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The Leftovers and The Prisoner: Damon Lindelof, Patrick McGoohan, and questions without answers

Freedom is a myth. The Mystery Box is empty. So, what now?

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Van Redin/HBO

They say a rising tide lifts all boats. Ten years ago, J.J. Abrams’ tide was rising, boats lifting. Abrams had just co-created Lost with Damon Lindelof. Then Abrams took a step back. The big screen beckoned: When Tom Cruise wants you, you don’t say no. That left Lindelof showrunning Lost alongside Carlton Cuse.

Lost became a hit, beloved by many, ultimately loathed by some. Abrams directed Mission: Impossible 3, produced Cloverfield, took over Star Trek and then Star Wars. In early 2008, Abrams gave a TED talk that carved what you might call The Abrams Method in stone. See, when Abrams was a kid, he bought himself a magical Mystery Box. He never opened it. That was the point. “Maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge,” said Abrams. “What are stories but mystery boxes?”

None of Abrams’ movies are actually mysteries. Oh, they have surprises: A double agent authority figure in Mission: Impossible 3, a time-crossed cameo in Star Trek, a double agent authority figure in Star Trek Into Darkness. As a concept, the Mystery Box factors more into Abrams’ work as a marketing mastermind. He didn’t show the monsters in the marketing for Cloverfield or Super 8. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance in the 2009 Star Trek is structured as a twist. And there was the elaborate shell game around Benedict Cumberbatch’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness.

The resolution of the Into Darkness mystery was unsatisfying for most people. But maybe that’s not surprising: Most people still think the best part of Cloverfield was the trailer; try drawing a picture of the monster from Super 8. Abrams has instituted a hilariously total lockdown on any information about his Star Wars movie, but the world he created sees mystery boxes everywhere. Is Luke Skywalker evil? Is that new character somebody’s son/daughter? This is how we talk about things now. Film critic Matt Singer coined the phrase “teaser culture” to describe the radical focus we now put on anticipation. We don’t talk much about what happened; we prefer to talk about what might happen.

And yet, we’re also in a phase now where people don’t really like long-running serialized sagas built on mystery-wrapped enigmas. Game of Thrones might show a little leg with Jon Snow’s mom and the Night’s King. And Mr. Robot is conundramatic phenomenon — although it’s unclear just how much the wild revelations of the last couple episodes will blow up its second season. But sometime in the last five years, I think, the culture as a whole became suspicious of mystery; somewhere between the perceived failure of Lost‘s finale, the incoherent we’ll-explain-in-the-three-sequels mythology of Prometheus, and the advent of Benedict Cumberkhan.

Coincidentally, all of those projects involved Damon Lindelof. Which partially explains why — for certain people — he became a kind of freefloating internet metaphor for narrative disappointment. The nadir came during the Breaking Bad finale, when a fleet of Twitter-ites rage-tweeted Lindelof about the Lost finale. (Among other things, the Lost finale didn’t feature nearly enough desert Nazis.)

The years have passed, and it’s fair to say that Damon Lindelof has thought a lot about Lost. Before he left Twitter, his bio read: “Yeah, I’m one of the idiots behind Lost. And no, I don’t understand it either.” Maybe that was a joke; maybe it was the truth; maybe we’d all be happier if God answered us with a shrug. When Lost was on, Lindelof, Cuse, and everyone involved had to present some kind of confident united front: They had to at least pretend they knew where everything was going. So much of what made Lost fun — one of the great viewing experiences of the golden age of TV appreciation on the internet — was the excitement of pondering answers to the show’s questions. But there was always the assumption that the show had answers.

Last year, Lindelof co-created The Leftovers with Tom Perrotta, adapted from Perrotta’s novel about a Final Judgment-esque natural disaster that disappears 2 percent of the world’s population with zero explanation. Lindelof has co-written all but one episode of the show, and although he is quick to describe The Leftovers an ensemble production, the fascinations that defined Lost are all over The Leftovers.

With one key twist. Lost‘s pilot ended with Charlie asking, “Where are we?” The implication was always that Lost would answer that question, would open up its Mystery Box to reveal the hidden truths therein. The Mystery Box as subtext actually entered the explicit text of Lost in an episode from season 3, “The Man From Tallahassee,” in a monologue from Ben Linus:

Picture a box. You know something about boxes, don’t you John? What if I told you that, somewhere on this island, there is a very large box and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted to be in it when you opened that box, there it would be?

