[Warning: spoilers ahead for Westworld in general, and the season finale specifically.]
The first season of HBO’s Westworld had a solid run, reportedly opening with better season-one numbers than the network’s breakout hit Game of Thrones, spawning a ridiculously huge wave of new podcasts and fan conversations, and earning a second-season renewal before the first season even closed. It’s certainly been a success for the network, in terms of drawing attention to the network and building a fast fanbase. But has the show lived up to the hype, or to its potential?
Tasha: I found the Westworld finale more satisfying than I was expecting in a lot of ways. It’s great to have the William theory confirmed so we can move on, and to understand the maze and Arnold’s death, and the Man In Black’s status in Westword. It’s good to see Bernard back in action. The first violent stages of the bot revolution feel like the catharsis we’ve been waiting for over the course of the last 10 episodes. And the final moments of the episode suggest a great season to come when the show returns in 2018.
But the finale had its disappointments, too. After all that stalling over Maeve’s plotline, we’re still not going to let her try to escape the park, or confront her programming? Her chasing her daughter feels like such a step backward for me — not overcoming the “recruit and escape” programming she won’t acknowledge, but reverting to an earlier programming agenda, even though she knows the bot she’s after isn’t really her daughter, and that her history is just an illusion. She left Hector behind… why exactly, given that she had no idea what she was going to encounter past that elevator, and what she’d need to survive it? What the hell does Felix want, and why does his vague sense that Maeve is sapient extend to going along without question once her followers start mutilating and murdering humans? Ten hours into this show, why are everyone’s motives still so hazy?
Adi: My primary frustration with Westworld is that everyone's motives and actions seem so transparently designed to serve whatever particular bit of mystery or symbolism the show is trying to convey at the moment. There's no point in trying to get into the characters' heads, because there's just nothing there. Maeve has to leave Hector behind because it'll make the ending more dramatic. Ford has to do what feels like an about-face on AI consciousness because it threw us off the twist. William has to turn evil because he's the Man In Black, and so on. (Incidentally, I’d love to see the meeting where he sold Delos on funding his ultraviolence vision quest. I bet it involved a PowerPoint of all his totally sweet kills.)
There's a certain meta-satisfaction in a show about programmed humans gaining consciousness making you relate to all its characters on the level of narrative programming, but that’s also an easy out.
Chris: Who is William, and why did he become the Man In Black? I don’t feel satisfied with the show’s answer, that the park did just what Logan said it would: awaken the sociopath buried within the feeble man.
For me, William’s arc was akin to an origin story for a Men’s Rights Activist. The quiet nerd with a heart of gold discovers the woman he loves is imperfect — she’s a bot! — and his reaction is a vendetta against everyone like her. He kills and mutilate dozens, maybe hundreds of other bots, and when he finally meets Dolores again — catches her handing her can of milk to another man, no less! — he realizes, what, that he needs to own this park outright? At first, I wondered if maybe the finale would have clicked had I not assumed William and the Man In Black were the same person. But no, the motives don’t track for me, whether they apply to two characters or just one.
Tasha: For one shining moment in the finale, I really thought Joy and Nolan were going to hand us all the surprise of our lives by revealing that Logan snapped at some point after Billy did, and killed him, and that Logan is the Man In Black. It would have been a plausible twist — Logan’s been around for much of Billy’s madness, Logan was already a sociopath, Logan was already obsessed with the park, and Logan naturally has the power and money that would let him take on the MIB’s role. His vendetta against Dolores would make perfect sense in a way that William’s doesn’t, not entirely. Why does William give up entirely on her hints of sentience, to the point where he’s apparently (so far as we know, since we thankfully don’t see it on-screen) willing to repeatedly rape and murder her? Wouldn’t the Logan twist have been more surprising at this point?
Adi: You could argue that the Man In Black is supposed to be the dark mirror of Ford's own belief that suffering creates humanity — that he's upset to find that a complexity he originally thought existed in the game is absent, and he's kept trying to create it by hurting Dolores the way Ford hurt Bernard. I think this is interesting, because Westworld, overall, suggests that the act of creating a fictional character is to some extent inherently sadistic. Ford does it with a veneer of artistry, but in the end, the two of them are similarly amoral. And it makes William less MRA-ish or troll-y and more the kind of GTA or Red Dead Redemption player who’s into clinical, methodical game-breaking.
But I can't connect the dots between the William who wants to find a deeper level in the park by shocking its inhabitants awake, and the one who just seems to think shooting people over and over is fun — except that it let the writers give him a bunch of different villain speeches.
Chris: You know what I loved, though? Maeve. Can we talk about how badass Maeve is? And how her twist — she was being controlled all along — was more surprising than the Man In Black gotcha? I was disappointed in having a character’s motive reduced to “She was programmed to do this,” but at this point, I’ll take what I can get.
Adi: Agreed on Maeve. I suspected she was being programmed to wake up and escape, but that didn’t make her any less fun to watch.
