Westworld’s storytelling challenge
(Spoilers for Westworld Season One throughout)
“These violent delights have violent ends,” may have been the creepy Shakespeare-sourced catchphrase of Westworld’s first season, but it also belied the narrative structure of the show. By the end of the first ten episodes, the sadism of the futuristic theme park’s operators and guests was met with an uprising of the park’s robotic ‘hosts.’ As the park operators lost control of their creations, the spurned children simultaneously became self-aware—and exacted their revenge.
It’s a familiar sci-fi narrative, one famously explored in Frankenstein, but one that goes all the way back to some of the oldest stories we have. Just look at the ancient Greek myth of the ‘War on the Titans,’ involving a younger generation of gods overthrowing their depraved creator, Kronos, and his followers.
Having fulfilled the promise of revolution in this narrative mold, the returning showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have written themselves into a corner that is both difficult and compelling. They have had the freedom to make fascinating storytelling choices, but that kind of narrative liberty is often fraught with peril.
In this article, we’ll consider the storytelling decisions Season Two must navigate, through a host of other shows and movies with similar challenges in producing worthy sequel efforts.
I’m not trying to critique Nolan and Joy’s storytelling decisions before the new season comes out. I’m merely laying out the challenging task set before them to appreciate the difficult job such storytellers have. To paraphrase the quote of a friend—if this job was easy, then everyone would be doing it.
Season One was a puzzle box. Season Two might not have the same option.
Part of what made Westworld’s initial run so captivating was its interlocking narrative structure. Plotlines taking place in the past were juxtaposed with narratives taking place in the present, and the unchanging ages of the android characters and their artificial theme-park setting meant that an unsuspecting viewer might not have caught on to such facts as, for instance, that William (Jimmy Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) were the same person at different time periods, at least until the theory was confirmed in the season finale. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, though, it’s unlikely Nolan and Joy can pull the same trick again.
So what can Nolan and Joy do? Let’s look at some comparisons with other similar shows faced with a high-stakes, follow-up seasons that required pivoting into new storytelling strategies.
First off, you might think, given that they’re both high-profile HBO shows, Westworld might go the way of Game of Thrones. The conclusion of Game of Thrones’ first season was shocking to many viewers, but the action allowed the disparate characters to follow their own trajectories for several seasons, before being brought back together for the denouement (though there is reason to complain about the haphazard plotting involved in the show’s still-unfolding final chapters). There’s a problem with the Game of Thrones comparison, though, and it’s namely that GOT is based on a book series that is itself structured as highly-detailed component plotlines for individual characters.
Unlike GOT, Westworld has already blown through its ‘source material’—the 1973 film of the same name written and directed by Michael Crichton. In the original movie, one robot gunslinger goes rogue and kills all the other robots, some park guests and operators, until the renegade android is defeated by this human guy who happens to be the main character. Given the sparse details of this plot, the TV adaptation has greatly enriched the material while retaining and fulfilling Crichton’s core premise—a Western theme park populated by robots goes haywire. As Joy and Nolan wrote Westworld’s sophomore effort, they ostensibly could have been thinking about some of the plot details of the original film’s 1976 sequel Futureworld, though that movie’s suggestions might not be the best fit (though they have clearly accepted the plot point involving samurai). Needless to say, we’ll still need to invoke some other TV shows to understand the nuanced challenge faced by Westworld’s writers.
Sophomore struggles and course corrections
A better comparison to Westworld’s narrative ‘predicament’ might be that of Mr. Robot. After a major twist toward the end of the first season, Sam Esmail’s excellent hacking/political thriller series took the narrative equivalent of Vicodin in Season Two, featuring lengthy and unnecessary flashbacks, more than one very-slow-burning narrative tricks, and the removal of one of the best characters from the action for the majority of the season’s runtime.
Given the outstanding course correction of Mr. Robot’s third season, I chalked up Season Two’s deficiencies to a grueling turnaround time. Esmail had first planned Mr. Robot as a movie, then pitched it as a TV series, and when it was finally picked up by USA Network, he might not have planned everything out to the level of detail needed to make sure Season Two was just as exciting as the first (though he is definitely planning it out). And given that he directs nearly every episode on top of writing them—I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack. Because he’s singlehandedly pulling it off. On balance, Season Three was utterly engrossing.
