During its cerebral, puzzling, and heavily analyzed first season, which comes to a close Sunday night, HBO’s Westworld has often been compared to Lost, the godfather, queen mother, and true pioneer of internet-dissectible dramas. Maybe Twin Peaks would have earned that moniker had the internet been a more mainstream platform in 1990 and 1991. But like most things related to the David Lynch series, it was too ahead of its time. Lost, with its deep sense of mystery and commitment to mythological world-building, showed up at exactly the moment when viewers were armed and ready to jump down online rabbit holes.
The Westworld/Lost parallels are undeniable. One of Westworld’s executive producers is J.J. Abrams, co-creator and executive producer of Lost. The HBO Western traffics heavily in multiple timelines and raising questions that drive curious viewers to read recaps, Reddit threads, and explainers to make sense of it all. Westworld has enabled us to use the shorthand MIB — for Man in Black — in online TV discussions again. It has allowed us to explore themes related to free will and mind control, just as Lost did. It has put Rodrigo Santoro — who played the famously killed-off Paulo on Lost — back on a mind-bending drama again, only to immediately kill him off without actually killing him off, which might be the slyest nod to Lost on this series yet, if you don’t count the time that Dolores read the exact same passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that Jack Shephard once read in an episode of Lost.
There are a lot of connections, obviously. But there’s one key thing that differentiates Westworld from Lost and it happens to be the same thing that has prevented me from fully embracing the more recent of those two series: character building.
There are many things to admire about Westworld: its precise direction; the gorgeous, purposeful presentation of settings that vary from wide, open spaces to dark, spare, futuristic offices; an ensemble of actors that is as classy and convincing as it gets; and a narrative steeped in engaging the intellect. And yet, nine episodes in, I am not sure if it’s physically possible for me to care less about what is happening on this show, mainly because I have no strong feelings about its characters. Maybe that’s by design: A show about robots who wind up having uncontrollable human emotions turns the humans watching it into emotional robots. Genius!
But even if co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were attempting such a sophisticated television experiment, which I seriously doubt, the result of that experiment would still be unsatisfying TV. I like a philosophically engaged mystery and a healthy breakdown of timelines and flashbacks as much as anyone. But none of that means anything if I don’t care about the people (or people-esque androids) dashing through time, space, and fantasy cowboy lands in the first place.
That’s what makes Lost so different from Westworld. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik wrote in a recent piece in which he noted the connective tissue between the two: “‘Lost,’ even as it introduced smoke monsters and tropical polar bears, also developed an ensemble of characters with distinctive voices and rich personalities.”
Lost is so often discussed within the context of whether its final episode paid off, or what all of its island-shifting mythology meant, that people forget that what initially hooked audiences into the show had nothing to do with any of that.
Throughout the run of the series, there were four core questions the narrative consistently aimed to address: Who are the survivors of flight Oceanic 815; how did they end up on the plane and, later, the island; what and where is the island; and will the people who crash-landed in the Smoke Monster’s backyard ever be able to leave? In season one, questions one and two took precedence over those other issues. Weird stuff was always happening on the island, even in the pilot, that suggested there was something deeper, and potentially sinister, about this odd tropical setting. But the Dharma Initiative, the scientific research group whose efforts provided an initial window into understanding the island on Lost, doesn’t even explicitly enter the picture until season two.
Via the episodic structure established in season one, which toggled between character-focused flashbacks and the action post-crash, the show carefully made sure that the audience felt a connection to each and every key survivor. We wanted answers to questions like, “How come Walt has secret powers?,” which is something I’m pretty sure I’ll be asking on my death bed, but we wanted them because we were invested in all these people who, just like us in post 9/11 America, were struggling to get their bearings after a traumatic event. We cared even more deeply about the Live Together, Die Aloners when we knew more about the personal problems, daddy issues, and lottery-ticket disasters that had brought them to this place.
In Westworld, at least so far, the characters seem to exist primarily to add to our understanding of the puzzle that is Ford’s alternate-reality creation. We wonder who is real (“a guest”) and who is manufactured (“a host”), but our familiarity, at this point, with their backstories is fairly limited. Even when we do learn something heartbreaking and significant about a character’s past that makes us feel empathy for him — like the fact that Bernard lost a child — a twist in the narrative informs us that this actually never happened. In a piece for the Ringer, Alison Herman argues that the show is so focused on such twists that once viewers figure them out, which has happened in advance virtually every time this season, there’s “precious little for the show to fall back on.” Which is another way of saying that the show is more interested in making us do TV math to determine how the plot details add up than it is in making us feel anything. (Tone is often a problem here, too; practically every conversation between Bernard/Arnold and Robert sounds like it’s unfolding in a library after the parties involved have drunk half a cup each of Sleepytime Tea.)
Lost definitely involved doing TV math, especially in its later seasons. But before it got too deep into the numbers — and the Numbers — it laid a foundation built very specifically on character, and that’s what made the work feel worthwhile. As much as Lost gets criticized by some who feel they “wasted their time” on the whole series because of the missteps in its flash-sideways final season, I would argue that, for a good portion of its run, it understood how to thread a narrative-twisty needle — while also telling a story that resonated deeply on an emotional level — better than any TV drama since.