One of the reasons Westworld is as successful as it is right now is because showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have left a trail of breadcrumbs for people to follow. Like Lost or Mr. Robot, there’s a mystery that gets built upon with each episode, and because modern television tends to follow similar formulas and patterns, we’ve been conditioned to wait for the big reveal. We wait, impatiently, for the eighth or ninth episode and for the twist to appear. When it does, it satiates our need to be validated. It’s the pay off for returning week after week.
In that way, Westworld has become Mr. Robot, and the question is whether the show can continue for one or two or three more seasons relying on the trick of the trade.
Warning: The rest contains spoilers for Westworld’s seventh episode and Mr. Robot’s first and second season.
After weeks of speculation from fans and suggesting possibilities on forums, in podcasts and in YouTube videos, one of the biggest theories surrounding the show was proven correct: Bernard, Ford’s second-in-command, is a host.
It’s the twist that audiences have been waiting seven weeks for, and when it happened, it wasn’t so much shocking as it was heartbreaking. Bernard had wormed his way into our hearts with the story of his dead son, his compassionate nature and his desire to do the right thing all the time. He was the unsung hero of the Westworld universe, and although certain signs pointed to the character being a part of the very world that he helped to maintain, he was one of the few that we were rooting for.
It’s what makes the twist as devastating as it is, and both Nolan and Joy deserve credit for it. It’s hard to keep an audience engaged with a show week after week, and despite what other series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead do, Westworld doesn’t rely on weekly deaths to keep us guessing. It’s not who’s going to die, but rather what we’ll discover. The neverending mystery is what makes Westworld so fascinating, and it’s a formula that Nolan is used to playing with. It only takes one viewing of Memento to see how that film and writing process influenced Westworld, but unlike one big shock at the end of the film that wraps up an entire narrative, Westworld needs to continue.
There are still three more episodes in the season, but it feels like we’ve already had the big twist.
That’s not to say that there aren’t other revelations we’re waiting on. We still need to know more about the Maze, Ford’s plans, what Maeve is up to, what will happen to William and Delores and, of course, the importance of Arnold. There are tons of questions that need answers, but Westworld has already started down the path that Game of Thrones did with its ninth episode — leading to each twist and revelation needing to be bigger than the last.
Game of Thrones decapitated its main character in the ninth episode of the first season. Since then, each season feels like we’re just getting through the first eight episodes to be rewarded with a shocking twist or horrific death. Eventually, however, audiences can see through the manipulation of using that tool and as it becomes routine, each death and twist gets boring. There can’t just be one major event anymore because fans can see it coming and can prepare for it.
Instead, television audiences have become engrossed with the trying to figure out the big, all-encompassing mystery — and if Lost started that trend, then Mr. Robot brought it back.
As Westworld goes on, there are a lot of similarities between it and Mr. Robot that should be pretty concerning. Both are set in dystopian worlds. Both feature a main character trying to outsmart a corporation and build the world they envision. Both use technology as a tool to demonstrate what the future can look like. Both are obsessed with the idea that the real world is far too disappointing and it’s easier to just not exist within it.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that both make viewers question what’s real and what’s not every single week.
Before Mr. Robot’s big twist, which revealed that the mentor Elliot was seeing was actually a hallucination of his dead father, each episode asked the audience to question what they were seeing.
Surely, for example, Evil Corp wasn’t called Evil Corp. The people that he was seeing on the subway and the streets, were they real or figments of Elliot’s imagination? As the season went on, more clues were provided until the big reveal came and everything fell into place. What Lost had failed to do — provide answers to some of the show’s biggest questions — Mr. Robot seemed to accomplish in one season.
It’s what made the series feel special and, thanks to incredible storytelling from creator Sam Esmail and his writing team, on top of beautiful cinematography and direction, the show quickly became an overnight success. But, having written about TV extensively for the past few years and studying it, after the finale aired, I was worried the show wouldn’t be able to recapture what made it so great in its first season as it continued. It wasn’t that I was worried the writing would suffer or the direction — which Esmail decided to take on himself — would falter in any way, but I had vivid flashbacks of Game of Thrones and thought, "How do they top that? Where do they go from here?"
Mr. Robot built up a strong mystery and let fans explore the potential of it before wrapping it up in one tidy season finale. It felt like an elongated movie, taking 10 hours to tell the story instead of two, and that’s what Westworld feels like. Before the show premiered, Nolan, Joy and executive producers at HBO spoke about how they wanted the series to run for five seasons. It’s hard enough for a procedural to run for longer than three or four seasons, but taking a mystery as complex as the one being presented and stretching it out over 50 hours can be disastrous.
Like Mr. Robot, Westworld feels like it could — and should — wrap up in one season. It could use the next three episodes to reach the Maze, explain Arnold and finalize Maeve’s storyline without having to worry about forcing it to be more complicated and lengthy than it has to because they need to fill time. Trying to out-twist and out-puzzle the audience is what lead to Lost’s eventual downfall, where storylines were never wrapped up and it got too kooky for its own good. In an attempt to keep it fresh, Mr. Robot spent its entire second season throwing more curveballs about what was real and what was a figment of Elliot’s imagination until there was a second big reveal that ultimately left audiences and critics feeling unfulfilled and bored.
As seen through theories on Reddit, suggestions voiced on podcasts and hundreds of articles written by avid fans, Westworld is special and it has the potential to be something great. But this episode proved that, like every other show, it’s going to rely on a series of twists that get bigger as it goes, with the story getting more incomprehensible each time.
Westworld needs to learn from Lost, Game of Thrones, and Mr. Robot’s mistakes, by figuring out how to not sacrifice story for novelty. That’s ultimately the only way it’ll continue to succeed.