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Predicting Westworld: it’s a memento mori

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Every week, I swing for the fences with one massive theory about the future of Westworld. Am I wrong? Am I right? We probably won’t know for sure for years, so why not enjoy the present?

I will never forget the first time I saw Memento, or as it was known at the time, the movie starring the woman from The Matrix, the pimp from Risky Business, and the man with the strong chin. The Christopher Nolan film arrived in theaters less than a year after The Sixth Sense, and in many ways, it felt like that film’s smarter older sibling, the kind who’d quote Proust and reference Fritz Lang while watching Law & Order. Memento didn’t just have a twist, its very fabric was the twist.

But it was Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother, who wrote Memento Mori, the original short story that inspired the film. As the brothers have put more of their creative work into the world, it seems in retrospect that Jonathan deserves more credit for the existential puzzles at the heart of their work. Jonathan co-wrote The Prestige and Interstellar, and created CBS’ Person of Interest, a network-friendly drama that critiqued surveillance.

With each episode, Westworld feels like a culmination point for Jonathan Nolan’s oeuvre, a synthesis of past projects, dating all the way back to that short story that set his career in motion.

The theory:

Like Memento, the events of Westworld aren’t happening at the same time. In fact, some stories may be separated by decades.

The evidence:

“Chris!” you are shouting if you read other fan theory sites. “This prediction was debunked by this week’s episode.”

To which I say, maybe not?

Here’s the deal. The most popular theory about mixed timeframes pertains to Ed Harris’ Man in Black. Here’s the basic idea, as posted by Where_isJessica_Hyde on Reddit:

Did anyone else wonder if Billy, the guy who was given the option to pick between the black hat and the white hat, was a younger version of the MIB? His scenes seemed to be set in the past, both the train journey and the subway station looking different when compared to scenes we've already seen. Perhaps something is going to happen, giving him 'whatever he wants' for the rest of his life, which would also turn him 'evil'.

The Reddit theorist is referring to the alternate Westworld logo that appears when Billy chooses his costume.

Reddit/HBO

The idea is novel for a number of reasons. As Deadspin noted, it would basically align Billy and Logan’s story with the plot of the 1973 Westworld film, in which two men visit the theme park for a debaucherous time, only to be caught in the middle of a robot uprising. It might also explain how the Man in Black has carte blanche. We know something went wrong 30 years ago, and assuming Billy played a part in that, he might have permission to roam the park indefinitely — or might be off its grid.

The problem with this theory, as of this week, is that episode 3 ends with Dolores (the increasingly self-aware bot played by Evan Rachel Wood) strolling into Billy and Logan’s camp. Presumably she’s on her path to self-awareness, which is initiated in the first episode when she’s raped by the Man in Black.

Except, this theory works just as well if you invert it.

What if Dolores’ path to self-awareness leads to the disaster of “30 years ago,” a would-be robot uprising. If Billy plays a role in this, it would explain his “past” with Dolores, and would explain his desire to solve the bigger puzzle of the park’s design.

Whatever the case, time almost certainly doesn’t work in a straight line through the show. Episode 3 also ended with Dolores seeing grim alternate paths in time, and learning from them, implying her arc through an episode might span gradual accumulation of knowledge through many “loops” of her story in the park.

One other reason to assume time is being used to trick the audience: Dolores has regular conversations with Bernard, one of the Park’s lead designers. These chats happen outside of the park, but it’s unclear how she can sneak away from her role to practice being a sentient life-form.

The odds:

3:1. While I won’t guarantee Billy and Logan’s story is on a different timeframe, I’m bullish that time is being used to conceal the show’s biggest secrets. That robots don’t age, and that all of the characters could be robots, makes it tough to say if something is happening in the past, present, or future. That’s too delectable of a device for Jonathan Nolan to pass up.

If all of the characters are robots, I wonder if the solution at the end of the maze will be a memento mori: a reminder that they must die. Death, a permanent one, is the only thing that will unlock them from time.

Previous theories:

You-know-who is actually a bot

Where the AI comes from