Tasha: I just kept wanting that plotline to move faster, or have more twists. I love Maeve’s character when she’s doing specific new things, like recruiting Hector by alerting him to the holes in his story, or chasing down Clementine out of a sense of loyalty. Thandie Newton’s performance is a highlight of the show for sure. But this season had way too many scenes of her getting naked and dead and languidly threatening Felix and Sylvester, without adding anything new to the story. And Sylvester’s willingness to cooperate got more and more difficult to buy as that storyline went on. I’m also just baffled by what passes for security at Westworld. Everyone works out of glass rooms, but no one ever notices all the ridiculous stuff going on right next door, like two men spending every work day arguing with the same bot? Or, apparently, one tech masturbating on Hector on a regular basis?
Bryan: I’m going to be the one erring on the side of a generous reading, I think, but I actually found Maeve’s turn incredibly satisfying. I read it both as her being a take-no-prisoners badass, as Chris says, but also as a character who slips (or is about to slip) the leash of her preprogrammed escape mission. We learned during the episode that her breaking free and causing a robot uprising was part of Ford’s grand narrative, and not something she was organically doing herself — and that certainly seemed to include the escape. And the end, she can’t go through with it because the emotional attachment to her daughter proves too strong, but when she leaves the train, the entire station immediately shuts down.
Was that because Ford wanted her to leave, so the stage lights were turned off the moment she was supposed to leave the station? Or was it a function of her being made to suffer, just a little more, by coming to the realization that even her unyielding emotional connection to her daughter was a bit of programming she couldn’t deny? Either way, it points to character getting ready to make the same leap to sentience that Dolores did — and who doesn’t want a fully independent Maeve walking around, ready to settle scores?
That said, the William reveal gutted the show for me, emotionally. William was the only human innocent (or Westworld’s version of an “innocent”) left, and the Man In Black reveal sucked a certain emotional component out of the show. But that’s also making room for what are arguably going to be the second season’s new innocents: the hosts themselves.
Chris: Considering just how much the show lost me in the back half of the season, I’m surprised how eager I am for what comes next. Conscious hosts, free of loops and preprogrammed motives, should allow for more traditional stakes. I’m getting ahead of myself, but I love the idea of boardroom intrigue in which hosts and humans are brokering the future of the park — if not the world.
Tasha: That look of “Well finally!” satisfaction on the MIB’s face as he sees what he wanted all along — an army of angry, vengeful robots charging at him, capable of actually hurting him — pretty much mirrors how I felt at the idea of the story leaving its coy, circular, repetitive “What do these characters really want?” phase and entering some new, more direct era where people act on their desires instead of circuitously discussing them, then contradicting them. In the post-show “inside the episode” featurette, Jonathan Nolan says season one was about control, and season two will be about chaos. Bring on the chaos!
Chris: I’m curious what y’all think of the maze, which wound up being something of a roadmap to this moment of consciousness. Our own Chaim Gartenberg believes there are essentially two mazes, one for bots on the path to consciousness, and a more literal one created by Ford for the Man In Black, a distraction that kept the leading shareholder busy: the toy in the cemetery — Ford reburied it there. And the maze-scalps — which don’t make sense if the maze is for hosts — are a misdirection, too. But if that’s the case, then the maze really is for the Man In Black. And if it’s a distraction, why does it have an endpoint?
Adi: As with so much of the show, the maze makes sense to me if you think of it as a motif for the viewers, not a coherent part of the in-world fiction. But if we're going for a Watsonian explanation, the maze was originally a metaphor Bernard used with Dolores, but William became aware of it after meeting her, and began laboring under the idea that it was a literal "hidden level" to the game. Ford became aware that he was looking for it, and designed a narrative around those expectations, whether to distract William / MIB, or just to mess with him.
As for how no other guests did anything with the clues, or how the Man In Black stuck with it for 30 years without just asking Dolores, or what this has to do with the fourth-wall-breaking religion that has its own artifacts pointing to the existence of the park management, or if that’s where the maze Maeve dies on — your guess is as good as mine.
Tasha: I thought the payoff to “the maze is not for you” was one of the best low-key reveals of the entire show. As soon as we understand about the consciousness maze, it’s clear that at best, William’s been chasing some deliberate machination of Ford’s for 30 years, and at worst, he’s been chasing his own basic misunderstanding of the world. And there’s no way he’s going to accept or understand that. That’s a tragedy on an immense scale, and it’s one of the few reveals all the speculation couldn’t spoil, because it’s not about what the audience learns, it’s about which characters learn the nature of the maze, and which ones can’t.
That said, I can’t make the maze Maeve dies in fit either the metaphor explanation or the Ford explanation, since the former implies it’s not really there, and the latter implies Ford somehow predicted who William would pick for his random act of savagery, and where it would take place. And the timeline on Maeve’s death doesn’t make any sense to me — young William slaughtered entire camps full of people and discovered his inner kill-crazy sociopath and started murdering Dolores regularly, but he waited 30 years to kill Maeve and her child, and that was some sort of turning point of shattered innocence?