That episode was written by Drew Goddard (DaredevilThe MartianCabin in the Woods) and Jeff Pinkner (FringeAmazing Spider-Man 2, the next Transformers) — speaking of rising tides and lifting boats. Six episodes later came “The Brig,” scripted by Lindelof and Cuse. Locke asks Ben about his magic box — and Ben admits that the “box” is just a metaphor.

There’s a corollary truth to the Mystery Box idea, never discussed but frequently proven: Whatever’s inside that box could be disappointing. Maybe it’s definitely disappointing. Maybe there’s nothing in there at all. That can be a problem, if you build your whole story around the idea of opening up that box. But what if you build your story around disappointment and frustration? What if everyone on Earth suddenly realized that they would never get to see the inside of the Mystery Box? The Leftovers builds itself from that promise: The show will never explain where all those missing people went. And the characters will never know, either. What does that mean, for a mystery to have no resolution? How do we live with knowing that?

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Have you ever seen The Prisoner? British show, definition-of-cult-phenomenon, almost 50 years old. J.J. Abrams has seen The Prisoner: He told TV Guide, “There are elements of The Prisoner in both Alias and Lost.” Christopher Nolan has seen The Prisoner: He was working on a movie version, before The Dark Knight changed everything. And Damon Lindelof has definitely seen The Prisoner. Here’s a typical Lindelof line on the early days of Lost:

“What I told myself was, ‘You’re running the 10-K and you can make it. What’s going to happen is you’re going to do your best; nobody’s going to watch the show. The show is going to be canceled, and it’ll be like The Prisoner,’ which was this other show that I loved growing up, a cult classic, ’cause they only made a season.”

Coincidentally, here’s Lindelof talking about The Leftovers last year:

“If the show connects and people want more of it, there are more stories to tell in this world, but if it doesn’t, and these 10 episodes are the only 10 episodes of The Leftovers that will ever exist, I hope it will be more like The Prisoner than other series that were canceled after one season.”

What is The Prisoner? In the mid ’60s, an actor/writer/difficult man named Patrick McGoohan was the star of a successful spy-thriller TV show called Danger Man. He played John Drake. Think James Bond with Atticus Finch’s moral compass: Drake didn’t like guns, and McGoohan was such a strict Catholic that he apparently refused any romantic subplots. The show was a hit. McGoohan wanted out.

Explanations vary as to why — he was bored, or he didn’t like his contract — and explanations vary on precisely what happened next. McGoohan might have pitched the idea for The Prisoner, a show about a secret agent who quits his government agency only to get kidnapped away to a very pleasant prison. There’s a nice autobiographical consistency there: An actor who wants to resign from the show about a secret agent plays a secret agent who wants to resign. Some sources claim the idea was actually co-invented by George Markstein, a Danger Man script consultant who became a key guiding force on The Prisoner before departing in a rage.

More on that rage later. The Prisoner started airing in the UK in September, 1967. The show ran for 17 episodes. It starts with McGoohan, retiring from an inexplicable spy organization, and then kidnapped away to an even-less-explicable village that looks like a Where’s Waldo-themed retirement community for yacht enthusiasts. The first episode, “Arrival,” establishes a few key facts:

1. McGoohan is trapped in a place called the Village. It’s unclear who runs the place: There is some talk of “Sides,” which implies some greater Cold War resonance, but all the authority figures we see appear to be British.

2. McGoohan’s character has a name, but we never hear it. His chummy overlords declare that he will be called “Number Six,” because everyone in the Village has a number. (There is a popular theory that McGoohan on The Prisoner is John Drake from Danger Man, a notion confirmed as fact by some Prisoner writers but denied as false by McGoohan himself. McGoohan was not a man who said “yes” to a lot of things.)

3. It is impossible to escape the Village. Number Six tries once, and gets swallowed by a giant bubble. He tries again, and fails again.

4. There is someone in charge of the Village, named “Number One.” We never see him/her/it. Instead, we meet the second-in-command, a man named “Number Two.” By the end of the episode, there is a new Number Two.

