Violent Delights

Still from Westworld
It’s totally unfair to lump all of Jonathan Nolan’s and Christopher Nolan’s work together, but watching the season one finale of HBO’s Westworld had me flashing back to dozens of different last-act reveals over the years. The last couple of episodes have felt more like big reveals for the sake of having big reveals more than for the sake of being actually revelatory. I don’t think it completely undermines the season as a whole, but it does feel ultimately like a missed opportunity. It ends up feeling like a slick and entertaining ten episodes with a couple of brilliant moments, when it started out feeling like it had the potential to be more.

In my other post about the series, I was getting annoyed at the critics who demanded the show be more explicit in its sympathies. Considering that there seems to be an entire cottage industry of recaps, reviews, interpretations, and predictions all second-guessing what the series is saying, I suppose I can’t fault it that much for having a relatively by-the-numbers finale. If you’ve got people concerned that the show isn’t being explicitly critical enough of the world it depicts, maybe you do just have to show an hour of robots killing people, to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

Even if that means we’ve ended up with a new, modern, and more mature interpretation of the 1970s movie Westworld that ends up being about nothing more than a futuristic Old West theme park where the robots start killing guests.

My biggest issue with the finale is that it repeatedly undermines Dolores’s character while it tries to stitch the narrative together around her. It’s difficult for me to tell what agency she had in her own story. We’re told it was a torturous 35-year-long process for her to gain sentience, but Maeve seems to have done it a lot more efficiently. Ford’s plan was ostensibly for Dolores to repeat the massacre at Escalante but on her own volition instead of at Arnold’s programming, except in the end she does exactly what Ford wants her to do.

And in the final scenes, she seems to be slaughtering folks without hesitation. That works fine as a robot rebellion story — humans are the enemy! hosts are a new species! — but we already had a robot rebellion story in 1978. (And again in 2004, with Battlestar Galactica). This version of Westworld had been promising to be more about sentience, consciousness, and how our identities are defined by the choices we make; and less about violence and peen.

Still, there can be merit in a somewhat shallow story that’s told in an interesting way. A reveal, when done the right way, can be satisfying for its own sake, even if it doesn’t have any deeper resonance or insight into the human condition. Westworld has had a few of those moments where a brief moment shown on screen explodes into a huge network of implications and potential narratives, the way podcast ads describe opening a Casper mattress.

The best of the entire series was the moment in episode seven, in which Bernard and Theresa are exploring the old replica house that Ford had been keeping hidden from the rest of the park. “What door?” It was brilliant on multiple levels: wait, did we see that just a second ago? Can we trust anything that we’ve seen? Does that mean what I think it means? Has he always been a host, or was he replaced? What does that mean about Elsie’s disappearance? Who’s controlling him? Is Theresa walking into a trap? Is something really bad going to happen to her right now?

But I still say that the first episode’s “twist” reveal — that Teddy was a host and the Man in Black was the human guest — was a strong one. It’s just that in retrospect, it’s most like Lost‘s reveal of the inside of the hatch in episode 2: it implied so many story developments that it couldn’t possibly deliver on.

Worse than a missed opportunity, though, are the ideas raised in episode one that seem to be contradicted by the finale. The first episode twist challenged our assumptions about sympathies: we assumed that it was a story about a beautiful young man and a beautiful young (robot) woman, only to discover that the story’s “villain” was a human and our supposed protagonist was merely programmed to take the fall over and over for eternity. By the end of the season, though, I’m left wondering why Dolores was a protagonist and Teddy a major character in the story at all, other than the fact that they’re among the prettiest?

Again, it seems like all of the things it took Dolores 35 years to comprehend were fully understood by Maeve within a week or so. And while Dolores was essentially just pulled through her loop, Maeve was actually able to make decisions based on her newfound self-awareness. (For that matter, Hector and Armistice each went from sex robot to 80s action movie bad-ass within one cycle and a whole lot less psychological trauma). I can’t think of anything that Dolores has done that seems unique or remarkable. Her “I chose a story where I wasn’t a damsel in distress” moment is undermined by the revelation that she spent most of the following 35 years being exactly that.

