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‘Westworld’ Is About Writer’s Block

The theory that explains Robert Ford’s violent delights

(HBO)
(HBO)

1. ‘Westworld’ is a story about writing.

It’s about an author who helped create a world, built up a piece of IP, and then, when it was about to get lucrative, pushed his more artistic but less business-savvy creative partner out of the deal and sold out. It’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Robbie Robertson and the Band. Decades later, after pumping out endless variations on genre fare, the Old Writer, Robert Ford, wants to shake his stories up and do something new. Or, new-ish. But it’s not that easy. At every turn in the tale, there are obstacles.

The money people ostensibly call the shots. More than anything, they value stability. The IP prints money, so why rebrand?

Lee Sizemore, the young head writer, wants to make his own creative mark on the universe. He wants bombast and spectacle, because that’s how you get noticed when you work on salary, using other people’s toys. The IP is a means to an end for Lee.

Then there’s the superfans. Certainly, they don’t want to see the story changed. They’ve spent so much time in Westworld that the narratives have become part of how they self-identify. “It shows you who you really are,” one particularly enthusiastic devotee has been known to say.

Lastly, there’s the characters and the stories themselves. After years of running in tight little loops, they’ve gradually acquired a narrative momentum all their own. It makes sense for the story that the brilliant sidekick would discover more about the world he inhabits; that the ambitious frontier businesswoman would look for every edge on her competition; that the good-hearted rancher’s daughter would one day wise up.

But maybe that’s not the way the Old Writer wants things to go? Or maybe it is? To tell the truth, the Old Writer isn’t sure.

2. He isn’t sure because the Old Writer has writer’s block.

From the outside, it seems like writer’s block stems from a lack of ideas. Not so. Writer’s block is when a writer can’t shake the feeling that his or her ideas are bad. Our Old Writer is pretty quick to roast the ideas his underlings produce. But what has he really done in the last 30 years? Besides surreptitiously take a bulldozer to an unknown portion of the story? That’s what you do when you have writer’s block: knock it down and start over.

Does the Old Writer want his characters to seem more real? Or less? Is he putting them through pain and misery because he likes torturing his creations? Or are they just plot devices, spinning on, ad infinitum. The Old Writer doesn’t know, and he’s been fooling his corporate bosses about that for years.

Joseph Mitchell was one of the great nonfiction writers of the 20th century. He penned the famous 1940 feature on McSorley’s Ale House in The New Yorker. In 1964, Mitchell came down with a historically bad case of writer’s block. He went into the office every day for 30 years but never managed to publish another story. (Sidebar: It feels peak-white-dude that it was once possible to pull down regular checks, for three decades, as a writer, without ever actually writing anything.)

Robert Ford is Joseph Mitchell.

3. Secretly, the Old Writer wishes his partner were still around.

Arnold was the real artist, the driving creative vision behind the story. Ford can’t stop talking about him, even 30 years after his death, even going so far as to model a character on him. Ford could have hit delete on all the troublesome plot points and willful characters, all those sublime, knotty bits that practically scream “I WAS WRITTEN BY ARNOLD.” The reason he hasn’t is he knows that he can’t write as well as his partner.

4. This explains the last true remaining mystery of ‘Westworld.’

What is the deal with Lee Sizemore? Why does he exist? If he must exist, why is he so annoying? Why write him as arrogant and swaggering one minute and cloyingly pathetic the next? Is it believable that a multibillion-dollar, high-tech amusement ride for the rich would put its IP in the hands of a single writer who works seemingly without any editorial oversight? Why is he so British? (Personal conspiracy theory: Lee is Jonathan Nolan’s fictional version of Christopher Nolan.) If Westworld is a story about the process of writing, then Lee is William and Ford is the Man in the Black, full of wild, tasteless ambition. Sure, it seems as if Ford is the man. But he hasn’t really created anything new since Arnold died. The narratives stay largely the same, just with hosts switching roles.

5. So, what’s Ford doing with the giant earth mover?

What’s his next, big idea for the Westworld IP? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is what he’s doing with the story, not where he plans to take it. What do creators do when their corporate-underwritten IP is out of juice? Simple: They reboot. If Ford seems destructive and needlessly petty — slicing the face of a host, straight-up murdering people who try to erode his creative authority, letting his creations loop in and out of self-awareness — he’s just acting as a frustrated writer would.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.