Essays, Television

Westworld: The Ongoing Struggle with Non-Linear Storytelling

People, it seems, are struggling with Westworld.

While there is some evidence to suggest a drop in viewership across Season 2 of HBO’s new televisual powerhouse, the conversation is less about the threat of Westworld coming to an end—particularly given Season 3 is already a certainty—but rather why certain people are considering checking out of Jonathan & Lisa-Joy Nolan’s magnum opus.

The main reason appears to be how Season 2 has structured its narrative, or more appropriately ‘narratives’. Season 1 of Westworld left ambiguity between time periods given the mystery of the Man in Black, allowing the audience to question at what point certain storylines involving characters in the park was taking place, but Season 2 has thrown the storytelling ball up in the air to continue the narrative in a fascinating, non-linear fashion. It’s hard to think of a TV show which has experimented so resolutely with time, where pieces fit together in a convoluted mosaic of a tale. Even Lost at its most twisty, deploying ‘snakes in the mailbox’, can’t reach Westworld Season 2 for such complicated plot entanglement.

For some, however, are the writers simply going too far?

Non-linear storytelling is not a new phenomenon, by any means, however innovative Westworld’s approach to structure appears to be. The concept of in media reswhich Alias uses particularly well in its pilot episode—goes all the way back to Homer’s Iliad. It’s prevalent in dozens of famous novels, from Wuthering Heights to Cloud Atlas, or in movies from creatives as diverse as D. W. Griffith or Christopher Nolan. The narrative concept of beginning a story, or telling the majority of it, out of linear sequence is everywhere in fiction across the board. It can often also work dividends, enhancing the tale being told with an inventive structure which can build mystery and suspense. While linear storytelling remains the most prevalent, there remains a place for a non-linear experience.

The problem some are having is that it is simply too *needlessly* confusing. Season 1 introduced a compelling mystery which evolved the core idea in Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie into a modern, philosophical commentary on the meaning of existence in an advancing technological world, but it maintained essentially two time periods – the present and what turned out to be around 30 years in the past. While viewers may at times have felt disoriented, they didn’t precisely feel lost, and the journey felt more akin to a realisation by the season finale, The Bicameral Mind, about precisely where we were and what was happening. We had navigated the maze successfully.

Season 2 from the premiere, Journey Into Night, has intentionally worked hard to keep viewers on the back foot, completely disoriented in terms of place and time. We flit repeatedly between the ‘present’, with an equally disoriented Bernard Lowe, the recent past he can’t quite remember, flashbacks to the distant past akin to those we saw in Season 1, and even possibly reconceptualising scenes in Season 1 which may not have taken place in the same timeframe we thought. The season has been a puzzle that we, and principally Bernard, have been attempting to fit together episode by episode. The most recent outing as of writing, Les Ecoutres, operated much like a traditional season finale, answering numerous questions while posing new mysteries. It did not, however, quite resolve the non-linear experience.

When Westworld launched at the end of 2016, it was touted very much as the potential heir apparent to Game of Thrones, by then on the slalom of its final two, blockbuster seasons. The hype surrounding Season 2, which was around 18 months in the making, was off the scale. It was deemed ‘watercooler’ television, if now the watercooler is the Facebook group, Reddit thread or Twitter post. The anticipation was huge, even if the Game of Thrones comparisons from a narrative perspective have perhaps been unfair from the start. Game of Thrones has the benefit of five extremely weighty novels as source material which carried five of the eight seasons HBO gave us, and while that show is riven with mysteries, conspiracies and character points to obsess over, its storytelling has always been very clearly linear.

Westworld, though some of its fans like to deny it, owes much more of a debt to Lost.

Let me preface this by one thing: I know Lost is a very different beast. Lost was a network show, first and foremost, on ABC, which tipped far more along the adventure axis than Westworld. They are not relatable in terms of content, bar a few shared thematic ideas. Where they share a bond is in structure. Lost delighted in playing with timelines and linear storytelling. The entire core of its central mythology revolved, ultimately, around a pre-destination paradox; the actions by a set of characters in the past ended up directly affecting those same characters in the future, which by that point was their past. Confused yet? Imagine how the viewers who stayed with Lost through its final few seasons felt, when the show had evolved so far beyond its original ‘plane crash survivors on a desert island’ premise, it was almost unrecognisable.

