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The Leftovers: Can Everyone "Feel Better" in Season 2?

How will the show change now that it's exhausted the novel that inspired it?

Adam Bryant

A second season of The Leftovers was never a given.

No, not because the show -- which tells the story of how the world moves on (or doesn't) after two percent of the population vanish with no explanation -- was divisive. To some (including yours truly), the show was a bleak but beautiful meditation on grief and loss, while to others, it was yet another bunch of seemingly unanswerable mysteries from Lost creator Damon Lindelof wrapped in a super depressing bow. But the debate among viewers isn't what gave pause to the show's creative team, which includes author Tom Perrotta, from whose novel the show was adapted.
"As we were wrapping up the first season, understanding that we were going to close the first season pretty much exactly the same way that Tom ended his book, I felt like it would be very satisfying if those were the only 10 episodes of The Leftovers we ever saw," Lindelof tells TVGuide.com. "The way that I did Lost was every season would end with this incredible cliff-hanger, and the show had to continue to generate mysteries in order to keep people interested in it. But The Leftovers didn't feel like it was that. When we finished up, I felt like, 'Well, there could be more, but I'm not entirely sure what more is at this point. Let's take a breath and talk about whether or not it warrants more storytelling, because we shouldn't just continue the story for the sake of continuing it.'"

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During those conversations, Lindelof and Perrotta decided that if the show were to continue, its core characters -- police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his new girlfriend Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) -- needed a change of scenery. "[We said], 'What does life look like for the characters that we really care about if it just continues in the place that they are?'" Lindelof says. "Nora wrote this very eloquent, emotional letter to Kevin in the season finale saying, 'As long as I live in this place, I'm going to be defined by this horrible tragedy... and I want to feel better.' We were talking about the emotional gravity of depression, [and] that's what the first season felt like it needed to be, but is it going to continue to be a show about being depressed and suffering? We didn't want to write that show. So, while loss -- and the potential to lose again -- is always going to hang over this world, was there a way to have the characters articulate, 'We want to feel better'? When we talked about it was like, 'They should move.'"

As such, Season 2 finds Kevin and Nora moving with Kevin's teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and the couple's new adopted baby to the fictional town of Jarden, Texas, a place whose claim to fame is that none of its citizens were taken during the Sudden Departure. Because of that, the town has now become known as Miracle National Park, a place where thousands flock in search of answers and enlightenment. "We had this idea in the previous season [about] a town where nobody departed from, and what would that town look like in its nascence?" Lindelof says. "It takes hundreds of years for Jerusalem to become Jerusalem and Mecca to become Mecca. Three years out, what would this place look like?"
Serving as the audience's tour guide to this new place is the Murphy family, the Garveys neighbors. John (Kevin Carroll) is the head of Jarden's volunteer fire department, which does more than just put out flames. His wife Erika (Regina King) is a doctor, and they are the parents of twins Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Even though life seems idyllic for the Murphy clan, they too will be rocked by another unexplainable event that gives Season 2 much of its narrative shape.

"Tom and I have been very explicit about that the show is never going to answer what the Sudden Departure was... because the show is about mystery, it's about ambiguity, it's about the unresolvedness of that," Lindelof says. "At the same time it was very interesting to ask the question, 'Could it happen again, and on what scale would it happen again?' If the show is about sudden unexplained loss where any moment that you have with a loved one could be the last, can the show articulate that in a more present way? Could something happen in the narrative this year that made us start asking all those interesting questions?"

The Leftovers Season 2 trailer teases zero departures, but more drama

But Season 2 isn't a complete reboot by any stretch. Nora's brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston) and his wife (Janel Moloney) are still part of the show, as is Ann Dowd's Guilty Remnant leader Patti. But, wait, didn't she kill herself last season? "If Kevin has a fundamental problem to solve over the course of the year, it's, 'How do I exercise this demon that is Patti Levin?'" Lindelof teases.

Also still in the mix is Kevin's first wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who, after leaving behind the all-white-wearing, chain-smoking ways of the Guilty Remnant, is now waging war against Meg (Liv Tyler) and other members of the cult with her son Tom (Chris Zylka). "One of the things that was really important for us is what is the energy that Kevin, and Nora, and Jill are trying to escape? That's represented by what Tom and Laurie are dealing with," Lindelof says. "They both were part of cults in the previous year, and I think there is this very interesting phenomenon that happens when someone leaves their religion and they get de-programmed.

"They tend to generate a tremendous amount of animosity towards the group that they were in. At the same time, they still love it, they still understand it," Lindelof continues. "We wanted to dramatically present that idea of, 'I want to save these people, but maybe these people were on to something.' [It's] really an exploration of those two characters coming to the conclusion of, if you take something away from somebody you have to replace it with something. That doesn't feel like it's going to work out very well, but it's worth a shot. The show is all about people trying and failing, and then they pick themselves up and they try again."

And those failures continue to permeate the show. Even though early episodes feature Kevin and Nora cracking a smile here and there, the overall tone remains rather dark. In other words, just because the characters want to feel better, there's no guarantee that they actually will. And Lindelof is OK with that. "At the end of the day, the show wants to be what the show wants to be, and I don't really have any control over that," Lindelof says. "If you think about 9/11, where 3,000 people died, it still informs our daily life. Every time we fly on an airplane, we take off our shoes and put our laptops in bins and are reminded of how the world changed. If 2 percent of the world's population disappeared three years ago, everybody on the entire planet would be suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. ... When you're representing a world with that kind of energy around it, it generates a certain level of tension, a certain level of sadness, a certain level of intensity and sudden violence. Those things just started to happen in our storytelling, and they felt the most authentic.

The Leftovers' Ann Dowd on Patti's "triumph" for the Guilty Remnant

"I'm sure that there are other ways to do this show other than the way that we're doing it, and it was really important to us that we did not generate Season 2 like it was an apology for Season 1 or a course correction," Lindelof continues. "Every show is basically an evolution. ... Is the show bleak, is the show dark, is the show depressing? I understand that interpretation, but it didn't bother me. The one thing that I don't want people to do when they watch this show is call B.S. on the show, and say, "This doesn't feel real to me.'"

So, what does the show feel like without the source material guiding it? Pretty much the same as before, which means there will still be viewers enraptured by the show's gut-wrenching beauty and viewers who remain disappointed by the lack of resolution to the mysteries in which the show traffics. And that's perhaps because new characters -- in this case, a group of researchers from MIT -- pop up with their own ideas and theories about how to "solve" the Sudden Departure. But Lindelof insists that while the characters should be in search of answers, the viewing audience should not.

"I will reiterate: If you are watching The Leftovers because you want the answers to mysteries, you are going to leave unsatisfied," Lindelof says. "If you feel like we're teasing you, then you're more than welcome to just not watch it anymore. But if we did not show that there were characters in this world who were actively engaged in explaining what happened then, again, the world wouldn't feel authentic. The characters on the show don't have Perrotta and I there to say, 'Hey. You're wasting your time, MIT. You're never going to get the answer.'

"I can tell you right now with a very high degree of certainty that as long as you and I are alive, we will not know what happens when we die," Lindelof continues. "It's highly unlikely that we're going to get some scientific explanation. You and I might grasp on to a belief system that we know what's going to happen when we die, but there's no one to basically tell us whether we're right or wrong. I hope that people can achieve the same level of satisfaction with The Leftovers, where it's like, 'I'm comfortable with not knowing, and I still want to watch this show.'"
The Leftovers premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO. Will you watch Season 2? Check out the show's new opening credits sequence below: