Mimi Leder on ‘The Leftovers’ Series Finale and How To Interpret That Ending
The Leftovers finally came to a close on Sunday night with one of the quietest episodes of the series. After three years chronicling the post-apocalyptic misery of Justin Theroux‘s Kevin Garvey, the series finale pivoted to showcase Nora’s (Carrie Coon) perspective.
In “The Book of Nora,” directed by Mimi Leder – major SPOILER alert – Nora enters the molecular machine that will transport her to wherever the Departures went on October 14, 2011. But before we get to see what happens, the episode jumps ten years into the future, revisiting the old Nora teased in the Season 3 opener. Now going by the name Sarah and quietly tending to a coop of pigeons, Nora lives peacefully in Australia until Kevin, now wrinkled and graying, eventually finds her. The episode is all about storytelling – Kevin lies and makes up a story where he and Nora were never involved, erasing their romantic history, and Nora sits him down to share a revelatory anecdote. Nora tells Kevin what happened inside the machine, where she travelled to ‘the other side,’ and finally saw her children again. But, in true Leftovers fashion, it’s a reveal open to interpretation. Did The Leftovers actually explain where the Departures went? Is Nora telling the truth? And how much of what we’re told in the episode is actually real?
Earlier this week I caught up with Leder to talk about the final episode (check out our previous conversation about the rest of Season 3). The director and executive producer told me about the decision to close the series by focusing on Nora, and why she didn’t show her other-worldly journey on screen. And, of course, she shares her interpretation of Nora’s story.
I’m still processing the finale and don’t even know where to begin. But tell me about the decision to focus the final chapter of the series on Nora’s perspective.
Well, the writers, not like other seasons where they are very much starting from the beginning and then figuring it out, mapping it out – knowing that this was the finale of the season and series they had to start at the end. And there was this breakup that occurs right in Episode 4 of the season.
Right. With Nora and Kevin at the hotel.
And then they go on their own journeys to find answers to their grief, to their suffering. All of our characters are suffering, so this is very much a release from suffering. It just felt that Nora, even though everyone was affected by the Departure and everyone felt loss and grief, “The Book of Nora” just made absolute sense [after] starting [the season] with “The Book of Kevin.” Which took us to Nora, whose loss you could say was the biggest.
The answers for our individual characters, I think we answer a lot of those questions for them, because each one of them is looking for a belief system that gives them peace. And a release from suffering is very much about finding family and community. I think that Nora finds that peace. We may never answer the big grand question why did it happen. But our characters answer it in their own way, which I think is very satisfying. Because Nora’s suffering was perhaps the greatest, it made sense to bookend the show with her finding peace and love again because ultimately it is a love story.
The choice to jump ahead into the future, was that something that was known from the beginning, that we would revisit these characters in however many years have gone by?
About ten. Yeah, that was a Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta decision to bookend with this character named Sarah that looks very much like Nora. So it was very important to give that tease [in the first episode] because it gave the audience, ‘Wait, yes that’s Nora!’ And you’re going, Wait no, is that Nora?’ You know what I mean? And, ‘Oh she’s alive!’ ‘So did she get that thing, the contraption?’
So that was always planned. In the beginning we used many flashbacks, quick flashes going backwards, and as we progressed into the third season we did a lot of flash forwards. As the season finds itself, it’s very much talked about and planned, but there’s an evolution of storytelling that takes place.
This season is so distinct in the way that’s very contained as its own chapter of this three-part story.
Yes, it’s a very different season than the others because it’s a real search for the answers. Did you believe [Nora] at the end? What did you think? Did you think it was real?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I believe that she believes it, and that’s kind of enough. I don’t think I need to know if her story is real or not.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean everyone has different opinions about it and that’s really interesting, but yeah, that is how I see it very much too. It’s really interesting when people say she really went there in this contraption, which is believable as well. But it’s interesting what you will believe in, what each and every one of us wants to believe to get through the day, to offer ourselves some sort of peace, some connection to the here and now. So I found this story very satisfying, and a real left turn in filmmaking in terms of finale. It’s very different than the show and it’s its own little movie. It was really fun to do, and emotional. It’s like a little poem.
This final episode seemed to be intentionally playing with audience expectations and the desire to have definitive answers. As I was watching it I kept questioning everything thinking, “Did the machine actually work? Is any of this real? Is Kevin crazy?” Was that meta-narrative there to keep us guessing and comment on that desire for explanations?
Yeah, the experience of it, as in life, is you never know. We tell ourselves things that comfort us, that settle us down, that help us get through life.
The last time we spoke you asked the question, ‘What are the stories we tell ourselves?’ and I’ve been thinking about that a lot with this episode. We hear Nora’s story, and then Kevin’s, which is a lie he’s made up. And there’s this idea that the truth of the stories matter less than our dependency on them.
Yeah. I think that approach was so unlike [Kevin’s] character, but he had an insight very much into the woman he loved and still loves, and the only way to get to her was maybe to say none of that happened. Can we start over? Can we pretend that none of that happened and can I love you for the first time again? It was very challenging for Justin and he did a beautiful job. He was just spot-on. He was uncomfortable doing it and I knew that his discomfort was perfect.
You helped bring out that discomfort in him?
Yeah, it was a really different. Something he’d never played before. Here’s a new dimension to this character [that] he just did it beautifully. The two of them together, they have such beautiful chemistry and they really listen, very beautifully to each other. I’m very pleased with it. We doubled down with a really interesting way to go with the finale and [it’s] not what you would expect. You know the audience has an expectation and I think what was served up was even better than any expectation, in my opinion.
It’s definitely not what you’d expect. This is almost the antithesis to “The Most Powerful Man in the World.’
Right. That’s The Leftovers as its craziest most surreal, and this episode is very minimal and very quiet.
It was scary quiet. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, is this too quiet? Is this going to penetrate? Is this going to have the emotional effect?’ They wrote a beautiful script and you just have to trust it. You know, everything doesn’t have to end with a big bang. But I think it’s a powerful emotional ending.
The way that you shot the conversation between Nora and Kevin at the end was so brilliant. You expect to see her getting out of the machine and walking through this other world, seeing her children, but we only watch her telling the story.
I think that in the storytelling of The Leftovers, we’ve done a lot of these type of scenes. I did that scene in Episode 3 [this season] twice in different ways with Grace telling the story of her children, and Scott Glenn brilliantly telling the story to Christopher Sunday about how he’s going to stop the flood of the apocalypse from happening. Now you could have seen all that and in the final scene you could have seen Nora see her children, but it was much more powerful, we felt, to see her tell the story. Because you’re completely captivated by her, by her eyes and her truth and her telling of her story, that it was more powerful to hear her talk about it and see how it affected her then to see it. Much more exciting to imagine it. That was the thinking behind it, because you did see it – you imagined it, you felt it. And that’s really fantastic.
Visually this final episode obviously recalls the opening of the season, which you also directed, with Nora evoking the woman on the rooftop. Did you film the season’s opening and closing episodes thinking of them as a pair?
Yes. I wanted to keep [Nora] in light clothing, but it was all muddy. That was absolutely a mirror – some sort of subtle mirror. I did it a lot this season with “Axis Mundi” from Season 2. The opener with the cave woman and the snake. When Scott Glenn is bitten by the snake [this season] I tried to do the exact same shots. Even though they’re not exactly the same shots, but they are almost exactly just to give that feeling of life is a big circle and it’s repeating itself. I know I did in other places. But I think simplicity wins, and I shot that final scene with great simplicity. I didn’t want to over-complicate with fancy shots to get in the way of [Nora’s] true emotions.
In thinking about The Sopranos or other HBO dramas that end on a big dramatic climaxes or cliffhangers, was there ever a discussion of wanting to avoid that with The Leftovers and to keep the ending open to interpretation?
You know I think David and Tom and their group of writers really focused on what was right for this show. What is right for another is not necessarily right for ours. I tried not to think of any finales because I really wanted to take the pressure off of having to emulate or compare ourselves to others and just do what was right for this story.
Was there anything that was left on the floor, or anything in the script but never made it into the episode?
I don’t think there was anything left on the floor. I mean there were shots left on the floor, but no, I don’t think anything was really cut out.
How do you think the finale will be remembered over time?
I think this is a legacy show and I think it will age like a nice fine wine. Our viewership was very low, and I don’t mean this egotistically, but I have a feeling people will discover this show later and go, ‘How did I miss this show?’ The subject matters are so deep and strong and emotional, and it’s about something that matters. I don’t know how fans will react to the ending, but I think there’s going to be a lot of crying. It makes you feel so much. I’m hoping for a lot of tears. I think this show has that effect on people, makes you think and feel very deeply and that’s hard to do sometimes. Because it’s hard to go deep and feel things we don’t want to feel. So and I hope that’s the reaction. That certainly was mine.
The last image of the finale is this beautiful tranquil shot of Nora’s home and her pigeons returning. How did you decide to end on that?
Yeah, the pigeons and some of them are doves because they were white. You know it was really the only shot to do because you end with a close-up of [Nora and Kevin’s] hands and the close-up of their faces, and they are moments of finding each other, finding love again, finding peace. And then cutting to the birds coming back, the pigeons coming back was just all about love and belief. You believe – she wanted those pigeons to come back, and they did and it was a real validation of ‘love wins.’ To show it in that wide shot, a little slow pull-out with the sun going down, was just like a fairytale. It’s like a dream. Those white pigeons coming home again and ultimately that’s what Kevin and Nora do, they come home again to each other. So it was the perfect shot for this ending.