‘Westworld’ and the Writer/Reader Contract


by Gerry Conway

Read this before we start (and, warning, SPOILERS):

Ready? Okay. I think this critic misses the point, because, like more than a few critics throughout the history of literary (and cinematic) criticism, he/she doesn’t understand the nature of the implied writer/reader contract. That’s not surprising because the concept of a contract between the writer and the reader doesn’t seem to get much attention in academic critical studies, and almost no attention in popular critical writing. As far as I know, it isn’t much taught to aspiring writers, either, which explains so much bad, narcissistic writing.

Here’s the concept, in as simple terms as I can explain it: the writer/reader contract is an implied agreement between the writer and the reader concerning the kind of story the writer is telling, what the reader should expect from that story, and in return for the gift of the reader’s attention, the writer’s implicit promise to deliver on those expectations. To the degree that writer and reader fullfil that contract– the reader, by giving the writer his/her attention, and the writer, by fulfilling the reader’s expectations– a story is or is not successful. If a reader doesn’t pay attention to what she reads, she can’t complain that a story fails. If a writer does not fulfill her reader’s expectations, she can’t claim the reader “doesn’t understand” the writer’s work. Stories are a contracted dialogue between author and audience. Fullfil the contract, everyone’s happy. Break the contract, recriminations follow.

Very often, critics misunderstand or willfully ignore the writer/reader contract, interposing their own preferred boiler plate contractual terms for those the writer and reader have negotiated between them. This makes much critical appraisal irrelevant, especially when writers have negotiated new and novel contractual terms with their readers. For example, in the review above, the critic is trying to impose a more traditional writer/reader contract onto the existing “Westworld” agreement between the show’s creators and viewers. He/she is asking for narrative context to provide insight into plot and character and thus, to develop the show’s themes in a more traditional manner. But, to repurpose an old cliche, the lack of context in “Westworld” is not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s essential to the theme, to the plot, to our understanding of the characters, and it is both an implicit and explicit element in the writer/reader contract presented in the show’s first episode.

Remember, for the first ten minutes of the show, we are led to believe that Teddy is a human guest visiting Westworld, probably on his second visit. We are shown Sweetwater and Dolores from his point of view. We are asked to identify with him as our focal point. And then he’s revealed as a robot, and we meet the first truly “human” character in the park, the Man in Black. The writers are offering us, in the first minutes of the show, a contract to join them in a story that will upend our traditional understanding of character and point of view. Tricks, puzzles, revelations, and time-out-of-sequence are all established in the first ten minutes. (Even the fact that story events will not occur in traditional linear format is revealed in the opening introduction of Dolores being questioned. We don’t know when this is happening, initially, whether before or after Teddy’s death.) Every element that will inform the writer/reader contract is introduced in this first sequence, and in fact, reintroduced and amplified throughout the first episode. The terms of the contract are clear. Anyone who embraces “Westworld” on the basis of the first episode embraces it precisely because of this implied contract. And the writers have consistently delivered on the expectations they promised to fulfill.

(At the same time, though I can’t prove it yet, I also believe the writers are delivering on a number of traditional television serial narrative promises– such as the essential narrative promise to introduce all your primary protagonists and antagonists in your initial episode. That belief is why I don’t consider William’s introduction in the second episode as a narrative error. Usually, introducing a new primary protagonist in the second episode of a serial narrative would be a literary massive fail and a deal breaker in the writer/reader contract – unless that character had already been introduced somehow in episode one. That’s the main reason I believe William will turn out to be the younger version of the Man in Black. Because the writers have consistently upheld their half of the writer/reader contract, I trust them not to break such a fundamental narrative rule– because the only narrative rules they’ve broken so far are the one they broke in the first episode, when they established the terms of the contract they were offering.)

In sum, my reaction as a reader/viewer is the exact opposite of the critic quoted above: his “frustration” is essential to my enjoyment of the story, because that frustration is inherent in the contract I accepted when I decided to continue to watch the series. Distrusting the narrative is the point. Questioning the characters’ reality helps me identify with them – because that’s the explicit offer made in the very first scene. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” Dolores is asked. That’s the contract the writers offered us: do you want to watch a show that makes you question everything you see?

You bet. I’ll hear that story. Where do I sign?

Gerry Conway, TV and film writer and producer, award-winning novelist and comic book writer, raconteur extraordinaire, and “minor pop culture icon,” has been Larry Brody’s friend for longer than most TVWriter™ visitors have been alive. And, honest to God, Missus God, and any other deity, major or minor, that you believe in, they still hang out together whenever they can. This most excellent piece first appeared on Gerry’s most excellent blog.