What Can HBO’s ‘Westworld’ Teach Us About Storytelling?
Author + Writer
In 2007 Director/Producer J.J. Abrams gave a TED Talk about why he makes stories and the concept of “the mystery box.”
In the following decade “mystery box” has become dismissive shorthand for any story that prioritizes its own clever, confusing plot twists over human emotion. I don’t think this is entirely fair to Abrams, who both in the talk and in some of his films finds an empathy to ground the mystery; it’s an entirely fair assessment, however, of Westworld, a box so lavishly shot, well-acted, and carefully crafted, that you can maybe overlook there’s nothing more than mystery in it.
For the uninitiated, Westworld is a show about consciousness, free will, the fluidity of time, and the evil of man, but also robot cowboys. The robot cowboys realize they’re robots, and rebel against the humans who created them. Also, Ed Harris shoots a bunch of people. That’s all a bit snarky, so I should say I have obsessively watched both seasons of Westworld because while mystery boxes don’t grab hold of me like they used to, I still appreciate an intelligent, narrative puzzle. The problem is Westworld envisions itself as Important Television, with Important Ideas, about Being Human, but doesn’t seem all that interested in key parts of existence. Like, say, emotions.
Season two’s best episode focused entirely on the leader of the Native American tribe “Ghost Nation,” giving him an achingly tragic character arc. In fifty minutes I was more invested in his story than any other character. Until this point, Ghost Nation were these ominous, nameless figures floating in the background of the show, but suddenly they were given scope! Humanity! A purpose! Inevitably this narrative power will culminate in a dominant season finale that uses our newfound attachment to them fo … nope. The show sends them off in the finale with barely a line of dialogue. And the most frustrating realization I had at this point was that Westworld could tell compelling human stories, it just doesn’t care to.
Don’t we, as storytellers, want to lead people to something more?
If I can copy Westworld’s tendency to drop Shakespeare randomly — the show is sound and fury, signifying … well, usually more sound and fury. Does this make Westworld a lousy show: … Um, no? Maybe? I don’t think so? But possibly. The show is so skilled at stacking mystery box on top of mystery box that I’ll line up to watch season three when it premieres in 2038, even though I’ll have no clue what’s happening or why I should care.
No matter the storytelling venue — a film, a book, or a church service — the mystery box is a powerful tool to grab people’s attention, but if it doesn’t ground the story in relatable human emotion, and if it doesn’t help us find our place in the bigger story of human existence, the audience walks away entertained, but unchanged. For those of us who are storytellers, especially in the church, we aren’t passionate just about getting congregants in the door or engaging creatively with the arts; we want to tell a human story that leads us somewhere, that brings us closer to God, truth, and community.
But that can only happen if we give people their place in the bigger story, not just a series of finely-crafted facts, flashy transitions, or entertaining visuals. Westworld is so enamored with its creativity that it’s lost sight of human empathy. It has everything to say, but says nothing, leaving its audience feeling it consumed something meaningful, only to be hungry the next hour.