Westworld: A Storyteller’s Story

Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.

Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.

Westworld:

A Storyteller’s Story

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Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.

Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.

“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”

His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.

The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.

No.png
“No.” – Anthony Hopkins’ response to the new story. And my response to pretty much every story these days.

Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:

“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”

Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s ListInside Out, Gladiator. The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld. 

These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.

early-hosts-420-90
Or possibly sentient artificial life.

“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy

When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.

Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.

Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?

We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.

Corypheus_Closeup
Apparently one of the most power magisters in the Tevinter Imperium has no historical record.

The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.

It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.

Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:

  • Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
  • Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
  • Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.

In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.

cottonmouth
Annoying, laughing window dressing.

It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:

“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins

Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:

“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”

Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.

“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores

I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.

I wouldn't say that at all Anthony Hopkins Westworld.png
My God man, he has so much talent it’s pouring out of his eyes!

But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.

As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.

“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.

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“Look back and smile at perils past.” – Walter Scott, a 300-year-old Scottish novelist made to sound brand new from the mouth of Anthony Hopkins.

If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it.  This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:

“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.

 

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True Detective Season 2: What The Hell Went Wrong

True Detective’s second season finally came to an end on Sunday, brutally killing not only several characters but also any hope we had that the show would somehow redeem itself in the finale. While I didn’t quite get the transcendental experience others seemed to get watching the original season of True Detective, I still thought it was a great show with some amazing performances by McConaughey and Harrelson. So what the hell went wrong with this season?

Well let me lay out for you the mistakes that made this season of True Detective one of the most bizarre experiences in recent memory.

[Obviously spoilers are to follow, but quite frankly if you haven’t seen it, you might save yourself 8.5 hours of your time and just read this review instead.]

4. The Dialogue Was Awful

Wait...what?
Wait…what?

That up there is the closed captioning for the finale of Season 2, I turned it on specifically to make sure I was hearing what I thought I heard. Those words are spoken by Generic Russian Mob Boss #3209, A.K.A. Ossip, as Frank and Velcoro sneak up on cash exchange between Catalast [that’s not a typo by the way, that’s how it was actually spelled in the show] and the Russians, and it serves as a perfect example of how messed up the dialogue is.

What does that sentence even mean? Everything you start is unfinished, that’s why you’re starting it. The strange dialogue of season two was both a blatant attempt to recapture the magic of Rust’s poetic philosophizing and a great demonstration of how the show misunderstood its own popularity. There were several reasons why Rust’s dialogue worked in the first season, reasons that are completely absent from this season.

First of all, the dialogue was appropriate to Rust’s character, he was the perpetual outsider. The pariah who had trouble connecting with people on even the most basic level. That’s why he spoke the way he did, why he waxed philosophical at every opportunity, because it was representative of his inability to communicate with other people. To put it simply, Rust earned the right to speak like he did because it was a core part of his character.

The second reason Rust’s dialogue worked was that it was counterbalanced by Hart’s dialogue. Whenever Rust would get particularly insufferable in his nihilistic preaching, Hart would jump in with a well-timed “shut the fuck up.” Hart grounded the dialogue by not taking what Rust was saying seriously. Rust was using big words and complicated philosophies to cover the fact that he has utterly miserable and pretending that misery made him special.

Rust from True Detective
Shockingly, this is not a mentally stable person.

And the most important reason that Rust’s dialogue worked was this:

Rust was the only one who spoke like that. 

Everyone else in the first season of True Detective spoke like a normal human being, with the exception of The Yellow King, who was the foil of Rust’s character. The Yellow King was basically the Anti-Rust, an insufferable philosopher driven by faith rather than nihilism. So again, both their respective dialogues made sense in context.

In this season of True Detective, everyone is now talking like Rust and the people listening to it are taking it dead seriously, despite the fact this season features some of the goofiest lines ever spoken in a crime drama. I do not know how Vince Vaughn said “blue-balls of the heart” with a straight fucking face, but he deserves some kind of award for that. It’s sad that Vince Vaughn got saddled with a disproportionate amount of strange dialogue, because his character is the last person who should be speaking like that. Frank is a gangster who runs a bunch of casinos and whose primary duties are interacting with other people, and getting them to give him their money. He’s a people person, a negotiator. He’s not a loner or a reader of philosophy, there’s not a single thing about this character that justifies him talking like this:

WTF IS THIS NOISE
You can see more of these gems right here.

Look at that fucking sentence up there. Herman Melville would look at that sentence and say, “Dude, no. Just no.” Even the Borg speak more organically than that. Was McConaughey adlibbing all his lines last season or did True Detective simply fire the editor in charge of proofreading this crap?

