In the pilot of Mythic Quest, Ian urges his employees to respect C.W. Longbottom, the head writer who happens to be a Nebula Award winner. “That was 1973,” Brad points out. “I mean, you met him at a state fair when he was selling rotisserie chickens.” When Rachel chimes in to mention C.W.’s constant drinking and sleeping in the office, C.W. says, “To understand my present, you must also understand my past …” “No, no more fucking backstory!” Poppy shouts.
We finally get that backstory in, well, “Backstory!” It begins in 1972, when a young Carl Longbottom (played here by Josh Brener) starts his new job as a junior copy editor at Amazing Tales, based on the real-life science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories. He immediately bonds with the other new copy editors: the handsome but humble Peter Cromwell (Michael Cassidy) and the beautiful, kind A.E. (Shelley Hennig).
The three of them become a “tripod,” proofreading and retyping stories while they’re on the clock but workshopping one another’s stories outside the office. Lingering in the background is the hope that they could be published one day — that they could be the next generation of great science-fiction writers, the heirs apparent to Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury.
The C.W. we know, for all his faults, can be quite easy to like. He’s an out-of-touch alcoholic with no filter, but he’s also a skilled writer, and F. Murray Abraham invests him with warmth and joviality. This version, though, almost totally lacks those qualities. Carl thinks of himself as a once-in-a-generation talent and expects to be rewarded for his brilliance. He’s a solitary guy who views people almost purely as tools for producing his vision, refusing to offer help in return. He’s egotistical, to say the least, and condescending. It’s difficult to root for him at all, really, without the self-effacement and humility we’ve come to expect on occasion.
That might be the main reason “Backstory!” isn’t as strong as “A Dark Quiet Death,” season one’s comparable tragic flashback episode: It’s hard to really feel the weight of Carl’s adventure, because our main connection to him is his present-day self, played by a different actor in a more endearing performance. The episode also comes at a strange time; it may be hard to accept a digression focused on a character we’ve barely seen this season when last episode’s climax really kicked the main characters’ journeys into high gear.
Still, like “A Dark Quiet Death,” it’s a fascinating change of pace. We know that Carl will eventually win a Nebula Award for Tales of the Anaren, and “Backstory!” tracks that story as it goes through four different permutations. A.E. and Peter gently criticize the first version for its nonsensical sci-fi elements, leading him to produce a second version with only superficial changes. Later, while A.E. and Peter go out to celebrate A.E.’s story getting published, Carl goes home instead and feverishly writes all night, turning his story into a novella that has all the same problems, just “more of it.”
The fourth and final version comes after Carl experiences a series of rock bottoms: the realization that he won’t be the first of the copy editors to be published, the realization that his work crush is hooking up with the other copy editor, the realization that A.E. never took his novella in to show Saul because she wanted to “save [him] the embarrassment.” Bitter, jealous, and in denial about his own weaknesses as a writer, Carl sinks to cruelly implying Saul is only publishing A.E.’s story because he’s attracted to her. But the worst humiliation happens when Carl desperately brings his novella to Asimov and actually gets notes back, in the form of a manuscript entirely crossed out in red ink and rewritten, line by line.
After a night of heavy drinking, Carl stumbles upon a storefront with a Magnavox Odyssey, the first home-video-game console, on display, alongside a screen showing a game of Pong. His prediction about how far video games will go — that story and characters will become critical like they are for books and movies — may just sound like drunk delusions to his fellow editors, but we know he’s right.
Finally, Carl does what he thinks he has to: He takes all of Asimov’s suggestions. It’s not necessarily plagiarism, legally speaking, but it’s also not really accurate to call it his book anymore, even if Asimov explicitly gives him permission.
We immediately cut to a year or so later, as Carl — now C.W. — wins his first (and, we know, only) Nebula Award. He schmoozes, clearly loving the attention he feels he’s always deserved. Then A.E. — now Anne — shows up with Peter to congratulate him.
“I’m sure it comes off like a poor man’s Asimov,” C.W. says, faking humility as he rationalizes, “but my idea was to get something published. This way I’ll have more opportunities to publish work that’s a bit more me.”
“It read exactly like Asimov,” Anne says, staring him right in the eye. As she walks away, he returns to his schmoozing. But suddenly all of it feels so hollow. C.W. has everything he always dreamed of now — but at what cost? How can he ever expect to follow up a novel basically ghostwritten by one of the greatest science-fiction writers of all time? Had he actually learned anything about the writing process if he ultimately took the easy route by using Asimov’s prose? Does acclaim really mean much when so few of your own ideas are recognizable in the finished product? What is fame if you no longer have the respect of the few people who actually cared about you?
In the final scene, we see C.W. as he was in 2015, selling rotisserie chickens at a state fair in Anaheim. A slightly younger Ian and Poppy approach him and ask him if he’s ever thought about writing for a video game, prompting him to flash back to that fateful early morning when he had his Pong epiphany.
This final moment is when “Backstory!” reaches its emotional apex: a close-up on F. Murray Abraham’s face as C.W. smiles with astonishment, confusion, wonder, hope, all at once. It’s been over 40 years since his prediction, and he’s likely long abandoned any real hope of being a serious literary figure again. And yet here’s someone who sought him out because he loves his work — not just the Nebula Award–winning book, but the ones by the real C.W., a much less-celebrated writer. A writer who spent so much of his early life thinking he could only be happy if he got the attention he deserved — and then, once he did, spent the next few decades watching his legacy slowly fade.
Maybe at a state fair in Anaheim, of all places, C.W. could be glimpsing a new legacy. Not an unambiguous happy ending, necessarily, but a new path forward: one where people respect him not for his proximity to a greater writer but for his own ideas and words. Maybe everything before this was just backstory.
Paltry Linear Narratives
• I realize that even more than usual, this recap reads like a review of a serious drama, instead of a workplace sitcom. That’s Mythic Quest for you!
• Finally, a substantial C.W. story … although this one still utilized very little F. Murray Abraham. If next episode’s title, “Peter,” indicates anything, maybe we still have more to see of C.W.’s story.
• Craig Mazin’s tester Lou has been missing since the first quarantine episode, but Mazin comes back as Saul, the editor of Amazing Tales. He’s also credited as the writer on this episode.
• I’m fascinated by those weird glasses A.E. wears, with the end pieces protruding near the bottom of the lenses instead of near the top. But they look good, somehow.
• I’m always delighted to see more of Hennig, after enjoying her in Teen Wolf and Unfriended. Same goes for Cassidy, who I first saw in The O.C. last year as sweet Zach.
• Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury were all featured in Amazing Stories (which was renamed Amazing Science Fiction in 1972, the same year this episode takes place). Perhaps A.E. Goldsmith is named after Cele Goldsmith, the Stories editor who discovered Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and many other writers?
• A minor retcon, of sorts: When we glimpsed C.W.’s Nebula Award in the first season, it was labeled “Nebula Award 1973, Best Novel” (which would typically mean Tears of the Anaren came out in 1972). But the actual award we see C.W. win here is “Best Debut Novel of 1973.”
• The actual winner of the 1973 Best Novel Nebula was, of course, Asimov, for The Gods Themselves (which came out the year before).
• Throughout the episode, readers mispronounce “Anaren” and think C.W.’s title indicates crying-tears when he really means rip-tears. He finally decides to just change it when Asimov himself gets it wrong.
• Is it implied that C.W. was originally inspired to abbreviate his name because of A.E.? If so, it’s a fitting ending that A.E. starts going by “Anne” right around when C.W. takes up the abbreviation, illustrating how far their trajectories have diverged.