THE END IS HERE

June13

by Boris Kachka

Day is turning to night, fair weather to one of those early-spring squalls that make the savanna west of Melbourne, Australia, feel like Ireland with eucalyptus trees. We are in the last day of location shooting on the series finale of The Leftovers, sheltering in a 19th-century clapboard church while star Carrie Coon shivers outside in aging makeup and a $10,000 wig, genuine frustration fueling the anger she needs to play a lovelorn recluse calling a nun a “fucking liar.” Seated in front of a monitor, wearing a cap with the logo of a kangaroo and the words “Leftovers Final Season,” is Damon Lindelof, the nervous showrunner, whose job is to create, then second-guess, and finally cut and polish his profound and bizarre follow-up to Lost.

Lindelof doesn’t love being on set, even — or especially — when he’s there to say good-bye to his own critically beloved gospel of grief and faith. Conclusions are a difficult subject for him. Running Lost in his early 30s, the rookie creator spent six years shepherding the hit ABC show about time warps and smoke monsters through an era when fans, connected and emboldened by internet message boards, began demanding answers that older auteurs — say, Lindelof’s idol David Lynch — had never needed to reckon with. Namely, for Lost, what is this mysterious, magical island that the characters find themselves on? When its 2010 finale failed to produce answers, Lindelof’s rabid fan base turned on him. The groundbreaking series became a cautionary tale. Three years after the finale, Lindelof’s Twitter bio still read: “I’m one of the idiots behind ‘Lost.’ And no, I don’t understand it, either.” He quit tweeting on October 14, 2013 — the same date on which, in the pilot of his next show, 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes.

It was Tom Perrotta who gave Lindelof a shot at redemption with his novel The Leftovers. A literary realist, Perrotta used the supernatural mini-Rapture as a catalyst for psychological and social turmoil. In return, Lindelof gave Perrotta almost equal say in his writers’ room, and together they crashed the mysteries of existence into the hard limits of human relations. The author stayed on after season one exhausted his novel’s plot, forming a partnership that remains rare even in the most prestigious Zip Codes of prestige TV. Despite anemic ratings, The Leftovers became a darling of viewers who prize dark subjects, wild invention, and the kind of intricate, recursive storytelling that rewards patient fandom.

One of the premises of The Leftovers was that the disappearance of the 2 percent, known as the “Sudden Departure,” gave spiritual seekers a do-over, a chance to write new testaments. So it was for Lindelof; Perrotta’s humanism and HBO’s focus on quality over quantity allowed him to channel his obsessions into a show that was more pedant-resistant (because the mystery was secondary) and easier to control. The Leftovers played out over three short, distinct seasons, the last one comprising eight episodes developed over twice as many months. Lindelof spent much of that time worrying about the last episode, No. 28, along with the inevitable comparisons to Lost. “It’s all that pressure of saying, ‘Forget about your other 27 dives — we’ve thrown out the scores,’ ” says Lindelof. “The only dive that matters is the 28th.”

What follows is the complete story of that dive, or rather three separate dives: “You make a show three times,” episode director Mimi Leder told me on that stormy night. “You script it, film it, and then you make it a third time in the editing room.” For this story, I spoke with everyone who was in the writers’ room about the construction of the script; flew to Australia for a tense and emotional final week of shooting; and sat in with Lindelof as he built his final cut, reshaping his creation virtually frame by frame. Throughout, Lindelof was precise and obsessive. But the only thing he couldn’t control was what the audience would make of it.

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HOW TO WRITE A SERIES FINALE…

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