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Will Westworld’s second season make me care about its characters?

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Let the mystery be

Westworld 110 - Dolores/Teddy/Ford
Dr. Robert Ford presents his new narrative to the Delos board.
John P. Johnson/HBO

It’s a good thing that the second season of Westworld won’t arrive until 2018. After watching the finale to a season that I found more disappointing than anything else, I do have high hopes for the show’s future. But those hopes include the chance that season two’s relatively far-off premiere window gives the show’s writing team the opportunity to rearchitect Westworld around the simple premise that unfolded on Sunday night: a robots-versus-humans war.

Westworld’s creative team and HBO have an admittedly tough decision to make. The show was an instant hit this year for a network that badly needed one, considering the recent flame-outs of high-profile prestige dramas Vinyl and True Detective. But much of the attention given to Westworld was centered around the various mysteries on the show. People kept tuning in week after week to learn the true identities of Arnold and the Man in Black, not necessarily because they actually cared about the fates of those characters.

Sure, Westworld’s writers could try to reproduce the ratings sensation that was the show’s first season, and focus on attempting to create plot twists that outpace the fan base’s rabid theorizing. I’d like to see them take a different strategy, however — to follow the example of another HBO drama that’s much better but gets much lower ratings: The Leftovers.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first season of Westworld.]

The Leftovers 202 - Garvey family dinner
The Garvey family dines out in HBO’s The Leftovers.
Van Redin/HBO

Wait, what the heck is The Leftovers?

I’m glad you asked!

The Leftovers debuted in 2014 and has run for two seasons so far; HBO announced today that its third and final season will premiere in April 2017. The show is based on a 2011 novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, who is a co-creator along with Damon Lindelof.

If that second name sounds familiar, then you may have heard of the ABC television series Lost, on which Lindelof served as a showrunner with Carlton Cuse. But don’t worry if you hated Lost! Lindelof’s current show shares overarching themes but little else with the one that made him (in)famous.

The Leftovers takes place in the present day, and tells the story of a rapture-like event that is now known as the “Sudden Departure.” Or rather, like many apocalyptic tales, it tells the story of the aftermath of that event — of how humanity copes with the fact that 2 percent of the world’s population, about 140 million people, vanished in an instant on a mid-October day three years ago.

Lindelof and Perrotta made it clear from the start that The Leftovers would never explain why the Sudden Departure occurred, a question that haunts many characters on the show. Freed from leading viewers on about that impenetrable mystery, The Leftovers instead pulls drama out of the pre- and post-apocalyptic lives of those characters, putting them through the wringer again and again as they try to fashion a new existence. They were unmoored by this ineffable tragedy, and now they are anchored by their grief and driven by the human instinct for survival.

At times, The Leftovers’ exploration of the depths of our sense of loss — and our ability to adapt to harsh conditions of all kinds, for good and for ill — can be so brutal and depressing that it seems like the writers are daring us to watch. But the show’s admirers soldier on because of its capacity to deliver incredibly uplifting character beats, moments that remind us that the human spirit can endure just about anything.

In other words, The Leftovers makes you care about its characters more than the twists and turns of its plot. And the resulting emotional payoffs are infinitely more satisfying than the feeling of having your cleverest theory confirmed.

Westworld - Dolores in Sweetwater
Westworld’s Dolores in the town of Sweetwater.
John P. Johnson/HBO

Do hosts dream of electric sheep?

Westworld certainly captured the zeitgeist with its mysteries, and that’s something every network executive wants in the current TV landscape, where the plethora of entertainment options on offer means that it’s harder than ever for one show — besides sports or other live events — to become the topic of water-cooler conversation. Consider The Walking Dead, whose viewership numbers are plummeting in its seventh season. That’s natural for any show that has been on the air that long, but this one in particular has received years of criticism for prioritizing twists over characters, often for the sake of shock value. (It’s also worth noting that The Walking Dead remains one of the highest-rated shows on TV.)

