If Lost has a legacy, it is its narrative structure: A season-long subplot that tantalizes viewers by raising more questions than answers during the five minutes of each episode that’s dedicated to it. Maybe Lost didn’t invent this, but it sure did perfect this type of storytelling.
I raise this now because Westworld is so transparently using the exact same playbook, which leaves me deeply cynical about the show. Westworld has lots of glaring problems, but it skated by with the promise that when we find out who Arnold is, what the maze is, what the new narrative is, what’s going on with Delores, and so on, that we’ll be so blown away that all of the flaws will be forgotten. If Lost taught us anything, it’s that whatever the big reveal is at the end of the season or end of the series, we will ultimately be disappointed.
Now before I continue piling on Westworld, it’s only fair to note that it is hardly the only offender. The last season of Mr. Robot did the exact same thing. In fact, the season was so thin and so weak that the whole thing was only held together by the mystery of what happened to Tyrell, what the Dark Army is up to, what’s going on with the power grid, and how it’s all connected to the disaster that killed Angela and Elliot’s parents.
And there are many other shows since Lost that have structured a season this way where a subplot(s) are obfuscated to titillate viewers for the calculated purpose of keeping them returning week after week because of their need for closure.
What I find objectionable to this style of writing is that there is no attempt to have each episode stand on its own, independent of the season-long arc. To think of it another way, when people go back and re-watch Westworld, they’re only going to be paying attention for what breadcrumbs were dropped that they missed which hinted at the big reveals.
It’s like with Lost — whenever anyone rewatches it they skip fast forward through the parts of the episodes that are about a character’s backstory and stick to the bits that deal with the what the island is (who the hell really cares about Jack’s tattoos and his daddy issues?).
We probably don’t realize it, but we’re in an era where we’ve moved past episodic TV.
Instead of seasons being one very long story broken up into a dozen parts, there’s now very little story, and TV shows are more of spectating sports designed for people who want to do a frame-by-frame analysis to spot plots twists before they happen and then go to internet message boards to disclose their theories and discuss them.
What’s really depressing is that increasingly viewers just expect that all shows are operating this way.
With The Americans, for example, at one point there was endless fan speculation that Pastor Tim was really a KGB agent. It was preposterous, but viewers have been conditioned to think this way. People were just digging for a plot twist that wasn’t there, and if this is what people were debating and discussing, then they’ve completely missed what the show is about.
I’m certain that when Westworld was pitched to HBO part of the sell was that it would light up the reddit boards like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and that’s a good thing because obsessive fans are great sources of free advertising.
As for what the show is actually about, “meh.”