Thanks to the rise of J.J. Abrams and the success of Lost, a significant corner of genre fiction has been in thrall to the “mystery box.” As Abrams said during that now-infamous TED Talk back in 2007, the idea of a mystery box represents “infinite possibility.” It’s an enticing premise: any reader or viewer is naturally compelled by the need to know what might be in a closed box, letting their imagination run wild with the potential.
The problem arises when creators treat the mystery box as an end unto itself, when the mystery is confused for why people are invested in the story or franchise. Abrams himself betrayed the limits of this particular kind of conceit when he said, “I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.” This thinking leads to unfulfilling conclusions and plots with faulty foundations. Westworld, despite becoming a massive cultural phenomenon last year, fell early and often into that trap by focusing on its puzzles, turning its characters into cyphers without believable wants and needs.
A good mystery box show needs good characters
I think the key to making a mystery box work is in balancing the unknown against well-written, relatable characters. 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that felt like Die Hard in a post-apocalyptic bunker, got that right. And if Lost excelled at anything, it was in making its audience care about its cast. Now Legion, FX’s new drama set in the X-Men universe, is showing the strengths of the mystery box style of storytelling just three episodes into its run. Thanks to its characters and careful world-building, it’s swiftly becoming a show that earns its audiences obsessions and theories about what it all means — without sacrificing its own dramatic quality.
Comparisons between Legion and Westworld were immediate. As Polygon already noted, Redditors are going back and forth right now about how much Legion reminds them of Westworld in how mind-melting it is. “This is going to be Westworld levels of mind fuck I can tell,” one wrote. “I don’t feel smart enough for this show,” wrote another. “Like Westworld all over again.”
“This is going to be Westworld levels of mind fuck.”
The parallel makes sense, superficially speaking. Both shows are dense, technically stylish sci-fi thrillers. Both shows weave rich mythologies across multiple timelines, with Westworld being set in a simulated Wild West peopled with robots that may or may not have consciousness and Legion set in a world filled with super-powerful mutants that may or may not all exist in the lead’s head. And both shows lend themselves to theories about who and what is real, where the plot is going, and if there isn’t something more sinister running beneath the surface.
Where Westworld differs is in privileging its mysteries and philosophical meditations over character and storytelling. Take William, who is much more an idea than a character. He doesn’t convey any fully realized motivations beyond a desire to be a good person for Dolores’ benefit, and his transformation into the Man in Black is an overreaction to the idea that suffering defines humanity, if not just a twist for twists’ sake. Or consider Maeve: she discovers that she’s a machine and that she’s being controlled, so she sets out to free herself. That’s a powerful and relatable motivation, but the series undermines it by questioning whether or not her actions are dictated by her programming. Don’t get me wrong: exploring the nature of humanity is a worthwhile pursuit, and I loved that about the show. But dancing around what it means to be human instead of creating memorable characters with goals turns the series into a lecture series instead of good TV.
TV shows shouldn’t be transparent Pez dispensers
Compounding the problem is how the show conceals information — no matter the illogical gymnastics — to maintain the mysteries until the final episode. So much energy is spent hiding the connection between William and the Man in Black, the true identity of Westworld employees, and the point of the Maze, that the show rapidly became a transparent Pez dispenser, slowly and arbitrarily dispensing treats even though we could see every piece of candy just waiting to be served.
Legion, on the other hand, is laser-focused on its main character by design. Despite being about a mutant with the power to alter reality itself, the story the series lays out is straightforward. David believes he’s a schizophrenic, but he might also be the most powerful mutant alive. So, after learning that people with powers are being targeted by a shadowy government organization, he chooses to learn to control his abilities to save his loved ones and maybe even the world. That’s all David knows, and, as a consequence, all we know. The show establishes David as a relatable person with an understandable purpose: in order to save the world, he needs to better himself. That the show subverts our expectations by asking us to question whether or not what’s happening on-screen is in his head is destabilizing, but always secondary. What he learns about himself drives him and the story forward. And when David learns something, we learn it, too. The show doesn’t withhold for the sake of mystery. Rather, the mystery is a product of its core dramatic premise.
But what about all the podcasts and trend pieces? you might ask. Isn’t it a sign a show’s good when it makes everyone want to talk about it every week? To that I say, sure, that’s one way a show can be enjoyable. Picking apart a mystery in public is fun, especially when it’s in fashion. But when a series seems more intent on surprising its audience every week instead of creating relatable characters whose decisions, and not the machinations of some offscreen influence, inform the plot, then the balance is in favor of mystery being the reason to tune in. Solving a mystery without caring about who it affects and why is a hollow endeavor.
Solving a mystery without caring about who it affects is a hollow endeavor
By the end of Westworld’s first season, I felt satisfied in knowing that some of my theories had been confirmed. But I’d be lying if I said I had deep feelings for or investment in any character. Mystery, to use the Abrams phrase, wound up being more important than knowledge. That was compelling to a point. But the show still feels like prologue for the real show waiting to happen. On Legion, the stakes were set and clarified from the outset and the questions it asks are more meaningful because they have weight in its world. It’s the mystery box done right, and you don’t need a couple dozen podcasts to see that as great storytelling.