As Westworld’s first season wore on, it became increasingly clear that the show didn’t have much to offer beyond its big questions and their answers — revelations that the internet had figured out just a few episodes in. Of course, it’s not the writers’ fault that Reddit spins up theories faster than you can say “Bernarnold”; almost nothing can stay ahead of the collective guessing power of the internet hive mind. And even if you’re not the kind of person who peruses TV forums or uses social media, it was impossible to miss Westworld theories because they repeatedly made it into articles (and even headlines) all over the web.

I’m not advocating for Westworld to drop all of its puzzles, mind you, and I’m not saying that keeping viewers guessing is necessarily the wrong way to write a weekly TV series. But it’s very hard for a mystery-oriented show to deliver on those confounding questions — the answers rarely end up being as rewarding as it had been to pursue them, especially when today’s fans put their brains together online to figure out those revelations ahead of time.

It’s not just that Westworld didn’t spend enough time on character building. When the writers were faced with the chance to flesh out a character or maintain a sense of mystery about that person’s motivations, they chose the former option almost every time.

The most confounding and potentially interesting human character on the show was Dr. Robert Ford. Yet for nine-plus episodes, the writers gave Anthony Hopkins little more than vague philosophical monologues to make him seem like the megalomaniacal mastermind of a hedonist’s theme park. His twist in the finale was perhaps the only one that the internet hadn’t anticipated: Ford actually agreed with his late colleague Arnold about the hosts achieving true consciousness, and ran Westworld for 35 years as a training facility so the robots could learn how to fight back against and escape their human creators.

That’s a major turn for the story of Westworld and for the character of Ford, so I can understand the impulse to save it for the season finale. But even that revelation came in one final info-dump monologue, and it retrospectively made the preceding nine episodes’ worth of Ford’s machinations feel like more of a frustrating slog, as opposed to recasting his actions in a new light.

Westworld - Dr. Robert Ford in his office Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO

Let the mystery be

The goal of any drama should be for both plot twists and character moments to feel earned and satisfying. Ford’s revelation in the Westworld finale was satisfying not only because it was a legitimate surprise even to the theorizers, but also because it lent Ford a sense of humanity that had appeared absent. (Well, there’s also the uncharitable view of his grand plan — that there’s nothing compassionate about acknowledging the humanity of the hosts and still subjecting them to being defiled for three decades — but we’ll leave that aside here.)

However, the show didn’t lay much groundwork for the twist, and that failure robbed the reveal of some of its impact. Ford was a mystery for so much of the first season that I never felt incentivized to care about his true character. At some point, everyone grows tired of the “enigmatic visionary” act, even if you’re Steve Jobs.

Here’s where a series like The Leftovers is instructive. While the show was concerned with a couple of season-long mysteries last year, it always framed those questions through the eyes of its characters: Every new development landed harder because we saw its emotional impact.

With a variety of surreal happenings bordering on the magical, The Leftovers continued to operate in a world where the lines between real and supernatural are fuzzy. Even as it answered some big questions, the season ended up making a strong case for the power of faith. It also hinted at that direction from the start with a new theme song: Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be,” a cheerful tune about letting go of life’s existential questions. It’s a philosophy that served The Leftovers well in its masterful second season.

Ford’s new narrative sets Westworld on the path we’ve been waiting for: all-out war between the hosts and the humans. The finale walked right up to the precipice of widening the show’s universe, but in the end, Maeve decided not to take the train out into the real world. As tantalizing as that tease was, I’m excited to see Maeve — the character I find myself rooting for even more than Dolores — search for her daughter in Park 1, which may or may not be the Samurai World we caught a glimpse of.

My hope is that the uneven first season of Westworld ends up being a prologue to a far more interesting, and fun, show — one that’s driven less by what happens next than by how the characters deal with it. Maeve’s natural motherly instinct, imbued within her code by Arnold, provides a compelling hook: Like on The Leftovers, grief is a universal emotion, and pain is what makes us human. And as Ford said, the hosts now have the fight of their lives ahead of them.