‘Westworld’ is Bullshit


For ten episodes, Westworld has led viewers through a maze, stringing us along with the promise of revelation. After watching Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) traipse through the park in search of the key that will unlock the mystery of her existence — or at least the mystery of just what exactly has been going on in the first season of this very confusing show — on last night’s finale, we finally learn what lies at the heart of the maze: The self.

The voice of “god” that Dolores has been hearing is the voice of Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), her maker, whose aim was to instill true independent consciousness in his creations. Dolores’s journey has been a metaphorical one — not a journey upward, as Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) explains, but a journey inward.

This is a ploy on par with Time magazine’s 2006 pick for “Person of the Year” — it’s you! We’ll give you a moment to collect the brain matter blasted all over your floor. If the big reveal in Westworld’s season finale is that the hosts were leading themselves toward autonomous introspection all along, maybe it’s time for us to listen to the voice in our heads, the one whispering seductively in our ears, This is a bullshit show.

Sure, the finale, “The Bicameral Mind,” was “satisfying,” confirming several long-held fan theories: We learn that the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is indeed William (Jimmi Simpson), only 30 years older and fully jaded. The robot uprising we’d been promised since Maeve (Thandi Newton) began her own journey toward self-actualization finally materializes, as an army of hosts descends on the elite guests at a Delos gala thrown for the unveiling of Ford’s new narrative. And we see Dolores take a gun to Ford’s head — though not out of vengeance toward her maker. She pulls the trigger after Ford tells the board of directors that his new narrative “begins in a time of war, with a villain named Wyatt. And a killing, this time by choice.”

There were a few extra twists that I didn’t see coming — or, I should say, that I didn’t come across in any of the theories put forth by the bloggers and Redditors who have been dutifully parsing each episode. The maze is not for the guests to maneuver, but the hosts, rendering the Man in Black’s zealous search for its center meaningless. The uprising isn’t quite as rebellious as it seemed, because it turns out Ford has been orchestrating it all along. Just ask him: Considering the amount of time given over to Ford’s long-winded elucidations in the 90-plus-minute finale — and the first season as a whole — a better title for last night’s episode might have been, “Ford Explains Things to Me.”

Which isn’t to say all that explanation isn’t on some level necessary; I think I spent more time frantically scanning web articles for enlightenment in the weeks since the series premiered than I did actually watching Westworld. The sad irony is, the wave after wave of twists that left so many viewers scrambling for clarification could barely mask an utterly foreseeable set of events: Since the premiere, critics and viewers responded to Dolores’s subjugation with the assurance that she’ll obviously rise up; we’ve heard for weeks now that the Man in Black is obviously William; before last week’s episode confirmed it, online spectators had correctly guessed that Bernard is obviously a robot. It all feels so predictable, right up to the sonic sendoff courtesy of Radiohead (who had “Exit Music (For a Film)”?).

Some critics have pointed out that Westworld’s plot twists aren’t “the point” of the show, so it’s silly to get upset about them. They’ve spilled yet more words explaining that if you’re upset about the show’s predictability, you’re watching it wrong. “The fact that these things have been so easy to figure out seems to me to indicate that they aren’t really mysteries,” Katharine Trendacosta writes at io9. On Twitter, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, a stalwart decoder of Westworld, Game of Thrones, and other thorny prestige dramas, wrote, “The number of articles on the subject fail to consider the joy many many many people find in this approach to TV consumption.”

I don’t mean to rag on these writers, who are responding to an undeniable demand for #content about Westworld (I’m doing it right now), and have certainly helped me better understand just what it is I’ve been watching for the past ten weeks. As Robinson writes, any viewer who finds the proliferation of online guesswork frustrating or distracting can simply not read those articles.

But as Robinson herself points out, the show and its network actively encourage this kind of “mystery box speculation.” Critics have been primed from the start to treat Westworld like a Game of Thrones-style “event.” New photos appear in our inboxes each week, timed to Sunday’s episode. Vanity Fair dropped this article explaining the finale’s William/Man in Black twist soon after the show revealed it, at 9:49 p.m, halfway through the episode . On Twitter, the show’s stars dutifully stoke fans’ excitement. It all feels so slick, so engineered.

I know this sounds like the most horribly cynical take on a show that’s brought joy to many viewers. (Our president-elect is probably tweeting his way to nuclear war as I write this, so I say let cynicism reign.) During the finale, I kept thinking back to a scene in Westworld’s penultimate episode, in which Logan (Ben Barnes) stabs Dolores in the stomach, revealing her mechanical innards. More and more, that image feels like a metaphor for the show: We tear it apart hoping to find its beating heart, only to find cold, calculating machinery in its place. (“Oh, but that’s the point!” I can hear the fans cry out; this show has set us on our own loop of criticism-explanation-capitulation.)

If Westworld is alluring enough that devoting your down time to reading fan theories sounds like time well spent, more power to you. But to my mind, a show that feels incomplete without the aid of TV bloggers and Reddit explainers — and I have yet to encounter a Westworld viewer who hasn’t at some point felt the need to brush up on the show’s narrative structure and mythology — is a bad show. By the end, the character I most identified with was Logan, who came to the park expecting a rip-roaring thrill ride but ends up dragged along on a nihilistic rampage, his wrists bound by rope.

In the end, that specter of rampage is what we’re left with, and what we’re meant to applaud — these humans behaved badly, and they deserve to be punished. All that theorizing and speculating and intellectualizing leaves us with the same result that the buzziest dramas, the ones that crowd out quieter, more thoughtful series that deserve far more critical attention than they’ll likely ever get, inevitably lead to: Brutal, bloody murder, vengeful killing rendered in awesome spectacle that narrative demands we cheer. The disenfranchised masses are rising up, taking revenge. Isn’t it glorious?