah, Ramadan, is pernicious and false, and it makes people feel guilty for not feeling a particular way.

And I just feel Matt doing that, and I feel him doing it over and over and trying to force other people to do it.
I will say, though, “The Bare Necessities” is kind of the perfect fork. Aren’t the lyrics of “The Bare Necessities” about forgetting about your worries and your strife, etcetera? If you’re looking through the Matt Jamison prism, which is you’re sitting in the chair looking for some sort of spiritual connection, and then that comes your way — Matt Jamison would basically be like, “That was God.” That’s the word that he would use. He’s the most overtly religious character in the show. And in Perrotta’s book, Matt Jamison, when the Departure happens, he just completely and totally loses his faith. Because he just defrocks himself.

I was like, is it more interesting if this is the guy who just keeps doubling down? That would be more interesting. Like, what things would he have to move around in his story in order to believe that this was all still a part of God’s plan? And then that’s when all the Job stuff started coming in. God and this angel, Hasatan, which I think is the nomenclature that finally became Satan, but this is in the Old Testament. They get into a discussion. And Hasatan is basically like, “All these people who worship you and love you, if you just shat all over them, if you punish them mercilessly, they would forsake you.” And God’s like, “I disagree.” Hasatan says, “All right, let’s pick someone and see what happens.” And they pick Job.

Job is a happily married guy and he’s got kids and he’s wealthy and he has land and cows and all this stuff, and God, one by one, strips all these things away from him. He kills Job’s wife, he kills his kids, he strikes his cattle with famine, and then, just to be a real dick, he covers Job in boils and makes Job sick. And all of Job’s friends start showing up to Job and saying, “You’re going to take this? Either there is no God or you’ve got to kind of forsake God’s name. Why do you still believe in this guy and why do you still care about this guy?” Job never wavers. And then, The Book of Job culminates in this epic showdown between God and Job, where you would expect that Job would say, “Explain yourself, why did you do this to me?” And instead, God just monologues for pages and pages about how fucking awesome he is, and how he can do whatever he wants, and he doesn’t owe anybody any explanations. Then he goes back to wherever God goes and snaps his fingers and everything is restored to Job. His wife’s back, his kids are back, land back, end of story.

It just felt like it was Matt Jamison to a T. And so we were like, in season three, Matt Jamison is going to have that conversation with God and God’s attitude is going to be, “Go fuck yourself.” But how do we do that in Leftovers language? That was the jumping-off point.

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Photo: HBO

It’s interesting, basically in this show you’ve got your own version of Job, but he’s a Job who wants to question God and force him to justify himself.
Correct. In the previous two seasons, his entire construct is: Yes, he is a man of God, yes, he is a religious man, but that was always anchored by Mary; we always felt empathy for him when we watched him care for Mary. The season-two episode is all about, “I need to take care of Mary, I need to get Mary back into Miracle, I love Mary.” And then we started talking about the third season, [and we asked], what if now that Mary is back, we begin to realize that Matt really only cares about himself. It’s not that he doesn’t love Mary; but now that he basically got his wish granted, that’s not enough. And what happens if Matt gets sick again? What if Matt’s cancer returns? How would he feel about that? Would he feel like, “Well, you know what, I’ve led a good life, and this is God’s plan”? Or would he be really angry about it and demand that God explain why he has given Matt cancer?

The first time we meet Matt Jamison in any real way is at the beginning of the third episode of the first season. He’s giving the sermon about how he was jealous of the fact that his parents had a baby sister and he prayed to God to make her go away: That’s Nora. And then he was diagnosed with leukemia. And he viewed that as punishment from God for being so selfish.

So these were all the ideas that were kind of swirling around as we began to talk about the final chapter for Matt Jamison, and obviously we will see him again after episode five, but I’m comfortable saying this is the last pure Matt episode.

But I’m curious, what’s your religious prism? Is there any religious construct in your life?

I went to church, I went to Sunday school every Sunday up until I was a teenager, and I stared at the picture of Christ on the wall and I read the scripture, and I’m more conversant in the Bible than probably a lot of secular Americans of my generation. But I always described myself as agnostic.

I will say that when Jen died I decided I was an atheist. It was partly a reaction to be told by friends, some of whom were religious and some of whom were merely repeating the bromides that you’re expected to receive in situations like this, that this was part of a plan. That it was God’s will, that there’s a reason why this happened. And my thinking was, well, if there was a reason why this happened then God is an idiot. Like, he did the math wrong. He needed to go back and check the math.

So I was very angry about that. My religious prism was “Fuck you, God,” if there is a God, and if you exist, then fuck you. And I did really enjoy that sequence in this episode. I was thinking, like, “What would I have asked God?” I am a considerably more thoughtful person, a considerably less selfish, myopic person than I was when Jen was alive. But if I could turn the clock back and be this less well-rounded individual and have her here … I used to say I would do that.

But now I’m not so sure. Because I’m married to Nancy, and I love Nancy and she’s amazing, and I’ve known her just as long as I’ve known Jen, and she’s a different person, but she’s equally fantastic. I don’t have suicidal thoughts anymore, you know? I don’t want to die anymore. I want to live. I don’t look back all the time. I’m looking ahead.

