clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Stop Taking the Mystery Out of ‘Westworld’

In the age of subreddits and crazed theories, the showrunners of HBO’s newest hit shouldn’t sweat fan service — we’ll wait for the details

HBO/Ringer illustration
HBO/Ringer illustration

Westworld’s creators know you have questions.

They know you want to know how much it costs to go the park, who visits it, and how hosts are repaired. ($40,000 a week, at least for some parties; medical executives and investors, among others; by bickering dipshits on operating tables in the lab.) In Sunday night’s episode, "Dissonance Theory," the show explained yet another nagging logistical problem: how damaged hosts are collected and reset. We saw staffers in white hazmat suits show up and literally drag expired hosts back to the lab to be stitched up, leaving streaks of crimson robot blood in their wake.

I believe fully that a lot of the fun of this show is learning how the world works, so I ask this with no small amount of regret: Dear Westworld, won’t you please stop explaining things?

A show that asks viewers to buy into a fantasy as complex as Westworld’s has to explain some things, of course. Many of the laws of the show’s universe can be intuited — it gets dark and humans and robots alike camp around fires, so we know that the characters experience nighttime more or less as we do — but others have to be drawn out more explicitly: We needed to be told very early on, for example, that guests couldn’t be hurt by hosts.

Increasingly, though, episodes have the feel of user manuals — this is how the robots are cleaned; this is where you can find an entrance to the park — and the pace of the revelations is accelerating. Consider what we learned on Sunday: In the real world, the Man in Black is a good guy, and a famous one; guest-triggered explosions happen with centrally authorized pyrotechnic effects; off-loop hosts are corrected by in-story law enforcement; and the landscape is designed by robots not used in story lines, laboring resolutely with pickaxes in some distant (but not distant enough to avoid having "neighbors") corner of the park.

Let’s look at another source of information about the rules of Westworld: the show’s creators. Since the October 2 premiere, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have patiently fielded bevy after bevy of questions about the mechanics of their show. They’ve given interviews about where the park is set; they’ve lent an ear to those hoping for a Game of Thrones crossover plot. ("We should be so lucky.") Last week, they went so far as to sit down with Entertainment Weekly for a Q&A on "episode 3 burning questions" for those who couldn’t wait for the historical answer to Episode 3 burning questions: Episode 4.

To be sure, much of Westworld’s world-building is fascinating, vital, or both: There’s a deliciousness to watching William awkwardly select his cowboy outfit. But do we need to know every detail, every spur and hat selected? As we dive deeper into the minutiae of how the park functions, Westworld becomes more about rules and less about plot. For as much as "Dissonance Theory" explained, it raised further questions to the point of distraction: If Dolores was collected by the hazmat-suit team after running away from town, wouldn’t that have disturbed the guests in her company? And who mops up the smears of blood being spread across the saloon floor? Did you think about how to get blood out of floorboards before seeing park staff get it there? Is this increasing your enjoyment of the show?

There’s some magic here to wondering and guessing. Don’t the showrunners have any faith in us?

The answer: yes and no.

When I say that Westworld’s creators know you have questions, I mean this literally. Once upon a time, superfans of intricate serial fiction had nowhere but the next book or episode to seek out explanations for what was happening, and no one to try theories on but those in their immediate vicinity. Lost debuted in 2004; its cult grew slowly and with increased feverishness over the course of its first two seasons. Reddit, now the hub of much fan activity, wasn’t founded until a year into its run.

2016 feels worlds apart. Less than a month in, the subreddit devoted to Westworld has nearly 60,000 members. (This is small potatoes compared to older mainstays: The biggest Game of Thrones subreddit, which is devoted to both the novels and the HBO series, has 800,000 members and counting.) Scenes are live-tweeted. Reviews and summaries spouting new theories appear across the internet within hours. (We’ve done a lot of that here.) What does it mean? people ask. Where will it go? Who can we ask? The headlines arrive swiftly: "Everything to Know About the Man in Black." "We Round Up the Wildest Fan Theories." "Jimmi Simpson Weighs In on Man in Black Theories." "Would Sex With a Robot Be Infidelity?" Subreddits and other forums crank to life; comment sections fill; characters trend on social networks; question marks flood out, less willing than ever to accept a seven-day wait before being resolved.

For the most part, showrunners have insisted they’re immune to growing online clamor. In a September survey by The Hollywood Reporter, The Good Place’s Mike Schur said that live-tweeting was "good for sports, bad for fictional entertainment." Jeremy Slater of The Exorcist declared it "a garbage idea perpetuated by garbage people. Watch the show, enjoy the show." In 2014, House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon insisted that social media chatter didn’t influence his creative decisions. "One thing I definitely don’t do is look to connect to any social media or articles or commentary in a prescriptive way as in, ‘We should add X,’" he said. "That has to be a discovery, and to approach it in any other way is pandering or schematic. We have to do exactly the opposite of what the audience is expecting."

Other creators have been more willing to look at the new breed of superfandom as a dialogue. Damon Lindelof, who was a showrunner for Lost and now heads up The Leftovers, engaged with fans of Lost when he could — which, given the timing of the series, meant mostly in its later seasons. He dedicated much of his Twitter presence in the years after the controversial finale to responding to and retweeting outraged viewers. (He ultimately quit the social network to escape their criticism.) Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail talks about reading as many reviews of his show as he can. As the line erodes between television criticism and — crucially, in series that depend on world-building and mystery — the dissection of fan theories, it’s worth thinking about what that means.

But how much can vocal superfans actually influence a series? However rabid the discussion of an episode, by the time it airs, it’s exceedingly unlikely that much of what’s still to come could be modified even if a showrunner so desired. (Production of Westworld wrapped in May.)

The bigger danger might be creators anticipating the mysteries those fans will attempt to solve, a problem that is especially acute with fantasy and science fiction. Creators of some of the most beloved works of the last decade and change have been willing to provide additional details: George R.R. Martin has long filled in plot points outside the parameters of his books, particularly now that the HBO series has begun to outpace the original source material. J.K. Rowling has famously continued to flesh out her characters in the years since the last Harry Potter book was published, most notably by announcing that Dumbledore was gay.

Even if Nolan and Joy didn’t expect quite this degree of immediate success, a $100 million HBO series with the star power of Westworld was always going to work puzzle-solving fans into a frenzy. They wouldn’t be the first to anticipate fans hunting for clues: When Lindelof adapted The Leftovers for TV, he made a point of saying, before the premiere aired, that the biggest mystery of the show — the Sudden Departure — would never be explained.

Nolan has made clear that he doesn’t enjoy mysteries. "I watch some shows and some shows that I love where the questions were never answered or they just kept spitting out into the ether," he told IndieWire this month, "so our intention is to have answered a few important questions by the end of the first season, posed a few more interesting ones that then drive the second season."

In other words, Westworld wants to be the anti-Lost. But Nolan’s quest to make certain that every question has an answer seems like something beyond thoroughness: It feels like a creator hell-bent on breaking a work down in public, dissolving entertainment in real time so detail-hounding superfans can extract pure, cold world-building and mainline it together on Reddit. I say this as someone who spent a significant portion of Monday wondering if William’s asshole brother-in-law’s new gun is still going to work properly: Maybe instead of making the things we love richer, this abundance of explanation is making them worse.

At the conclusion of "Dissonance Theory," Maeve cuts open her own abdomen to see what answers she might find. Nolan and Joy know, surely, that there are many more questions left to answer about the mechanics of Westworld: many crucial to the plot; others not. Let’s hope Maeve’s creators spare their show the same fate.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.