Note: spoilers for Westworld through season two, episode six follow.
Part of what makes any story memorable aside from the action on the page or screen is the change the characters undergo as part of their journey.
In HBO’s Westworld, much of that change is readily apparent as we advance from season one into season two, principally as a result of the hosts’ change from being part of someone else’s “dream” to becoming “woke” themselves.
There’s much more subtle change that takes place along the way, however, which I think is worth examining from the perspective of a writer in order to better understand how we might put that to use in our own work.
To do this, let’s focus on one character and one aspect of her development in particular: Maeve and her ability to control other hosts.
In season one, episode eight, we see Maeve directly manipulate another host’s behavior in a low stakes environment. When the bartender at the brothel in Sweetwater tells her she’ll need to pay her tab before she gets another drink, Maeve informs the man that the situation is quite the opposite: she’s owed a drink for being such an outstanding patron.
The bartender, though clearly flummoxed, complies.
What does this show us? Well, it’s the first moment during which we see Maeve’s ability to manipulate hosts directly through simple commands. As mentioned above, the writers saw fit to include this in a low-stakes situation, the benefit of which will become apparent as we continue this analysis.
That same episode—only minutes later—Maeve finds herself in the street, greeting Hector and his gang as they arrive to steal the safe. Before the sheriff can shoot Hector, Maeve intervenes at the last moment, instructing the sheriff to instead abandon his pursuit of Hector. The sheriff obliges, and throughout the subsequent scene, Maeve puts her newfound power to the test a number of times to help Hector and his crew steal the safe.
So what’s the big deal?
Remember how I mentioned Maeve’s first use of this ability was in a low stakes, relatively uncomplicated moment? The lesson in having her ability to manipulate other hosts presented this way is that it prevents the skill from coming across as a deus ex machina were she to have put it to use for the first time in a moment of high drama, namely saving Hector from the sheriff and assisting in the subsequent robbery.
Had viewers for the first time been shown a Maeve with an unbridled ability to change the narratives in a moment of high tension, it certainly would have been a WTF moment, but wouldn’t it also have felt a bit… rushed? Cheap? A bit too convenient?
That we had an opportunity to know this skill existed prior to the necessity of its use in more dire circumstances significantly changes a viewer’s interpretation of its utility and their ability to get behind it as a storytelling device.
In other words, its presentation was gradual, as is the continued development of this ability in later episodes.
The Ghost Nation Stumble
Later in season two, episode three, we discover a supposed limit to Maeve’s ability to instruct other hosts: members of the Ghost Nation tribe fail to respond to her commands. The reason? She’s not speaking their literal language.
As we later learn, though, somewhere deep in their programming, all hosts have the ability to speak every language spoken by other hosts in the park, which leads us to the next step in Maeve’s development of this skill.
When Maeve and her crew find themselves taken captive in Shogun World, Maeve surprises her traveling companions by speaking Japanese. That is to say, she’s figured out how to access the deepest bits of her programming that are responsible for the languages she’s able to use to communicate with other hosts.
As we saw in season one, we again see a similar pattern to the implementation of this development of her ability in season two. At first she uses her Japanese “only” to negotiate with the Japanese-speaking hosts around her. Later, she uses it to save herself and others from an attack by ninjas orchestrated by the shogun, this time having them turn on themselves rather than simply forcing them to walk away.
All of this is fine and good, but what difference does it make, you say? Sure, one could argue that this is hardly a new ability at all, that we’re actually seeing a repetitive—perhaps even formulaic—demonstration of her abilities across seasons.
My argument, however, is that the demonstration of her ability to verbally change narratives at all followed by her ability to do this across languages is that it better prepares viewers for the next major step in her development of this power.
Mind Over Matter
Near the end of the same episode, all appears lost when Akane kills the shogun. This enrages his sworn protectors, who then unleash their fury on Akane, Maeve, and their companions.
As the chaos unfolds, however, Maeve’s power reaches a new height when viewers learn she no longer has to issue a verbal command at all; in fact, she can now manipulate other hosts through thought alone.
Ghost Nation Two: Bow and Arrow Boogaloo
Then later, in season two, episode six, she speaks the language of the Ghost Nation, something she couldn’t do previously. Are we shocked by this? No, since we already know she can speak Japanese and, it would appear, Mandarin based on her interactions in previous episodes. So what does this really do for us, story-wise?
It establishes a pattern.
More than that, even, it builds anticipation.
What might have once felt formulaic or repetitive now buys the writers a great deal. It gets viewers to ask what this might mean for her powers going forward. Where will they take Maeve and her crew next?
The Magic is in the Change
The slow development—the change in Maeve’s character—is what makes this particular thread so enthralling to follow.
Imagine, for a moment, that Maeve had the ability to do all of this from the get-go way back in episode eight of season one. It would have allowed her to get out of a number of situations with greater ease, but at what cost?
The cost of suspense. The cost of tension. The cost of wonder.
That this pattern of gradual change has been established buys the show’s writers a great deal in that it keeps viewers wanting to come back. If Maeve had always been able to do all of this, it’d be far too easy for viewers to say, “Okay, so what? We know every episode is just going to be that Maeve lady using her mind powers to get them out of everything.”
And though, sure, some viewers might say that now, the writers have established that there’s always more to come where Maeve and these powers are concerned, and the only way to know exactly where they’ll take her next is to keep watching the show.
Gradual Change and You
Think now on one of the characters in your own work. Can you think of a skill, an attitude, a belief of theirs that changes and develops over the course of the narrative? How quickly or gradually does that change take place? Could changing the speed at which the change occurs better help keep readers’ attention? Could that adjustment help them develop a more nuanced understanding of the character, of themselves?
Only you can answer those questions for your own work, but if I had to guess, Westworld‘s writers have been mulling over the answers to them for this show, consciously or not.
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