And the idea that Dolores has finally advanced to the next stage of “host” by acquiring free will is also undermined by the climax of Maeve’s story, when she chooses to leave the train — and presumably, whatever pre-defined course she’d been set on by a shadow figure to be revealed in season two — for the sake of a daughter she knows isn’t “real.” Not just that, but Dolores’s supposed free will culminates not just in her killing Ford, but shooting plenty of other humans indiscriminately. Which is exactly what we’ve been shown throughout the season as the thing that makes the humans the bad guys: the guests indiscriminately inuring, raping, and murdering the hosts without hesitation. Maeve doesn’t hesitate to kill humans, but at least it’s tactical and she’ll save even the super-annoying ones.

On top of that, Ford not only deserves to die but wants to die. His speeches about spending 35 years correcting his mistake, or giving the hosts the last thing they need to achieve consciousness — they sound good because they’re delivered by Anthony Hopkins, but they’re ultimately shallow and self-serving. As gross as the guests are, the one thing that excuses all of them (except William) is that they believe the hosts are empty shells. Ford’s the only one who knew they were capable of sentience but still let them be raped and tortured for decades. Arnold is shown as being so consumed by grief he wanted to die, and so having Dolores murder him was self-serving but also served a purpose, in his imagination. The finale presents Ford’s “final narrative” as a cunning master plan that will bring about the final phase of the hosts’ “awakening,” but we’re shown little evidence that that’s actually the case.

I’m not sure if I would’ve guessed the truth about Arnold’s identity or the Man in Black’s identity and backstory and multiple timelines. There were plenty of clever clues in there — the photo fake-out and the changing Westworld logo in paricular — but that’s never been the kind of thing I get into since I’m usually too busy trying to piece together the explicit storyline and all the interpretations it implies. I am sure that I wouldn’t have had the chance to guess the truth, though, since I was inundated with theories and speculation the second I looked on the internet for any discussion about the series. As it turns out, the most common theories were all correct, and it looks like all the clues were spotted almost immediately.

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that, though, and I’m skeptical it’d be worth the effort: to me, it’s not as important for a reveal or twist to be surprising as it is for it to be satisfying and/or meaningful. The reveal that Bernard was a host wasn’t a complete surprise, but what matters is that it was so well done in how it was allowed to play out. Every reveal after that, though, felt like the last few minutes of The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises or, I guess, all of Memento: dead time where they’re just spooling back the plot like the end of a magic trick, eagerly asking “Did you notice that part? Did you see it? Did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!

As far as I can tell, there’s not much significance to the fact that Bernard the host was based on Arnold. The show seemed to suggest that Arnold’s suffering was a perfect cornerstone for Bernard to attain sentience, since change comes from a desire for the world to be different from what it is — that all sounds like the kind of justification that a writer would come up with after the fact. You could infer that Ford was wracked with guilt after Arnold’s “assisted suicide” and wanted a version of him that could live forever, but there’s little on screen that would support that theory.

I can’t see much weight in the reveal that William is the Man in Black, either. He was originally presented as a guest who’d been coming to the park for 30 years, grew tired of it falling just short of actual consequence, and had decided he wanted to “level up.” That version of disillusionment over time makes a lot more sense than the idea of someone who was tricked into believing the hosts could be sentient during his first visit and then spent the next three decades not learning much of anything. You could infer that that first visit to the park really did reveal his true nature, which fits in with his story of his wife’s suicide after years of being frightened of the “real” him. But this is all stuff that Logan was talking about explicitly, within the first few hours of their adventure. It doesn’t feel that the character at the end of 35 years has progressed any farther than he did at the time of his introduction.

That’s essentially what Dolores accuses him of before their fistfight (which was itself so tone-deaf as to seem like a product of a much less intelligent show). As far as I can tell, that’s the only significance of the Man in Black’s identity at all: it shows Dolores how humans are susceptible to time while the hosts aren’t just immortal but un-aging. Which is implicit in the whole premise and hardly seems like an insight that takes ten episodes to unpack.

So ultimately I still say that the most common criticisms of Westworld — that it’s all about the male gaze, that it’s heteronormative, that it’s as culturally insensitive as the older material that it’s based on — are shallow and largely without merit. But I also think that my initial take may have been overly optimistic. It’s still an entertaining, smart, and intriguing series even if it doesn’t have the spark of genius that makes it profound.