Many spoilers ahead for season two of The Leftovers.
With a heavy sob from our weary protagonist, the fiercely praised second — and possibly final — season of The Leftovers ended on one of the most tender, breathtaking scenes in recent TV memory. The HBO series navigated loss and grief with great emotional precision in its second year and took wild narrative gambles, many of which sprung from the fact that The Leftovers operates as an allegory for religion on almost every level. In an interview with Variety, show creator Damon Lindelof credits religious scholar and Leftovers consulting producer Reza Aslan with not only informing this season’s spiritual subtext, but directly influencing how the story took shape. (It was Aslan, for example, who pointed out to Lindelof that Kevin Garvey should be a shaman, not a prophet, as the show had identified him in season one.) Vulture caught Aslan by phone on his way to Haiti to talk about how Kevin keeps dodging death, radicalism, and why The Leftovers is the only show to get religion right. (Read our previous interviews with Aslan here and here.)
I was pretty blown away by the finale. I hope it gets another season, but if it doesn’t, that was a wonderful way to go out.
You know, I think that’s everyone’s attitude. If it gets another season, great, but everyone feels so strongly about what this season is about. You really saw Damon shine in this season. The first season was just wonderful, but he was sort of bound in some ways by Tom’s [story line], and this season was kind of a blue-sky season. It allowed for everything that makes Damon Lindelof one of the most creative and entertaining storytellers in any medium right now. So yeah, I hope for a third one, too.
In episode nine we’re left with the threat of Meg using violence against Jarden, telling Tom, “It’s pretty fucking amazing, what I’m going to do.” But in the finale she leads the outsiders in the camp into Jarden nonviolently instead.
What you mean is she didn’t blow up the [area]. That’s correct. The idea there is they attacked the town. We’ve only kind of seen a little bit of the aftermath of it. You know what I mean?
So we haven’t seen the full effect.
Yeah, no. We did get to see when Kevin comes back to town, the town [in the midst of] the Guilty Remnant attack on it. So there is obviously a sense that violence won’t stop. In other words, I would just begin by saying, I’m not sure that your assumption that she decided not to use violence is necessarily correct.
That makes sense to me.
Do you want to talk about the question of Meg and violence?
I would love to talk about that.
I think the Guilty Remnant is like so many new religions that popped up after the Departure, struggling to maintain a sense of unity. So it is not exactly a hierarchical religion, but there is a hierarchy to it, and because it works in semi-independent clusters, it allows for a strong personality like Meg to really control the meaning and the message of the faith, particularly because as a nascent religion, that meaning is in flux. It’s only now starting to be established, and it has the ability to become a lot of different things, whether it’s the GR of Patty or the GR of Meg. Meg’s, let’s say radical or extremist, interpretation of the GR doctrine seems inevitable to me. It’s hard to come up with a religion in which individuals, particularly charismatic individuals, did not push it toward their own agenda, while watching it happen all around us with very well-established, very old religions. So watching someone like Meg, who is an extremist, who is a radical, is really satisfying not just to the story but hopefully to viewers themselves.
Are there any historical or religious parallels to Meg? Any figures who come to mind, or does she more represent this ideology?
She represents the ideology, but that ideology is represented by countless figures throughout history. I think of Thomas Müntzer who was a colleague of Martin Luther. They both believed the church was corrupt, and even satanic. They both believed the interpretation of Christianity should fall into the hands of individuals, not the institutions. They were both devout Protestant reformers, but Müntzer really believed in the sort of anti-papal, anti-royal message of the Protestant reformation. His view of it was very radical, very extremist, and in fact he wasn’t alone in that interpretation. When Martin Luther found out about Thomas Müntzer’s so-called “Peasant’s Revolt” as it was referred to, Luther’s response was that Müntzer and all of his followers should be killed and their houses should be burnt down. So that idea that a religion is mine, that I am the sole interpreter and arbiter of it, and that it needs to reflect my values and my views, is the most sort of obvious and instructive. And a show like The Leftovers is the only show on television that gets religion right, and really successfully delves into that through this character of Meg.
I want to talk a little bit about Kevin. You talked to us before about his shamanistic qualities. Could you revisit that with what we know now? We saw him poisoned in episode eight, and in the finale Kevin gets shot by John and still doesn’t die.
Well, let me put it this way. If Kevin is truly a shaman, what is universal to every shamanistic experience is death and rebirth. You cannot become a shaman because you’re born a shaman. And you cannot fully become a shaman until you die. In tribes in practically every continent, shamans have to undergo rituals and initiations in which they either symbolically, or sometimes literally, have to die. They will take hallucinogens. They will take poison. Often times they are buried in the ground or they are left up in trees, and the purpose for this is, a shaman’s function is to communicate with all the levels of existence, all the tiers of the cosmos. That’s essentially what a shaman does. That’s why shamans are often referred to as medicine men or healers, not because they themselves work as physicians in a tribe, but because when you come to them with a problem, they can travel to other planes and come back with an answer. But in order to do this, in order to have this power, a shaman’s first task is to get rid of fear, and there is no greater fear than the fear of death. There are actually very clear cut stages: There’s the process of actually dying; the process of crossing to the other side and overcoming a certain obstacle; and then there’s the rebirth.
What’s really fascinating is that in all of these shamanistic accounts, rebirth creates a brand new person, a wholly new persona. In fact, what’s really, really fascinating is that in many shamanistic tribes, when we see for instance cave drawings of the shamans, they often have gigantic eyes, and it’s because the crossing over to death and their return from it has given them a special vision which has literally transformed their eyes. They’ll sometimes change colors or become bigger. It allows them to in a way see between and among the dimensions in a way that other people cannot.
So in theory, in a potential third season, would we see a completely different Kevin?
