After every episode of Westworld, HBO's $100 million Sunday night juggernaut that concluded its purposefully-opaque first season in purposefully-opaque form last night, I found myself coming up with alternative titles for the show. So some weeks, it was Theorizing: The TV Show; then Robots: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let's Find Out!!; then Game Of Thrones II: Robot Boogaloo; and of course, Paranoid Android: A Graduate Thesis On The Intersection Of Consciousness And Radiohead (seriously, if ever a show was a Radiohead song come to life, this was it).
OBVIOUS WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Even with the gorgeous production values and incredible actors (Jeffery Wright and Thandie Newton, in particular, deserve all the Emmy nods), there were some episodes where the show seemed to prioritize thematic concepts and disparate storylines (spread throughout multiple timelines) over characterization, which threatened to make the show a slog to get through. The message from the creators, the network and the advertising was clear: this was a very serious show about BIG IDEAS involving consciousness, violence, the ouroboros of human existence and storytelling in the age of the internet, all channeled through the prism of puzzle shows a la Lost (but with fewer polar bears and more Inception). This was a show begging for you to take it too seriously, and based on the Hot Takes industry that rose up around it and some of the more incendiary reactions to the finale, a lot of people really did.
But a little bit of self-awareness, humor, and charm go a long way to balancing out the gravity of the story—for some people, that meant falling into the real life maze that is the Westworld Reddit forum; for some it involved writing fanfic, invoking LARPing or coming up with silly alternative titles; and for many others, it just meant appreciating moments of levity like when Felix, the lab technician who helped Maeve (Newton) with her quest to breakout of the park (...for a reason that was never clear to me), questioned whether he too was a robot, and seemed to momentarily channel Tracy Jordan's stabbing robot from 30 Rock.
To me, that's why all those pieces lamenting the theorizing and fan culture that organically grew around the program rubbed me the wrong way—the fact the show is actively inviting the viewer to crack the code is part of the fun. Even if, as the finale hammered home, the theorizing wasn't the point—in other words, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy got to have their synthetic cake and eat it too.
They got to raise those big questions about what it means to have freedom and choice, how people choose to lock themselves into narrow loops, and where the arrogance and destructiveness of the creative spirit may lead. And they also got to package it in visceral "twists" that kept viewers on the edge of their seats (or the edge of their laptops, more likely) while critiquing those very storytelling choices. Being able to guess that the guy from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia was actually Ed Harris all along, or that Bernard was a robot copy of Arnold, the mysterious founder of the park, was a part of the journey, not the end point. A circle within a circle within another circle—kind of like the sketch of human consciousness that Arnold draws for Dolores while trying to explain the metaphor that is the maze.
This is the core of the show's storytelling DNA, and also what makes it so frustrating for so many viewers: is it just complicated for complication's sake? If it's all about the journey, rather than the twists, why were so many people exasperated by the previous nine episodes? It seems wholly reasonable to ask, "why did they have to make the timeline shifting so confusing," but then you realize that was the larger point about following Dolores' narrative. Was it a good point though? Did it work for you?
Alyssa Rosenberg over at the Washington Post nailed some of these ideas in discussing Ford's final storyline, which turned out to be a way of setting them free, the culmination of 35 years in which the hosts experienced the worst of human cruelty as a way to jumpstart consciousness. We get two competing kinds of Westworld viewers: Charlotte Hale, the corporate executive, who wants the stories to be simpler, and William, the Man In Black (who happens to own a majority share of the park), who wants it to be a more authentic experience. Ford, like the showrunners, has something else in mind:
Ford defies both of their wishes, and the expectation that he’ll deliver yet another expensive, meditative project that doesn’t give guests the cheaper thrills that they crave. He gives Hale “all those things that you have always enjoyed. Surprises. And violence.” And Ford provides those things weighted with the stakes that the Man in Black craves. But he goes beyond both of those briefs in scripting an opportunity for the hosts to escape.
Ford is literally turning a prestige entertainment on the people who consume it. It’s as if David Chase walked out of your television screen and told you to stop speculating about Tony Soprano’s death already. Or the late, lamented prostitute Ros (Esmé Bianco) materialized in the middle of one of “Game of Thrones” sexposition sequences to tell the people who were gawping at the naked bodies on display were part of a continuum with the toxic men who the show’s women would destroy with dragon and wildfire. And Ford is willing to sacrifice himself to get the message across.
But Westworld wouldn't be Westworld without there being another crazy TWIST to obsess over until 2018, another layer to the onion—you know, like remember that robot we saw Ford creating in episode seven (when Bernard goes to confront him in the secret room)? And remember how Ford mentioned earlier in the season that handshakes are a big giveaway for whether someone is a robot? And then the show made a big deal of lingering on Ford shaking hands with Bernard? Why does his hand look so smooth there? Which then provokes more questions: would Ford really abandon his robot children right after admitting he's been rooting for them for years, right when he is setting them free, when most of them (basically, everyone except Dolores, Bernard and Maeve) are still unable to process the leap to consciousness? And if Ford indeed is alive and sent a robot version of himself out to die at the gala, would that destroy the significance of his sacrifice?
And there you go: a philosophical question that was rooted in a storytelling choice that comes to a definitive conclusion, but then opens up another bag of questions that may contradict everything we just learned (and sets up a possible storyline next season). That's the show in all its contradicting, explorative, overwrought glory, isn't it?
Just writing up my thoughts now is making me more confused about what I feel—I don't think it's a great show (at least yet), like The Sopranos or Deadwood or Mad Men, but I was actively excited to watch it every week, and to participate in the culture around the show. That seems like an achievement in and of itself. And maybe that then is the true gift of the show: to confuse you to the point of enjoyment.