‘Westworld’ Discussion: A Twisting, Turning First Season Ends With A Bang

Each week, Brian Grubb and Keith Phipps will attempt to unpack the latest episode of the HBO series Westworld, a show about an amusement park populated by lifelike robots that’s also about… other stuff.

Well, William is the Man In Black After All

Keith: OK, that was a long way to go to confirm that William is the Man in Black. And, probably inevitably at this point, it felt like a bit of an anti-climax. So where does the fault lie? Is online theorizing ruining shows, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff has suggested? Or did Westworld just tip its hand too far or too early?

Or are these the wrong questions? Whichever the case, I don’t think this worked. Slate writer Sam Adams tweeted this shortly after the finale aired: “Whatever you think of its plotting, Westworld had 10 episodes to sell a pivotal character transformation, and it failed.” I can’t really disagree with that. Jimmi Simpson was great as William. Ed Harris is really compelling as the Man in Black. The evolution of one into the other ought to be devastating. Instead it’s mostly just kind of curious.

I’ve enjoyed this show but I’ve started to lose the faith a little over the last few episodes. I understood when others suggested it was too emotionally remote and that it was hard to care about any of the characters, but I figured it would all work out in the end making those complaints seem premature. I guess I expected Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to be the series’ Robert Ford, always two steps ahead and with an ingenious master plan. This finale didn’t change my fondness for the show. I’m glad I stuck it out. But the meager payoff on the Man In Black’s is symptomatic of a bigger problem, one that others saw before I could.

Brian: Yeah, I think I enjoyed the finale more than some critics did. But I do get the complaints. It’s a similar problem I had with The Night Of, related to the way the show allocated its limited resources. With The Night Of, my problem was that all the time spent following the ballad of John Turturro’s feet cut into time that could have been spent slowing down the other plots. With Westworld, it was that devoting so much time to the mystery of The Man in Black wasn’t worth the payoff, mostly because the whole internet beat them to it by weeks. You could make an argument that not only did the show not need an extended finale, it also could have benefited from fewer episodes.

Even with that said, I still enjoyed it. Ed Harris seemed to have fun chewing up some scenery, and watching Jimmi Simpson go all black-eyed evil was cool, too. There were some nice little callbacks in the finale, also. Dolores dragged him into the church the same way he dragged her into the barn and his younger self led Logan around by a rope the same way the older version did with Lawrence and Teddy. He has a system.

(Man, did Logan take a loss this season or what? He went from the prince of a company out for a debaucherous little vacation with his sister’s nerd fiancé to a hostage being sent off into the sunset nude on horseback, presumably never to be heard from again. Wild couple weeks for that guy.)

It’s an interesting question, whether we should punish shows just because we figure out their secrets before they’re ready to reveal them, especially at a time when there are entire communities devoted to playing Sherlock in the week between episodes. This particular mystery might not be the best test case for that question, and even if it had been, I don’t think I have an answer. I’m not sure there is one, to be honest.

Maeve on the Move

Brian: One of the things that became pretty clear to me in the days after last week’s episode (to my dismay) was that Maeve’s rebellion was part of some larger plot by Ford. There was no other way to explain how Ford could be micromanaging all these tiny little details inside the park but just whiff on one of his main characters jacking her own stats up and busting her standard narrative over and over and over, slitting throats and snooping around the corporate offices and such. And it turns out that was indeed the case.

The show did give us at least one nice misdirect, though, by setting it up to make it look like Maeve was the one coming for the gala, right down to the fancy dress and gun in the purse, only to send her off looking for her daughter. But I don’t know. Once we got confirmation that Ford was behind it all and then saw her jump off the train to head back in, it felt like her whole story had the air taken out of it. If the point wasn’t to send her out into the real world (and please do pause here to picture a wide-eyed Maeve walking around Times Square like a tourist), then what was it? To reboot Bernard? To wipe out the offices while Dolores wiped out the board? I was really hoping for a bigger picture than that, I guess. Maybe we’ll get it next season. Maybe she’ll go all Liam Neeson looking for her daughter. That would be fun.

