This post contains Westworld spoilers. Proceed to the center of the maze with caution.
The ninth episode of Westworld was everything fans asked for. After eight hours of puzzling setup, the writers doled out answers like cheap Halloween candy. There are multiple timelines! Bernard was built in Arnold’s image! The center of the maze is an elevator to Arnold’s lab! Weeks of speculation, finally validated!
So why did the penultimate episode of season one land with the thwap of a soggy Ritz cracker?
Did hundreds of theories interfere with 10 hours of television?
Maybe the cottage industry built atop Westworld spoiled the fun. There’s an argument to be made against the breathless theorizing. (I’ve admittedly been a part of that.) If each episode hadn’t been scrutinized by dozens of podcasts, hundreds of blogs, and thousands of Reddit comments, then these late-season reveals might feel surprising instead of inevitable. But great mysteries are good even after you know the twist. For example, The Prestige, co-written by Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan. A movie about magicians, filmmakers, and a mutual love for a well-performed sleight-of-hand, The Prestige is more enjoyable on repeated viewings. Its twists are manipulative, but they build directly onto the movie’s themes, enhancing the central ideas instead of diverting from them.
Theorizing is fun, and a number of shows have played with fans’ curiosity to great effect, including HBO’s own Game of Thrones. Even comedies like Arrested Development benefited from intense fan scrutiny. And while those shows’ merits are debatable, it’s hard to say their failings stem from letting puzzles supersede narrative coherency.
But the writing staff of Westworld invited this Zapruder-esque behavior, larding the show with countless clues and Easter eggs that could only be discovered by a team of thousands freeze-framing their way through 60 minutes of television a week. The creators simply went overboard. Westworld was constructed, as other writers have noted, as a game to be played by its viewers. It’s akin to resolving a dinner-theater murder-mystery instead of absorbing clearly presented, albeit non-interactive, drama.
For example, Bernard’s epiphanies in episode 9: Once Ford unlocks memories inside the mind of his loyal bot, Bernard and the viewers discover that a number of scenes from previous episodes were designed to conceal the truth — or in one particular case, outright lie. The shadowy figure that attacked Elsie? It was Bernard. That photo of Arnold that Ford showed Bernard? It featured a third person we (and Bernard) weren’t shown the first time around.
Over at Screencrush, Matt Singer eloquently unloads on this this twist:
So when Bernard looked at the photo the first time, he didn’t see himself in the photo because that would have revealed his true nature. But as clever as the framing and the staging of these two scenes were, I’m still not sure how this isn’t a cheat. When Dolores and her father looked at that photo of the woman in Times Square earlier in the season, we saw what they couldn’t; we saw it outside their perspective. When Bernard previously looked at the photo of Arnold, we only saw it from his perspective. The only reason I can think of for not shooting this the same way both times was to preserve this secret so it could be unveiled in “shocking” fashion later.
In theory, Bernard’s “epiphanies” make for a fun, shocking twist. But in practice, the plot turns come with a nasty side effect: they give the audience ample reason to distrust the show’s foundations. Is anything we’re seeing real, or will it be retconned or reimagined for narratological convenience? Now even the few fundamental truths we’ve learned about Westworld can be called into question.
Westworld’s infatuation with mystery has kept its creators from answering the basic questions on which drama is constructed. Who are the people in this story? What are their motives? Why should we care about them?
A couple weeks ago, I gabbed about the similarities between Memento and Westworld. Both were created in part by Jonathan Nolan, and both hinge on the concealment of characters’ motives until the climactic twists. Why does Memento work where Westworld struggles? One significant factor is their relative lengths: Memento is a quick burst of confusion chased with quick relief, while Westworld, even if binged, requires substantial investment. But it’s more complicated than that.
Ambiguous character motives and untrustworthy storytellers are especially harmful in a drama about the complexities of identity, humanity, and what makes us us. Westworld speculates on the thin line between human and artificial life, then undercuts itself by asking viewers to question which humans are robots, rather than what makes robots like humans. In a misguided effort to conceal the who, what, and when of all the core events, Westworld doesn’t give viewers enough reason to care.
The show is so busy concealing the who, what, and when that it never explains the why
That’s why I suspect that even if the finale answers every question, Westworld’s first season will still be immensely disappointing. In the pilot, the creators introduced a smorgasbord of philosophical quandaries, each fascinating enough to be the thematic backbone of a television show: Is artificial life morally indistinguishable from human life? Do humans become gods when they create artificial life? Is the mere act of storytelling godly? But instead of investigating those questions, the show has fallen back on the twisty gimmicks that have followed Jonathan Nolan’s work since his first film.
At the end of episode 9, Bernard corners Ford, having wired a decommissioned Clementine-bot to shoot Ford on command. Ford humors Bernard for the episode’s runtime, then reveals he was always in control of every bot in the room. “You could have stopped me at any time,” says Bernard. Ford replies, “I suppose I was hoping given complete self-knowledge and free will, you would have chosen to be my partner again.” It’s sleight-of-hand dialogue, excusing an hour of exposition and pretense. Ford had all this information already, but chose to sit through it on the audience’s behalf. And the writers withheld it all to set up another twist — at the expense of any consistent sense of Ford’s identity or motives.
This messy confrontation is the show’s pinnacle moment of mystery over substance. The scene answers a number of the biggest questions raised by fans, but manages to say nothing compelling about the show’s core concepts of artificial intelligence or dangerous human ambition. Instead, it pulls the rug out from under us again, and what should be a reward for the audience is just another reason to mistrust the show.
On the cusp of the finale, I believe Westworld will suffer when binged, because the show has never delivered on what it promised. What was initially a complicated intellectual exploration of the complexities of artificial life has devolved into a big hunt-the-herring game about the quirks of idiosyncratic storytelling. Unlike The Prestige, the first season of Westworld will age poorly. Like Nolan’s film Inception, it’s going to be betrayed by repeat viewings, and leadened by its own mystery. It’s not as interested in telling us a story as it is in telling us how the story works.