So I think that part of my life is over and — boy, this is way deeper than I thought it would get!
I’m glad it went here. The reason that I asked you the religion question is, I don’t know what this is based on, probably just narcissism, maybe based on some rudimentary sense that I assumed your last name could be Jewish. But I was like, “Oh, he’s Jewish like me.” Jews are kind of fascinated by Matt Jamison as well. And the show is really absent Judaism or any sort of Jewish voice. It has a very Old Testament vibe to it because the Old Testament God just offers no explanations. And so you have to figure it out for yourself. I was like, “I want a New Testament guy dealing with an Old Testament God.” That’s why [I compare Matt to] Job.

At the beginning of the scene, Matt doesn’t even think this guy is God. He’s angry at the fact that the guy is claiming to be God, which is personally offensive to him. But by the end of the scene, he starts asking him questions as if he is God because he needs somebody to answer these questions.

David Burton, who may have died and come back to life and certainly is meant to have some sort of mythic significance to the audience, because he’s played by the same actor whom Kevin experienced on both the bridge in “International Assassin” and then in the karaoke bar in the season-two finale; and so you’re kind of wondering, “Is this guy God?” Because he’s been presented in a supernatural context in the show.

And then, what happens to him at the end of this episode and Matt’s response to watching that happen, is it doesn’t matter if that guy was God or not. What matters to us as storytellers is, how does Matt Jamison feel about God/David Burton now, and what does that mean for him going forward? Is he separated from this idea? Has he learned his lesson? That was the equation we were working on.

I find it ironic and funny that he is so angry at David Burton for being this false God and essentially creating his own gospel around himself and stealing the story of Christ. The guy who’s making these accusations basically stole the story of Christ and wrote an entire new New Testament. It’s like he’s angry at a rival storyteller who is telling basically the same story. Not that he would ever describe it that way!
No, correct. That idea of jealousy is a recurring theme certainly through the third season.

Kevin Sr. articulates it in the third episode, which is, “I can get onboard with this new gospel you’re writing as long as I’m in it more.” Of course he takes personal offense at [Burton] because it takes the veracity of his own narrative away from him, if God is basically taking this slow ferry to Tasmania and handing out these obnoxious FAQ cards to anyone who approaches him. And that’s the other thing: He won’t even grant Matt a word. Matt comes up to him and says, “Are you telling people you’re God?” And he just gets handed the card.

You know there’s another dimension to this: this idea of the story of the storyteller or the showrunner as God.
Oh god, that’s terrifying. I have to say, we’re more like Greco-Roman gods though, versus monotheistic gods, because like it’s like in Clash of the Titans where Zeus and Hera and Athena and Hermes are duking it out and arguing with one another, that feels like it’s more similar to the way that our writers are [moving pieces around].

If we go with this metaphor and this God figure sitting in the wheelchair as the artist, as the storyteller —
This isn’t going to end well for me!

I’m not saying you’ve thrown a dude off a boat or anything, but I look at Burton and I see a guy who’s just making it up as he goes along, and he’s just doing whatever feels right in the moment. And maybe there’s a bit of narrative cruelty to the guy, but I don’t see him having a plan in the way that a critic often wants an artist to have a plan. Are you comfortable with this idea that you are just feeling your way through this also? Is that insulting to say that?
It’s not insulting because it’s true. But because of what happened with Lost, and because there’s so much negativity and uncertainty about my storytelling attached to the “making it up as he goes along” idea, let’s just unpack that for just one sec.

I worship Vince Gilligan; I’ve met Vince Gilligan. He’s an incredible writer and an incredible human being and is completely and totally transparent about the idea that when Walter White has his birthday bacon [at the start of season five of Breaking Bad], opens up the trunk, and there’s a rifle in there, that at the time they wrote that — and in fact at the time that it aired — they had no idea how they were going to pay it off. And in fact, that rifle was used in the final five minutes of the finale of the series.

And nobody cares. Because he was transparent and authentic and open and honest about the fact that they do it by feel. And it’s not just because Breaking Bad isn’t a mystery show and Lost was. He literally set up the ending of the series and openly stated that they were finding it by feel, and nobody took issue with that. With me, I’ve got something to make up for. Something to be redeemed for. That’s the narrative that exists around me. That’s not the narrative that I accept, but I have to be aware of that narrative. So, what I would say is, I’m not insulted at all [by what you just said], because it’s the truth. Of course we’re making it up as we go along.

But both things are true. And both things are true of David Burton/God, which is: There is an argument to be made for the fact that he has a plan and that he’s a mythic character because we’ve set that up in the show. He’s the guy on the bridge. He’s the guy in the karaoke bar. How is it that Kevin Garvey has experienced this man with an Australian accent that now Matt Jamison meets on a ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne? Like, Matt Jamison doesn’t know that he’s the same guy that Kevin Garvey hung out with, but the audience does. So there’s a case to be made about the fact that he is God. But then, he’s a troll and he’s full of shit and he’s an asshole and he gets eaten by a lion. So, I would argue that both things are true.

It’s possible to both be making things up as you go along and have a plan at the same time. And that may baffle people, but it’s just true, because I just say, “Look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m making things up as I go along and I have a plan.’ And guess what, you just told the truth.”

Anybody who has a plan for their life and everything is going according to that plan? Please, please, let’s have a chat. I want to know your secret. Because that’s just not life. I mean, that’s not the way I see life. It’s absurd to me. And I want my storytelling to reflect that absurdity.

Sunday’s Leftovers Ep Was Inspired by Matt Zoller Seitz