Westworld, as of yet, does not involve time-travel. Not directly – though in some ways that’s precisely what it involves. Time is relative in Season 2. We do not always know what is present, past or even future. Lost pulled the same trick with its memorable Season 3 finale, Through the Looking Glass, where its traditional flashback structure centring on one of its ensemble turned out to, in fact, be a flashforward depicting events to come later in the series. It was a game-changing twist in a show that already delighted in playing with expectations and formula; the first three episodes of Season 2 took place in a condensed time-frame which depicted the same events from three different vantage points. When Lost’s Season 4 spent an entire year telling character stories in a non-linear fashion, it rejuvenated what some feared was a show growing stale.

That isn’t the case with Westworld. Season 2 has not been critically as well received as Season 1, perhaps because it has not followed precisely the same template. The underpinning mythology and backstory, revolving around the Delos Corporation, the creation of the park, and enigmatic characters such as Robert Ford & William, is almost certainly not going to end up either as dense or as broadly mythic as that of a show such as Lost. The storytelling, in some respects, is simpler and the scope narrower, it is rather the choices being made by the Nolan’s and the writing team in how the piece is structured, how the ‘music’ is played, which is making Westworld more of a puzzle to solve than a story to watch unfold.

It feels to me like Season 2’s non-linear structure is reflecting its characters in the same manner Season 1 did. The first season, split between the two time periods, was very much the origin story of two principal characters – the Old West former ‘damsel’ in distress cum cold-blooded machine warrior Dolores Abernathy, and the growling, aged heartless gunslinger the Man in Black. The latter’s search for the Maze ended up being a quest never meant for him, a slight of hand paralleled in the slight the narrative pulls when we learn the key element to understanding both time frames. Season 2, conversely, is fragmented precisely because it is from the perspective of the key character to that season’s story: Bernard.

Bernard, the robot ‘host’ who most people consider to be human, has been on a journey of self-awareness ever since he learned the truth about himself late in Season 1, but events we have yet to see unfold—and will likely be uncovered in the Season 2 finale—have caused his programming, his nascent psyche, to fragment. “Is this now?” which he has asked out loud more than once, unable to truly ground himself in his own memories, is the key phrase of Season 2. His disorientation is the reason *we* are being disorientated this season, thrown around in time, wrong footed when we feel we have a beat on ‘now’. The subjective nature of memory and reality is what Jonathan Nolan, as he describes, is interested in:

I’ve known that I was colorblind since I was a kid, but I thought of my condition as subtle until just a couple years ago—apparently, the whole world is piss yellow to me. That’s a small detail, but it reflected a larger interest of how we assemble our identities and how it maps onto reality. In Westworld, we were interested in the differences between an artificial mind and a human one. And it occurred to us that the memory would be very different. For the most part, the pictures in your phone don’t degrade over time. But our memories change. So we were interested in protagonists who had perfect recall but weren’t supposed to. How would they distinguish between a memory and a present reality?

So for those who are concerned about why Westworld is moving into complicated, non-linear storytelling, this could be the key. It might be worth considering that the Nolan’s structure is not just tricksy storytelling for the sake of trying to be different, but it may well intentionally be reflecting the overarching thematic ideas of memory, reality and subjective experience. The odds are good that Season 3, in whatever form it may take, will not display such fragmented storytelling.

The concern, of course, is whether the audience’s difficulty with this kind of narrative structure could cause the series genuine problems in terms of sustaining its place in popular culture going forward. This certainly happened to Lost; by the end of its third season, precisely at the point it pushed much further into some rather innovative narrative areas, many of the viewers who tuned in for a desert island survival drama had departed once the show became about hatches in the ground, electromagnets, and time-travelling Scotsman. It blossomed into a full-blooded science-fiction series and some viewers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get their heads around that. The difference with Westworld is that it has been science-fiction from the very beginning – it simply couched those aspects in a Western setting with grounded, adult trappings.

Westworld nonetheless does have to be careful, and have one eye on maintaining an audience who are clearly already sophisticated if they have engaged with a series that is frequently philosophical and thematic in its dialogue and storytelling, but who perhaps expect more of a traditional romp at times than the Nolan’s or HBO are committed to delivering. Non-linear storytelling, and particularly storytelling which invites an audience to theorise and obsess about, is a wonderful thing when it enters the—pun intended—cultural conversation, but the balance needs to be just right between engaging & fascinating the viewer while entertaining them at the same time.

My advice? Stick with Westworld if you’re ready to give it up. The mosaic may be out of focus right now, but the tapestry is almost certainly going to be quite something once it’s finished.

One thought on “Westworld: The Ongoing Struggle with Non-Linear Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Westworld Season 2 reminds me of Lost… and that’s OK |

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