There is a bigger mystery out there than quite what has happened to Westworld by the end of Season 2’s powerfully complex finale The Passenger, and it’s been raging for a good ten years: why exactly is comparing a show to ABC’s legendary series Lost such a terrible thing?
At numerous points across Westworld’s second season–a season which has proved at times divisive amongst fans, audiences and critics–there are clear comparisons to Lost, even if they are–by the writers’ own admission–unconscious. One of the clearest was the opening sequence of episode four, The Riddle of the Sphinx, where we see the morning routine of the Host-loop version of James Delos, which practically screamed Desmond in the Hatch at the beginning of Lost’s Season 2 premiere Man of Science, Man of Faith.
Lisa Joy, Westworld’s co-showrunner and director of the episode, has denied the homage but it’s almost difficult to believe in how similarly structured the sequence is. The fact viewers and commentators have been calling out Lost in comparison to HBO’s hit series at various points this season surely cannot be an collective misreading of the text.
Joy and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan have both praised Lost, most recently at a Westworld event, but described how they don’t intend their show to employ the same level of ‘mystery box’ storytelling that J.J. Abrams and his team brought to bear in that series:
In Lost they really believed in the mystery box and not looking too much inside the mystery box. It was a kind of idea generator you didn’t need to dissect and open up. That’s an absolutely fascinating and engaging way to tell a story, but for us, I think we are interested in *dismantling* the mystery box, opening it up, looking at what it is, putting it together like it’s some kind of LEGO, seeing how it works. And really questioning and exposing that.
Consider, nonetheless, the similarities both shows have, certainly come the end of The Passenger. Westworld is a show built on an ensemble cast of characters who serve various functions, many of which parallel the arcs and thematic ideas of Lost’s central cast.
An ‘everyman’ protagonist steadily awakening to their true purpose (Dolores & Jack Shepherd), the confused scientist figuring out his place and losing his mind (Bernard & Daniel Faraday), the enigmatic old man on a quest for knowledge, guided by a near-spiritual imperative (William & John Locke – you could argue that William is a hybrid of Locke and Ben Linus, in fact, and even his soubriquet the Man in Black was the name of a key figure in Lost’s mythology), the God-like architect who guides people with a master plan and appears at times like a ghost or vision (Robert Ford & Jacob). Strand and his team recall Keamy and the mercenaries sent by Charles Widmore, while Charlotte Hale has more than a bit of Ben Linus about her too. Even someone like Sizemore smacks of Charlie from Lost, both as petite, slightly sarcastic, out of their depth guys who think they’re way cooler than they actually are.
On a character basis alone, Westworld and Lost share an incredible amount of DNA.
This is before we even get into narrative or overarching thematic conceptual ideas. Westworld and Lost might be very different shows in terms of tone but they’re heading in remarkably similar directions in other ways.
Both shows take place on an island, albeit this is not of the same direct import to Westworld as it was to Lost. Both shows have a hidden, enigmatic brace of underground, futuristic facilities hiding their own secrets and truths (the Cradle or the Forge are reminiscent of the DHARMA stations). Both shows ultimately are about characters learning their world is not what it seems and are trying to escape their surroundings – by the end of The Passenger, Dolores & Bernard (and a few other brain balls…) have surreptitiously made their way out of the park (aka off the Island) and Westworld’s Season 3 could well function akin to Lost’s Season 4; sequences which take place in the ‘real world’ of the 2050’s and Westworld and any of the other parks that may be explored, given there are now key characters in both of these locations. Westworld even has with Ford/William the same ‘God/Devil’ allegorical parallel that Lost had that is reminiscent of Jacob/MIB in Lost’s Seasons 5 & 6.
The Passenger capped off a season which recalled Lost at its most enigmatic and fascinating in its construction. Season 2 of Westworld refused to operate in any way to a linear narrative, a stylistic choice Lost employed all the time with its flashbacks and flash-forwards (even ‘flash-sideways’ in its final season), and Westworld too has dug into the flashback narrative choice since the beginning of its first season. Season 2 saw more of an exploration of William’s past, intertwined with the history of Logan, Delos and the park, not to mention the mystery of his wife’s suicide and the relationship with his daughter.
Kiksuya was incredibly Lost-like in telling a ‘centric’ narrative focused around Aki, a character whose own story weaved in and out of the narratives we had already seen across the first and second seasons – consider a episode of Lost such as The Brig, which almost exclusively zeroes in on Locke to catch us up on what he was doing at a point of the broader story he was separated from the other characters. Episodes like Kiksuya have been mislabelled ‘bottle episodes’, i.e: inconsequential episodes designed to plug gaps in the arc of the season, when they’re anything but. They are bigger pieces of an ever-expanding, ever deepening and complicating tapestry.
Certain elements in The Passenger recalled key narrative and thematic choices in Lost. The finale recalls Lost season finales such as The Incident, in which our characters came mostly together at one focal point (the Swan station in Lost, the Valley Beyond in Westworld), where the protagonist (Jack/Dolores) fully planned to use a ‘weapon’ (in Lost an atomic bomb, in Westworld… well, it’s less clear) to change all of their fates (in Lost, it’s to change history, in Westworld it’s to prevent them being caged slaves to humanity). The ending is less open than The Incident and to some degree feels more in tune with Lost’s Season 4 finale There’s No Place Like Home for how it places characters in two very different locations & scenarios once the curtain comes down.
The concept of the Sublime, however, the virtual Eden that Ford creates for the ‘souls’ of the Hosts, is straight out of Lost’s equally divisive Season 6 and the idea of the ‘place’ the survivors made for each other after death and before the after life where they could reunite, visualised as an alternate timeline where none of the events on the Island ever happened, and yet where they all existed nevertheless in each other’s lives. Both are highly spiritual, metaphysical yet indirectly agnostic concepts which connect more to the ‘human God’ controlling their destinies in the Park/on the Island, ie Ford or Jacob.
