This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
“It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.” So said JJ Abrams in a 2007 Ted Talk, about a sealed cardboard box.
Not just any cardboard box, but one bought decades ago from a magic shop in Midtown, Manhattan, bearing the legend “Tannen’s Magic Mystery Box” in white letters on a large black question mark. The box had cost fifteen dollars, but contained fifty dollars’ worth of magic (a decent saving, Abrams quipped). In 2007, it sat on a shelf in the Lost executive producer’s office, unopened, as it had been for years.
Abrams told his Ted Talk audience (online, 3.6 million views and counting) that he never intends to open the box. In honour of the grandfather who’d bought him to the magic store in the first place, and who’d fed his childhood hunger for creativity and engineering, it would remain closed.
“Mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” said Abrams. “Maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”
Medical professionals and certain Lost fans would obviously disagree, but as a metaphor, it works. Stories are mystery boxes, argues Abrams. They’re often at their best before the lid is opened.
Abrams is an executive producer role on on HBO’s Westworld, a sci-fi show that, as presenter Lauren Laverne noted at a season two finale screening held in London last week, “has been credited with creating a whole new genre: puzzle TV.” Westworld plays out over multiple timelines and expects viewers to keep up with its narrative shifts and spins.
Have creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy ever worked on anything quite as complicated? Laverne asked them at the screening. “My first movie [Memento] was backwards, so this is relatively straightforward” joked Nolan. From Lisa Joy, it was a flat no.
In the creation of Westworld’s puzzles, one audience member sought assurance from Joy and Nolan that the Lost vibes detected by some viewers in season two weren’t indicative that Westworld would go the way of that show and fail to answer the questions it asked. In the writers’ room, he asked, are puzzles ever put in before their solution has been worked out? “Is everything being proposed as, ‘we’re going to answer this’ or is some of it just fodder for the fans?’”
“In Lost,” said Lisa Joy, “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.”
Jonathan Nolan began his answer with a caveat. “I thought Lost was a fantastic show, it was one of the reasons why I wanted to sit down with JJ [Abrams], mainly so we could talk about television. It was beautifully made and there are some spectacular individual episodes, some beautiful storytelling there in the aggregate, a very compelling, very beautiful show.”
That said, Nolan describes Westworld as having “a slightly different approach, as Lisa said, to the long-haul storytelling. For us, we don’t want to wear out our welcome, we have no interest in making this show until it hits syndication and people watch it over and over again. Luckily, we’re at a moment in television where you don’t have to do that.”
Lisa Joy continued, “Each season, what we try to do is, the questions that we tee up, we do try to address. We have an answer for all of them. We do intend to answer the questions that we set up.”
“For us,” said Nolan, “frankly we were approached at the launch about making a show more like a film franchise, where each season, as Lisa said, sort of settles its debts, for the most part, with the audience and sets up some interesting questions for the next season. We don’t want to do this forever.”
Rest assured then, that if you’re scratching your head over the season two finale post-credits scene, this particular mystery box won’t sit unopened on a shelf. Westworld is going to dismantle it.