A review of tonight’s Westworld coming up just as soon as I’m a major now, or maybe a general…
“It’s a difficult thing, realizing your life is some hideous fiction.” -Maeve
Late in “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Bernard realizes that he and Dr. Ford have played this exact game often before, and that Ford has checkmated him every single time. In that moment, he accepts that he has lost, and will always lose, because he has been built to lose, just as much as he has built other hosts like Teddy and Maeve to do the same. It’s a point of utter despair, made worse because Ford chooses a more definitive end to the game this time by making Bernard shoot himself rather than wiping his memory to start over from scratch, featuring another stunning piece of acting from Jeffrey Wright…
…and I felt absolutely nothing. And realized that the very design of Westworld had made it all but impossible to feel anything for Bernard, or Dolores, or any of the characters, be they humans, hosts, or TBD.
The series asks all these interesting questions about consciousness and life and morality, and puts that material in the hands of some world-class actors, but it holds the audience (this member of it, anyway) at too great a distance, and inevitably places its characters secondary to its mysteries — even though the show doesn’t really let its viewers play along with those mysteries, because any clue can be invalidated at any moment because the hosts’ looped programming means a scene could be taking place in multiple eras without them noticing, or could be a fiction crafted by Nolan, Joy, and/or Dr. Ford to cloud the minds of us and the hosts.
So even though there was some theoretically gut-wrenching material throughout the season’s penultimate episode as Bernard grappled with the falseness of his entire existence, it ultimately got subsumed by yet another secret to be revealed: that Bernard is a simulacrum of Arnold, created years after the real thing’s death — apparently at the hands of Dolores — as Ford’s attempt to recapture his friend and partner’s creative genius in a form that could be ultimately controlled whenever they came to another disagreement. Like Bernard’s robothood, this is a theory that some fans had theorized (Westworld isn’t impossible to play along with; its structure just seems to make it not worth the bother). But whether you knew the theory or not, all of Bernard’s trips inside his memory placed the questions of when he would meet Arnold and what Arnold would look and act like front and center, to the point where the other memories — whether recreations of scenes from earlier in the season or new material like Bernard telling his “son” about how much he has come to depend on his grief — play like distractions that Ford and the creative team have conjured up to prevent the answers from coming too soon. Wright was, again, sensational, but Bernard’s self-discovery had so much less weight than it should have, not only because he was going through it all for the second time in three episodes, but because the mystery kept taking precedence.
And even Bernard’s death, while presented as Ford breaking a particular cycle, didn’t hit all that hard because we know that he can undo it at any point he desires. As the show keeps reminding us, there’s no appreciable difference in consciousness or morality between the humans and the hosts, and the humans can be caught up in loops just as easily as their mechanical counterparts. Theresa’s death is permanent (though Ford could have replaced her with a robot had he wanted to), but Bernard can’t truly die any more than the Man in Black can inside the park, much as he wants to.
As has been the case for much of the season, Westworld is at its strongest when it’s also at its most straightforward. The problem is, Maeve’s story feels like the only one left that’s not taking place inside a hall of mirrors, and there wasn’t a ton of her this week. (And one of her scenes climaxed in the silly, on the nose imagery of her having sex with Hector while both were surrounded by fire, moments after he had agreed to bust her out of Hell.) Dolores, once the character I felt most invested in even when I felt detached from everything else, is now too caught up in the mystery of what she is — and, more importantly, when she is, with scenes seemingly shifting eras at random, and even her wardrobe (gunslinger one second, prairie woman the next) ceasing to be a reliable date indicator — for her to feel like a character at all, despite Evan Rachel Wood’s very best efforts.
I want to love Westworld. I go into every episode of the show hoping that this will be the week the games get put aside so Nolan and Joy can start telling the real story, but with each passing week it feels like the games are the real story. And when you make the mystery box matter more than everything else, then you are letting a lot ride on what happens when you finally let the audience get a good look inside. It’s possible that next week’s season finale will be so jaw-droppingly great as to retroactively justify all the clinical trickeration that’s preceded it. And if not? Well… then the long wait for season 2 (which likely won’t arrive til 2018) won’t feel too long at all.
Fan Theory Corner
Again, it’s barely worth keeping track of the clues at this point because of the loops that Dolores clearly repeats, but the mechanical nature of her insides when Logan cuts her stomach open lends further credence to the idea that her adventures with William take place 30 years in the past. (Though, as the park’s oldest host, Dolores could simply still have her original hardware in there under the skin.) William’s massacre of the Confederados — complete with a comment about how he’s finally figured out how to play the game — suggests he has already transitioned from white hat to black, and when the church door opens and Dolores calls out for William, the Man in Black is the one who enters. It’s possible that the finale could reveal William and the Man to be different people who exist in the same era — which would be frustrating in its own way — but all evidence seems to be in support of the theory.
What did everybody else think? And what are you hoping for from the finale?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org