This article contains spoilers for Mythic Quest season 2 episode 6.
According to co-creator and lead actor Rob McElhenney, the Mythic Quest team didn’t go into the show’s second season on Apple TV+ with a plan to recapture the energy of season 1’s infamous flashback episode, “A Dark Quiet Death. But they ended up doing so all the same.
“We’re always trying to just stretch and do something different,” McElhenney tells Den of Geek. “It’s never a function of like, ‘Oh, that flashback episode worked, so let’s do another flashback episode.’ It’s more like, ‘Well there are no rules.’”
In Mythic Quest season 1, the desire to operate under no set storytelling rules led to the stunning fifth episode “A Dark Quiet Death.” That installment was a flashback to the mid ‘90s in which two game developers, “Doc” (Jake Johnson) and “Bean” (Christin Milioti), met, fell in love, made some art, then sold out and fell out. The half-hour was seemingly unconnected to anything else in the Mythic Quest mythos, save for a scene at episode’s end when McElhenney’s lead game designer Ian Grimm purchased the cavernous studio that Doc and Bean once used to make their indie titles.
The episode was a thematic companion to Mythic Quest’s main storyline and an exploration of the insidious interplay between art, commerce, and human ego. Now, season 2’s sixth episode, “Backstory!” explores some similar themes via an extended flashback that actually involves a character the show’s audience is already familiar with.
As played by Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, Mythic Quest lead writer C.W. Longbottom is equal parts caricature of an aging blowhard sci-fi writer and a realistically tender depiction of a man intent on finding story wherever it might lurk. “Backstory!” takes things back to Los Angeles in 1971 when “Carl” Longbottom is fresh off the bus from Clear Lake, Iowa, and eager to begin his junior copy editing job at famous sci-fi magazine Amazing Tales Publishing.
Playing the young C.W. with equal parts wide-eyed wonder and bitter creative disappointment is Josh Brener, who most audiences likely know as Nelson “Big Head” Bigetti on HBO’s Silicon Valley.
“I was worried at first because, you know, it’s somebody else portraying you, so you’re kind of in their hands,” Abraham says. “It was a treat though. I got in touch with the actor to let him know how much I admire his work and how good he made me look. He had soul and heart and I think that’s essentially what C.W. is. You actually love this guy. You want him to win in the end and I think he does.”
The plot of the episode surrounds Carl’s relationship with his new copy editing peers Peter Cromwell (Michael Cassidy) and A.E. Goldsmith (Shelley Hennig). The trio begin as allies (or a “tripod” like the aliens in their beloved H.G. Wells’ creation) and attempt to get one another’s work published by Amazing Tales. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that A.E. and Peter’s fiction is much more suitable for public consumption than Carl’s strange, illogical hard sci-fi.
“Carl, it’s not enough to propose a future where things are different. They have to be inevitable and unexpected at the same time,” A.E. tells the young writer, trying to help him.
Unfortunately Carl is in no position to hear her. Sure, it makes no sense that humans in the future would have flesh packs on their back when backpacks would work just fine. But Carl wants humans to have flesh packs on their back because that’s how his imagination wants them to carry things.
Eventually, after A.E. and Peter find creative and professional success, Carl resorts to a soft form of plagiarism when he adopts all of the extensive notes that none other than Isaac Asimov provided on his manuscript and publishes them as his own. That’s enough for Carl to take home a Nebula Award, but A.E. understands precisely what happened.
Carl, however, does find some semblance of real success in the form of an eerily accurate prediction. At his lowest, after Asimov essentially rewrote his story, Carl drunkenly takes off down the street in an uncharacteristic Southern California downpour. While walking, he sees a game of Magnavox Odyssey table tennis on a model television in a storefront window. His eyes light up with the possibility of future storytelling. He then tells his peers that one day stories won’t be linear, but rather bolts of lightning.
“The inevitable march of technology will not be stemmed. Enough iridescent geometry to create an entire world…no, worlds. We will give birth to creatures the likes of which have never been seen! Naturally, none of these worlds will mean anything on their own. They’ll need to be infused with story.”
And infused with story they’ll one day be, as Ian Grimm and Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) track the aged C.W. down at a renaissance fair to write the story for their new Mythic Quest game.
“Backstory” was written by special guest writer Craig Mazin, a prolific and powerful Hollywood presence who is now best known for creating HBO’s classic Chernobyl miniseries. This is Mazin’s first time penning a script for Mythic Quest but he did guest star in several of season 1’s episodes as the highly inappropriate games tester Lou.
Mazin also appears in this episode as Sol Green, the publisher of Amazing Tales. Mazin and McElhenney gave Sol the same last name as Lou to suggest that one is a grandfather of the other. But McElhenney is not discounting the canonical possibility that Craig Mazin is simply just an eternal force of nature.
“Again, there are no rules, so who gives a shit? Lou could be a character who has existed since the beginning of time,” McElhenney says. “To me, it’s the spirit of Mazin that lives on throughout the millennia. He’s like that in real life. I mean, that really is what he’s like.”
In addition to the presence of the writer of Chernobyl as a potentially immortal being, “Backstory!” differs from its “A Dark Quiet Death” flashback predecessor in one major way. This isn’t the end of the Carl Longbottom story. Next week’s episode, “Peter,” will continue the tale of C.W. Longbottom’s sci-fi writer life, this time in the present. And playing his friend-turned-rival Peter will be yet another actor of note.
“We essentially do a play between two Oscar winners: William Hurt and F. Abraham Murray,” McElhenney says.
It looks like Carl was right: stories don’t have to be linear. They can be bolts of lightning too.
New episodes of Mythic Quest season 2 premiere Fridays on Apple TV+.