We cannot leave out the king of sophomore spin-outs, however. Westworld’s challenge in no way meets the difficulties of True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, who spent a great deal of time drafting a novel that became the basis of the critically-acclaimed first season. When HBO asked him to write another season in a much shorter period so that they could have another brand-new True Detective storyline to air the following summer, the final product we witnessed was definitely not so polished as the first time around. Here’s hoping that True Detective’s upcoming third season will fare better, especially since it’s been given more time to percolate. (Though, given the departure of the third season’s director, things aren’t looking up.)
The near-impossible pivot
One example of an improbably successful pivot is that of HBO’s The Leftovers, which finished off an impressive run of what I will term ‘screenwriting one-upmanship’ in 2017. Damon Lindelof’s first season—about a world where 2% of the global population vanishes into thin air, and the consequences of such an event on a family in a small town—got off to an uneven start.
After the first season burned through the plot of the Tom Perotta novel on which the show is based, Lindelof’s second season does something unexpected. The show becomes, simply—better. And it accomplishes this by doing the unthinkable—extricating the main characters from their initial setting and sending them to a new location entirely, all while introducing a new secondary cast that enhances the narrative possibilities.
The Leftovers’ third and final season then pulled off another dazzling feat. It got even better—despite (or because of) a truncated season length and resetting the story’s location once again.
Leaving The Leftovers’ achievements aside, perhaps the cinematic archetype of a pivot is necessary for Westworld. As is often told, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien is essentially a ‘haunted house in space.’ By contrast, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, discards the horror tropes in favor of those of a ‘war movie.’ The genre pivot gave the second film a fresh energy, since most horror sequels follow the same exact premise of the first one, putting the same character from the first go-around through the ringer again—though any reasonable character would stay away from whatever horrors that awaited them the last time.
That’s at least the pattern in the first set of Jurassic Park sequels, which is perhaps the most useful comparison for us to make, since the first Jurassic Park film, like the original Westworld, was written by Michael Crichton. It turns out the guy had a thing for theme parks and technology run amok. The combination was successful and popular in both stories, so who’s complaining?
In the franchise’s second and third installments—The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, respectively—both Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill’s characters are each in turn drawn back to the ruins of the dinosaur-packed theme park they left behind in the first movie. For Goldblum’s character, it’s to save his girlfriend (Julianne Moore), which is hackneyed but almost believable. For Sam Neill, well, the love interest tactic in this franchise has been played out—so he arrives on the dinosaur island as a result of deception. The first sequel almost works, in that interacting with dinosaurs that are now free to find their own way is a slightly new direction, at least before the T. Rex and raptors return to attack the humans. And of course, the evil corporation also returns to the island to recoup their investments, and yet even more dino-havoc ensues. (Plus, they take a T. Rex to San Diego. So there’s that.)
With Westworld Season 2, the plot is in a near-identical starting point (minus the T. Rex in San Diego). The robot hosts are ostensibly roaming free on an abandoned theme park after murdering the human inhabitants, and the shadowy Delos Corporation will no doubt return to attempt to contain the situation. Once that battle is resolved, what fresh direction can the story take? Will the robots assimilate into human society, or will they be merely reassigned to their sister park, Shogun World?
Ominous for Joy and Nolan—Michael Crichton only wrote The Lost World book (the basis of the first Jurassic Park sequel) because of fan pressure and Stephen Spielberg’s desire to make a follow-up. As Crichton noted in describing the writing process for The Lost World, the only novel he ever wrote a sequel for:
“It’s a very difficult structural problem because it has to be the same but different; if it’s really the same, then it’s the same — and if it’s really different, then it’s not a sequel.”
As Westworld advances its narrative, its story will have to reach for something unexplored. It will have to be the same but different. It will have to develop its characters and confront them with new, believable situations. It is a tall order. But as the Alien/Aliens dichotomy and The Leftovers’ remarkable run of self-improvement demonstrates, with enough careful thought, all storytelling problems can be solved, and sometimes in truly magnificent ways.
And so, I’m excited to see what Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan come up with. Because before you can say “Freeze all motor functions!”—the world’s favorite sci-fi Western will have returned to our screens. And then we can talk about it some more.