The Evolution of the Mystery Box

Mystery-oriented storytelling has come a long way since the days of ‘Lost.’
Westworld, Dolores / The Good Place, Eleanor
By  · Published on May 22nd, 2018

Mystery-oriented storytelling has come a long way since the days of ‘Lost.’

When J.J. Abrams was a kid, he loved magic. One day he headed over to the magic store, and he bought the first thing he saw that captured his imagination: Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box. Its purpose is simple – when you open the box, you’ll find some kind of magic waiting inside. Abrams has never opened the box.

In his 2007 TED Talk, Abrams considers why. “What I love about this box,” he says, “is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is a catalyst for imagination.”

With Lost, Abrams applied the same logic and introduced mystery box storytelling to the small screen. Most mystery box shows can be summed up with the question, What’s the deal with ______? This narrative style – characterized by narration that unfolds as a series of reveals and twists to unearth central mysteries – can be equal parts rewarding and maddening. Fundamentally, mystery boxes raise the narrative stakes. When storytellers introduce a mystery, they take on the responsibility of solving it in a satisfying, meaningful way.

Lost gave us the perfect mystery box. In a nearly flawless pilot, Lost tossed us onto a tropical island with total strangers and smoke monsters and scary jungle sounds. Throughout the next few seasons, the questions piled up: What’s so special about Walt? What is The Hatch? Why are there polar bears on the island? And what is up with those numbers? Naturally, viewers started hacking away at the box.

Lost strategically kept us hooked by teasing out questions at a faster rate than answers. Flashbacks (and only flashbacks) were the show’s greatest strength. They served triple duty by filling in backstory, developing characters, and guiding each episode’s narrative. The series was one giant act of unearthing; each episode created new questions, but still inched us closer to complete understanding (or so we thought).

TV shows actively teach you how to watch them. Lost taught its viewers to be hungry, attentive sleuths, rewarding viewers who searched for clues, answers, and easter eggs. For example, Lost’s writers and producers created The Lost Experience, an alternate reality game, to let fans track down clues and uncover information during the hiatus between seasons 2 and 3. The internet also blossomed in conjunction with Lost’s run, so fans had a new space to fiddle with the mystery box as much as they liked.

When it was time for the show to end – time for the theorizing to stop and the mystery box to open once and for all – the stakes were high. With only one chance to reveal the contents of the mystery box, not everyone will like what’s inside; in the case of Lost, not all the contents were even revealed. The finale was infamously divisive. Twitter transformed from a space for communal sleuthing to a war zone.

The Lost finale decided to leave a lot of threads open and mysteries unanswered. It focused on character development over plot resolution (a perfectly valid choice). But viewers who were trained to focus on answers – trained to see plot as a puzzle, not as a means to character development – were let down. When the writers infused the plot with ambiguity, viewers rejected it because they were taught that the story was meant to be solved.

That’s an extremely abridged version of the story of Lost – where it began and ended, what went right and wrong. From this story, countless other shows have learned from the successes and foibles of the first television mystery box.

Westworld draws comparisons to Lost for obvious reasons. Westworld emulates Lost in its attention to detail and penchant for mystery. Each show has a vague organizational entity (Delos, DHARMA), visual clues (mazes, numbers), and lots of temporal play. The plots of both shows unravel rather than simply progress. Like Lost, Westworld is propelled by questions, and most of us probably watch for the answers rather than for characters. Anything can be the key to everything.

But Westworld has learned from some of Lost’s mistakes, namely the need for a payoff. Season one ended in a beautifully orchestrated climax. A culmination of smaller revelations throughout the season, the finale tore open the mystery box enough to answer our most immediate questions (Maze? Check. Arnold? Check. Wyatt? Check.) while still teasing new possibilities.

In its second season, Westworld has achieved some of its highest highs and lowest lows, occasionally fumbling with the mystery box. The first few episodes, for example, once again gave us disparate timelines that demand piecing together and an intriguing end goal (“Glory” replaces the maze this season as the coveted final destination). But the pace has slowed, the stakes are less tangible, and shocking twists are fewer. It feels the show has lost a central, propelling mystery.

But then the fourth episode charges out of the gates. “The Riddle of the Sphynx” is a sign that Westworld’s mystery box has matured, that questions can be posed and answered within the span of a single episode. The episode combines episodic closure and cliffhanger; revelation, not deepened mystery, captures our imagination.

Westworld proves a successful mystery box is a balanced one. Maintaining mystery without dragging it out is paramount; evenly distributing questions and answers is key. “The Riddle of the Sphynx” shows that unsolicited knowledge can engage us just as much as mystery can.

