Westworld Is Turning Into Lost—for Better or for Worse
I never should have started watching Westworld. Not because I didn’t think it’d be good. An HBO show based on a Michael Crichton idea starring Evan Rachel Wood with all kinds of artificial intelligence? Sign me up! The problem wasn’t that Westworld wouldn’t be enjoyable, it was that it’s the kind of show that invites obsession. The kind that presents Big Questions—that never get answered. I worried, essentially, that it was going to be the next Lost.
This feeling started to solidify last week after "Virtù e Fortuna," which in addition to really bringing home the idea that these episode titles might mean something (the concept that virtue and fortune determine one’s fate comes from philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli) also drove home the point that some of the show's in-world iconography might possibly be tied together. Was that symbol on the screen in front of Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) in the Delos bunker the same as the one in Grace’s (Katja Herbers) journal? It sure was! Is it also way too close to the octagonal Dharma Initiative logo from Lost? Yup! Come to think of it, Dharma Initiative and Westworld’s Delos Destinations are a little too close for comfort too.
This week’s episode, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” only strengthened my fear. The episode opens with a montage: James Delos (Peter Mullan) is in a finely appointed modernist apartment. He walks through what appears to be his morning routine: drinking water, smoking a cigarette, getting in a few minutes on a stationary bike. All the while, he’s listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.” If the scene felt familiar, here's why: It's just about exactly how Lost introduced Desmond at the beginning of Season 2. (Yes, Season 2! The same season in which Westworld currently finds itself.) In that montage, Desmond made a smoothie, typed a series of numbers into a computer and pushed “the button,” and got in a few minutes on a stationary bike—all while listening to another 1960s hit: Cass Elliot's "Make Your Own Kind of Music."
Now, I don’t think there’s any hidden meeting in Sunday’s Westworld opening sequence—there’s as much to glean from Delos’ apartment’s Noguchi table as there was from the model of Desmond’s computer (which is to say, nothing)—but it surely fired up a million and one Google searches for “Rolling Stones lyrics.” And I'm even surer that, another few seasons down the line, Mick Jagger’s warning that rich folks not play with ruffians will dovetail neatly with the outcome of this show.
For those that don’t remember, Lost ended almost exactly eight years ago, on May 23, 2010. And, after six seasons of giving its audience diamonds-in-the-sand clues involving hieroglyphics, philosophy (there’s literally a character named John Locke), flashbacks, flashforwards, smoke monsters, and 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 (aka “The Numbers”), most of those hints led exactly nowhere. The ending was satisfying in its way, but most fans still to this day throw up their hands in frustration when asked what it all meant. (Seriously, if you didn’t watch and want to feel good about all the time you saved not doing so, Google “unanswered Lost questions.” Or read this post from The Awl.) It was a lot of setup without a lot of payoff and was frankly a little annoying. There’s a reason I still ruefully laugh whenever I see this GIF.
But. That show also changed the way a lot of us watch TV. It taught people to look for clues, to not take everything at face value, and to not always assume that narrative answers would be spoon-fed to them. And in that regard, it was revolutionary.
Case in point: As soon as Westworld premiered in 2016, there was an immediate fascination with the songs that the player piano played in the Sweetwater saloon. Many of them—”Paint it Black,” “Back to Black,” “Black Hole Sun”—seemed to share a color palette. More than a few, including selections from Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, came from 1990s alternative radio. What did it mean? Probably nothing! The same thing happened last week when I swore I heard the opening notes of Kanye West’s “Runaway.” At first I thought the lyrics of the song might have significance, or its release date. But there was just as good a chance the only significance it had was that it was a really unfortunate time to use a West track. Yet, I was already Googling. Lost had taught me well.
I know I’m not the only one looking for diamonds on the beach. Knowing that Lost producer J.J. Abrams was also executive producing Westworld, fans started tossing around theories pretty much as soon as the show started. There’s an active Reddit board for them. The Ringer staff discusses them on their recap podcast. The Observer has a collection of them. They go on and on.
Everyone likes decoding TV plots; it’s fun! But there was something about the way “The Riddle of the Sphinx” played out that was so reminiscent of Lost that it truly drove home the point that many of these clues might not be clues at all—and that a lot of this might not really be going anywhere. (Also, the riddle of the Sphinx is from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and casts humans as the only beings who, throughout their life, walk on four feet, then two feet, then three. There. Saved you from an internet rabbit hole.)
What else? The out-of-place monsters that emerge from jungles? Yes, I’ve noticed those. The map-like images in some of the host’s scalps? That’s gotta mean something. Everything out of the Man in Black’s mouth? Those seem like clues. (Also, let us not forget that Lost also, you know, had a Man in Black.) Basically, there are already so many Lost-esque hints and/or MacGuffins, I can’t keep track. It’s gotten to the point where every time I hear Maeve (Thandie Newton) ask about her daughter, I just picture Michael (Harold Perrineau) screaming “Waaaaalt!”
And you know what? This time I don’t have to. I’m going to do what I should’ve done with Lost in the first place: Sit back and watch. Don’t worry about clues. Ignore Twitter and message boards. If there’s something I’m supposed to know, Westworld will tell me. I’m pretty much watching this show for Thompson and Wood anyway; if I miss a key point but get to see some quality work from them, then we’re even, HBO. (Also, free idea: Thompson and Wood is a show I would watch, a podcast I would listen to, and a movie I would go to on opening night. Just sayin’.) So maybe from here on out, watch Westworld but don’t think about it too much. There’s enough going on in the non-West world to ponder—let’s all kill that pesky fly, put a shaking hand over our hearts, and decide who we want to be.
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A trailer for HBO's Westworld season 2.