What I love about The Passenger is what I always loved about the season finales of Lost – they were true events. You knew nothing would ever be the same afterward. The climax of Lost’s Season 2 finale Live Together, Die Alone, for example, literally implodes everything we had been taking for granted for well over a season by that point, transporting these characters to new horizons and new storylines. Westworld really does the same with The Passenger, concluding and resolving the status quo while establishing all new possibilities for the next season.
Many finales used to end with cliffhangers, leaving you on tenterhooks for the next season, primarily due to viewing figures on network TV and the fear viewers wouldn’t tune back in and watch the show again without a literal story hook. TV has evolved since then and shows such as Westworld know you’re invested, understand the richness and texture of the mythology and world-building they’ve devised, and are confident they can conclude a chapter of their ‘book’, go near enough two years before the next season, and people will be salivating at the prospect of its return. I still fondly remember the seven month wait between the end of Lost Season 3, after the ‘snake in the mailbox’ reveal, and the beginning of Season 4 – the theorising, anticipation and online fever was wonderful. Westworld will have much the same, no doubt in triplicate.
The final stinger at the end of The Passenger even recalls Lost in how it plays, maddeningly, with the notion of time and place. The Man in Black, in what could be the ultimate flash-forward, appears to be in a post-apocalyptic future where the Forge and much of the Park above are long-abandoned and he appears to be the one being tested by a Host version of his daughter Emily, in the same manner he was testing Delos for ‘fidelity’. This recalls the mystery established at the end of Lost’s third season finale Through The Looking Glass as to who was in the coffin off the Island, and quite how the survivors escaped, a mystery which took a season and a half to fully be explored and explained, and then had wide-ranging consequences on the endgame of the series.
One suspects the same may be true of William’s ultimate fate, and that it could be well into Westworld’s third season (or beyond) that we understand the context or see the gaps filled in leading him to that point. Lost did this all of the time, to preserve mystery and delay narratives until they could pay off both emotionally and from a storytelling perspective. Sometimes it worked better than others but the intention was always there to craft a puzzle that would only, truly, make sense when it was all put together at the end. Westworld, from day one, has held true to those same precepts. To judge it early is to misjudge it completely.
The same ended up being true of Lost. You have heard talk of viewers saying “I’m done” with Westworld as they did at various points during Lost. “A Hatch in the ground?! Ridiculous!” “A frozen donkey wheel that moves the Island through time? Do me a favour!” “An alternate universe? No way!”. Okay, I can give them the donkey wheel one, though even that was no arbitrary choice, as science-fiction based as it might have been; much as DHARMA referred to the Buddhist concept of the turning wheel of life, death and rebirth, the same is true of the wheel under the Island. You turn it, you leave, you are reborn in a new life back in the ‘real’ world. Viewers often refuse to consider the deeper concepts or thematic ideas underpinning what appear to be radical or strange choices, and even right-turns, which challenge what they consider the show to be about.
You can feel this happening to some viewers as they watch The Passenger – from Logan turning out to be the Architect of Westworld’s own Matrix, to the Sublime itself, to the Dolores/Hale reveal (Haleoris) and particularly the final gambit of William’s strange future fate. These all feel like jumping off points for audiences who can’t, or won’t, accept that Westworld is a tapestry of which we have seen only part. There is a mythology at work which has a lot more beats yet to play. Too many people checked out of Lost too early and my fear is the same could happen with Westworld. If I were a betting man, I imagine less people will return for Season 3, because it stands to be a radically different season from either of the last two.
Surely this is a good thing? Lost did much the same. Season 1 of that show was a fairly linear survival drama with strange, arcane elements scattered in, but Season 2 became much more of a philosophical power play around the Hatch and the countdown timer between its central thematic ideas, which allowed them to introduce the main mythology which then carried forward the storytelling. Every season of Lost had a different texture – introducing the Others in Season 3 and expanding the Island world, the flash-forward narrative of Season 4 (which Westworld Season 2 borrows heavily from), the time-travel aspect of Season 5, and finally the split-universe narrative of Season 6.
All of them held to the same tone but they evolved the storytelling, the characters and the mythology year on year, before circling back to the core players and ideas which had been in play since the Pilot. Lost really was all spinning on a wheel and when you watch the entire series with some distance in short succession, this really becomes apparent. It is a series which challenged itself and, ultimately, sticks the emotional landing. You may not necessarily believe how Lost ends, but I defy you not to feel it, if you’ve been invested in those characters and that world.
Westworld is going the same way. Both seasons thus far have been incredibly different while remaining true the tone, style and heart of the series. Season 1 served much like a prologue to the central idea of Westworld from Michael Crichton’s source material – a dark and elegiac exploration of Dolores and the awakening of her consciousness. Season 2 has reflected the erratic mind of Bernard by giving us a pulpy, intentionally fractured and discordant ‘act one’ of the Westworld concept which made a point of wrong-footing our expectations. Season 3 could go in myriad directions but it is likely to, much like Lost’s third season, broaden and deepen Westworld’s mythology and world-building, both inside and outside of the Park. What I would love to see is people embrace the fact they have similarities in their DNA, and not continue pushing this illusion that Lost was a bad show. It really wasn’t. And for many, there hasn’t been anything on TV as addictive and riven with fascinating mythology since that series… until Westworld came along.
Let’s not send Westworld down a similar path of critical and commercial acclaim giving way to posthumous scorn and misunderstanding. It, much like Lost, deserves better.