Whatever the case, the only time anyone spoke like a normal human being was when the characters sat down to spew out expository dialogue in a futile attempt to help the audience make heads or tails of the plot…

3. The Plot Was Buried in Subplots

Blue Diamonds True Detective

The main plot revolved around the blue diamonds stolen by corrupt cops in 1992, in which the jewelers were brutally executed during the heist. The orphans of those jewelers then kidnapped Caspere some twenty-odd years later, originally planning to interrogate him and find out who else was responsible, before the crazy brother ended up killing him in a fit of rage.

This is not a complicated plot. Any other police procedural would have been able to tell this story in a 42 minute episode. So why the hell did we all spend two months in a near constant state of confusion over what the fuck was happening in this show?

Stan Dead...who is he again?
I still don’t know who the fuck Stan was…

Well because the plot so was simple that an episode of Castle could have covered it, True Detective season 2 needed something else to make it interesting. There were several ways to do this:

A) They could have setup some character-driven subplots, a la the first season’s subplot about Hart’s constant infidelity and the tense relationship between Hart and Rust. 

B) Solve the main mystery quickly, but that in turn leads to the uncovering of the larger criminal conspiracy at work in Vinci, and the detectives have to protect the former orphans while collecting evidence about the conspiracy. 

C) Create a few carefully crafted subplots and use them to spice up the main storyline. :

D) Take the plot of every noir crime story ever made, make them their own dedicated subplots, and throw them all into a big bowl. Mix until plot is totally incomprehensible. 

Unfortunately for us all, they chose D.

The largest and most pointless subplot was the Railway Corridor, which ended up taking approximately all of the show’s running time. Seriously, more time and effort was spent trying to uncover the mysteries of this stupid land deal than was spent on telling the actual story of the show. The worst part is that the Railway Corridor was only ever tangentially connected with the main story, the corrupt cops were hoping to use their share of the diamond heist to buy their way into the land deal. If Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh stuck with actually investigating the diamond heist, instead of wasting their time looking into the land deal, they probably would have all lived happily ever after.

Seriously guys, you had ONE job.
Seriously guys, you had ONE job.

If the story had stuck to telling us about the diamond heist and then led us into the deeper conspiracy surrounding the rail corridor, then yes, this could have worked. But instead of doing that, True Detective apparently got bored and wandered off to tell us a dozen different stories all happening at the same time.

We had a bunch of pointless scenes with Frank attempting to retain control of his clubs, even though roughly 100% of the audience didn’t have a single fuck to give about the intricacies of Frank’s operations. We even got a pointless fist fight between Frank and a fat dude with gold teeth, for reasons I still don’t understand.

We had even more scenes with Frank trying to have a baby with his wife and complaining about how hard his life as an orphan was.

Bezzerides took more than one trip to see her father, who knew some of the older conspirators in passing but the connection is ultimately meaningless.

Essentially 99% of the subplots in this season were pointless. Not only did they not advance the story, they actively held it back. The Russian mobster taking over the underworld? Pointless. He shows up three or four times, vaguely threatens Frank and then promptly dies at the end.

Wait, I'm too vital to the plot to die! *Dies* Oh, I guess not.
Wait, I’m too inconsequential to the plot to die!

The strange Mexican duo that looked like they stepped out of the 80’s? Nothing more than ethnic Deus Ex Machinas to make sure Frank died tragically. They literally only show up to advance the story (helping Frank find the Mexican prostitute), throw up obstacles (then killing the Mexican prostitute), and then putting the main character in arbitrary danger. Their presence was never explained.

Then there was the Black Mountain security company, which was alluded to throughout the season but ultimately contributed nothing but a couple of goons for the main characters to shoot at.

There was also a really strange, creepy fixation on the character’s sex lives. I understand the main theme of this season was sex (it wasn’t exactly subtle about it), but the show also doesn’t go anywhere with this. The first time we meet Bezzerides she’s having an argument with her boyfriend over her BDSM fetish, but the scene is ultimately irrelevant to the story. In fact the BDSM thing is never mentioned again.

Okay we get it, True Detective, she's kinky. Is there any point to knowing that though?
This scene is also another example of bad dialogue. “Are you into that?” Her boyfriend asks as she stands in front of her wall of BDSM sex-toys…

So instead of using this scene to give us a glimpse at her character, the whole scene just comes across as weirdly voyeuristic. The only point of this glimpse at her collection of paddles and straps is to titillate the audience. It did nothing to characterize her to the audience.

In fact there was very little characterization at all because…

2. The Characters Were Ignored

You know, I don't think all four of these actors ever ended up on the screen together at the same time.
The main characters spend so much time apart, there’s not even a photo of them in the same room together.

The main appeal of True Detective was that it was essentially an extended buddy-cop movie where the buddies actually kind of hate each other, but not really, it’s just complicated. The incredible performances of Harrelson and McConaughey combined with the unique narrative design of the flashback sequences and taped interviews with unreliable narrators made for a compelling show. The two main characters spent the entire season together, playing off each other and revealing more about their characters with every interaction.