5. Number Two, and whatever cabal he represents, wants information from Number Six. Specifically: Why did he resign? More abstractly: What does he know, about, like, anything? Number Six refuses to reveal the reasons for his resignation, and refuses to reveal anything about anything. (Number Six is not a man who says “yes” to a lot of things.)

I guess you could say that The Prisoner is about Number Six trying to escape from the Village, but as the show moves along, every possibility of escape is usually revealed as a double-reverse plot by Number Two to fool Number Six into a false sense of hope. 

To answer your unasked question: The Prisoner can be hard to watch today. If you go to the show expecting some element of Lost-ian serialization, you will be disappointed and angrily confused. With one notable exception, plot stuff doesn’t really carry over from one episode to the next. It’s not even clear what order you’re supposed to watch the episodes in: Wikipedia lists five different routesThere is no carryover continuity in the world of The Prisoner. Sometimes the Village is on an island in the Mediterranean, sometimes it’s in the Eastern European borderlands. Number Six leaves the Village by plane, by boat, by car, but never really leaves at all. We’re told the Village is some kind of purgatorial debriefing facility for spies — but there are families, children, shops, traditions, citizens who seem to live autonomous lives and citizens who seem to omnipresently exist to break Number Six into mental pieces.

You could try to explain this with some coherence. Maybe everything that happens in the Village is an elaborate ruse. Maybe every episode takes place in an alternate universe. Maybe it’s all a dream. (When AMC remade The Prisoner terribly back in 2009, they settled on the “all a dream” idea. It was terrible.)

If you’re looking for anything like continuity, you only really find it in the last two episodes. “Once Upon a Time” is the bottle-iest of bottle episodes: Number Two locks himself in a room with Number Six and undertakes a wild kind of therapy, “Degree Absolute,” which involves the two men playacting their way through Number Six’s life story. In “Fall Out,” Number Six walks away from that event into a cavern that looks like Plato’s Cave Allegory crossed with the loopy final act of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Let me be clear about three things: “Fall Out” is cuckoo bananas, and a lot of people hate it, and there are times when I think it’s the only series finale that makes any sense. McGoohan himself wrote and directed the last couple episodes; by this point, he had chased away collaborator Markstein, who either didn’t like the surreal trip McGoohan was on or just didn’t like McGoohan. There isn’t really any other ready example of this high level of actor-writer-director auteurism in the history of TV drama — unless you count Louie, another show with only the occasional friends-with-benefits relationship to continuity. 

“Fall Out” starts with Number Six marching into the depths of the Village. For some reason, during this scene, the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” plays on the soundtrack, loud and menacing. The episode is full of incoherent speeches, and a couple Prisoner actors from earlier episodes reappear as new characters, or the same characters. In a moment of triumph, Number Six gets to make a speech. The implication — textual, subtextual, metatextual — is that he will get to make a final statement on his purpose — and that McGoohan himself will somehow sum up everything that The Prisoner was supposed to be. This happens:

Does that work sans context? Does it help if I tell you that that scene makes no obvious narrative sense, but that it’s also the most tragic moment in the whole show — maybe the single most soul-destroying thing you’ll ever see in a series finale? There’s a way of watching “Fall Out” as a kind of savage deconstruction of everything you thought The Prisoner was about. Number Six was supposed to be the rebel against the system. Now, the system absorbs him, even welcomes him. It’s all very Matrix Reloaded, but less ponderous, more humane, and much sadder.

I won’t spoil what happens in the finale, because it’s impossible: Everything either happens or doesn’t happen, for a good reason or for no reason. There’s an explosion, and there’s dancing. McGoohan himself had a lighthearted read on the finale, captured for all posterity at the end of this remarkable deep-dive interview from the ’70s. “Freedom,” he says, “is a myth.”

That might sound depressing. Maybe it is; maybe we should all get depressed sometimes. The irony of The Prisoner is that the characters are eternally imprisoned, but the show feels free as a bird. McGoohan and his collaborators takes every advantage of television as a unique form. Episodes don’t “build” toward some long-running story. Instead, each episode is a riff on the same simple concept — Number Six, Number Two, Village — and the riffs get wilder.

There are episodes set inside Number Six’s head. There’s an episode that satirizes political elections. Number Six gets cloned. One episode begins with twenty minutes of no dialogue: Just Number Six walking through an empty Village. One episode is a western, and McGoohan plays a cowboy who hates guns. Some episodes are one-on-one battle-of-wits showdowns between Number Six and Number Two. One episode is a bedtime story. One episode — the worst, but also the most strangely poignant — barely features McGoohan at all. (They put Number Six in a different body; McGoohan was off filming Ice Station Zebra.)

