The Peabody award-winning The Leftovers concludes on Sunday, June 4 and through its three seasons, the show has become just as acclaimed for its music as its incredible story, writing and acting.
While the HBO series is no stranger to change (season one’s opening titles used an original piece by composer Max Richter, and season two used Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be”), season three has gone even further, adapting the theme song to each episode. “[It was showrunner] Damon Lindelof’s decision,” music supervisor Liza Richardson tells ET by phone, adding that the music choices on the series vary between her and Lindelof’s allegiance to certain artists, love of repetition and the desire to “surprise.”
“Hopefully all the main title choices are all very surprising for the audience, whether you know the song or not,” she says. And while title choices serve as an ode to that specific episode’s theme or defining elements, the music played during that week’s hour often serves a much different purpose: helping the audience connect to one specific moment.
Before the series embarks on its swan song, ET and Richardson look back at The Leftovers’ seven most memorable musical moments and the stories of how they came to be.
“The 59th Street Bridge Song,” Simon & Garfunkel
301: “The Book of Kevin”
The season three premiere revisits the Garveys, who seem as happy as ever until Kevin’s (Justin Theroux) asphyxiation ritual is revealed onscreen. The moment, with a shirtless Kevin sitting on the edge of his bed with a plastic bag over his head, is preceded by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” “This is how he copes. This is his coping mechanism, right?” Richardson says of Kevin’s dark way of dealing with unresolved feelings about his season two death and seeming reincarnation. “Is it ‘Feeling Groovy?’ Well, that lyric definitely worked with the idea.”
While played ahead of the asphyxiation, Richardson says the two are connected. “The lyric obviously was reflecting what Kevin was doing to feel OK,” she continues, noting that there’s a Simon & Garfunkel theme throughout the entire series. “I Am a Rock” plays over the end credits in season two after Nora (Carrie Coon) throws a rock through Erika’s (Regina King) window, and then there’s Kevin singing “Homeward Bound” during a karaoke session. “This is our third use — we’re obviously Simon & Garfunkel fans, and, luckily, they were fans of the show, so that worked out well.”
“Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off),” Wu-Tang Clan
302: “Don’t Be Ridiculous”
Episode two uncovers the story behind Nora’s cast, which she reveals she got — in a roundabout way — to cover up a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo, which covered up another tattoo of her children’s names. The story was equal parts sad and funny, and only made more epic by Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” playing through her and Erika’s slow-motion trampoline montage in a later scene.
Knowing that Wu-Tang Clan played a pivotal role in the episode, Richardson knew immediately they would need to incorporate a song into the show. “At first, [the writers] were going to have the tattoo have lyrics from a Wu-Tang Clan song, so we needed to have the lyrics cleared,” she explains. “I was looking for the right song that we could clear by Wu-Tang that would be appropriate for Nora, and I presented a bunch of songs that they could use for the tattoo.”
In the end, the group’s iconic symbol, which Nora mistakes for a phoenix, is used instead. While there were no lyrics on the tattoo, Richardson says it was part of the story. “There were like four or five [options], and [‘Protect Ya Neck’] is just the one that just works best with the trampoline. … I love slow motion; I love loud songs with slow motion, and especially on a trampoline with those girls and their beautiful bodies. It was so great.”
“I Love a Rainy Night,” Eddie Rabbitt
303: “Crazy Whitefella Thinking”
“I Love a Rainy Night” seemed like the perfect fit for episode three, in which Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn) tries to stop the rain from ending the world. But according to Richardson, it wasn’t their first choice. “Sometimes we focus on the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just a vibe. Sometimes we love ‘on the nose,'” she shares, revealing that the Eddie Rabbitt song was a last-minute decision after they couldn’t get clearance to use a song from the 1971 film Walkabout. “In that film, they use ‘Gasoline Alley’ by Rod Stewart. We wanted to use the same song and pay tribute to the film, but legally, we couldn’t do that. So we just tried new ideas, and that [Eddie Rabbitt song] seemed to fit.”
“Take on Me,” Genghis Barbie, a-ha
304: “G’Day Melbourne”
Episode four uses three different versions of a-ha’s “Take on Me:” first when Nora finds the two scientists playing the song on the piano; next, a string version by Genghis Barbie plays when she enters the casket-like box; and finally, the original plays when Kevin leaves her smoking and soaking wet in their hotel room.
“We love repetitive music in The Leftovers, which I think is kind of unique to the show,” Richardson says, referring to times when the show featured multiple uses of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?,” the Bellamy Brothers song “Let Your Love Flow” and even multiple uses of Simon & Garfunkel.
“I think that the a-ha song was meant to… OK, so you’ve got the two scientists, the two women, it’s their music, but it’s just meant to make them more real, like more normal people. And then it becomes a theme throughout the episode, because it’s a riot,” she adds. “I mean, that’s pretty much how it is. It’s just funny.”
“Frasier (The Sensuous Lion),” Sarah Vaughan and the Jimmy Rowles Quintet
305: “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”
Episode five focuses on the journey Matt (Christopher Eccleston), John (Kevin Carroll), Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman) take to find Kevin in Australia. In order to get to Melbourne from Texas, they fly a cargo plane to Tasmania and then board a passenger ship with a “pride” of people who are honoring the linage of “Frasier the Sensuous Lion” with mass copulation. Also aboard is a descendent of that lion caged up in the cargo hold — and a hilarious musical telling of his story by Sarah Vaughan and the Jimmy Rowles Quintet.
“This is how deep we think,” Richardson jokes: “You’ve got the lion as part of the episode, so we were looking for songs that had a lion in it!”
While there is actually a lot of thought that goes into every song choice, the music supervisor says that sometimes there’s not a lot of reason behind a particular selection, as is the case with the Sarah Vaughan and the Jimmy Rowles Quintet number. “We needed a song with a lion in it. So, yes, that song was scripted,” she adds.
Episode six doesn’t have many musical moments in comparison to the rest of the series, which perhaps makes each song included that much more meaningful. The episode begins with a flashback showing the suicide attempt that caused Laurie to join the Guilty Remnant set to Apocalyptica’s cover of Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam.”
Following that flashback, however, is the opening titles featuring Gravediggaz’s “1-800-SUICIDE,” which to the viewer at first signifies Laurie’s past struggles. But then, as the episode tragically concludes, it ends up as a shocking, clear use of foreshadowing. “This ‘horrorcore’ hip-hop classic fits in with the recurring suicide theme of the episode,” Richardson confirms. “[It’s a] classic, dope song from 1994, [which was] refreshing to hear again, [but it] made me cry.”
“God Only Knows,” The Beach Boys
307: “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”
The Leftovers‘ penultimate episode scores win after musical win — including an incredible and “definitely intentional” instance when Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) sings Patty Duke — but it’s the episode’s use of “God Only Knows,” when Kevin kills himself in order to end the world, that really makes an impact.
“David Eisenberg, the editor, he came up with that idea,” Richardson confesses. “I recall the lyrics working really well with the concept that Kevin is two people in that episode. He’s the president of the United States, and then he’s the twin.”
Adding another layer to the song’s connection to the episode are the lyrics. “’God only knows what I’d do without you,’ and [Kevin is] talking about himself, really,” she says. “[That’s] how I interpreted it anyway. I feel like, in that episode, Kevin is longing for Nora, and he’s lost her.”
The series finale of The Leftovers, titled “The Book of Nora,” airs Sunday, June 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.