Now compare that to season 2 where all of the main characters spend most of their time completely isolated from one another. In the start of the second episode, the state sets up a special investigative team and throws Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh together. They meet in some crappy warehouse for a couple of minutes, and then split up, never to be in the same room again until pretty much the tail-end of the show. We get some shots of Velcoro and Bezzerides driving around together, and these scenes are good. The two definitely had some chemistry together, but then the show inexplicably separates them again.

So instead of watching these characters interact and learning who they are from those interactions, we instead get to watch each character deal with their own personal issues separately. Frank dealt with his crumbling empire and his impotent balls, Velcoro was in a custody battle for his son, and Paul was desperately trying to catch a case of the Not-Gays. Bezzerides spent the first four episodes dealing with a pair of scorned lovers at work and then the last four episodes dealing with her childhood rape.

Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.
Gee, another strong female character defined by her rape story. Yeah, that never gets old.

Even when the characters are together, they spend so much time delivering clumsy exposition that we never get any of the incredible character interactions that made the first season so memorable. When Woodrugh dies, in a goofy assassination scene straight out of a Victorian play, Velcoro and Bezzerides spend about two minutes mourning his loss before delving right back into expository dialogue about how to find the orphaned brother.

No one’s character ever experienced any kind of dramatic arc, or changed in any way, and without strongly written characters, the performances of the actors were severely ham-stringed. If they’d had a script that allowed them to act out their characters more often, rather than idly standing around explaining the plot of their show to the audience, they might have given us performances on par with Harrelson and McConaughey.

Ultimately though, they wasted most of their time explaining the show because…

1. Nothing About Anything Made Sense

Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he like inherit it from his father?
Wait, why is this guy mayor? Did he inherit it from his father?

When you look at most of the events that occurred in this season of True Detective, you’ll come to one inescapable conclusion.

Nothing about anything ever made sense. 

The events of this show didn’t follow any kind of logic, except maybe some kind of internal logic of the writer that is incomprehensible to mere human minds. Instead, things happened because the plot demanded they happen. It was cheap and succeeded only in wasting everybody’s time.

One the most glaring examples of this plot contrivance is the raid on the sex party about midway through the season. Bezzerides has used her sister’s porn connections to get her into one of the sex parties that Caspere was such a fan of. Masquerading as a prostitute, Bezzerides gets drugged and stumbles her way through the party, eventually finding a missing girl who knew Caspere. Meanwhile Velcoro and Woodrugh are going full Splinter Cell, sneaking around the house and taking out guards. Eventually they stumble upon the architects of the rail corridor going over some documents. They steal the documents, save the girl and flee into the night.

Stunning Police Powers
Showcasing Woodrugh’s powers of deduction…

Now let’s rewind and ask ourselves one very important question:

What was the plan here? 

Seriously, I’m asking, what was the group’s plan?

What was the reason? What were they looking for? Finding the missing girl and retrieving the documents were all purely happenstance, so what was the original objective? What was Bezzerides there to find out? Was she going to ask the other prostitutes who Caspere hung out with? Gather evidence of who was attending these parties?

Why was Woodrugh choking out guards and stealing documents? Shouldn’t he have been waiting as backup in the woods? Why risk discovery?

The answer to all the above is simple: the plot demanded that the characters be in a certain place at a certain time, and so they were. Now tons of stories rely on coincidences to drive their story forward, but most stories give their characters some reason for being at the right place at the right time. John McClane is in that building because he was attending a Christmas party at his wife’s work. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer intercepts the Blockade Runner at Tatooine because that’s where Princess Leia was heading there to contact Obi-wan. Point is, most stories make an attempt to create a plausible reason for things to happen, even if that reason is paper thin it gives the audience a foundation for their suspended disbelief.

This season’s True Detective didn’t even bother giving us that foundation. I want you to look at something.

Dry Street

This is Velcoro getting out his car to say goodbye to his son after his successful heist of the Russian/Catalast money exchange. Notice that the street is as dry as only a never-ending California drought can make it.

This is what Velcoro finds when he comes back to the car.

“Later today there will be a highly concentrated rain storm under one man’s car.” – Plot Contrivance News, Weather Report

There’s a pool of water under Velcoro’s car. At first I thought the gas tank had been punctured and that’s what I was supposed to be seeing, but he drives away just fine. No, it’s just ordinary water and it appears spontaneously so that Velcoro can see a reflection of the red light on a tracking device in the water. This is just so lazy that I can’t even believe I’m seeing it in what must have been a multi-million dollar HBO production.

They could have put an extra out on the street watering his lawn. Boom, a reason for the water pooling under his car, see how easy and painless that was. That’s all it would have taken, it still would have been incredibly lazy but it would have been something at least.

And on that I rest my case, because if you can’t even move your plot along without a car peeing itself, then you have officially failed to tell a good story.