It makes you wonder: What would Lost have looked like, if the show didn’t have to be serialized? What if the only plot requirement for every episode was: “Someone is on an Island, and they will never escape?” It would have been stranger. Maybe there would have been more standalone episodes like “The Constant,” and maybe there would have been more bananagrams episodes like “Across the Sea.” It definitely would have been less popular. It might have felt a bit like The Leftovers.

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(Warning: Many, many spoilers below.) 

Season 2 of The Leftovers ended last night, with an episode called “I Live Here Now.” It is one of the best weird season finales ever, wrapping up the best weird season of television this year. Leftovers even out-weirded Hannibal. But only by a little bit. And it’s not a competition; they’re both great. If TV shows were animals, Leftovers and Hannibal would be these:

Dali

Did you watch The Leftovers? If you’re a human being, probably not. The show was a buzzy item in its first season — a bleak gust of ice-cold wind blowing through summer 2014. In its second season, all measureable ratings were microscopic. Understandable: Anything I say about why you should watch The Leftovers will potentially chase you away from watching The Leftovers. It’s a show filled with great characters, and half of them only really appear in a couple episodes. It’s a show about frustration: Not just the frustration of not-knowing, but the frustration of never-knowing, of accepting that maybe every explanation about life’s mysteries is just another lie.

And yet, if you come to The Leftovers looking for grit-bleak nihilism, you won’t find that either. I can’t think of another show so indulgently emotional, so willing to play with base-level sentimental icons like Family and Home and Babies. Actually, I can: Friday Night Lights. But imagine Friday Night Lights where football is death and Coach Taylor is a sweaty blackout-prone suicidal lunatic. Death is everywhere in The Leftovers. Everyone has lost someone. Some characters think the world itself already died: That the people left behind are just maggots on the decaying husk. A better name for The Leftovers might be The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. That’s actually the name of a Damien Hirst art piece involving a dead tiger shark. Hirst’s shark is one of the defining works of impenetrable post-meaning avant-chic modern art, and it is still more approachable than The Leftovers.

Like The PrisonerThe Leftovers is initially hard to watch. Like The Prisoner, truly enjoying The Leftovers means accepting “frustration” as a defining theme and “existential stasis” as an alpha and omega. That might turn off most people, or everyone. We’re in this phase now where everyone talks about making things easier to watch, making the experience as smooth as possible. That was the central idea of TV versus movies — it’s in my home; why go to the theater? — and it feels like it’s become the central idea of weekly TV versus binge TV — why should I watch something I have to wait for, when that thing is all here?

But most binge shows start strong and get boring, or start slow and assume you’ll stick around for the late-season fireworks. The Leftovers throws you in the deep end. It might feel like the show is aggressively chasing you away. Lindelof, to Maureen Ryan: “Any time that I feel like there’s an expectation, my default position is that I must subvert it.” That subversion extends even to people who are already locked into The Leftovers. Did you love season 1? Season 2’s premiere starts with a whole new setting and whole new characters. Actually, season 2 starts with a flashback to caveman times.

“Subversion” as a default position isn’t necessarily the best idea. It can lead you to think that mysteries are more important than resolutions, or that stories that aren’t mysteries still require buzz-generating twists. (It can lead you, maybe, to make two different Batman movies where somebody’s secretly surnamed “al-Ghul.”) The Leftovers works, I think, because Lindelof and his collaborators decided to make a show about how people come up with their own answers. And it works because, having cut loose from any obvious trappings of plot structure or genre, the show frees itself to tell radically different stories each week.

I would almost recommend skipping the first season; I only saw a couple episodes before diving deep into season 2. That might sound crazy, since nowadays everyone is a completist and everyone watches every disappointing episode of House of Cards(Before watching season 2, I had watched three episodes: The premiere, which made me wish nobody had ever told Peter Berg about handheld cameras; the sixth episode, a brilliant standalone that singlehandedly made Carrie Coon a cult phenomenon; and the eighth episode, which depended on unexplained character blackouts, which is my least favorite character subplot. I might have enjoyed season 2 even more if I had stuck with the first season, but I honestly believe you could dive into this new season cold: That’s how good Lindelof and Co. are. But to whet your appetite, maybe watch season 1, episode 6.)

