‘Westworld’: the positives of planning ahead

As viewers, we hope creators have some idea where they're going with a long-form creative work but is knowing too much a bad thing? We recently learned HBO's Westworld is mapped out for at least five seasons. Will that help its success?

HBO's Westworld had some production issues very early on leading them to shut down for a while. Even though some drama was rumored, it was said they simply needed more time on the scripts. Production started back up and the series was given a vague Fall premiere and later received an October 9th date.

Executive producer Lisa Joy has told Entertainment Weekly, “It”s a really complex interlocking story. We knew where we wanted to go and we knew exactly how the season ended where the kind of character arcs ended, but weaving those scripts and writing the dialogue for all these brilliant actors, it takes time.” But it turns out the production break also allowed them to plan much further ahead. Here's how actor James Marsden explained it to them:

“It wasn”t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next 5 or 6 years are going to be,” Westworld actor James Marsden says. “We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season – that”s the way [executive producer Jonathan Nolan] and [executive producer J.J. Abrams] operate. They”re making sure all the ducks are in the row. And it”s a testament to Jonah and Lisa and HBO that we got them right, especially the last three scripts. They could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”

I think this kind of planning can be a positive thing. Series with a heavy mythology, like Battlestar Galactica or Lost, have been known to flail wildly in their last days and that's incredibly frustrating for longtime viewers. Of course there are shows that don't know the end is coming and need to patch something together as best they can, but I'll also admit a bit of concern where Abrams is involved. I fell head over heels for his ABC series Alias only to watch it struggle with the mysteries he set up as it rounded the home stretch and he turned his attention to Lost. And then of course a bit into Lost he turned his attention to the big screen and the last few seasons suffered from the same kind of aimlessness.

That's not to put all the weight on Abrams' shoulders (Westworld isn't his brain-child either), the same could be said for many creatives, but they are two examples that stick out in my head and make me think Joy and Nolan planning ahead can only help. Some may argue knowing exactly where you want to end up limits creativity but I'd disagree. You can take many different paths to get there and still diverge from what you originally planned if the story takes you another way. But having that backbone can be helpful both for those working on the show and those watching it.

We're currently waiting to see how HBO's last mega-hit, Game of Thrones, will end and there's certainly already been comparisons between the two series. While both are adaptations, I think Westworld has a bit more freedom in terms of storytelling because it's based on a movie from Michael Crichton rather than a long, detailed series of novels. Plus, Westworld is only one area of this fictional park and Nolan knows there's a lot of story to tell from where they begin.

“We didn”t want to have a story that repeated itself [each year],” said Nolan. “We didn”t want the Fantasy Island version of this [where new guests arrive at the park every season]. We wanted a big story. We wanted the story of the origin of a new species and how that would play out in its complexity.”

Of course this is all to say the show is a runaway success and they actually get that many seasons. I wonder if they have a plan if they only get two.