The Nolan Puzzle Box: Westworld, Memento and The Prestige

Westworld, the brainchild of Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, ended this weekend. Amy had watched the entire series with me, though she spent more of it checking mail periodically on her iPad than I did. Even without my iPad (though I tend to read more often these days on my iPhone 6 because my iPad 2 has practically bricked itself with cumbersome updates), the show was hard to follow. It’s dense with story, clues and narrative sleight of hand. The show frequently reaches up its sleeve for the ace you don’t notice it’s playing, though in the end most of those cards were put on the table. Amy actually didn’t pick up her iPad the entire time.

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This led to an argument discussion about the level of confusion acceptable in a narrative. Do you assume, when you don’t understand an event right away, that you’ve missed something? Or have you been presented with a mystery to be solved or even a bit of misdirection? Westworld is not easy viewing, even with all the naked actors on display in the robot maintenance area. It repeats a lot of the material from episode to episode but even then you’re not sure if you’re seeing the same events occurring or a recurring flashback to the same events. Or even the same events recurring at different times, given the programmed loops that the Westworld theme park places its robot hosts through again and again over the decades.

Dolores and Teddy from Westworld

Dolores, Teddy and their eternal loop.

I sort of like confusion. When I was young I hated revisiting the same book twice, while the woman I lived with would read the same books over and over. I wanted something new, something fresh, though there were certain movies (The Graduate and about half a dozen Hitchcock films) that I didn’t mind watching repeatedly. But the work by the Nolan family — Christopher, Jonathan and now Lisa Joy — often demands rewatching and can be at least partially opaque without it. Jonathan and Lisa created a dense narrative in Westworld, filled with misdirection and sleight of hand. I watched the first episode twice, once on television and once on the HBO Go website, but I suspect I should have watched all of them at least twice, because there are so many elements in it that are not what they seem to be that you  practically need to flowchart it to see what piece of the puzzle fits where.

I should have realized this when I saw Christopher and Jonathan’s Memento, though I was afraid it wouldn’t make as much sense on a second viewing as it did on the first. I mean, would a man with a 15-minute memory span even understand where those tattooed Post-It notes on his body came from, much less what they meant? But it works on its own terms, alleviating at least some of that complaint when its prologue slash denouement final scene explains that (SPOILER ALERT!) our tattooed hero had misunderstood everything all along. He had just convinced himself he was getting it right.

Memento tattoes

Tattooed Post-It Notes

I didn’t realize how difficult these Nolan puzzle boxes were until I saw The Prestige. Sure, I got the part about how Christian Bale performed his version of the Transported Man magic trick, but the entire murder subplot baffled me, along with exactly what Tesla had given Hugh Jackman in the laboratory atop his magic Colorado mountain. Why did Christopher (who seems to have been without Jonathan on this one) keep flashing back to those hats on the ground? What was floating in that tank at the end? I finally bought the Blu-Ray and watched it twice, at which point I suddenly got it — and kicked myself, because it was a problem in teleportation that I’ve beefed about for my entire adult lifetime and even wrote a post about in another blog. But Nolan had twisted the plot into such a pretzel, both chronologically and narratively, that it eluded me for several years.

Hats on the ground in The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”

Jonathan and Lisa do the same thing with Westworld, only they don’t make the pretzel structure quite as obvious. I heard a fan theory the day before the finale that pretty much nailed what the auteurs behind the curtain were doing. I rather wish I hadn’t heard it, if only so I’d know whether I actually got it when it was revealed or would need to watch the whole series another time just to understand the explanation. I suspect I’ll watch it again anyway to see where the misdirection is taking place, though there’s a pretty good fan video, made after the eighth of the ten episodes, that pegs a lot of it. Don’t watch the video if you haven’t seen the show and plan to. Or expect to be surprised by some of the reveals in the finale.

I enjoy this puzzle box approach, but it sometimes is done at the expense of character development. On Westworld, you only feel you know the characters at the end. Of course, that gives us several more seasons where we’ll presumably like them more. And care.

And I really need to watch Inception again. I followed that one pretty well the first time, but now I’m convinced there were a lot of things I missed.

Where’s that Blu-Ray?