Note: spoilers for Westworld through S02E05 follow.
In season two, episode five of HBO’s Westworld (“Akane no Mai”), there’s a remarkable scene between Dolores and Teddy that uses backstory to enrich character, the show’s themes, and the narrative itself.
Since the inclusion and development of backstory often proves difficult for writers of all backgrounds, I thought I’d examine what makes this scene work so well before taking a look at how we can make this scene’s mechanics—and mechanics similar to them—work for us in our own writing.
But first, some background.
Note: if you’re already familiar with Westworld, you can skip ahead to “Analysis.”
Not a watcher of Westworld? Still want in on this analysis? Here’s a brief primer for you.
Westworld is, quite simply, a show about a park where the wealthy can spend a day (or a lifetime, if they can afford it) wandering an American-west-themed land full of shootouts, bank robberies, and related debauchery. The employees in the park itself are essentially robots—known as “hosts”—that are by and large indistinguishable from the human visitors.
Hosts are programmed to have a full backstory and operate on a set number of narratives with limited room for improvisation in order to make them feel all the more real.
The trouble is that a number of hosts have become self-aware, and are now actively leading a revolt against the human visitors trapped in the park.
Why aren’t you watching this show, again?
Dolores – a host and folksy farm-girl-turned-rogue. She figures among the park’s more “woke” hosts.
Teddy – a cowboy with a heart of gold(?) and a complicated past. He’s wising up to the true nature of his reality, but doesn’t seem to fully get it yet.
Dolores and Teddy share a past in a way—the narratives they were programmed with originally had the two of them encounter one another every day, reminisce about a romantic past that never truly was, and speculate about a future that never could be. Then it would happen all over again the next day, ad infinitum.
Well, until Dolores became self-aware or something like it.
The scene in question begins 31 minutes into the episode, at least if we go by the timestamp on HBO Now. In it, Dolores and Teddy stand in a field, one they always used to visit in the days before they started to understand their existences as hosts.
Here’s a condensed, dialogue-based version of the scene that we’ll use as the starting point for our analysis. Below, “D” will stand for Dolores, and “T,” well, for Teddy.
D: I ever tell you about the year we almost lost the herd? Blue tongue. Quarantined the cows that had it, but it kept spreading all the same.
Daddy finally figured out that it wasn’t spreading from cow to cow; it was the flies that carried it. He worried over it all night. How do you stop a sickness like that? One with wings?
Say it was you. What would you do, Teddy?
T: I’d give ’em shelter. House the weakest in a barn out of the air away from the flies until it passed.
D: You’re a kind man.
[Dolores brushes a hand against Teddy’s cheek]
Daddy burned ’em: the weak, the infected. Made a pyre that went on for days and it stank but flies hate smoke. The herd lived.
I’ll think about what you said.
Well that is… dark. But what does it tell us about Dolores’ backstory, and what does this conversation reveal about her character and that of Teddy? And why are they talking about this in the first place?
By this episode, viewers are already plenty familiar with Dolores’s programmed backstory, but let’s say we weren’t (or aren’t). What would we now know from this brief exchange?
Well, we would know her family owned a farm or a ranch of some kind. But where does she say that specifically?
She doesn’t. The scene speaks for itself without the need for a long preamble about how long the farm has been in the family or how many cows they have or what her role actually was where ranching was concerned.
Of course, yes, this is all taking place in the show’s second season when most viewers are already well aware of the most essential underpinnings of Dolores’s programmed past, but at no point—even in the first season—does the show stop and dump the above information or any information like it on viewers in order to make sure they understand these things about who Dolores is as a person.
Instead, the writers not only let the scene speak for itself, but let the characters speak for themselves, too.
Voice and Demeanor as Cues into Character
If you hadn’t read the “Background” section above or hadn’t watched the show, I bet a reading of the dialogue alone would reasonably frame who Dolores and Teddy are as characters. How? Through voice and the attitudes they express in the conversation.
Where voice is concerned, just take a look at the characters’ word choice and sentence structure. What impression does it leave you with? Where would you guess these folks are from? What time period?
When reading for attitude, demeanor, or belief system, what does Teddy’s response tell you about the kind of person he is? How does Dolores’s story and her presentation of it paint her?