But, like The Prisoner and the earlier seasons of LostThe Leftovers doesn’t tell its story in a straight line. The season 2 premiere is a day-in-the-life portrait of what appears to be a typical family in a symbolically typical small town. We’re told that Jardin, Texas, is the only place on Earth where nobody disappeared from.

It’s a magical place, or maybe it isn’t. There are scientists trying to explain the Sudden Departure. Some scientists think it’s a matter of geography: If you were standing there instead of there, you disappeared. Some people think it’s a matter of personality: Some people possess bad juju that causes other people to disappear. The big joke is that nobody really knows anything. In Leftovers season 2, ghosts don’t even know why they’re ghosts. The town of Jardin has been rechristened Miracle. People come from around the world to see the Miracle, to drink the water, to experience something profound in the mystery of Jardin’s safety. But unless you have a wristband, you can only visit for a few hours. It’s a flipswitch from The Prisoner. Number Six wanted to get out. On Leftovers season 2, everyone else wants to get in.

That’s the concept. And across 10 episodes, Leftovers season 2 plays out every angle of the idea of Miracle. New character John is an aggressive non-believer, with a mission to rid the town of anyone peddling supernatural explanations. Returning character Kevin Garvey is also a non-believer: A problematic stance, considering that there’s a dead woman won’t leave him alone. There’s one episode set entirely in a purgatory that looks like a hotel, and if you put on the right suit, some higher power will grant you a bespoke redemptive Bourne Identity plotline. Liv Tyler is barely in the season, until suddenly in the penultimate episode she’s the most important character: a zealot who doesn’t believe in her own religion except as a means toward a more powerful end.

Early in season 2, Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie and son Tom try to free people from the Guilty Remnant, a death-cult religion of chainsmoking nihilists. They convince one woman to leave the Remnant. She returns to her house, welcomed home by her husband and her son. And then she commits suicide — taking her husband and son down with her. Laurie and Tom conclude that the only cure for the Guilty Remnant is another disease: They conjure up a new Tom-centric religion, built on a lie about magic hugs passed down from the already-mythic figure Holy Wayne.

Speaking of beautiful lies: In the season 2 premiere, John’s biggest problem is an annoying cricket, making pesky little noises inside his house. It bothers him, relentlessly. He looks everywhere for it. At the end of the episode, John’s daughter Evie gives him a birthday present. A Mystery Box, if you will — and it remains unopened until the season finale. John refuses to open it: Maybe he prefers the mystery. His wife, Erika, grabs it from him, cracks it open. Inside, there’s a dead cricket. John looks consumed with cathartic melancholy: His daughter has given him exactly what he wanted. The Box is a lie, Erika tells him: John was still looking for that cricket hours after Evie disappeared.

So you could argue that The Leftovers season 2 is about how any belief in a higher power is bogus — and that, in a cerebral and self-deprecating way, this whole season constitutes an aggressive dismantling of the whole Mystery Box narrative structure. Certainly, The Leftovers feels like an explicit attempt by Lindelof to counterbalance the advance of “story gravity,” the term he coined for Hollywood’s love of zero-sum plotlines. Lost ended with its lead characters battling to save the world; The Leftovers might have ended with a climactic karaoke performance of Simon & Garfunkel.

But then, the most triumphantly positive (and most frequently punished) character on the show is also the most religious. Eternally suffering Matt Jamison got this season’s centric episode to end all centric episodes: A Book of Job-ian adventure, complete with postmodern Kafkaesque bureaucracy and primordial floods. Like a lot of The Leftovers, that episode felt a bit like a cosmic joke — until the remarkable final moments. Having finally fought his way into Miracle to save his wife and unborn child, Matt leaves them there, walks outside the town, strips naked, and locks himself in a medieval stockade.

Why does Matt imprison himself? “It’s my turn,” he explains. Maybe everyone is a Prisoner. Maybe admitting that is the only freedom. By the end of The Leftovers‘ finale, everyone of any narrative importance was inside Jardin. Trapped, kind of. Confused, definitely. Freedom is a myth, probably.

But the ultimate message of The Leftovers is just a little more hopeful than The Prisoner: At least we’re all trapped here together.