I’m not going to comment directly on those plot points. All I can do is give you the mythological background that not just has informed the story and the seasons, but I think can inform people’s enjoyment and interpretation of it.
I wanted to ask about the emotional scene where Kevin sings “Homeward Bound” in the finale. Is there any historical context behind the singing, or was this meant to be more symbolic of his path at the moment and where he was heading?
If you can recall the bridge man, he lays this out for Kevin pretty clearly. Kevin goes to the well because we know from episode one that Jarden is an Axis Mundi, right? There are these cosmic pulls all over the earth that represent these passageways between the various realms, the various dimensions. And Kevin, who is a very literal-minded man, goes to what he believes is the literal access point, the literal axis mundi. What’s remarkable about that scene you’re talking about is that the bridge man reminds Kevin to think in different ways, to think more figuratively, and so he has this incredible moment of vulnerability. What does the bridge man say to Kevin? Something like, “Do you not want to sing because you’re afraid to look vulnerable?” So Kevin does and it’s a beautiful moment — it shows this intense vulnerability that frankly, we haven’t really seen from Kevin. I don’t know if we would describe his character necessarily as vulnerable up to this point in the story. This is Kevin recognizing that the Axis Mundi is not a literal thing necessarily, but it’s also figurative and metaphorical.
You mention the well, and in episode eight Kevin is instructed that he can’t drink the water.
Yeah, I don’t really have anything to say about that.
We had asked about this after the premiere, but just in general, the significance of all the earthquakes in the finale, and the question of the water disappearing. Is there anything that you can say about that now?
No. Wait, let me think real quick … I don’t think I can say anything beyond what I said in the first episode which was referring back to the concept of Jarden as an Axis Mundi, and that these Axis Mundis, they’re universal. They’re portals if you will, to the various levels of the cosmos, and that these are places that allow for certain individuals to access those cosmos. So for instance, the Temple of Jerusalem or the Pyramids in Giza or Stonehenge — these are all considered Axis Mundis.
Let’s talk about Mary, who we see come back to life in this episode; we also saw her in the hotel in episode eight.
I would say that that was seeded very early on. Seeing it as a fan, I was expecting that moment to come. Matt’s faith is one of the most fascinating aspects of this show. The question of faith in general, whether it’s Matt’s faith or Meg’s faith or Michael’s faith — this show is about how we deal with something that is so utterly inexplicable that it pushes the reset button, not just on society but on all religions, and everything has to start all over again. What’s amazing is these certain individuals like Holy Wayne, like Tom, Kevin, Matt, Meg, who are trying to navigate the new spiritual landscape that the Departure has created. Forget about the social and political landscape, but the spiritual landscape itself, in that each of them have these profound beliefs about what is happening and what it means. What I love about Matt is that he came from this really awful place, this rejection of the Departure as having any kind of religious meaning, and he’s now come to this place where he is reconciling the Departure with his faith and trying to get this supernatural meaning from it. And key to that reconciliation is Mary, because Mary went into this vegetative state on Oct. 14, so she represents, in many ways, his faith and what that day actually meant. And for him to have that faith somewhat validated with her waking up in this last episode is a really beautiful moment. Matt’s character is still yet to be written.
Could you give any insight on the scene where we see a woman at the camp steal Nora’s baby, and then abandon it on the bridge?
How about the bridge itself? We see it in episode eight in Kevin’s after-death state, and it’s the site of the climax of this finale.
The bridge is a threshold. It separates the sacred from the profane, the miraculous from the mundane, and it’s literally a physical separation between the utopia of Jarden and the rest of the world, which is why everyone fixates on it, Meg especially, because for her there’s this idea that Jarden gets to keep for itself this perceived utopia. Of course, it’s not the utopia she thinks that it is, but nevertheless, there’s the notion that they are in essence, hoarding it. The bridge is the perfect representation of that because it is the barrier for entry. It’s what separates the chosen from the masses. So the bridge of course is going to have this pivotal, symbolic meaning, not just for Jarden and Miracle itself, but for the story that is being told.
John finally opens the present Evie gave him in the finale, which is a cricket in a box; we also hear Meg’s cellphone ringtone, in episode nine, and it’s crickets. Could you address what the deal with the crickets is?
I’ll just say that that’s Damon being Damon.
We last see Virgil in the hotel with Kevin, in episode eight. What exactly you would call him, and what role does he serve?
Virgil admits that he himself has had a similar journey [to Kevin]. So whatever path Kevin is on is one that many other people in that post-Departure world are also on and have experienced. Joseph Campbell, in his writings about shamans, talks about this character that pops up in a lot of traditions called the dark guardian, and the dark guardian is someone who often accompanies the shaman in these death experiences. But he himself is kind of a trickster character who can’t be trusted, may or may not be giving the right advice, and becomes in a sense someone who also has to be overcome for the shaman to finally be reborn and remade. That’s all I’ll say about that.
I’d like to talk about the final scene, where we see Kevin surrounded by all the people in his life, all the people he loves, which reminded me a little of how Lost ended. Is there any sense of reaching this sort of heavenlike place?
Well I wouldn’t use the word heaven, but yes. For Kevin, from the first minute of the first episode of this show, it’s all about family. It’s all about getting his family back, earning his family back. Moving to Miracle was about creating a new family. So ending on that note with his entire family, everyone, Laurie and Tom, Mary and Matt, Jill and Nora and the baby, is meant to be this sort of beautiful moment in which Kevin, having undergone this unbelievable experience, is now home. It’s such a beautiful ending and the writers just nailed that moment. But what I also really love about it is that in the midst of this kind of wonderful, heartwarming moment that closes out this chapter, it’s hard to forget that outside of the house, all hell is breaking loose. But hey, that would make a pretty good third season.