Why The Leftovers Did an ‘International Assassin’ Sequel

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Justin Theroux as Kevin. Photo: HBO

The penultimate episode of The Leftovers brings Kevin Garvey back to the world of the dead and reminds the rest of us just how touchingly bizarre and darkly absurdist the show can be. By the time Kevin is reaching into the heart of his identical twin brother to kick off death-world nuclear Armageddon to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we know we’re watching the thrilling conclusion of a wildly inventive internal spinoff — The Leftovers: Underworld Edition — a show with a history of its own.

“International Assassin,” the eighth episode of season two, was the first to send Kevin to the underworld (or a long hallucination, if that’s your bag). His strange trip came out of religious consultant Reza Aslan’s insistence that Kevin, for all his visions, was not so much a prophet as a shaman — a messenger between worlds — and that, therefore, he had to die. But how could he do it without descending into woo-woo cliché? What made the escapade work, says showrunner Damon Lindelof, “was the wink,” the knowing nod. “Season one of The Leftovers was only blinks. Season two started and we thought, ‘Hey, you can actually close only one eye at a time!’”

The Leftovers writer who took “International Assassin” to the next meta-level was the show’s youngest at the time, Nick Cuse. The son of Lindelof’s Lost partner, Carlton Cuse, Nick quickly distinguished himself. “I always pitch a lot of weird, crazy shit,” says Cuse. So when Lindelof and co-writer Tom Perrotta said Kevin should die and wake up in a hotel room, Cuse suggested making him an assassin. “I’m so into the James Bond thing,” says Cuse. “Maybe it was inspired by those movies, and by wanting to be an international assassin myself … But these are the things that Kevin wants — to be a lone gun, important but untied to everyone else.” Cuse wound up co-writing both “Assassin” episodes.

Knowing Kevin was headed for a reckoning with the tormenting ghost of Guilty Remnant leader Patti Levin, the writers made Patti a senator running for president of the death realm, representing her white-clad cult as an ascendant political party. “The best episodes of the show, we always laughed first,” says Cuse, “and then that [joke] became the episode.”

So it was with the bombastic music as well — the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, a few notes and a flute trill followed by a big brass “Blaaam!” At first, Lindelof had temped in music from Eyes Wide Shut. “But I was like, ‘This needs to be more like Die Hard.’ The whole score of Die Hard is Beethoven,” he says. “So it needs to be big and operatic.” They tried a flourish in the middle and it worked so well, “we were like, let’s just use it nine times.” The full chorus plays through at the end, turning earnest and beautiful as Kevin pushes little-girl Patti into a well.

Lindelof was so happy with the episode’s impact that he couldn’t resist reprising it — first as an underworld coda in the season-two finale and then again this season. “‘International Assassin Two’ had always been a joke,” says writer Haley Harris, “because it was an action movie.” Then, as they blocked off this season’s episodes, it became very real. “There was a lot of general discussion about what sequels are like — the Bourne and Bond movies — and what’s the biggest target for an assassin? It was the president.”

Ideas for what the writers’ room called “IA2” arose in the writing of earlier episodes. Twins came up in the LADR scientists’ trick question to Nora: Would you kill one infant so its twin could cure cancer? Well, if “IA2” represented Kevin’s internal journey, why not have Kevin save the best part of himself by assassinating … his lesser twin? “Assassin Kevin is the one who wants to be the lone wolf,” says Harris, “and President Kevin has all these ties but doesn’t really want to be a part of the family.”

So how do you get him to kill himself? Writer Lila Byock had an idea. Her last job was on WGN’s Manhattan, a show about the development of the atomic bomb, and she knew law professor Roger Fisher’s famous proposition: The best deterrent against nuclear war would be to put the launch key inside an innocent person’s heart, forcing the president to physically kill someone first. In the show it becomes “the Fisher protocol,” enacted gorily by one Kevin against another. Brian Wilson only allowed them to use “God Only Knows” after the scene’s context was fully explained. Another musical grace note came from a different piece of Verdi’s Nabucco, which felt appropriately presidential.

“It’s full Strangelove,” Lindelof says of the sequel. “We doubled down, no pun intended, or maybe pun intended, on the premise of the first one. We’re not going to be able to recapture the emotional intensity of the first one, so we leaned on an absurdist approach.” But the tone was hard to get exactly right. “When is the comedy going to work, and when does the episode reject the comedy? Is it stupid that Meg is the vice-president of the United States or is it great? Well, we did it, there’s no getting around it.”

“The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” feels less absurd than it did when they wrote it last summer. “Now it feels a little too real,” says Harris. “The Guilty Remnant party” — a nihilistic sect that takes over the presidency — “feels a little too real. The idea of someone as incompetent as Meg being the vice-president is not all that far out of the realm of possibility.”

Why The Leftovers Did an ‘International Assassin’ Sequel