Note that the answers to these questions arise not from the writers of the show answering them for you in terse, stilted dialogue-based declaratives, but rather from viewers’ interpretations of the medium itself. In other words, the writers don’t surrender to the urge to explain; the scene and its characters speak for themselves—and strongly, I might add. In so doing, we as viewers leave this scene with an enriched understanding of who these characters are, what they want, and, for viewers familiar with the show, what might come next.
What I love most about the simple scene above is that it’s really just a cleverly disguised expression many are already familiar with. What’s that expression, you ask?
“You’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.”
Or, perhaps an even more apt expression this dialogue represents is that Dolores’s father recognized he had to “sacrifice the few to save the many.”
What’s worth appreciating here is that the show’s writers didn’t settle to just have Dolores and Teddy discuss the philosophical foundations of these expressions in some sort of lofty, out-of-character diatribe. Instead, they incorporated an in-world anecdote that would not only further reveal character and backstory, but also frame Dolores and the other hosts’ “wokeness” through a new lens.
In Dolores’ story, the cows that comprise the herd represent the hosts that have slowly been stirred from their programmed realities by their equivalent of “blue tongue.” Her argument is that if she and the rest of the woke hosts don’t take action to force the hands of their creators, that their creators will eventually take the same approach her daddy took with the infected cows: they and the other woke hosts will be destroyed so that the herd of healthy, obedient hosts might go on serving the whims of their human creators.
Ultimately, this anecdote serves as a test: one Dolores gives Teddy in order to probe whether he truly understands the stakes at play. When he fails this test, well, there’s another scene at the end of the episode that suggests exactly what Dolores plans to do about that.
What does this mean for our own writing then? How can we enrich character, present backstory, and make use of metaphors like the above from time to time?
To start, pick a scene from a manuscript of yours that you think might be a little stale. Or, if you really want to turn things up, pick a scene you’re proud of.
Now select a character in that scene. What do you already know about that character? What are they thinking when the scene starts? When it ends? Are they focused on the matter at hand or distracted by something else entirely?
Is there something in their hand? Can you put something there? What about a brown paper bag or a jar of jam or a ring they’ve removed and pressed tight to their palm?
Do other characters in the scene notice this? Do they ask questions? Does the character that now has something in their hand forcefully bring up the thing in their hand? What does it mean to them? What does it mean to the scene?
If there’s nothing (or you don’t want to put anything) in your character’s hand, is there something they observe on the wall or otherwise nearby? Maybe it’s not something they see, but rather feel or smell or hear. How might they interpret that stimulus based on how they feel right now? How might they have interpreted it had they seen it earlier in the story or if they saw it in the future? What does that say about the journey they’re on as a character?
Does the thing in their hand or the thing on the wall, etc. trigger a memory of some kind? How can they present this connection to the other character(s) on the page in a meaningful way, assuming they choose to do so?
You might not think the simple act of giving your characters something to put in their hands would make any difference to your scene, but try it out. I can think of at least two times these strategies have worked for me, both of which were in my EMPATHY sci-fi series.
After becoming concerned that one of my scenes was reading as a stiff-sounding, boring old meeting between two characters, I decided to put a table-tennis paddle in one character’s hand. After plopping a ping pong table into the room, the two characters not only shared a volley of dialogue, but a literal volley as well. The tension their playing of table tennis introduced also helped me frame the conversation at large, and ended up leading to what I believe to be one of the book’s strongest metaphors.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I take the same approach in the series’ second book, EMPATHY: Mourning Dove, where in one scene I place a mango in a character’s hand, who then goes on to skin and eat the mango in front of the chapter’s point-of-view character. What does it say about the mango-holding character that she doesn’t at first offer any to her guest? What does it say about her when she does, but then proves to be withholding about it? How does the way she eats the mango frame her presentation on the page, and what might their exchange over this fruit ultimately mean in the greater context of the story?
Granted, “putting something in your characters’ hands” isn’t an end all, be all solution, and we can’t rely on this same trick to get us through every scene.
What we can do, however, is use it as another one of the many tools in our writer’s toolkit. After putting it to use a few times, we might even find ourselves refining the use of the tool such that it can be used with greater efficacy in a broader range of applications.
For now, though, let’s see what it does for us, our characters, their backstories, and the metaphors we might use to frame it all.
Write on and write well.
Like what you read here? What more content like this delivered to your inbox regularly? You can subscribe to my newsletter here for posts like these and other writerly updates. Thanks for reading!