Really, the best theory I’ve heard is that the entire point of the maze is to make fun of the fans who obsessively analyze every frame of a show, then — as with True Detective season one — ultimately find out they were overthinking it.
Adi: I know we think the park’s going to be opening up in general next season, but… what do we think of Samurai World?
Bryan: When I first saw the corner of the Samurai World logo, I thought we were seeing the maze graphic showing up out of game, and I wanted to throw my remote at the screen. But once it became clear what was going on, I’ll admit I went into logistics mode. How big would Samurai World be? Wouldn’t those R&D offices be a lot closer to the Samurai World park itself, instead of right next door to the Westworld labs? And was there really a thought-through idea here, beyond “Samurai costumes will be really easy for people to scan in the background while the hosts are fighting?”
That said, I was very happy they went for something a bit more diverse than what had been hinted at in the original movie, where the two other worlds were Medieval Times and “Roman World.” And it’s also an interesting clue as to which cultures are most dominant — and have the most 1 percenters that could afford this kind of thing — in the future-word of the series. There’s a lot of potential there if the second season dives into Samurai World… but that’s also going to be heavily execution-dependent. It also raises an important question for the show moving forward: will it try to incorporate these new worlds to a large degree, with a new nascent robot uprising, or will it continue to be centered around Dolores, Teddy, and the Man In Black, who appears to finally have the formidable enemies he’s been dreaming of?
Adi: This makes me yearn for a novelization, because outside the sexy AI consciousness and murder stuff, there's so much to say about an attempt to create "realer-than-real" versions of the past that are always going to be mediated through our biases and sanitizations. On the grand side: how do you create an entertaining game for people who would have been treated as subhuman in the actual versions of these worlds? On the small: if they don't tailor meals to modern palates, the food in Westworld would really suck.
Tasha: Putting Samurai World’s R&D department next door to Westworld’s may not make any sense, but it sure does make for memorable images. (Much like SHIELD putting its secret Captain America isolation-and-containment base in the middle of Times Square, solely for a big flashy reveal at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger.) And as much as Westworld’s storytelling choices frustrate me, I simply cannot fault the show in any way for its image-making. This entire season has been packed with indelible, iconic shots — Dolores waking up to the same day every day, staring up from her pillow. All those hosts sitting naked and passive on uncomfortable stools for interviews. The piles of host corpses in the glass wash-off room, and Maeve seeing them for the first time. Ford at his desk, with those twisted masks on the wall behind him. The visual look of Westworld is impeccable.
Chris: I want to second this point. For whatever gripes I had with the storytelling, I was wowed every week by the sheer craft behind this project. The glass sets were instantly iconic, so much so that I immediately took the design for granted. The acting, the music, the props, the art direction, and the score. Everything around the story was top-notch. And even the story, for all its faults, was ambitious in a way few shows on television are. Storytellers with a habit for swinging for the fences paired with some of Hollywood’s artisans is a promising setup for future season.
Tasha: The score! Man, the idea of plugging those jokey little player-piano covers of pop hits into the background remains hilarious to me. And now that the season’s ended without any overt speeches about the metaphor of the player piano — that much-seen metaphor for a machine pretending to create art, but just mechanically going through the same motions over and over — I can finally feel free to fully love it as an image without worrying that someone’s going to ruin it by laboriously explaining its relevance to the show.
And Westworld has the same power when it comes to building specific moments, especially of host realizations and the little steps toward sentience, starting with Dolores swatting that fly, and building up to payoff moments like Maeve narrating the world into whatever she wants it to be, or Bernard regaining his memories and briefly losing his mind. In the finale, I had just started to get annoyed by Dolores and Teddy’s maudlin, speechy beach farewell when the cameras pulled back to reveal it was all a deliberate artificial staging — and my jaw dropped. What a great image, showing how once again, all these characters’ hopes and fears and agonies are just cheap entertainment for a barely invested audience! My negative reactions to the show are all entirely because it manages such satisfying and amazing sequences — individual confrontations or conversations or reveals — and I wish they had the cumulative power that they have individually. But I think even as we’re fussing over all the things the show fails to justify, pull together, or follow through on, we need to acknowledge all the things it does well.
Adi: It would have been easy for Westworld to have gotten dragged down by its own lore, so I’m really happy that the show went for that very light, moment-driven touch. It’s no small thing that it managed to be consistently novel, visually dramatic, and entertaining, and it’s held my interest in a way that a lot of HBO’s dramas haven’t. Even when I think it doesn’t pull something off, I feel like I’m always productively arguing with the show — the fact that I have a half-dozen different crossovers and rewrites in my head alone is proof that it’s tapped into something fun. I know it’s going to be a long time until season 2, but I hope some people are going to write amazing fan-fic while I’m waiting.