(originally published Dec 06, 2016)
SPOILER WARNING: Mild spoilers follow
I never thought I'd say this, but Westworld makes me really miss LOST. Both shows catered to viewers who like to theorize and comb over every last detail to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. However, Westworld season 1 failed where LOST succeeded, and it’s making me crave the fundamentals of drama that LOST got so right, even if it stumbled on other elements that Westworld nailed.
As much as I hated when Damon Lindelof said “it’s a show about the characters” to explain away the lack of mystery resolution, he wasn’t wrong. LOST gave us a massive cast of characters and, with few exceptions, made us care about each and every one of them from the very first episode onward. Think of how this show kicks off: They put a bunch of people on a doomed airplane, marooned them on a tropical island in the middle of the ocean, and then threw motherfuckin’ polar bears and dinosaur noises at them. How could you not care about what happened to them? Not only did they give each character a clear universal conflict to face (get off the island), it then threw MORE conflict at them (in the form of the mysteries they had to deal with) to further push and define them. And this doesn’t even touch upon LOST’s stellar use and subversion of flashbacks to flesh everyone out.
Until last week's episode, Westworld failed spectacularly at giving us any tangible stakes or characters to care about on anything other than a theoretical level. The fact that the writers took so long to establish real character-driven conflict has made it impossible for me to get into from the start. With this last episode especially, *so much* information was dropped on us at once that, had it been spread out over the course of the season, might have helped make the show more engaging. The withholding of information was purposeful, if a bit forced at times, but it serviced the reveals themselves and came at the expense of good ol’ fashioned character development. While that may work for some movies, when dragged out over 10 hours, it got exhausting.
One thing that LOST did that frustrated many people (myself included) was that it rarely rewarded its viewers with the answers they wanted. They constantly pulled the rug out from under us, and while in retrospect it's clear that they pulled a lot of this rug-pulling out of their ass, it still made for exciting television. The reason is because of the fundamentals. Character is king, and the writers knew that. The fumbles on mystery were (often) excusable in the face of character-related catharsis, and as much as I didn’t like how it all ended, when the show worked, it was engaging in a way that Westworld never was (apart from a few moments in the last two episodes).
From where I'm sitting, peering behind the veil of mystery has been the only reason to watch Westworld, and pretty much all of its big revelations were accurately predicted by fans. I don't know how to feel about this. On one hand, it shows that the writers of Westworld clearly planted all of their clues with intent and had a plan for this season, something that couldn't entirely be said about LOST. And that’s great! But on the other hand, shouldn't the writers be smarter than the viewer at all times, or at least pretend to be? Am I the only one who is really disappointed that Redditors were figuring everything out on this supposed AAA mystery show? Shouldn't we be holding our writers up to a higher standard than the A.V. Club comment section?
Now, I'll fully admit that I wouldn't have seen a few of the twists coming on my own, but part of the fun of mystery shows is that they get the entire audience to come together and collectively wonder “what’s gonna happen next?" The rest of the fun comes from being proven wrong week after week and having to course correct and go in a new direction. You know, like when characters are introduced to conflict! But when there's no conflict motivating the story, and when the main draw is figured out by the audience at large up to six weeks in advance, it becomes a show where you're watching avatars limp to the finish line instead of watching fully-realized people overcoming challenges.
In theory, Westworld is a great show, and it's got a lot of things working for it. It's exceptionally well-made, with a dope cast and a genuinely intriguing world they inhabit. In practice, it was about 7 episodes too long and lacked the most important thing of all: Fundamentals. Character building. Stakes. Conflict. It took 10 episodes to get to anything tangible, and even though we finally have some real and interesting characters to follow next season, I’m not sure if I care enough to continue investing.
Still, it certainly provoked enough thought for me to write at length about it. I think it's a case study for the importance of fundamentals, because it succeeds so well on almost everything else. Maybe I'll have a change of heart in 2018. Till then, I might have to take Jack up on his suggestion...
Apologies for the length, thanks for reading!