“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
It’s a question that opens and haunts HBO’s new mystery drama Westworld, a show that extrapolates every possible meaning from the idea of “reality” until its hard to really make sense of it. What separates man from sentient machine, and how far must we lean into our own psyche before we can possibly summon the answer?
Westworld is, arguably above all else, a show about Big Questions. And make no mistake: Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan aren’t stuffing it with literal mazes and puzzles solely for thematics. It’s a show that wants desperately to be examined and figured out, a show prone to and eager for fan theories, a show that’s already conjured up a number of podcasts, Reddit threads, and Twitter debates. Whether the answers are as masterful as their questions is beside the point: Westworld is about how we watch and decode shows like Westworld, and the holes we fall down seeking the enlightenment we aren’t meant to know.
It is, of course, very similar in that way to ABC’s Lost, a breakout hit that inspired internet madness and, ultimately, a wave of disappointment so large it swallowed any number of imitators. Hits like Game of Thrones have the benefit of predetermined source material, while prestige shows from The Americans to Better Call Saul go soft on the Big Questions and heavy on relatable human drama.
It’s been a while since a hit show worked hard to weave the quest for universal truths into genre, but Westworld is attempting just that. It may seem reductive to compare it to Lost, but the show isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to drawing references and similarities. (They also share some pretty literal DNA: Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams is an executive producer on Westworld.) Buried churches that remind us of buried hatches are just the beginning. Here are some other major ways the shows parallel one another.
Isolated, Beautiful Locations
If nothing else, both series have the distinction of looking unlike anything else on television. Lost used the tranquil shores of Oahu to great effect, while Westworld makes use of the lush orange peaks of Moab, Utah, as the setting for its fictional Western theme park. But those landscapes are serviceable in other ways, lending scale to the isolation of their main characters. Westworld hosts are ants in a farm, going about their programmed days obliviously, caged by mountains and desserts, and maybe something else. (One working theory is that the park actually operates on another planet.) Likewise, the plane-crash survivors on Lost were displaced in a different kind of paradise, where oceans separated them from the lives they left behind and preserved them for the mysterious forces that trapped them there in the first place.
The Dharma Initiative and DELOS are the two unseen factions pulling the strings in their respective series. Just like the remnants of Dharma kept tabs on the plane-crash survivors on Lost, so does DELOS keep their watchful eye on all goings-on in the Westworld park, unbeknownst to the androids and, in a way, even, the guests. Though the revelation of just who was tampering with the Losties’ fates took seasons to unravel, DELOS is very much a part of Westworld’s narrative from the get-go. But the ways they sneakily sweep in — at night for maintenance checks, infiltrating the camps with spies — raises suspicion, as does the question of who’s actually in charge here. Is it Ben Linus or John Locke? Robert Ford or the mythical Arnold? That leads us to …
Godlike Men Pulling Strings
The “rules” of Lost’s island start falling apart when you think too hard — something about drinking sacred water and becoming the leader — but, for all intents and purposes, Jacob was the show’s master manipulator, the mysterious figure John Locke and Ben Linus sought to please (and whom viewers wouldn’t catch a solid glimpse of until the season-five finale). Westworld’s leader seems a little clearer: Everyone reports to Anthony Hopkins’s Ford. But, as we learn in episode three, he wasn’t the only original founder. The mysterious and unseen Arnold was his cohort. And now that the hosts are “awakening” in a way that seems key to Arnold’s master plan, we have to wonder if Ford is the all-in-control figure we thought him to be, much like Lost played with Ben’s apparent significance. Is Arnold the one whispering to hosts and guiding them along the way Jacob did for the Losties?
The Man in Black
Both series feature prominent figures known as the Man in Black. Lost’s MiB (Titus Welliver) wasn’t part of the human cast until season five, but his presence haunted the show since the pilot (you might remember him best as the infamous Smoke Monster). Ed Harris’s MiB remains clouded in mystery — all we know is that he has free reign of the park and is apparently some sort of illness-curing philanthropist — but is probably, like Welliver, the key to his show’s working mythology. Harris wants to solve the maze, Welliver wants off the island. Both are dark men seeking some form of transcendence.
Black vs. White
The age-old good-vs.-evil debate is a heavy-hitter for both series. In the pilot of Lost, John Locke shows Walt two backgammon pieces. “Two players. Two sides,” he explains. “One is light, one is dark.” In Westworld, guests entering the park select either a black or white hat. Jimmi Simpson’s William goes for white, but already, his future brother-in-law is prodding him to go black. Lost showed the flimsiness of categorizing things as solely black or white, good or evil, and it’s a good bet that Westworld is leaning that way as well.
Down the Rabbit Hole
One of the more rewarding elements of Lost was its many literary references, from Sawyer reading Watership Down on the beach to Ben Linus’s impressive bookshelves to a character named Charlotte Staples Lewis. Westworld is also working these sorts of references into the fold, with scientists quoting Sherlock Holmes and Gertrude Stein, while a line from Romeo and Juliet — “these violent delights have violent ends” — acts as some sort of spoken key to unlocking android sentience. More specifically, both shows are fond of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a story that, like Westworld and Lost, is about plundering through and adapting to strange new terrains. Lost made more abstract references to Carroll’s story — borrowing the naming convention for its explosive third-season finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” for one — while Westworld is being overt about it. Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard reads a passage from the book to Dolores, while Dolores herself seems evocative of Alice, with her blonde hair and blue dress and spirited curiosity.
Time Is Not What It Seems
This one is a bit more speculative when it comes to Westworld, but a leading theory posits that Ed Harris’s MiB and Jimmi Simpson’s William are one and the same, and the show is telling their stories in layered flashbacks. If this proves to be true, it’s reminiscent of Lost’s clever timeline toying. The aforementioned “Through the Looking Glass” threw audiences for a loop when it was revealed that what we thought were flashbacks were actually flash-forwards to our survivors off the island. Is Westworld setting us up for a similar reveal?
On Westworld, we learn that there hasn’t been a fatal disturbance in the park for 30 years. This mysterious event, possibly the last time an android solved the maze, is already driving fan theorists mad. A similar event, known as “the incident,” was a source of focus on Lost. We knew something bad happened on the island that caused a lot of eventual problems with fertility, illness, and electromagnetism. The eventual reveal — that a hydrogen bomb was detonated on the island by our time-traveling heroes — was one of Lost’s best revelations. Hopefully, Westworld’s incident is equally satisfying.