Westworld and the problems with “mystery box”

Story By Sandy Grossman


For those who have not seen season 1 of Westworld, this may read like an incomprehensible mess.

HBO’s dark, twisted, and slightly stupid drama Westworld is not “good television” by the typical definition of the term. The dialogue is sophomoric, the characters bland and the performances never go beyond melodramatic fluff, save Anthony Hopkins, who deserves all the acclaim heaped upon him. The fact that I watched the entire season despite these rather glaring flaws is proof that

Westworld is sustained by one thing: its mystery. I wanted to know what the Maze was, who the Man in Black was, and why a hedonistic amusement park is staffed by such incredibly advanced machines. So, I kept watching.

This mystery box writing strategy, a term coined by producer J.J. Abrams, puts the focus not on the characters but on the secrets they uncover. It hinges on the writer’s ability create a compelling puzzle with a satisfying payoff. And thus far, it has worked; Westworld’s first season garnered great ratings and largely positive reviews. But the problem with this strategy lies the in the very thing that makes it work: the payoff.

Searching for what lies inside the box is the only reason why I watch. Westworld’s writers expertly drip feed their fans the clues necessary to figure out the next twist and allow them to do the rest. Being a curious fan myself, I want to see where these clues lead. But I know that, wherever they lead, it will never be as satisfying as what I had built in my head. The show is a series of promising setups and disappointing conclusions. The Man in Black I had imagined was far more interesting and terrifying than the person he turned out to be, while the reveal of the true nature of the Maze was needlessly convoluted. The two biggest reveals of the season profoundly disappointed me. But in the show’s defense, the mystery box set me up for disappointment.

And this is because, when the box opens, it ceases to be interesting. So when the show eventually lays all its cards out on the table, it too will cease to interest me. But I will follow the show to its end nevertheless and feel that disappointment. Because, although I’m sure the solution to the show’s grand mystery will be underwhelming, it will still be better than no solution at all.

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