A few other things:

– The office siege also revealed the existence of samurai robots, which Felix explained through a non-explanation (“It’s complicated.” Buddy, what isn’t with this show?) Does… does this mean there are more parks beyond just Westworld? Sure looks like it. (There was an “SW” on one door… Samurai World?) And has Ford been in charge of the narrative for that one this whole time, too? When did he even have the time? My man has been running around on a secret robot cowboy rebellion mission for weeks, sometimes having to stop to arrange and cover-up murders. In a season filled with mysteries and subterfuge and complicated questions about consciousness, somehow Ford’s time management system ended up being the most perplexing riddle for me. That’s normal, right?

– Hector is gonna be pretty pissed if/when he finds out (and can comprehend) that Maeve (or Ford, or whoever) set up that whole thing to “escape” and programmed him to stop at the threshold of the elevator and then was like “Nahhh” at the last minute.

– Nice to see them work in at least one more action movie cliché in the finale: Maeve announcing that she’s “not going back.” Add this to the “we’re not so different” thing and Logan running his hand down Dolores’ face while making threats and Ford sitting at a desk in front of a wall of detached heads like a full-on supervillain and you’ve got a solid little collection there.

– After watching the post-credits scene, I really hope the one-armed snake lady makes it to season two.

– Say what you will about the season, but I did just get to type “one-armed snake lady,” so…

Keith: Though it’s obvious in retrospect, the revelation that Ford had been pulling Maeve’s strings all along was the one twist that took me by surprise. It deflated, as you say, the badassness of Maeve’s coming into her own and turning on the “gods” who made her. But Westworld hasn’t really been the sort of show that confirms the existence of free will and the the possibility of overturning the existing order. It’s a fatalistic place in which anyone — host or guest — who thinks they’re controlling the narratives of their existence meets a rude awakening. Why would Maeve be an exception? (True, the finale could have changed all of that, and our own Alan Sepinwall might be right and this season could in some ways be a prologue to the real story, one of a robot uprising and the humans who try to suppress it, but I’ll believe it when those episodes start airing.)

If nothing else, Maeve’s rebellion did offer a pretty awesome tour of the workings of Westworld. I loved the hosts casually rehearsing sex acts in the back of one scene and the breakthrough into Samurai World, or whatever SW is. (I know, I know: “It’s complicated.”) The possibility that we’d see other parks and other worlds made me look forward to season two all the more. And for all our suggestions that the show isn’t emotionally involving enough, there was real tenderness in the way Maeve treated the lobotomized Clem, possibly Westworld’s saddest character. But did we really need that long sequence of the sexually abusive engineer starting to have his way with Hector only to get gutted? The content didn’t bother me, but the pacing did. Like much of this episode, it seemed to be designed to march us to the bloody finale at half the usual pace.

The Real Story of Dolores

Keith: The other big reveal this week, and one related to the unveiling that William-is-The-Man-In-Black, is Dolores’ complicated backstory. I could try to recap it but I’d surely get something wrong. Short version: She’s the embodiment of Arnold’s theory that consciousness isn’t a pyramid but a maze. Recognizing this, he tried to prevent Robert from opening the park and instead had Dolores, with Teddy’s help, kill all the hosts then turn the gun on him and herself. Her weird leaps in time have to do with her memories of this past and now Robert’s enlisted her for his final narrative. (But we’ll get to that below.)

Did I get that right? Also, did it work for the character? Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores — a fragile innocent one moment, a blossoming badass the next, and finally a cold dealer of death — has been part of what kept me hooked all season, it’s fitting that the finale would give her story so much time. I was just left unsure if there was really enough to her story to fill the season. It’s a cleverly plotted and potentially moving journey for that character, but was there enough to it to justify all the time given to it?

Brian: I was a little hard on Dolores’ story throughout the season — not Wood’s performance, though, that was great — because I found it to be sloooowwww developing and too cutely mysterious by half, but I do give the show credit for circling back and closing the Arnold/Ford loop at the end. And I’m definitely interested to see where the character goes from here, now that she’s more or less the robot queen of Westworld. It was a long, winding journey to get us here, and I’ll be fine if I can go a few months without hearing the phrase “multiple timelines,” but I like where we’re at right now. So that’s good.

