By now, it’s clear that Westworld has carefully manipulated its audience through clever editing and narrative sleight of hand. The HBO show is a Russian nesting doll of stories with flashbacks within flashbacks, often cut together in time-jarring sequences, so ahead of next Sunday’s season finale, let’s pull those pieces apart. It’s time to put the chronology of Westworld together, in order, from the very beginning.
First, the basics: Westworld tells its story through multiple timelines. The through line between most of those timelines is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the park’s oldest functioning host. She plays a consequential role with virtually every character in the park, human and host alike, so the show’s chronology is best understood through her story line. Except for a few flashbacks, such as the one where the Man in Black kills Maeve and her daughter, Dolores is key to the show’s major timelines.
Second, the caveat: We can’t say with absolute certainty just yet, but it seems pretty clear that William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are one and the same. By making the assumption that William is a younger version of the Man in Black, the purpose of the show’s multiple timelines — and his pursuit of the “maze” — make a lot more sense.
We promise this isn’t as confusing as it seems. Let’s get to it.
Timeline #1: Dolores and Arnold
Decades ago, Bernard interacts with Dolores in an empty basement over several private sessions. The Westworld writers cleverly allowed us to believe these scenes were prompted by recent glitches in the present-day timeline, but in fact, Westworld co-creator Arnold was testing Dolores and her attempts at sentience. In episode seven, Bernard references “a remote diagnostic facility,” which we can now presume is where these scenes take place. In episode nine, we learn that the basement is actually below the white church that Dolores has envisioned throughout the season.
We know that Westworld has been around for more than three decades, and that Arnold and Ford worked on the park for three years before it opened. (“Those early years were glorious. No guests, no board meetings, just pure creation,” Ford says in episode three.) We also know that Arnold died just before Westworld opened, 34 years before the present-day timeline. (In episode five, Logan alleges that Arnold killed himself, but episode nine reveals that Dolores actually murdered him.) So the scenes in which Arnold discovers the depth of Dolores’s “humanity” must take place between 34 and 37 years ago.
The scenes in which Arnold expresses interest in Dolores have a completely different weight now that we understand when they took place and the significance of Arnold’s backstory. Essentially, Arnold played a game with Dolores. As he says in episode four, “There’s something I’d like you to try. It’s a game. A secret. It’s called the Maze. It’s a very special kind of game, Dolores. The goal is to find the center of it. If you can do that, then maybe you can be free.” Dolores will try to repeat this goal — traveling through the Maze back to the secret room beneath the church — at least two times, and perhaps more in the decades since her chats with Arnold.
Although it’s not entirely clear, it also seems like a massacre took place in the town square outside the church around this time. (In episode one, Bernard says the park “hasn’t had a critical failure in over 30 years.”) We’ve seen this massacre reflected several ways, but its full truth and narrative purpose isn’t yet known. Dolores flashes back to it, and it also seems to be incorporated into Teddy’s (James Marsden) new backstory about Wyatt. Whether or not it has something to do with that oft-referenced “critical failure” or Arnold’s death will likely be addressed in the finale.
Timeline #2: Dolores and William
Roughly 30 years ago, William and Logan (Ben Barnes) arrive at the park. From the beginning, careful viewers could tell that William and Logan were not on the same timeline as characters like the Man in Black. The Westworld logo is different in each timeline, and hosts previously introduced as the Man in Black’s sidekick, Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), and William’s guide to the park, Angela (Talulah Riley), reappear as very different characters. As Joanna Robinson notes at Vanity Fair, the Man in Black’s knife is also the same one that William wields.
In this timeline, William meets Dolores and realizes that she has something the other hosts do not. Essentially, the seeds planted by Arnold years earlier have grown and William is there to see the result, as he follows Dolores on a quest to find the truth about her identity. In episode eight, she describes her struggle to piece through it all: “It’s like I’m trapped in a dream or a memory, from a life long ago. One minute, I’m here with you, and the next … This is what Arnold wants. He wants me to remember.”
By accompanying William on his first Westworld adventure, Dolores also retraces her journey through the Maze. Whether she knows it or not, she wants to get back to the church where she worked with Arnold. In a sense, William is just along for the ride, a companion who gets to see the Maze for the first time. If we presume that William is the Man in Black, this helps to explain why he’d return to finish the Maze decades later, after the death of his wife, to get to the center of it.
Timeline #3: Dolores and the Man in Black
The scenes between Dolores, Teddy, and the Man in Black take place in the present day. (It’s worth noting that Maeve’s story line with Felix and Sylvester is also set in this time period, since Dolores whispers the “violent delights” line to her in episode two.) After the breakdown in which Dolores’s father finds the same photograph that Logan shows William in the previous timeline, Dolores begins to retrace her journey through the maze yet again, spurred by an image of the past. Was it left by the Man in Black himself? If she finished the Maze in a previous timeline, then she’ll know how he can get to the center.
Again, we need to consider the show’s careful editing: Much of the time we think we’re watching the Dolores-William timeline, we are actually watching Dolores in the present day. When she reaches Lawrence’s hometown, Lawrence’s daughter disappears once Dolores flashes back to a memory of visiting the town with William. When she, William, and Logan approach the outskirts of Pariah, we see glimpses of Dolores standing in the same spot by herself. When she’s on the train out of Pariah, William and Lawrence disappear once she snaps back to present day.
Much of the show’s thematic exposition has explained how the hosts process memory, living in moments that humans resolve through time, grief, and closure. Dolores is constantly reliving narratives and memories, retracing her steps in a way that revives past events instead of recalling them in a traditional sense. She doesn’t “remember” the past the same way that humans do; she relives it.
When Dolores arrives at the end of her present-day journey in episode nine, she’s at the church where she met with Arnold decades earlier. The town is empty — seemingly rebuilt as a part of Ford’s new narrative — and she goes into the basement once again. As she flashes back to an apparent Arnold intervention, she realizes the truth: She killed Arnold all those years ago. When Dolores returns to the church upstairs, she finds the Man in Black waiting at the door, knowing perhaps that she is the only one who can lead him to the center of the Maze. Will she take him there? We’ll find out next Sunday.