Westworld has the same rabid, perpetually-sleuthing fanbase that Lost did. This is something the show’s creators have had to deal with (which they did poorly, with this obnoxious Rick Roll). But this season feels less like we’re being asked to solve the story, and more like we’re simply being immersed in it. It’s promising.

The Leftovers takes a different approach to the mystery box. Like Lost (What’s the deal with the Island?) and Westworld (What’s the deal with the park?), The Leftovers is also founded on a central mystery (What’s the deal with the Sudden Departure?).

But The Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof – who is also the co-creator of Lost – learned how to let the mystery be without frustrating viewers. The Leftovers leaves most of its mysteries unanswered (Kevin’s immortality, Patti’s ghost, that afterlife world), and yet is a profoundly fulfilling narrative.

Lindelof learned from his time on Lost how to train an audience; early on, viewers learn to let unexplained plot points go. Instead of harping on answers, The Leftovers focuses all of its energy on characters and uses plot as a means to develop them – not as a question that needs answering.

By the end of the series, almost none of the series-long mysteries are answered, except (perhaps) one. A character explains what happened to the millions of people that vanished in the Sudden Departure (though we gain no insight into the why or how). The catch? Her verbal account only tells us; it doesn’t show us. This forces us to decide whether or not we even believe her. Sounds like a frustrating lack of clarity, a la Lost? Just the opposite. The Leftovers primes us for this; the whole show is about how belief works and why people believe that they do. So when the show tosses the ball into our court, we’re not frustrated by the ambiguity – we’re exhilarated.

Other post-Lost series like This Is Us and The Good Place have taken the mystery box out of the realm of sci-fi drama. Like Westworld, This Is Us picked up an affinity for multiple timelines from Lost. This Is Us uses flashbacks to create a narrative puzzle, two realities that need to be negotiated.

But the show’s mystery box is subversive in its transparency; we already know what happens to Jack and Rebecca and the rest of the Pearsons. The mystery box is largely opened to us; we’re only missing the how. There is no complex mythology or incessant new mysteries. Instead, we search for the source of the Pearsons’ grief alongside them. And, like The Leftovers, This Is Us frequently subordinates plot to character development (something Lost figured out a little too late).

The Good Place has a more traditional mystery box premise (What’s the deal with The Good Place?). The answer to its central mystery is revealed at the end of season one. It’s the only half-hour comedy of the bunch and the resourcefulness with which it uses that limited time is remarkable. The Good Place gives character and plot equal weight; we are as in love with Chidi and Eleanor and Tahani and Jason as we are invested in the mystery of the show. And it does all this while being hilarious.

The Good Place has also figured out how to keep twists organic, something Westworld and Lost sometimes struggle with. The big season one reveal, for example, was brilliantly blindsiding. But since that question was answered, the show has evolved from a pure mystery box into something else. Season two didn’t end with another twist, but rather a new stage. Season 3 will likely be one big exercise in dramatic irony, as our squad undertakes their second chances back on Earth.

It’s no surprise that The Good Place has also drawn a lot of comparisons to Lost. It even follows a pretty similar structure: a group of unlikely friends is trapped together in an environment that is not what it seems, they have to figure out how to maneuver this new setting, and we get to know them better through flashbacks. Even the season two finale reminded many viewers of Lost’s fifth season finale (both established wonky “other” timelines).

But The Good Place is lithe and light on its feet. Its limited runtime works enormously to its benefit. It gives us the information we need fast, and it doesn’t linger on any one mystery. Where Lost got hung up on complicated mythos and flash-forwards/backs/sideways, The Good Place nimbly moves through dense mythos while still getting laughs.

JJ Abrams has some pretty lofty ideas about the role of the mystery box. “What are stories but mystery boxes?” he asks in his TED Talk. I’m not a fan of this claim. Not every story is – or should be – innately solvable. We see this truth with the newer iterations of the mystery box. Westworld has taken to the idea of the puzzle-plot but has refined it to balance mystery and revelation. The Leftovers completely rejects the idea of solving – or even resolving – plot, and confidently leaves questions open-ended. This Is Us prioritizes characterization over answering the Pearsons’ mysteries, but their mere presence piques our curiosity. And The Good Place gets us answers fast, intricately weaving in humor and character development.

Stories aren’t just mystery boxes. They ask us big questions about life, introduce us to characters we feel like we know, deliver beauty and order and insight. But they can be mystery boxes on top of all that, shocking us with twists, gripping us with intrigue, making us think critically.

Lost provided an excellent template for the potential of the mystery box. Now, the shows that follow realize what the mystery box can and should be.

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Writer, college student, television connoisseur.