Less good? Man, poor Teddy. I know I say that every week, but man He was basically built and programmed to appear to be a real-life version of Woody from Toy Story, and he instead spent the better part of 10 episodes getting killed and tortured, and at the end he watched his sweet Dolores kill everything that moves. Again. He seemed so confused. Someone give Teddy a hug.

The Final Moments

Brian: The long and short of all of this is that everything was leading to a conclusion in which Dolores and the emptied-out robot graveyard storm the gala and turn on the humans. Big shouts to Robert Ford for going out with just about the most elaborate suicide ever, even if he was basically just playing a cover version of Arnold’s death. Although I guess that was fitting, seeing as he’s been secretly playing Arnold’s hits all season. Or maybe karaoke is the better metaphor. That one at least lets me imagine him singing, like, a duet of “Islands in the Stream” with Dolores.

Anyway, yeah, murder. We knew it was all coming to this one way or another, so the question is whether we liked the execution. (Of the plot, not of Ford. Although that, too.) I think I dug it. Like I said earlier, I liked the little misdirect with Maeve, and I liked the way it all came back to Dolores going on another Escalante rampage that was orchestrated by one of the founders. Even if it meant that the entire first season was just an extended preamble to the “real” story, it still had its moments. And hey, at least William finally got his dream of getting shot for real by a robot. Good for him.

Which brings us to the two biggest questions heading into season two: One, if Ford and the vast majority of the board are gone (if not all of them, R.I.P. Charlotte?), where do we go from here? And two, and this is a game I like to play a lot in these situations, can you even imagine the news coverage of an event like “crazed murderous robots kill dozens at a fancy gala celebrating new developments at a Wild West theme park for millionaires”?

Keith: I don’t know if you’ve seen Futureworld the (not-so-great) sequel to the original Westworld, but one of its problems is that it never provides a convincing explanation for how Delos could survive a PR disaster like a robot uprising and reopen a few years later. A few years later and the company is back in business and bigger than ever. It’s possible the series has painted itself into the same corner, but I trust it will find a clever way out.

The final moments here are really something, aren’t they? Is Ford really dead? If so, he’ll be missed. It’d been awhile since I’d seen Anthony Hopkins in a role that reminded me how great he can be. (Odin doesn’t count.) And he was amazing this season playing Ford as a Machiavellian manipulator in the guise of a kindly grandfather. His death seems definitive, but if anyone could write his way out of the Grim Reaper’s grasp, it’s Ford.

What about the Man in Black? Willam’s look — we can just call him William now, right? — when he realized that he’d finally met a robot opposition he couldn’t outgame was priceless. Part of me hopes he comes back. Part of me realizes his character has run its course.

The bigger question: Where do we go from here? Does it become a more straightforward show? Is it Teddy, Dolores, and Maeve against the world now? Or will we be drawn deeper into the mysteries of the park’s past? It feels like we know them all now, but recall Bernard’s talk about previous awakenings, and the third man in the photograph (Ford’s father?), and the early reference to a “horror scenario,” and on and on. No matter what, I’ll be tuning in. This ride has had its bumps and it started to wear on me by the end, but it was still a ride like no other on TV right now.

Loose Ends, Final Thoughts On This Season, And Season Two

Keith: A few loose ends:

– Where’s Elsie?
– Where’s the Hemsworth?
– Is this this last we’ll see of Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford?

That last one bleeds into another topic: How are you feeling going into season two? I really do want to know what happens next but I wish I had to know what happens next. It’s not like I’m worried about the fates of my favorite characters, you know? But I do want to see where they take this world. Again: Samurai!

Brian: Yeah, it does seem weird that in a 90-minute finale we couldn’t get any real closure — or even an update — on Elsie or Corporate Hemsworth. And assuming it is the last we’ll see of Hopkins (one imagines an aging film actor might have been sold on a single-season-and-out story) and Harris (same) and Sidse Babett Knudsen (noooooo), this show really burned through characters in its first season, right?

But more importantly, it is just now dawning on me that the funniest thing in the world would have been if, instead of briefly introducing them in Maeve’s story, the show just had a horde of robot samurai warriors storm the gala out of nowhere, riding in on horses and chopping billionaires’ heads off with swords for five minutes before the credits rolled. People would have been so mad. I think I would have laughed about it all the way until season two debuts in 2018.

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