We Need to Talk About Westworld
Westworld wrapped up its highly rated, often frustrating, 10-episode first season on Sunday with “The Bicameral Mind.” Sure, the performances were great – especially the actors behind “host” characters Bernard (once human creator Arnold) and Dolores. Wright and Wood must deliver scenes in different timelines, and as slightly different versions of themselves - these changes all but imperceptible to the audience as the showrunners manuevered their timeline sleight of hand for the majority of the season. The puzzle-like nature of the mystery has inspired a cult following, with Redditors fervently searching for every clue to construct elaborate fan theories – many of which long beat Westworld to the “big reveal” punch.
Bernard is a robot? Obviously. Bernard is actually Arnold? Called that. The Man in Black is William in present-day, and we’ve been watching two different timelines? Fucking duh.
Over the last ten weeks, recaps and message boards have been wholly dedicated to supporting these theories, deciphering the clues, and self-congratulations for solving the mystery. Below are some major burning, frustrating questions that have plagued the series thus far, and subsequently caused us to wonder - through all this distraction, is there one question no one is asking?
Is Westworld good? Let's examine.
What are the rules?
Despite offering a broad overview on how the park works (i.e. hosts can't harm guests, but guests can rape and kill hosts at will), many more nuanced details of the arrangement remain unclear. First up, what's the deal with guest-on-guest violence and the extent to which the guests can be injured? We see William's brutal treatment of Logan, beginning with his beating at the hands of the confederados and ending with the arrogant scion tied naked to a runaway horse. Dolores, channeling her Wyatt personality, breaks the Man is Black’s arm. And this isn't the first time he has faced a threat - he was almost hanged a few episodes earlier. How much harm can befall the guests before fail-safes intervene?
Another gnawing question is the level of access allowed to Westworld employees into the hosts and their coding. Malleable Felix and "that's just my face" Sebastian, essentially park clean-up crew, seem to have access to essential functions of the host as they help Maeve alter her DNA. What’s to stop any tech (and based on the necro-creeps, Westword doesn't have a crack HR team) from hacking into the hosts and causing chaos?
On the operational side, how intricate is the transportation mechanism that ferries employees and hosts in and out of the park? We see a few employees in Hunger Games-style elevators that take them to HQ far underground, and the elevator in the church spurred a major revelation for Dolores when accessing her memories in Arnold’s lab. But how did an entire army of zombie hosts escape their warehouse storage garage to descend upon the board gala without anyone noticing? Granted, there was a pretty large distraction via Maeve and Hector’s jailbreak, but that only brings me to another grievance. Why couldn’t security forces kill Hector or snake lady during their escape? Can hosts not be “killed” inside the facility?
What are the stakes?
“The Bicameral Mind” did attempt to answer the question that’s been haunting us all season. If the hosts do not, and cannot die (we learn from Bernard that even those hosts that have been “decommissioned” can just be reactivated) why should we care about them? If the hosts don't remember their pain, what's the point of audience empathy? If memories and pain are re-writable, and death is meaningless, do actions even have consequences?
Episode 10 worked hard to not only establish the sentience of Dolores and Maeve, but to further explore the abject cruelty inherent in trapping them in 30 years of tragic narrative loops. After all, according to Bernard, it is only once hosts can remember their mistakes, that they can learn from them and take the first step towards consciousness.
But as Bernard explains to Maeve, even her rebellion had been programmed, her supposed free will pre-determined as "Escape." Though Dolores finally reaches the end of the internal maze, realizing her responsibility to lead the human-robot war, that maze of realization was placed there by Arnold. He even engineered his own death by uploading Wyatt's homicidal coding into Dolores; it was suicide by robot, he "left [her] no choice." This was Arnold's own attempt to make the stakes "real, irreversible." Even in using his own death as a last protest for the host's humanity, he can only do so by surrendering his own, in order to convince Ford to close the park.
Ultimately, all roads lead back to the programmable nature of the hosts, who remain puppets of their human creators despite the fallacy of their rebellion. The show also took great pains to display the callous ugliness of human nature unleashed by the guests within the park. So, tell us: why should we care about any of them?
Where are we?
We had high hopes that the season finale would afford us a glimpse, even a brief one, of the outside world, allowing us to would place Westworld somehow "on the map." Is this Earth? A colony upon some ancillary planet? Is Westworld a snow globe of sorts, a bubble placed over some part of the world as we know it?
The show world expanded enough for us to quickly visit the training ground for “Sammurai World,” which presumably would allow guests to immerse themselves in feudal Japanese society. Another clue came in the form of Felix’s note, locating Maeve’s daughter in “Park 1.” Meaning there are definitely enough parks functioning independently that identifying numbers are needed. Tantalizing details, but hardly enough for even a basic understanding of the scope of Delos's holdings. We hope season 2 opens by zooming out far enough to identify not only where we are, but when we are, how the different parks relate to each other and, most importantly, how they relate to the outside world.
Until our next narrative loop, streamers!
All episodes of Season 1 of Westworld are now streaming on HBO GO and HBO NOW.