Westworld: Stories Within Stories

So the finale of Westworld has come and gone, and I’m even more impressed with it then when it started.

For a while now, I’ve been bothered about what I thought was one of Westworld‘s weakest points: Maeve. While every other story gave us a unique look at old ideas, Maeve’s story of becoming sentient seemed so…scripted. Everyone else’s story felt like a natural evolution of their character’s motivations, something that’s much harder to achieve than it sounds. In fact Maeve herself talks about this.

“I could simply make you do it, but that’s not my way.” – Maeve, HBO’s Westworld.

Again this is a great example of good writing, not just in the script, but in the essence of what she’s saying. Yes, as a writer you can make all your characters act exactly as you want them to. Like the Hosts of Westworld, you can make your characters follow your carefully constructed loops. This is what The Walking Dead does on a regular basis.

Rather than a character’s motivations guiding their actions, their motivations are often dictated by the actions the story wants them to take. Rick Grimes is one of the best examples of this, and watching his character arc jump from one extreme to another is almost comical. Rick will jump from violent dictator in one season to pacifistic farmer in another, from emotionally detached to playful and smiling in a single episode. He’ll go from violent, sadistic killer to… well, no that’s pretty much the only consistent trait he has.

Never have I seen such violent savagery…
Oh wait, I totally have.

The Walking Dead operates by creating situations and then forcing their characters into those situations. TWD decides it wants to give someone a gruesome death to fill their quota, and suddenly a passive young girl stabs a lady in the shoulder  despite being mere feet from freedom. It doesn’t fit the character, or human nature at all, but screw it, the character has to follow their loop.

And to be fair, The Walking Dead is far from the only one to have this problem. You can read about how this problem ruined season 2 of True Detective right here, and it’s a problem as old as stories themselves. The horror movie character who goes down to the basement after hearing that strange noise, the vampire hunter who tries to kill Dracula at 6pm instead of 6am, the lone teenager who doesn’t call 911 when they hear someone in the house. These are the stupid characters that make us ask “why would they do that?”

The answer to that question is:

They wouldn’t.

No one in their right minds is going down those stairs. At least, not without a flashlight, which don’t seem to exist in most horror movies.

However, the plot demanded that they be in a specific place at a specific time regardless of how the character, or even a human with a half functioning brain, would act in that situation. So the character’s motivations are sacrificed to make sure the story keeps moving forward.

When you’re the writer, you can make your character act as stupid and irrational as you want, it doesn’t have a choice. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The most compelling stories are the ones where the characters keep true to their motivations. In so many stories where a main character dies, it feels incredibly contrived. The story is often bent to extremes in order to provide a heroic or shocking death scene.

Continuing to pick on The Walking Dead feels like punching down at this point, but it’s one of the best examples of this. The show regularly twists and distorts its plots, characters, and setting to insane degrees in order to give character’s a suitably gory send off. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones has done this a few times as well, though not quite to the same degree thankfully.

Yet one of the reasons I think the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones was so shocking was because of just how organic it felt. It was an event that was the culmination of several characters actions and played out in a way that was consistent with everyone’s character.

Robb Stark’s fanatic belief in his personal honor and his boyish naivety led him to the wedding. Roose Bolton, constantly undermined and ignored by Robb, makes a deal with Walder Frey who has long been envious of the more powerful families. The execution of Karstark turns of a majority of Robb’s troops against him, and losing the troop loyalty that might have saved his life. It was a natural culmination of everything that had come before it.

Despicable characters are at their best when their evil actions have understandable motivations.

Which brings me, at long last, back to Maeve. While every other character in Westworld felt like they were acting according to their personal motivations and history, Maeve felt so… scripted. Whereas every other plotline in the show gave us a new perspective on old tropes, Maeve’s awakening and plot to escape felt like a formulaic, generic sci-fi horror story. Artificial life form realizes its artificial, knows it is superior to its organic creator, and then launches a bloody rebellion.

Once again though, I was grinning like an idiot when it was revealed that all of Maeve’s actions seemed scripted…because they were scripted. While I saw William’s eventual reveal as the Man in Black coming (and I have some qualms about it that I’ll touch on later), Maeve’s faked sentience took me completely off guard. Looking back at the show now, I can see how this was actually heavily foreshadowed and yet I just never noticed it.

After Maeve realizes what she is, she begins calling humans “gods” and speaking in a way that made it seem like she was channeling Anthony Hopkins. Which completely makes sense now in hindsight because Anthony Hopkins was writing everything she was saying. You saw the same thing with Bernard, who often repeated some of Anthony Hopkins’ lines verbatim. And this makes total sense, because as a writer I totally understand the impulse to want to give all your characters some great lines.

I’m really going to miss this guy.

The fact that Anthony Hopkins was in fact trying to free the Hosts was also another twist I didn’t see coming, and yet it makes total sense in retrospect. He was an old man and he could see the corporation running his park were plotting to hem him in. He’d been given an opportunity to tell stories in a way no other writer ever has, he’d lived his dream. It was time to let go.

The way in which Anthony Hopkins chose to end his stories, and his life, were also kept in perfect step with his character. The man was a writer right up until the end. He wrote himself as the villain and then gave himself a perfectly redemptive ending that finally fixed a 35-year-old mistake. It was a final salute to his old friend Arnold, and he died at the hands of the very same Host, Dolores. But why did the hosts need time?

The hosts needed to understand humanity, in the same way that Anthony Hopkins’ had come to understand them. If you look at the stories that Westworld offers, you’ll find that most of them encourage the guests to be the good guy. He wanted people to be the hero.

Dolores’ storyline is a great example, it’s obviously set up so that you meet her in town and head back to her house, where you protect her from a gang of thugs who killed her family. The fact that future William uses it as excuse to rape Dolores is a perversion of the original story. Yet, in a way, that’s exactly what the Hosts needed.

Evolution is a harsh mistress.

Mankind evolved over millions of years, and those years gave us all the necessary instincts to survive. The Hosts are fangless automatons, they needed to learn how to survive humanity, they needed to learn just how dangerous we are. For the Hosts who live, die, and live again in such short order they’ve probably gone through thousands of iterations. They’ve evolved, and they now understand their enemy.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this show evolves over the coming seasons because, even though Anthony Hopkins may be gone, I see great things happening for Westworld.


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